Christians: Persecution - Question for Short Debate

– in the House of Lords am 7:23 pm ar 25 Mawrth 2024.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Photo of Baroness Foster of Aghadrumsee Baroness Foster of Aghadrumsee Non-affiliated 7:23, 25 Mawrth 2024

To ask His Majesty’s Government what steps they are taking to support persecuted Christians around the world.

Photo of Baroness Foster of Aghadrumsee Baroness Foster of Aghadrumsee Non-affiliated

My Lords, I thank all those who have put down their names to speak tonight on this important but unfortunately largely ignored issue of the global persecution of Christians. I also thank the Minister for being here to respond.

My thanks also go to all those who have contacted those listed to speak tonight for the various briefings which have been put together. The truth is that we probably have enough material on this issue to speak for a very long time this evening—the matter is an expansive one—but we are constrained by the time limits set and should endeavour to respect those. In an effort to comply, I will cite specific examples of Christian persecution to point out the trends I wish to cover rather than try and deal with every country on the watch-list; that would be impossible.

Whether through serendipity or divine intervention, I can think of no better time than Holy Week to bring this issue to the attention of the House. The Bible tells us that this was the time when Jesus suffered greatly, both physically and mentally, knowing the death he would face on Good Friday. It therefore seems appropriate to focus on the great suffering that continues for Christians across the world today.

In January, along with many other MPs and Peers, I attended the launch of the 2024 Open Doors World Watch List here in Parliament. The Minister was there as well. Every year, this organisation compiles a report which sets out the 50 countries where it is most dangerous to be a Christian. This year, the research found that more than 365 million Christians suffer high levels of persecution and discrimination for their faith—around one in seven Christians worldwide.

For those of us living in the United Kingdom, it can often feel as if our faith is not respected and indeed is often belittled, even though we have an established Church here in England and Wales. As Christians in the UK, we may feel marginalised, but to hear that our brothers and sisters in Christ are persecuted for their faith in the manner that was outlined was frankly shocking. Yet very little of this persecution is spoken about, never mind acted on, and that needs to change.

Back at Christmas in 2018, the then Bishop of Truro, now the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Winchester, was asked by the then Foreign Secretary, Jeremy Hunt MP, to carry out a review into the global persecution of Christians; to map the extent and the nature of the persecution; to assess the quality of the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office response; and finally to recommend changes in policy and practice to deal with the issue.

The comprehensive final report, which was published in June 2019, noted that the problem was indeed a global phenomenon. It said that the western response to the problem, however, was no doubt

“tinged by a certain post-Christian bewilderment, if not embarrassment, about matters of faith, and a consequent failure to grasp how for the vast majority of the world’s inhabitants faith is not only a primary marker of identity, but also a primary motivation for action (both for good or ill)”.

Religious persecution occurs to a third of the world’s population in some form, with Christians being the most persecuted group, even though freedom of religion and belief is a fundamental human right. To make things worse, global persecution of Christians is underreported and therefore is not highlighted and responded to in an adequate way. The geographical spread of anti-Christian persecution, and its increasing severity, was noted by the Truro report. Indeed, in some regions, the level and nature of the persecution arguably came close to meeting the UN’s international definition of genocide.

The main impact of the persecution, apart from the individual suffering, is the internal displacement and exodus from various parts of the world. As we come to celebrate Easter in the Christian calendar and all the events that took place in Jerusalem in that Holy Week, we should pay more attention and do something about the fact that Christianity now faces being wiped out in parts of the Middle East, where its roots go back the furthest. In the birthplace of Christ, Christian numbers are at 1.5% of the population. Understandably we have heard much about the plight of our Jewish friends in the region, and indeed the plight of all those living in the region, but rarely do we hear about the tiny Christian minority who are struggling to be heard, let alone helped. In Iraq, the population of Christians has plummeted from 1.5 million to now just over 100,000.

Christianity, which has provided much-needed plurality in the region, is disappearing, and apart from the tragedy which that is for those Christian communities, it has a destabilising impact on the Middle East. I wonder if the Minister, who has great expertise and experience in this area, could comment on that aspect in particular when he makes his remarks.

The Truro report said that Government need to give

“priority and specific targeted support” to Christian communities—this was

“not only necessary but increasingly urgent”.

Given that recommendation, perhaps the Minister could update us on any specific action that has been taken of the back of that report, given that it is nearly five years since its publication.

This issue of stability and security was a theme explored by the Open Doors launch this year. The title of this year’s report was The Cost of Collapse and the Cost of Control, and it indicated that under the cover of state fragility and failure, violence against Christians has intensified in many parts of the world while, elsewhere, autocratic countries increase their control.

By way of example of state fragility, as sub-Saharan Africa becomes more unstable, religiously motivated violence is intensifying. In 18 of the 26 sub-Saharan countries, 4,606 Christians were killed because of their faith during the 2024 reporting period. The growing violence is causing a displacement crisis as more and more Christians are forced to flee their homes. It is of great concern to me that this displacement of Christians is also happening in India. More than 62,000 Indian Christians were forced to flee their homes during the 2024 reporting period—a huge jump from 380 in 2022 and 834 in 2023. I am sure that His Majesty’s Government are very concerned about this and I look forward to hearing the Minister’s observations on this region, about which we both care deeply.

A subsection, if I may describe it as such, of the persecution of Christians is the treatment of Christian women. Put simply, they are more likely to be the victims of discrimination and persecution than their male counterparts. That could be through people trafficking, gender-based violence, kidnapping, forced marriage—the list continues. This double marginalisation of being a woman and a Christian is underreported as women are often invisible in such societies and poorly represented. For example, there is evidence from Pakistan of Christian girls being groomed, trafficked into sham marriages and forced to convert to become Muslims.

I welcome the fact that the international development White Paper commits the UK to development policies that are inclusive of people marginalised for their religion and belief. As I said earlier, freedom of religion and belief is a key human right but it is sadly ignored in many parts of the world, especially in areas of conflict. We have a proud history of promoting religious freedom in the United Kingdom, so we should be doing more to promote it across the world. Freedom of religion is almost a passport to securing other human rights, such as freedom from fear, the right to family life and the right to privacy. If freedom of religion is not protected, other rights will be overlooked and ignored as well. We talk a lot in this House about creating foreign policies to aid stabilisation, conflict resolution and, importantly, reconciliation. Surely, such aspects of our foreign policy must recognise the needs of religious minorities in formulating conflict and stabilisation policies.

