Westminster Hall Debate: Freedom of Religion or Belief

Yesterday, Mark spoke on behalf of the Government in the Westminster Hall debate on Freedom of Religion or Belief. To read the entire debate, click here.


Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP)

I beg to move,

That this House has considered freedom of religion or belief.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Buck. This debate is specifically about how the UK Government can work to advance the right of freedom of religion or belief at the 37th session of the United Nations Human Rights Council. It is a pleasure to speak on these issues. I thank all the hon. and right hon. Members who have taken the time to come on a Thursday afternoon. There are lots of reasons to say, “No, I cannot be here.” I was speaking at the Christian Solidarity Worldwide event on Wednesday, and I reminded people that there would be snow on Thursday. I said, “Maybe the snow will keep you here.” I said that graciously—I do not want to keep Members for anything but the right reason—but there were Members who had to go home early and Members who were unable to get home and so have come. We are pleased that everyone has made the time to be here. I thank you, Ms Buck, for chairing this debate, and we look forward to significant and helpful contributions from all Members.

I declare an interest as the chair of the all-party parliamentary group for international freedom of religion or belief, which speaks on behalf of those with Christian belief, those with other beliefs and those with no belief. I am also the chair of the all-party parliamentary group for the Pakistani minorities. I want to put those two things on record before we start the debate.

I thank Members for participating in this important debate and for continuing to speak out. Every Member here has spoken out on behalf of those who are persecuted for their religion or belief. I also put on record my thanks, in anticipation, to the Minister. We know how much commitment he has for these issues. He is a Minister who will respond to our requests to him in the way that every Member believes in their hearts that he would. It is pleasing to see the shadow Minister in his place. We know he has the heart for this issue, and we look forward to his significant contribution. I look forward to hearing the comments of other Members on how the Government will raise the issue in the UN Human Rights Council session, which kicked off on Monday. We are having this debate today because we want to send our comments to that session. Hopefully the participation we have in Westminster Hall today will go to ministerial level, governmental level and then to the UN.

As most Members in the Chamber will know, the UN Human Rights Council is responsible for strengthening the promotion and protection of human rights. At each session of the UNHRC, member states come together to discuss human rights violations, give them international attention and make recommendations. We will use the debate to highlight issues that we hope can then feed ​into the UN human rights commission, which is also meeting. That is why I am very thankful for the opportunity to have this debate, so that Members can raise freedom of religious or belief issues with the Government, and so that the issues can be brought to the UN and given the international attention they desperately deserve.

As Members will know, I have campaigned for many years to raise freedom of religion or belief issues in my role as chair of the all-party group for international freedom of religion or belief. I hope to discuss some of those issues in the hope that it will help the Minister and his team to advance the right to FORB at the UN Human Rights Council. As the debate unfolds and as people participate and make contributions, we will form a joint opinion of what we want among all the parties here, the shadow Minister and the Minister, and that will go up into the heart of Government.

I want to speak about five issues; other Members will speak about others. They are: the mass violence of armed Fulani Muslim herders in their conflict with Christian farmers in Nigeria; the criminalisation of blasphemy and religious conversion in Nepal; the continued state-sponsored persecution of the Baha’is in Iran; forced conversion in Pakistan; and abuses of freedom of religion by the Eritrean state and the ongoing imprisonment of Patriarch Abune Antonios—given my Ulster Scots accent, I hope that sounded as it should.

Sessions of the UNHRC represent an excellent opportunity to increase international attention on an issue, so it would be remiss of me not to use this debate to shine a light on the growing violence of armed Muslim Fulani herders in their conflict with Christian farmers in Nigeria. Since 2001, climate change, over- population and extremist religious interpretations have combined to cause mass violence between those two groups in Nigeria’s middle belt. Despite rarely being discussed in the media, the global terrorism index estimates that up to 60,000 people have been killed in the conflict since it began 17 years ago. Hundreds of thousands have been displaced, and thousands of villages, churches, mosques, livestock and businesses have been destroyed, at great cost to local and state economies.

There is no doubt that violence has been committed by actors on both sides of the conflict, but the Fulani herdsmen militia, armed with sophisticated weaponry including AK-47s, is thought to have murdered more men, women and children in 2015 and 2016 than Boko Haram. We all know how cruel, brutal and violent Boko Haram is. In 2014, it was recognised by the global terrorism index as the fourth deadliest terrorist group in the world. The scale of the violence is unprecedented. At the federal and state level, the Nigerian Government have long failed to respond adequately.


