Persecution of Christians: Role of UK Embassies

Mark made the following contributions to a debate on the persecution of Christians and the role of UK embassies:

The Minister for Asia and the Pacific (Mark Field)

I thank the hon. Member for Heywood and Middleton (Liz McInnes) for giving me plenty of time to address the important issues that have been raised today.

First and foremost, let me congratulate the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) on securing this debate. I am pleased to announce that his tie will be going into cold storage for the next 366 days, because next year is a leap year, but we look forward to seeing it in future. There is some relevance in his wearing that tie. Although many of us in the Chamber may feel that the ideals behind the United States of America are not as strong today as they have been at some point in the last 250 years, those ideals have been a fundamental approach towards freedoms that should be promoted across the globe. I pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman for his important work and his consistent and persistent ​commitment to the freedom of religion or belief, as chairman of the all-party parliamentary group on the issue.

I hope that Opposition Members will allow me to quickly mention two former Members of the House who are not here because they lost their seats, David Burrowes and Caroline Ansell, who I think would have been here, playing an important part in this debate. We very much miss them, but I know that their commitment to Christianity means that they will play their part.

Like all hon. Members here today, I am appalled by the persecution suffered by countless millions of Christians across the world who seek only to practise their deeply held beliefs openly, in peace and safety. Here in the west, as has been rightly pointed out, those freedoms are all too often taken for granted. We need to utilise this opportunity, particularly on such a robust all-party basis, to make the case that has been referred to.

I agree wholeheartedly with the sentiments of my hon. Friend the Member for South West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) and the right hon. Member for Warley (John Spellar). Here in the UK, we rightly recognise that we have a special responsibility for protecting and upholding the rights of Christian communities across the globe.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Meriden (Dame Caroline Spelman) is absolutely correct that Her Majesty’s Government should redouble their efforts to work on a cross-departmental basis. My hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) rightly pointed out that there has been improvement, but Members can rest assured that I regard it as an important priority to ensure ever closer work between DFID and the Foreign Office in this area and, indeed, a number of other areas where there should be closer co-ordination.

Fiona Bruce

I welcome that. The Foreign Office and DFID work closely together, so will the Minister kindly assure us that he will refer his ministerial colleagues at DFID to the comments made by many Members in the Chamber today? DFID needs to follow the FCO’s lead in addressing the human rights issue of freedom of religion and belief in a much clearer, more comprehensive and structured manner than it has done to date.

Mark Field

I entirely understand that, and I will come on to the comments made by my hon. Friend and my right hon. Friend the Member for Meriden about that issue. They can be assured that there is, in ministerial terms, rather more co-ordination now between the Foreign Office and DFID, given that two Ministers are double-hatted. That will assist particularly in parts of Africa and the middle east where there is a part to play. I also will ensure that in the most evident problem hotspots, we make clear to our embassies the expectations about what we need to work towards.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Meriden asked how much is spent on freedom of religion projects. We shall, during this tax year, spend some £758,000 on such projects worldwide, including in Pakistan and Iraq. We also lobby Governments across the globe on a regular basis. She rightly pointed to the case of Taimoor Raza in Pakistan—which has already come across my desk in the two and a half weeks since I took on ministerial office—and the appalling death sentence that has been passed after his blasphemy conviction. The reality is ​that more often than not, or almost invariably, such a sentence is commuted to life imprisonment—bad though that is.

We need to have a debate about the issue that my right hon. Friend raised. She is quite right that Pakistan is the second largest recipient of aid from the UK Government through DFID. I have some sympathy with her view that we need to, in some diplomatic way at least, link the two. However, I also have some sympathy with what the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) said. I would be very reluctant to withdraw from any ongoing aid or development projects on the basis that there were concerns here. We should openly try to suggest, in a cross-departmental way, that a number of Her Majesty’s Government’s priorities, particularly in relation to freedom of religion, need to be an integral part of any ongoing aid and development work. We are spending significant sums of money, but a number of projects could happen in various other parts of the globe.