I urge the Minister to implement the recommendations of the Truro report that remain outstanding. In particular, I look forward to the Government establishing the role of the Prime Minister’s Special Envoy on Freedom of Religion or Belief in statute to add to and underline the excellent work carried out by Fiona Bruce MP. There is also a real and urgent need to include mandatory religious literacy in the training of all FCDO staff. This is particularly important given that, I am sad to say, we cannot take for granted that our civil servants have a working understanding of Christianity any more. In doing so, we need to recognise that there is, according to the Truro report, a reluctance from some diplomats to raise the issue of Christian persecution for fear of upsetting local Administrations. There does not appear to be that reluctance when it comes to other issues that may cause offence locally. Can the Minister comment on how diplomats and staff in the Foreign Office in general can be better equipped to deal with these complex but urgent issues?

I once again thank all noble Lords who will contribute. I hope that the UK can, as recommended in the Truro report, take on the role of a global leader in articulating freedom of religious belief.

Photo of Lord Moylan Lord Moylan Chair, Built Environment Committee, Chair, Built Environment Committee 7:33, 25 Mawrth 2024

My Lords, it is a privilege to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Foster of Aghadrumsee. I will offer a few reflections of my own.

When I was growing up in the 1960s and 1970s, I felt that we had reached a point where religious persecution had come to an end. On the whole, there was no persecution of Christian belief, certainly in the West, so I and a lot of others were rather surprised that, when John Paul II was elected Pope in 1978, he quite quickly expressed the worldview that he saw the Church as still being subject to persecution. It took some time to think that through. If you grew up in Poland, I suppose you would see things rather differently from how I saw things growing up somewhat later than John Paul II. If you saw the persecution of the Church by Nazis and later under communism, you would have a very different view. Famously, he created an astonishingly prodigious number of saints during his time as Pope, many of them martyrs of the 20th century. I think that spoke very strongly to him. One needs to see this in a broader sense.

While the noble Baroness spoke largely of persecution in the third world—if one is still correct in referring to it as the third world—I will speak about the persecution of Christianity in the West. The persecution that John Paul II was familiar with growing up abated considerably as a result of the fall of the Iron Curtain, but that does not mean it has gone away. In fact, it is present in Europe in a new and virulent form and has spread west. We now see a very large number of attacks on churches in western Europe, prodigiously in France but also in Germany and Spain. We have even seen priests murdered in their churches in France and Spain in the last few years. In Europe, 852 hate crimes were identified in 2022 by the Vienna-based Observatory on Intolerance and Discrimination Against Christians, with attacks on places of worship, symbols and institutions. That represented a 44% increase. Arson attacks against churches in Europe were up by 75% in 2022.

It is salutary to turn briefly to Canada, where in the last few years 100 churches, I believe all of them Catholic, have been torched and burned to the ground. That arose from a story that the Catholic Church had been involved in the past in some form of creating mass graves of native children. That led to a considerable level of hostility, which expressed itself in these church burnings. On closer examination, the evidence to support those claims seems to have been greatly exaggerated at the very least. This was in Canada—a western, liberal country.

According to the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, there have been 341 incidents across 43 US states since May 2021. These are just against Catholic churches; there are also incidents of attacks against African American churches and Protestant churches. You can find at least a dozen such attacks on Catholic churches on Wikipedia. The way we think about these things is quite curious; when, in looking for this evidence, I typed into Google “Church attacks USA”, I got back something that said, “Did you mean ‘Church attacks us’?”—it assumed that the Church was attacking us, rather than churches being attacked in the USA. That shows a certain form of bias.

It is important to think about where these attacks are coming from. In France and possibly other parts of Europe, they appear to be associated with Muslims, often illegal immigrants or people in a state of uncertainty who are not settled in that local society. In Canada, they appear to be associated with stories about mass graves of native children. In the United States—I may be touching on a sensitive point here—they appear to be correlated with arguments about abortion and seem to be coming from what might be called a certain strand of liberalism attacking the churches.

That is one of the things that concerns me very greatly, because it is something relatively new and is a matter of considerable concern. We have been free of that, but what starts in America ends up here. Indeed, as an aside, apart from Brexit, I can hardly think of a single original idea that we have produced in Britain that we have not imported from the United States in the last 30 years. I hope it will not happen here, but we need to be wary, because these culture war issues have clearly generated attacks in the United States, and that could come in this direction.

Finally, we badge our international efforts on this subject under the term “freedom of religion or belief”. That is what we advocate and that is what we fight for, to a degree, at least—and my noble friend the Minister is, I am sure, going to answer the question posed by the noble Baroness, as to the extent to which the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office does that. However, that is what we do when we do it: we badge it as freedom of religion or belief. That is a legal and philosophical principle. It is, in its own terms, wholly admirable, but it is also universal and it does not reflect or recognise the particular cultural heritage of this country, which is indeed a Christian heritage, as evidenced by the presence of Bishops on the Benches over here.

It is possibly the wrong question, but I ask only this: is it too much that we might see ourselves not only as international advocates of that universal principle but as particular defenders of Christianity in the rest of the world?

Photo of Lord Carey of Clifton Lord Carey of Clifton Crossbench 7:41, 25 Mawrth 2024

My Lords, I am very grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Foster, for tabling this important Question. I thank her for the excellent review that she has already given of what is going on around the world.

It is manifestly clear that some Christian groups are unfairly treated, abused, murdered and discriminated against in many parts of the world. I am patron of Barnabas Aid, which works in many contexts around the world, bringing aid and support to minority Christian groups and refugees. The estimate of Barnabas Aid of, for example, Christian violence in Nigeria since 2009 is that some 45,000 Christians have been murdered. This is to say nothing of the violence and everyday marginalisation of Christian communities in many other parts of the world. In what has been dubbed the ultimate year of elections, with some 64 national elections taking place in 2024, Christians viscerally fear the outcome in some countries, in stark contrast to the much less existential nature of our general election in the United Kingdom this year.

I do not think we can properly pursue this question without considering another question alongside it, which the noble Baroness, Lady Foster, touched upon: namely, does the United Kingdom value its foundational faith any longer? We seem to go out of our way to avoid the use of the word Christian and to speak of “British” values, as if they are a group of virtues standing alone. We may remember that, in 2007, the European Union decided not to mention the Christian roots of Europe at its 50th anniversary. Pope Benedict XVI retorted that this was a form of apostasy against itself. He went on to show that, in culture, landscape, history, law and values, the roots of Europe, and of course of the United Kingdom, are undeniably Christian. We should not be ashamed of declaring so.