The Minister for Asia and the Pacific (Mark Field)

It is a pleasure to be here, Sir David. I am delighted to represent the Government in this debate. I congratulate the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) on bringing this to the attention of the House—once again. [Laughter.] Joking aside, it is an enduringly important issue, not least, as has been mentioned, as we are in the midst of the 37th UN Human Rights Council.

I will touch on a number of points. First, I pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman and all members of the all-party parliamentary group for international freedom of religion or belief. Their tireless work and commitment to religious freedoms is not just important, but assists the Government in making their case. Every time I am abroad, as a Foreign and Commonwealth Office Minister, I can make the point that this is a big priority for Parliament, so this work is of considerable diplomatic importance. I apologise in advance if I fail to deal with one or two specific points. I will try to ensure that I write to colleagues.

The hon. Gentleman knows that his passion ties closely with my own instincts, which for 16 of the last 17 years were also held from the Back Benches. I contributed to many debates like this before I became a Minister. As he kindly pointed out, I have tried to use my ministerial office to make something of a difference to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s approach.

I was reproached by my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh). It was slightly tongue in cheek, but there is a level of seriousness about this. He will appreciate that we need to make the case for religious freedom across religions. I take the view of my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) that we need to make the case more robustly—I will try to do so in the months and years ahead—that those who choose not to have a religion should not face prejudice.

My hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough is right, to a large extent, that there are some specific Christian issues. Those he raised about Iraq are absolutely terrible. As he rightly points out, for some 1,600, 1,700 or 1,800 years there were Christian villages in parts of Iraq and Syria where Christianity has now, I fear, been banished for good. The tragedy is that past totalitarian Governments looked after the interests of minorities—not just Christian minorities, but other religions—better than the new, so-called democratic Governments that have come into play have.

I hope my hon. Friend also recognises that we will, and must, make the case for religions other than Christianity. We are not blind to the fact that there are specific Christian and other minorities. I will do my level best for them, at least in the part of the world where I represent the Government.

I thank the hon. Member for Leeds North East (Fabian Hamilton) for doing a fantastic job of summing up the debate. I will not go through that process again—I will try to say new things—but I wish to respond to one or two points.

I say to the hon. Member for Strangford that the UK co-sponsored last year’s resolution on Iran, and will co-sponsor a resolution along those lines again to renew the special rapporteur’s mandate. On Eritrea and the detention of Patriarch Antonios, we have called for his ​release with the EU and will continue to work at that level. As a Minister, I have found that working with international bodies can make a difference more generally.

I thank the hon. Member for Leeds North East for his kind words about Burma. What is happening to the Rohingya at the moment is dreadful. He will recognise that we have to work internationally, but one of our concerns about the UN is that, even at the Security Council resolution level, we run the risk of vetoes from China and Russia. I have to say—one or two of my colleagues had better close their ears while I do—that, in terms of international organisations, it is within the EU that we can make more of a difference. I was in Brussels on Monday and we worked together as EU nations. Of course, we will do so post-March 2019 as well. We often have to work on a multilateral basis in those areas. As the EU 28, we have started down the road towards sanctions against some of the military’s worst elements.

My hon. Friend the Member for Stirling (Stephen Kerr) rightly brought up the Baha’i community in Iran, about which we have repeatedly expressed concerns. We will continue to do so, I hope quite robustly, at the conference that is taking place.

The hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh) talked about the Ahmadiyya in Pakistan. I know the mosque to which she referred. Lots of politicians seem to congregate there at election time, but she is a more regular attendee. I fully recognise her concerns and will come on to the specific work that we have done. I am working closely with my colleague, Lord Ahmad, who is an Ahmadiyya himself and, as the hon. Lady knows, was a councillor in Merton before going to the Lords.

My frequent jousting partner, the hon. Member for West Dunbartonshire (Martin Docherty-Hughes), alluded to a consular case that we continue to work closely on. He made some profound points about Prime Minister Modi and about Christian and Sikh minorities in India. We will do our best to raise some of those in an appropriate manner at the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in mid-April, to ensure that Parliament’s voice is properly heard. He will appreciate that diplomacy sometimes needs to be done behind closed doors, rather than with megaphones. He also made important points about China and the Roman Catholic Church. We will find ways to ensure that those points are addressed to the heads of missions and that we bring them up properly.

I apologise that I had to escape for a quick comfort break in the middle of the speech by the hon. Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Mrs Ellman), but I think I heard all her points. On the specific Yemeni case of Mr bin Haydara, we strongly condemn what is happening and are working with international bodies—the EU among others—to raise it directly with the Houthi authorities. My right hon. Friend the Minister for the Middle East met the Baha’i community in London on 18 January. I will pass on the hon. Lady’s specific concerns. She will recognise that Yemen and Iran are not my part of the world, as it were, but those issues need to be properly raised.