I very much take on board what my right hon. Friend said, and she can rest assured that through diplomatic channels, in our work between London and Islamabad, we will ensure that the Pakistani Government are made well aware of what we regard as being not just our priorities but their responsibilities in relation to DFID expenditure.

I want to touch on the issues raised by the hon. Member for City of Chester (Christian Matheson) about Colombia and Mexico and by the hon. Member for Glasgow East (David Linden), whom I congratulate on his debut on the Front Bench, about Tanzania and the terrible plight of Zanzibar. I have to confess that I have no data to hand about issues of freedom of religion in those areas or the particular issue referred to of organised crime, but I will write to both hon. Members once I have been able to get more information from our embassies.

I am particularly concerned currently about the plight of Christians in Burma, Iraq and Syria, where the Christian population has fallen dramatically, from 1.25 million as recently as 2011 to approximately 500,000 today. I recall my parliamentary visit 14 years ago to Aleppo, Palmyra and Damascus in Syria. We drove for a mere half an hour from the centre of Damascus to visit some of the ancient Christian villages where St Paul proselytised some 1,900 years ago. I shudder to think what has become of those ancient Christian communities today.

The right to practise one’s religion peaceably—or, indeed, to follow no religion at all—is and must remain a fundamental entitlement, and the UK Government will continue energetically to defend and promote it. As a number of hon. Members pointed out, it is a sad indictment of our 21st-century world that we still have to defend that right, but we do have to, because, as we have learned, it is increasingly being violated.

In 2013, I spoke from the Back Benches in another debate, which I think was led by my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton, about the persecution of Christians. The fate of Christians and other religious communities in the middle east and the north Africa region is complex and often compounded by their minority status. In Syria, Assad’s actions have helped to fuel the worst sort of sectarian violence. Although at one point he was perhaps seen as someone who could stand up for minorities, the truth is that he has now shown himself incapable of ​maintaining control of his country or of effectively countering the threat from extremists. In so doing, he has put at risk communities including Christians, Mandaeans, Yazidis and all other minorities, as well as the interests and safety and security of the Sunni majority.

The UK Government remain determined to promote and defend human rights more generally. Failure to do so has an impact on Christian and other religious minorities. As the hon. Member for Rhondda powerfully reminded us, where freedom of religion or belief is under attack, other basic rights are threatened too. It is in all our interests to promote religious freedoms and human rights more generally, so I welcome this opportunity to set out briefly what the Government are doing to promote freedom of religion or belief across the world.

Our activity is both multilateral, through institutions such as the United Nations and its Human Rights Council, and bilateral with individual countries. In the multilateral sphere, we strive to build and maintain consensus on this issue by lobbying other countries and supporting UN resolutions such as the one recently sponsored by the European Union. We also engage closely, through our extensive diplomatic network, with individual countries. We promote the right of freedom of religion or belief and we raise vigorously—if often, for obvious reasons, behind the scenes—individual cases of persecution.

In relation to Pakistan, which we have discussed, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs continues to raise the rights of all Pakistani citizens, including religious minorities, and did so very robustly during his visit last November.

In relation to Iraq, we remain deeply concerned about the atrocities committed by Daesh or ISIS against individuals and religious communities, including Muslims, Christians, Yazidis and others. We continue to engage closely, and with a specific cause in mind, with religious leaders both in the UK and in Baghdad and beyond. In the last financial year, we have provided £90 million of humanitarian assistance to Iraq alone. That takes our total commitment to £169.5 million since June 2014. A significant, ring-fenced element of that support will help to protect displaced religious minorities. I take to heart some of the criticisms by the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Lord Carey, about the Government’s approach to religious minorities in the middle east, but it is the case, as has been pointed out in this debate, that an avowed policy of giving preferential assistance to any single religious group might make it more vulnerable to discrimination in some of the more ungoverned spaces of the world.