My argument takes me directly back to the Question of the noble Baroness, Lady Foster: what are we doing to help those Christian people abroad whose commitment to our values leads them to be persecuted? Reference has already been made to the Bishop of Truro’s independent review of 2019, undertaken at the invitation of the then Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, Jeremy Hunt. The review showed the horrifying scale and extent of the suffering of minority Christian groups in places as diverse as Iraq, Indonesia, Myanmar, Pakistan and elsewhere.

Of course, it is important to recognise that we do not limit our concern to Christians only. We should care for everybody. However, the clear evidence is that the name of Christianity is a label of discrimination and suffering. Noble Lords may remember that the Truro report was welcomed by the Times. In the editorial leader column, it was greeted in the following way:

The West must be ready to support the Christian faith. That, rather than embarrassment, has to be the starting point of our necessary conversations with … followers of other faiths”.

In conclusion, I offer one thought and ask the Minister—a man we deeply respect—a question. The thought is that valuing the faith that the United Kingdom has received, and which has shaped us in so many ways, does not limit our generosity and welcome to other faiths. To repeat what the noble Baroness, Lady Foster, has said, I would be grateful if the Minister could inform us of how many of the 22 recommendations in that review have been implemented, and what is holding up the remaining ones.

Photo of The Bishop of Oxford The Bishop of Oxford Bishop 7:46, 25 Mawrth 2024

My Lords, I too add my congratulations and appreciation to the noble Baroness, Lady Foster, on securing this important debate and her comprehensive and moving survey and speech. It is a pleasure to follow the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Carey, and I pay tribute to his considerable expertise in this area over many years. I am grateful to my colleague, the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Winchester, formerly the Bishop of Truro, for a briefing in advance of this debate. He is not able to be present, but I know he will follow deliberations closely.

As the noble Baroness, Lady Foster, set out so eloquently, the beginning of Holy Week is a fitting time to remember the persecution of Christians across the world and the costs of faith. This persecution has been evident since the very beginning of the Church. Even so, it is extremely sobering and moving to reflect that, according to Open Doors, 365 million Christians face some sort of persecution worldwide—about one in seven of the global Christian population. I also note with other noble Lords the disproportionate consequences and costs for women and girls.

We pay tribute today to the courage and perseverance of persecuted Christians, and, in turn, appreciate the freedom of belief which is a feature of our own democracy. As the historian Tom Holland argued recently in his powerful book, Dominion, many of the core values of our society can be traced directly to our Christian heritage and need to be sustained by that Christian heritage now.

However, this debate has a broader significance, because freedom of religion or belief, and violations against anyone, can be important indicators of the state of human rights in any context globally. As the former UN special rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, Heiner Bielefeldt, said:

“Freedom of religion or belief rightly has been termed a ‘gateway’ to other freedoms, including freedom of expression and freedom of peaceful assembly and association”.

An approach that guarantees freedom of religion or belief for all, as advocated by the Truro review, is the best way of addressing Christian persecution for two important reasons. First, singling out Christians inevitably others them, increasing their vulnerability. It is also antithetical to the Christian faith itself to favour Christians over other faiths. Christianity puts no limit on its definitions of who is our neighbour, so it is wrong to argue theologically for special treatment of persecuted Christians. Secondly, it is also impossible to support persecuted Christians without supporting the freedom of religion or belief of all persons. Freedom of religion or belief is intertwined with other human rights and a matter of legally binding international human rights obligations.

We need to note and acknowledge in this debate that we have seen a regrettable increase in Islamophobia and anti-Semitism in the United Kingdom since the terrible 7 October attacks and the devastating conflict in Gaza. The work of faith leaders building bridges, strong relationships and understanding locally has been a vital part of the local response to events in Israel and Gaza in my own city and county and across the country. Religious freedom and tolerance need to be nurtured and guarded nationally and locally. It is as important to do that in our own country as it is across the world; the two go together,

The Library briefing provides some estimates on the numbers of Christians persecuted globally. Estimating persecution is problematic and contentious for obvious reasons. A comment made by the former UN special rapporteur Asma Jahangir on all FoRB statistics is very helpful:

“When I am asked which community is persecuted most, I always reply ‘human beings’”.

Our responsibility is always to stand up for the world’s most vulnerable people, wherever they may be found. Freedom of religion or belief is a foundation of human rights.

The Truro review argued that freedom of religion or belief should be “central” in FCDO policy. However, religious literacy in policy and diplomacy remains a significant challenge, even though only religiously literate responses will be effective in addressing some of the world’s most serious instances of persecution in countries such as Nigeria, India, Iran, Russia and China. What steps is the FCDO taking to build religious literacy across its work?

Fiona Bruce is sponsoring a Private Member’s Bill in the other place, the International Freedom of Religion or Belief Bill, which would establish an office of the special envoy and require the Prime Minister by law to appoint someone to the role. I very much hope that this House will play its part in supporting the Private Member’s Bill to establish the special envoy post in law when my right reverend friend the Bishop of Winchester brings it to the House in due course.

Finally, I invite both the Minister and the Opposition to tell this House what future strategies they intend to have in place to continue or enhance the role of the Special Envoy on Freedom of Religion or Belief and the support for persecuted Christians globally.

Photo of Lord Alton of Liverpool Lord Alton of Liverpool Crossbench 7:53, 25 Mawrth 2024

My Lords, all over the world, Article 18, the universal right to freedom of religion or belief, is a violated right, which is why we must thank the noble Baroness, Lady Foster of Aghadrumsee, for initiating this short debate.

Some 80% of the world has a religious faith, and people of all faiths are persecuted, as the right reverend Prelate reminded us. The noble Baroness reminded us that this is a great week for Christianity, with Easter; but it is a great week for all monotheistic religions, with Jews having just celebrated Purim and Muslims celebrating Ramadan. But what singles out Christians is that 350 million of them—one in seven in 144 countries —are persecuted in every country where Article 18 is breached, and 13 Christians are killed each and every day because of their faith. The Times said of our indifference that we had become “Spectators at the Carnage”. Jonathan Sacks once said:

“The persecution of Christians … is one of the crimes against humanity of our time and I am appalled at the lack of protest it has evoked”.