As everyone remarked upon, my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart) made a very powerful speech. He rightly reminded us why we should never cease in our efforts to ensure proper freedom of religion and that religion is not used as an excuse for some of the worst aspects of humanity.​
The hon. Member for North Tyneside (Mary Glindon) spoke about Iran and the Baha’i community, which we are very concerned about. We will continue to express those concerns. I, too, admire its resilience in the most difficult circumstances. We have referred to Christian communities that have been banished after a millennium and a half of being somewhere, but the Baha’i community developed its religious base more recently. One can only admire its resilience.

I will come back to the hon. Member for East Lothian (Martin Whitfield) about his specific questions—he alluded to the fact that I would need to do that. He made a very thoughtful speech. We would like to get to the bottom of the situation that he rightly raised. We need to look at whether those with avowed religious beliefs are poorly represented among refugees or whether, as is a possibility, many are not expressing religious beliefs because they realise that they are likely to have great difficulty in refugee camps.

I will now turn to my own speech, as I know that other hon. Members want to return home. We in Government will remain committed to promoting and defending the right to freedom of religion or belief around the world, including the freedom to change religion and the right to have no religion at all.

At this point, I will reflect on the incredibly thoughtful speech of the one person I missed out: my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton. She rightly raised issues that are a lot closer to home. If I had one small point of disagreement with her, it would be this: we need to recognise that religious extremism is often the precursor to violence, which comes back to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham. Although the Government need to deal with that sensitively, I agree with her that all too often, our rather mealy mouthed political correctness threatens long-standing freedoms of religion.

On the day the Government jettisoned the Leveson inquiry as being a bit too difficult to implement, we might well reflect on her words about the desirability of insisting that politicians sign up to a pre-election pledge of presumably secular values. Like her, I hope we can think again before heading down a path that might have the unintended consequences to which she referred.

I have said this many times before, not least in this House, but it bears repeating. The Government promote freedom of religion not just because it is the right thing to do, or because religion matters to many around the world—some 80% of the world’s population are guided by their faith, according to the Pew Research Centre—but because where that freedom is absent or restricted, intolerance and mistrust can grow. In certain conditions, that mistrust can easily turn to violence and conflict, as has been alluded to.

Societies where people are free to practise their faith are almost always more prosperous and more stable. Evidence also suggests that tolerant societies are better equipped to deal with extremism. However, as we are all too aware, this fundamental freedom is being denied to countless millions across the world. Worse still, some face the most appalling persecution because of their faith or belief.

Our last debate on the subject was on International Freedom of Religion or Belief Day in October, after which my noble Friend the Minister for human rights, ​Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon, wrote to British ambassadors and high commissioners around the world about their everyday work promoting freedom of religion or belief. He and I then wrote jointly to British ambassadors and high commissioners across my patch—Asia and the Pacific—for an update on their work on freedom of religion or belief and details of the future work they envisage. Their responses included a number of interesting strategies and activities, many of which are necessarily conducted through discreet, patient diplomacy.

I should like to share briefly with the House some recent examples of what our posts around the world have been doing to promote and defend religious freedom, first through their bilateral relationships with host Governments and secondly through their project work. I pay tribute to hon. Members, because we have been able to make this case as a result of the pressure they have brought to bear. As a Minister, I feel proud to be able to ensure that so many of our overseas posts are on the front foot when it comes to addressing these issues.

In Nepal, our diplomats have raised and continue to raise our profound concerns about the provision in the new penal code that could be abused to curtail freedom of religion. We shall continue to ensure that its implementation is in line with international standards. Like the hon. Member for Strangford, I am especially displeased that Nepal’s legislation on blasphemy and conversions was being finalised at the very moment that the country was admitted to the United Nations Human Rights Council. I take this opportunity to put on record our concern about that.

We are concerned about the use of blasphemy laws in Indonesia and rising intolerance towards the Ahmadiyya, Shi’a and Christian communities. The UK, along with other EU member states, has made representations to encourage the Indonesian Government to ensure that blasphemy laws are not applied in a discriminatory manner. We have already made such representations in London, and I hope to do so again when I visit Indonesia later this year.

In Uzbekistan, our embassy has increased its engagement with religious communities, including by strengthening its connections with the country’s very diverse Christian denominations and Jewish communities and with Jehovah’s Witnesses, who are struggling to receive permission to worship across the country, as has been discussed. The UN special rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, Dr Ahmed Shaheed, visited Uzbekistan in October—the first visit from a UN special rapporteur in 15 years.