In Syria, Christians, Mandaeans, Yazidis and other minorities, as well as the Sunni majority, as I pointed out, have all been victims of Daesh atrocities. Ultimately, as I think we all know, the only way to stop that abuse is to defeat Daesh, and we continue to play a leading role in the 67-member global coalition in that regard.

The hon. Member for Strangford and my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton West (Chris Green) were right to highlight the plight of the Coptic Christians in Egypt. They are a minority, but a very significant minority—some 8 million to 9 million out of an overall population of 90 million.​
We have touched on Yemen and the treatment of the Baha’i community, and on the treatment of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia, which the hon. Gentleman rightly pointed out. Officials from our mission in Moscow attended the various court hearings there, and members of the Jehovah’s Witnesses in the UK noted that the presence on the ground of diplomats from the UK had a positive effect on how individuals were treated and how the process was undertaken. We shall continue to monitor that case particularly carefully.

More generally, our project work overseas is an important part of our effort to promote and protect religious freedoms. One project is helping to develop lesson plans for secondary school teachers in the middle east and north Africa. The aim is to teach children about religious tolerance, religious acceptance, and the absolute right to freedom of religion or belief. We strongly believe that teaching children in that way is a vital part of promoting tolerance and respect at grassroots level and of helping to build future resilience against extremism.

David Linden

I note that the Minister has mentioned a number of countries in which work is ongoing, but before he concludes, and while he is talking about tolerance and respect, will he address my specific remarks on Saudi Arabia?

Mark Field

Yes. The hon. Gentleman will forgive me, but we are talking about a different debate, and I am sure that we will have plenty of debates on Saudi Arabia. It is also not within my responsibilities in the Foreign Office. I will therefore try to address the issues in writing and get my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Middle East to do so.

Our staff in embassies across the globe are essential to the success of our work, and I hope that the debate today will help to redouble some of their efforts. It is important that we make clear the strength of feeling across the party political divide. We need to promote religious tolerance, human rights and religious rights, which are an integral part of our work. To support those staff, we provide training in religious literacy and have created a freedom of religion or belief toolkit, which was referred to earlier and provides useful information on addressing freedom of religion or belief.

In conclusion, I assure the hon. Members present of the Government’s and, moreover, my personal determination to continue supporting, defending and promoting the right to freedom of religion or belief. We will use our influence to promote that fundamental right across the world and to support Christian minorities, including in the middle east, through our engagement in multilateral institutions and with individual Governments and civil society.

I thank all hon. Members for their contributions today, but I hope that the House will indulge me if I single out my hon. Friend the Member for Hornchurch and Upminster (Julia Dockerill) for her first contribution in the House. My hon. Friend is also my very good friend, having worked in my private office, most recently as my chief of staff. She has worked with me for 11 years and learned about all the bad habits of politics from me, and I hope that learning from those mistakes will mean that she has a far more meteoric career in this place. It is a pleasure to be able to mention that.​
I also take this opportunity to thank all hon. Members here. Their often unsung work is an important signal of the UK’s determination to stand up for religious freedoms and in particular for Christian communities in some of the most politically unstable and unpredictable corners of the globe.

Jim Shannon

I thank all right hon. and hon. Members, both new Members and those who have been here for a while, for their significant and helpful contributions on an issue that is very important to all of us—it is why we are here. It is good that there has been comprehensive political representation, from all parties, in Westminster Hall today. That has ensured that we have highlighted the relevant issues.

I think the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Heywood and Middleton (Liz McInnes) summed up, in her response to the debate, the feeling of us all in this Chamber. I found out that the shadow Minister for the Scottish National party, the hon. Member for Glasgow East (David Linden), is a fellow Baptist, so there is more than just me in the House as a Baptist. It is always pleasing to see someone from a similar denomination in the House, and we wish him well in his new position.

The Minister, in his reply, summed up the things that we all want to see in place, and I thank him for that. He referred to his personal commitment to the issue, and I know that he is committed.

I will leave the last word to Matthew in chapter 5, verse 10:

“Blessed are they which are persecuted for righteousness’ sake: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 10(6)).