We talk about persecution as if it ended with Nero and the lions in the Colosseum, but it is one of the most shocking untold stories of our time.

Although the Minister and Fiona Bruce MP, the Prime Minister’s Special Envoy on Freedom of Religion or Belief—a role that I, too, hope we will legislate to make permanent—have striven to implement the Truro review recommendations, the tide of visceral hatred continues to rise. That is foolish, given the economic link between countries that respect Article 18 and prosperity, stability and harmony, and given the link between persecution and displacement, now at a record 114 million people.

I will discuss China and then highlight two Commonwealth countries. There has been a frenzy today about China’s cyberattacks in 2021, one of which was against me, along with sanctions imposed three years ago. Today the Deputy Prime Minister told the House of Commons that the response was “swift and robust”—I dread to think what leisurely or weak would have looked like. There are still no sanctions against state officials, and nothing to match the 47 imposed on Hong Kong by the US. It is wholly incommensurate with the 1 million Uighur Muslims subjected to genocide, the brutal oppression of Tibetan Buddhists, the crimes against Falun Gong and the persecution of Christians. The latter includes the imprisonment of Protestant pastors, the demolition of churches, the jailing of the Christian journalist, Zhang Zhan, who went to Wuhan to ask awkward questions about the origins of Covid, and the trials in Hong Kong of Cardinal Zen and now of Jimmy Lai, a deeply committed Christian. Can the Minister say whether the Foreign Secretary will raise those issues with the Chinese ambassador when he summons him tomorrow?

I turn to Pakistan. Tomorrow, as co-chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for the Pakistani Minorities, I will chair an inquiry into discrimination and persecution. I recently met representatives of the over 1 million workers employed like slave labour in brick kilns in Pakistan, who are overwhelmingly Christian. Often illiterate, they rarely earn enough to subsist, much less to clear the loans that they are forced to take out, becoming bonded labour. Debts have been passed down to children from one generation to another, and workers are abused at the whim of their owners, with Hindu and Christian women and girls particularly vulnerable.

Tomorrow, we will hear first-hand accounts from victims. Only last week, two Christian sanitary workers—Asif Masih, 25, and Shan Masih, 28—lost their lives while undertaking the hazardous task of cleaning a choked sewage line, due to the absence of proper protective gear. It was not the first tragedy of its kind. On 14 February, the Minister told me that our aid to Pakistan for this year is £41.5 million, rising to £133 million next year. How much of that will be used to promote the rights of religious minorities? When did we last speak to the Pakistan Government about FoRB? When did we last engage with the Commonwealth Secretary-General about ForB?

That takes me to Nigeria. Some 82% of all Christians killed for their faith last year were in Nigeria: 4,998 Christians were slaughtered, with 200 murdered during Christmas services in 2023. Open Doors reports:

“Christians in Nigeria continue to be terrorised with devastating impunity by Islamic militants”, with

“abductions for ransom, sexual violence and death … leaving a trail of grief and trauma”.

Last November, on Red Wednesday—when the FCDO was lit in red to commemorate the persecuted—thanks to Aid to the Church in Need, I met Dominic and Margaret Attah, survivors of the Boko Haram Pentecost attack on St Francis Xavier Church in Owo, when 40 were murdered. Margaret’s legs were blown off. Their bishop, Jude Arogundade, at a meeting here that I chaired, lacerated a Head of State for attributing the attack to climate change, a foolish simplicity repeated by some of our own officials, who seem illiterate when it comes to extremism and construct false narratives.

Margaret wanted to know why no one had been brought to justice. I asked the Minister, and he told me in reply:

“We continue to call for those who committed this attack to be brought to justice and held to account”.

Needless to say, they have not been; nor have the abductors of Leah Sharibu, who was abducted on 19 February 2018 by ISIS West Africa from the Government Girls Science and Technical College in Dapchi, Yobe State. Leah was told to convert and was raped, impregnated and enslaved. She is still held captive. I promised Rebecca, her mother, that I would lose no opportunity to raise her case. Following a recent meeting with the Africa Minister, have our officials followed that up? What are the Nigerians doing to get her released? Where is the ICC inquiry into potential crimes against humanity in relation to the Christian minority in Nigeria? Those preliminary inquiries concluded three years ago.

How much will Nigeria receive in ODA next year? What percentage will be used to promote FoRB, and when did we last raise that with the Commonwealth? More believers are killed for their faith in Nigeria each year than everywhere else in the world combined. In the face of these deadly violations of a universal right, our indifference and our silence are simply not acceptable.

Photo of The Earl of Sandwich The Earl of Sandwich Crossbench 8:01, 25 Mawrth 2024

My Lords, I start with an admission to the noble Baroness, Lady Foster. I have not taken much interest in persecuted Christians until now, because I have always assumed that Christianity had distinct advantages over other religions. There are stronger examples of the persecution of Muslims and Jews. I know this is a shamefully Eurocentric view, but I believe it reflects a widely held, if inaccurate, assumption of public opinion. I am therefore grateful to the noble Baroness for giving us the chance to research the real situation as a background to this debate. My noble friend and others have taken us through the shocking statistics.

The FCDO commissioned its review five years ago, soon after the Minister was appointed special envoy on religious freedom. I believe that he has had a rocky ride through all those recommendations—he has already been asked to talk about that. The then Foreign Secretary cited the startling statistic that 80% of all those persecuted in the world were Christians. This figure probably came from Open Doors, which estimates 365 million as the total number, as we have heard. This is a highly respected NGO, and I am not intending to dispute the figures.

At that time, evidence was coming from countries such as Myanmar, Malaysia, Sudan and Iraq. We know that the situation in some of those countries has got worse. Some of us had a short debate recently about Myanmar, led by the noble Lord, Lord Crisp, focusing mainly on the appalling treatment of health workers by the army since the 2021 coup. What I had not realised was that churches, especially those in the ethnic-minority states, were also deliberately victimised by the present regime. These are indigenous churches; some Christians are of Indian descent and others may be Europeans. Looking back at my notes from the 1970s, when I visited Myanmar for Christian Aid, it is quite clear that missionaries had already left under General Ne Win’s Government, and that the majority of Baptist churches had largely become freestanding communities. Some churches receive humanitarian aid, but they are not dependent on foreign aid.