In my work with the UN, I have been struck by the fact that Kazakhstan, a member of the Security Council, is working closely with a number of other central Asian states. They have a long way to go, but I believe that many of these countries are very keen to become more active in the international community. Freedom of religion or belief is an issue on which, patiently and through diplomacy, we can bring some pressure to bear. I hope we will see some improvement.

Freedom of religion or belief remains a priority area for our engagement with China. We continue to raise our concerns on persecution of religious minorities through our UK-China human rights dialogue. It is worth putting on record that China is making significant progress on our priority issues, including climate change, human trafficking and modern slavery, and is taking a role in the international community. Progress has been ​made, and we need to give credit where it is due. We are making advances in certain areas, which I hope will be a precursor to improvement of religious tolerance along the lines that we have discussed.

As has been pointed out, Bangladesh has policies and laws intended to safeguard the rights of all citizens to practise their faiths freely. None the less, religious tolerance remains under pressure. Our high commission in Dhaka remains in regular contact with religious groups and leaders and is developing a strategy dedicated to addressing intolerance against religious minorities. Lord Ahmad publicly visited an Ahmadiyya mosque in Bangladesh last August, making a robust case for religious tolerance.

In Pakistan, our excellent high commission is working to promote religious tolerance; I saw that work for myself when I visited Pakistan in November. I have raised and will continue to raise the treatment of religious minorities—including discrimination and violence against the Ahmadiyya and Christian communities—with Pakistan’s Ministry of Human Rights.

Siobhain McDonagh

Does the Minister agree that the first step towards solving a problem is accepting that it exists? On a recent visit to the Pakistan high commission, the right hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake) and I met the deputy high commissioner, who informed us that there was no discrimination against Ahmadis in Pakistan and that there were no issues relating to blasphemy laws or Ahmadis going through the Pakistan judicial system.

Mark Field

I accept that point, although that was not my experience in the discussions I had. We will continue to make the case for the Ahmadi minority. We will also raise another issue that was brought up today: the persecution and forced conversions that the Hindu minority face.

Let me touch briefly on our project work. The United Kingdom is working to promote freedom of religion or belief and religious tolerance through a range of UK projects. Some are funded by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office through our Magna Carta fund for human rights; others are funded by the Department for International Development. DFID and FCO officials are, I hope, working side by side in that regard as seamlessly as in other areas of government.

The right to freedom of religion or belief is one of a range of human rights that DFID takes into account when providing direct financial support to foreign Governments. I cannot speak for my ministerial colleague and hon. Friend the Member for West Worcestershire (Harriett Baldwin) or for the Secretary of State, but I know that they will be made well aware of concerns raised in our debate. DFID and FCO officials work closely to focus the minds of Governments of countries that receive aid on the fundamental importance of respecting all human rights, including the right to freedom of religion or belief.

Let me give some examples of how UK funds are spent. Our embassy in Rangoon in Burma is supporting projects to address the drivers of prejudice and inter- communal violence. The Rohingya issue has been dreadful, but is by no means the only profound minority issue in Burma today. We have tried to deliver an inter-faith ​dialogue and workshop for civil servants, parliamentarians and non-governmental organisations. One has to find a way to address the catastrophic issues around the Rohingya.

Similarly, we are supporting a project in Pakistan that shows animations in schools and online to highlight the value to society of diverse religious, social and ethnic groups. Our Magna Carta fund is supporting a project to raise awareness of challenges faced by freedom of religion campaigners in south and central Asia. Our aim is to persuade people of the need for better protection for such campaigners. The project also trains them in advocacy so that they are better equipped to defend themselves. It has facilitated discussions between human rights defenders and the UN special rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, Michel Forst, who was delighted to tell us that those interactions have helped him to develop his own analysis of the specific threats facing human rights defenders.

I thank all hon. Members for indulging me in my attempt to put as much of our work on the record as possible. A huge amount is going on. I am very pleased that my team at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office is so energised, not least by the passion felt in Parliament for the work being done. Our diplomatic network will continue to work hard to promote and defend the fundamental right of freedom of religion or belief around the world through direct engagement with host Governments and UK-funded work. We are also ensuring that our staff are trained in religious literacy to improve their ability to carry out this important work.

I always look forward to working closely with the all-party group for international freedom of religion or belief. I thank hon. Members profoundly for their work to ensure that the public profile of this crucial issue remains so high.