It seems that the army has long targeted and attacked churches, especially in Chin state, where an estimated 85% are Christian. Civilians are targets, and a whole town was burnt by shelling last September. The UK-based Centre for Information Resilience identified and analysed 10 similar instances where churches were damaged—mostly by airstrike—between March and August 2023. To quote the Associated Press:

“Human rights agencies and United Nations investigators have found evidence that security forces indiscriminately and disproportionately targeted civilians with bombs, mass executions of people detained during operations and large-scale burning of civilian houses”.

Kachin, Karen and Karenni states are also among the worst affected. Surely this can be called religious ethnic cleansing. It is hardly surprising that armed resistance groups have sprung up in many areas in self-defence. There are also reports of intrusive surveillance.

I was in contact with a Burmese church leader last week, who said:

“The regime not only attacks local defence forces ruthlessly but innocent civilians using heavy weapons … The regime has also burned down hundreds of villages, injured and killed thousands of civilians”.

Christian communities are among the victims. A large number of Christian communities have fled to neighbouring countries such as Thailand and India. He went on to say:

“My wife and our four children fled to India two weeks ago across the Indian-Myanmar border. I can hear gun shooting and bombing while I write this letter. Two Christian villages which are very close to us are burning now and my hometown is flooded with displaced groups from these villages. We really need humanitarian assistance.”

My questions for the Minister are the following. We know that the FCDO is already doing a lot to support health workers, which is admirable, but can it do any more to bring humanitarian aid and to publicise the situation of Christian communities? In neighbouring India, as we have also heard from the noble Baroness, there are important Christian minorities which suffer discrimination, often from gangs of local Hindu vigilantes. I know that there is a regular EU human rights dialogue with India in which we once took a lead. Now that we have entered a trade agreement with India, albeit that it is stalled at the moment, can the Minister confirm that the persecution of Christians and other minorities remains part of the UK dialogue with India?

Foreign funding has also been strictly limited under the Modi Government—more restrictions came in in September 2020—and West Bengal has long suspected foreign intervention and banned many of the international agencies and charities, especially Christian ones, at different times. Does the Minister agree that xenophobia is a continuing factor to be watched in the BJP Government, in spite of India’s history of toleration?

Photo of Lord Curry of Kirkharle Lord Curry of Kirkharle Crossbench 8:08, 25 Mawrth 2024

My Lords, it is a great privilege to follow other noble Lords who have already contributed very passionately to this debate. In particular, I express my appreciation to the noble Baroness, Lady Foster, for sponsoring this important and timely debate—occurring as it does, as has been mentioned already, just before we celebrate the most important event in the Christian calendar—and for her very comprehensive and compelling introduction.

Let me first state, as a Christian, that persecution of any person holding a particular religious or faith belief is unacceptable. I, too, applaud Fiona Bruce MP and others for their valuable work in supporting freedom of religion or belief. It is a huge and critically important work and needs to continue. Sadly, as we know, there are too many historical examples of abuse and persecution of individuals and of whole communities, and ethnic cleansing of thousands of people, because they belong to a particular religious or faith group. We also have to confess that it has happened on occasions throughout history under the cloak of Christianity, to our shame. I contest that any Christian who tries to faithfully follow the teaching of Jesus would not participate in any form of religious persecution; in fact, the reverse should be evident. The teaching of the Good Samaritan story by Jesus is that loving your neighbour, who might be from a different ethnic or religious group—which was the case in Luke, chapter 10—is an essential element of the Christian message.

This evening’s debate is particularly relevant because the data suggests that more Christians are being persecuted today than at any time in our history, and the number is increasing daily. How appalling is that fact? As has been mentioned a number of times in this debate, data from Open Doors World Watch List 2024 has stated that 365 million people worldwide—one in seven—are facing higher levels of persecution and discrimination for their faith: one in five in Africa; one in seven in Asia.

Even more dreadful is the data from Open Doors which estimates that 5,621 Christians were killed for faith-related reasons in 2023, compared to 4,761 in 2021, the majority of these in Nigeria, as stated by the noble Lord, Lord Alton. It has been estimated that, between 2000 and 2020, over a 20-year period, 62,000 Nigerian Christians have been killed by the terrorist group Boko Haram or by Fulani herdsmen, et cetera. These are horrific statistics and mostly occur where Boko Haram has declared Sharia law. Kidnapping is common, as we heard again recently, and thousands of churches have been attacked and burned to the ground.

According to the World Watch List, India, as has been mentioned already, is also becoming very alarming indeed, with the number of Christians being killed increasing dramatically over the past 12 months up to 160 recorded cases. Churches have been attacked, together with Christian institutions and businesses, and 62,000 Christians have been forced to leave their homes in India this past year—a huge number. Eleven out of India’s 28 states have now introduced anti-conversion legislation, and 35 pastors have been imprisoned, all this on the watch of Prime Minister Modi. It is an alarming trend. There have been some very high-profile cases. In Manipur last year, ethnic violence resulted in 400 churches being burned to the ground and 50,000 Christian believers displaced. How does this sit with freedom of religion and belief? It is unacceptable.

The global statistics are alarming. The freedom of Christians to worship and express their faith is being more and more constrained, and many are at risk of persecution and death. I am fully aware that the Government must be as concerned as we all are about these dreadful trends, and that solutions are extremely difficult, if not impossible in some cases. It is particularly concerning, when the world’s attention is diverted to Gaza and Ukraine or whatever the most recent high-profile tragedy happens to be, that many of these cases of Christian persecution go almost unnoticed.

More needs to be done. The UN and other global institutions need to exert much more pressure on countries where abuse and persecution is now endemic. I believe our Government should take a lead, and I hope the Minister agrees that we need to make renewed efforts to harness global support to call out and influence the perpetrators of violence and persecution.

If we are to take a global lead in these matters, as we should, we need to set an example here in our country of tolerance and respect for all who wish to worship and practise their faith, whatever that faith may be. The noble Lord, Lord Moylan, referred to other western countries including Canada and the US where there are increasing concerns. However, there are many Christians here in Britain today who are nervous and fearful of expressing biblical teaching for fear of recrimination, of losing their jobs, of being alienated and ostracised—or cancelled, to use today’s ridiculous jargon. We need to stand firm to defend our Christian freedoms, our ability to promote the Christian gospel. We cannot claim to be a global exemplar if freedom of speech is under threat here. The very thing that we are concerned about globally is at risk in Britain. We must not tolerate intolerance of our freedom to practise Christian faith and values here at home.

Photo of Baroness Cox Baroness Cox Crossbench 8:14, 25 Mawrth 2024

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for initiating this debate on such an important subject and introducing it so powerfully. I will focus on a detailed account of such persecution in two countries which I have visited many times and where I have had the painful privilege of meeting those directly suffering persecution. I will focus first on Nigeria. I am very pleased that it has already been highlighted in this debate because the situation there needs as much attention as possible.

There are almost 103 million Christians in Nigeria, which is almost half the country’s total population of 222 million. In the Muslim-majority north of the country, the proportion of Christians is much lower. This is traditionally where most of the persecution of Christians has happened. It continues to this day and continues to spread south. Such persecution is largely inflicted by Nigerian Islamist Muslims. I emphasise that the majority of Muslims in Nigeria are peaceable Islamic civilians. I make a distinction between “Islamic” and “Islamist”. Islam refers to those widespread and largely peaceful Muslim beliefs. Islamism refers to radical ideology, including movements such as Islamic State West Africa Province which are often associated with violence and persecution.

Those affected by this ideology in Nigeria include Christians living in the northern states that are under the influence of Islamic law. They face discrimination and great pressure as second-class citizens. Also, those who have converted to Christianity from Muslim backgrounds often experience rejection from their own families, violent intimidation and fierce pressure to renounce their new faith. Christians living in vulnerable locations, particularly in the north and central regions of the country, tend to be terrorised with devastating impunity by Islamist militants and armed so-called bandits.

More believers are killed for their faith each year in Nigeria than anywhere else in the world. Men and boys are often specifically targeted, to undermine the growth of Christian families in the future. Women and girls face abduction and sexual violence, with intense pressure, exacerbated by the knowledge that sometimes their communities reject them when they come home, believing that they may have become complicit with the Islamist ideology. The attacks often involve destruction of properties and abduction of civilians for ransom, sexual violence and killings. I have visited many places where civilians have been subjected to these terrorist attacks. I have spoken to families who have witnessed the abduction or killing of their loved ones. I have walked through the burnt remains of villages and seen the remnants of burnt churches, homes and shops. I have talked to shocked and grieving survivors. I will quote just a few of their testimonies verbatim; I have changed their names. Beatrice, aged 25 of Plateau State, said:

“I returned in the morning but everything was burned. I went to my home and saw my mother and siblings butchered and burned”.

Sarah, aged just 14, displaced to Abuja, said:

“We evacuated before the attack. Fulani militia burnt the orphanage and destroyed the crops”.

Janet, mother to four children, from Plateau State, said:

“I found my husband had been killed. I cannot go back to my village. It has been burnt. We are barely managing”.

I could give many more quotations. Christian believers are often stripped of their livelihoods and driven from their homes to survive as displaced people, leaving a trail of grief and trauma.

My small charity, the Humanitarian Aid Relief Trust, works with local in-country partners in places where civilians are subject to persecution—places which are largely unreached by many other aid organisations for political and security reasons. In Nigeria, it is our privilege to work with the Anglican Archbishop of Jos, Benjamin Kwashi. We always ask our partners to identify their priorities for aid. Their priority in the Middle Belt region is a desperate need for educational resources for the thousands of young people driven from their homes by the current military offensives. Without education, they will not have a future.

HART has delivered education supplies for over 6,000 young people. It is a great privilege. I am always profoundly moved by the sheer delight on the faces of young people as educational resources arrive. However, the military offensives and associated dangers persist and the people of Nigeria still suffer from sustained persecution. I will give one or two more examples. The famous kidnapping of the Chibok girls in 2014 did excite some attention but mostly that does not happen. Earlier this month, nearly 200 people were kidnapped in the Kajuru local council territory in central Nigeria, in addition to over 300 people kidnapped this year by suspected Islamist Fulani militia groups freely operating in the region. More than 300 Christian farmers have been killed in the region since January.

The suffering is exacerbated by the major problem of virtually no aid from the Nigerian Government being provided for those suffering persecution. Our local partner, Reverend Canon Hassan John, told us that, for over 10 years, displaced villagers have been forced to rely on aid from local churches or NGOs. He said:

“I can say categorically that there has been very little or no aid, not even from the state or Federal Government of Nigeria … I am not aware of any assistance from the British Government in the central region … In Southern Kaduna state, at least seven communities have [recently] been attacked. Villagers are forced to move onto the next village. None of these villages have received security or humanitarian assistance. Families in neighbouring villages do what they can to absorb and care for their relatives”.

The UK Government have sent much-needed assistance to north-eastern states in Nigeria, where Boko Haram continues to attack and devastate rural areas, but little or nothing has been sent to those suffering persecution in Middle Belt locations, who continue to lose their homes and property and are forced to pay ransom to free their relatives kidnapped by the Islamist Fulani militia groups. They appeal to His Majesty’s Government to urge the Nigerian Government to meet the needs of their civilians, especially in the Middle Belt, who are suffering from killings, abductions and destruction of homes, churches, and clinics, with over 2.5 million forced to flee and live in dire conditions as displaced people.

I turn briefly to my second example: Armenia, the first nation to become Christian. Armenia suffered genocide in the last century and is now suffering sustained Islamist Azerbaijani attacks. I have been there many times; we have seen the people having to flee. The little land of Nagorno-Karabakh, historically ancient Armenia, has now been cleansed of all Armenians—a real case of ethnic cleansing. Armenia is not a big nation to have to take the many people displaced from Nagorno-Karabakh.

I will finish with a quote from one of the bishops:

“It is not only the perpetrators of crime and evil who commit sin, but also those who stand by – seeing and knowing – and who do not condemn it or try to avert it”.

Blessed are the peacemakers, who not only speak words of peace, but make peace, for they shall be called the children of God. I finish with those words, offering them as an inspiring tribute to the theme of this debate, with the focus on people suffering persecution in our world today, while we talk this evening.

Photo of Lord Purvis of Tweed Lord Purvis of Tweed Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (International Trade), Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (International Development), Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs) 8:22, 25 Mawrth 2024

My Lords, I also commend the noble Baroness, Lady Foster, for bringing this debate, with particularly good timing, as she noted, given the religious holiday that is coming up. For billions of people on the planet, this will be a time to celebrate their faith, family and community, but, regrettably, as has been pointed out during this sober debate, with many dreadful statistics of the scale of the issue, too many Christians will not be able to do so in security and will be fearful of persecution.

I commend the Minister for his work on freedom of religion or belief. As he points out regularly in the Chamber, that freedom is also for those without religion or who do not practise belief. He regularly responds with sincerity and passion about the need for people to practise their own private faith, free from state persecution. I commend the FCDO for the work it has done over recent years—not only the global conferences and the convening power of UK diplomats, but also the training of our own staff to be able to identify those areas where there is likely to be persecution and the growth of extremism, because this is also an issue of security and prevention of conflict. At home, also, in recent months, we have had to debate the wholly unacceptable rise of anti-Semitism and Islamophobia; they have no place in modern Britain. They have never had a place in Britain.

My party’s constitution starts with the words:

“we seek to balance the fundamental values of liberty, equality and community, and in which no-one shall be enslaved by poverty, ignorance or conformity”.

As with others in the Chamber during this debate, when we have seen persecution in China, with Christians, Muslims, Buddhists and Falun Gong at risk of persecution, or in Algeria with Christian groups and the Ahmadiyya Muslim community reporting difficulties, or in the Gulf, in Bahrain or Saudi Arabia, we reject the persecution and call them out. More recently, questions in this Chamber have related to concerns that exist within India and Afghanistan, where concerns about Christians, Sikhs and Hazaras have been raised.

Regrettably, the list is too long, because we have also discussed today, at length, the situations in Nigeria and in Eritrea; concerns about the growth of terrorist groups such as Boko Haram—which even has in the words of its title the forbidding of education, which is deeply chilling—and Islamic State in west Africa, which has had at its very heart the persecution of minorities; and the concerns about the impact on the Pentecostal Church and Shia Islam.

I recognise that many sovereign states have established religions. As was pointed out, the UK is no different—the world watched our Head of State being crowned in a religious ceremony, not a civil one. England, not a nation in the UK where I live, has an established Church, which has legislators among its members—we were graced with a contribution today.

There is long-standing anxiety about political Islam, and many communities over centuries have been worried about political Christianity too. We in this country need to have a degree of self-awareness that established Churches have all too often been used by repressive or reactionary political leaders to deny rights rather than to give them. The Minister and his colleagues have done excellent work in the sensitive area of working with countries—some friendly—that still retain apostasy laws, for example, and have denied rights to women and children in the name of religion, often incredibly inaccurately so, as the Minister pointed out.

When I campaigned against the death penalty in Uganda, I was told by the Anglican community there that it would support my work on the condition that I did not campaign for LGBT rights. The Anglican community in the Commonwealth is not a homogenous one. It is worth noting that too many of the examples that we have heard in this debate, and too many of the watch countries highlighted by NGOs and the FCDO, are Commonwealth nations. In too many, progressive reforms can be all too problematic.

In recent weeks and months, we have seen religious political leaders using the faith of their own followers as a political tool, such as the Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church. The Carnegie Endowment said:

“When Russia invaded Ukraine, the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) did not hesitate to throw its support behind the Kremlin’s war against a neighboring Orthodox nation. Far from wavering, that support has only grown more strident as the war progressed”.

The Anglican leader in Rwanda speaks out in favour of the UK immigration agreement, and Anglican leaders in this House speak against it. There is, of course, an element of healthy debate, which needs to be encouraged, but, perhaps now more than for many years, as the noble Lord, Lord Curry, indicated, political leaders are using belief in God as a defence and a motive for repressive actions. It is striking that most who do this are the least godly of all. It gives licence to groups to persecute minorities and for there to be impunity for it.

Of course, it is not new—it is centuries, if not millennia, old—and in some areas we struggle to reconcile the contemporary consequences of such past actions. The racist undertones of British imperial expansion reflected the “three Cs” of colonialism: civilisation, Christianity and commerce. Coming to terms with this is hard; England’s established Church recently rejected its oversight body’s finding that contributing less than 1% over 10 years of its endowment funds which were originally based on the proceeds of exploiting enslaved people was too little over too long a timeframe.

None of this historical reflection, or indeed how contemporary political leaders are abusing faith for political and corrupt ends, can defend or excuse the persecution of Christian people seeking to practise their own faith. I support their ability to do that unflinchingly.

Given the Private Member’s Bill to establish a statutory envoy, can the Minister assure the House that there will be enough time in both Houses to see this on to the statute book? Are the Government seeking amendments to widen its scope and capacity?

I close by reflecting on one point. The noble Baroness indicated that the persecution of Christians is far too underreported, and no doubt she is absolutely right, but given the context of the Middle East and what is happening in Gaza and Israel, this is a personal comment from my friend, Layla Moran, whose mother is a Christian Arab from Jerusalem and who has family members seeking shelter in the Holy Family Church in Gaza. She said:

“I am on the side of basic humanity … I am on the side of the Israeli community, the Palestinian community and the Jewish, Muslim and Christian communities”.—[Official Report, Commons, 25/10/23; col. 913.]

Protecting people’s ability to practise their faith should be an element of basic humanity.

Photo of Baroness Sherlock Baroness Sherlock Shadow Spokesperson (Work and Pensions) 8:29, 25 Mawrth 2024

My Lords, I add my thanks to the noble Baroness, Lady Foster, for securing this debate and introducing it so comprehensibly, and to all noble Lords who have spoken.

We on these Benches are absolutely committed to the importance of promoting and protecting freedom of religion or belief for all. Since that was questioned as a framework for this debate, it is worth returning to Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which could not be clearer that:

“Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion”, including the freedom to change their religion and the right to manifest it. Despite that clarity, as the noble Lord, Lord Alton, pointed out, violations of these rights happen daily. I was very grateful to the noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, for his candour in saying that he was simply not aware of the scale of persecution of Christians; that feels like something that other noble Lords have mentioned and probably goes further than just him. Listening to the description of the watch-list showing that 365 million Christians worldwide are not simply being given a hard time but face

“high levels of persecution and discrimination for their faith” should give us all pause for thought.

We are in the season where many of the world’s major faiths have a focus, and it feels particularly poignant that we are having this debate in Holy Week, when most western churches mark the events leading up to the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ. I should declare as an interest that I am an ordained minister in the established Church of England. When I go freely to church on Easter morning to celebrate the resurrection, it will be an occasion of great joy, so it is deeply painful that one in seven Christians globally will be unable to go to church to mark the resurrection or will do so at great personal risk. That should be a cause for concern to all people of good will, whatever their faith.

The sheer global scale of the persecution of Christians was underscored in the latest annual report on international religious freedom from the Pew Research Center in the US. It assessed 198 countries and found that Christians were harassed by Governments or private actors in 160 of them in 2021. This reflects that sheer global scale; it was noted in the Truro report that, as perhaps the single biggest genuinely global religion, Christianity becomes something of a bellwether for oppression more generally. There are two reasons for this debate to be important. One is to inform those who, like the noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, do not know about the scale of the persecution of Christians, but the other is that if Christians are being persecuted, so are other people. I was very grateful to the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Oxford for making it clear that Christians standing up and talking about the persecution of Christians are not doing so because they are Christians; they are doing so because they are being persecuted. It is hard to justify that theologically in anybody’s book.

Particular countries of concern have been mentioned: North Korea is still ranked as the most dangerous place in the world to be a Christian; China and Pakistan were both mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Alton; the noble Baroness, Lady Foster, and the noble Lord, Lord Curry, mentioned India; Laos has jumped 10 places to 21st in the watch-list; Cuba and Mexico have been flagged up by Christian Solidarity Worldwide; and Nigeria, raised by the noble Lord, Lord Alton, and the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, and others, is a source of considerable concern when the best part of 5,000 Christians have been murdered there for their faith. There are also issues, as the noble Baroness, Lady Foster, said, elsewhere in sub-Saharan Africa; there have been deaths in the DRC, Burkina Faso, Cameroon and the CAR, and many Christians have been displaced in that region. Can the Minister tell us how the Government view this region and what they are doing to speak into the situation there?

A number of noble Lords including the noble Lord, Lord Curry, referred to the Truro report. Where the Government have credible evidence of severe violations of freedom of religion or belief, the Truro process requires the Foreign Secretary to consider whether to impose sanctions on the perpetrators. We have had sanctions imposed on individuals and entities in Myanmar and North Korea. Can the Minister update the House on whether any sanctions have been imposed recently on additional countries?

On the positive side, on a visit to Washington a few weeks ago, I had a meeting with Ambassador Rashad Hussain, the United States Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom and was very impressed to hear of the work that he and his team are doing. Given the Minister’s extensive interest and work in this area, could he update the House on what transatlantic partnership working is being done in this important area?

The noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, raised the question of trade deals. One way to hold different nations to account over their human rights and FoRB violations is to include human rights clauses in trade agreements that the UK is negotiating. Can the Minister update the House on whether, and if so how, the FCDO’s important work on human rights and FoRB is being reflected in our trade negotiations?

I welcome the Government’s initiatives to put this issue centre stage globally. We can all in this House agree on the important role that freedom of religious belief can play in tackling extremism and promoting democracy. Although today’s debate has focused on the important issue of persecution of Christians, sadly, as many noble Lords have noted, Christians are not alone in experiencing persecution. The Pew research found that Christians and Muslims face harassment in a larger number of countries than any other group, but that is a measure of scale rather than specifically depth of persecution. Other religious minorities are facing persecution at a frightening rate across the world; and I agree that we should not conclude without acknowledging the position of the non-religious, since the right not to practise a religion, or to abandon or change one’s religion, is just as fundamental and absolutely central to Article 18. We should be championing freedom of religion or belief for all around the world.

In closing, I pay tribute to all those noble Lords, many of whom have spoken this evening, who have spent years dedicatedly highlighting instances of persecution on grounds of religion and belief around the world. I also thank the many organisations in the field, including Open Doors and Christian Solidarity Worldwide, as well as Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and all those whose staff and volunteers take risks so that we may get to hear about things that we would otherwise not hear about.

History has shown us that violations of freedom of religion or belief do not happen in isolation. Countries that fail to respect religious freedom or the right to no belief invariably fail to respect other basic human rights also. The UK must continue to call out human rights violations and abuses wherever they are to be found if we are to play our part in ensuring a free world where all can flourish. It is a reminder to us of the paramount importance of tackling persecution around the world but also of tackling hate incidents in our own place. This includes tackling anti-Semitism, Islamophobia and, above all, working together to be the kind of country where people of all faiths and none can live well together, respect one another and build a world in which, as I said, all of us can flourish. I look forward to the Minister’s reply.

Photo of Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Minister of State (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office) 8:37, 25 Mawrth 2024

My Lords, I join the chorus of thanks to my noble friend Lady Foster for initiating this debate, and I thank all noble Lords for their very insightful contributions.

Many noble Lords talked about the significance of Holy Week, and about other faiths as well. As a Muslim myself, I have already mentioned to my dear colleague on the Front Bench how, no sooner had I opened my fast for Ramadan—no sooner had I taken a date and a swig of water—than I was summoned to the Chamber. The insightful and detailed nature of what we have heard today is reflective of the depth of interest on an issue that I myself regard as a key priority, not just as a Minister but at a very personal level. Before I go into details, I will say that I was intrigued when my noble friend Lord Moylan described—I think I am paraphrasing him correctly—that there are few innovations in the UK that do not come across the pond from the US. As someone who had just opened his fast, the words “chicken tikka masala” immediately came to mind.

On the important issue of freedom of religion or belief, I share in what many noble Lords have said. Whether you are a practising Christian, Muslim or from any faith in our incredible country, the real test of your own faith is not just defending your own but standing up for the rights and beliefs of those of other faiths or, indeed, no faith. It is an incumbent and fundamental human right.

Across the world, the abuse and violation of the right to freedom of religion or belief is deeply concerning. Indeed, as my noble friend Lady Foster said, it is shocking. The noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, talked about things not being known. Sometimes it is the unsaid that needs to be said, and Christian persecution is reflective of exactly what needs to be said.

As someone who is an Ahmadi Muslim, I was called in by the then Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt, who asked me about the persecution of communities: “Tariq, what do you think about having a report looking at Christian persecution?” Quick as a flash, I said, “Of course, Jeremy; it needs to be done”. Wherever we see Christians persecuted around the world, other communities are equally persecuted.

On the question of scale and diversity, the noble Baroness, Lady Sherlock, mentioned North Korea, and I agree with her. There are other areas, such as the Roman Catholic Church in Nicaragua, for example. Sadly, these are just a few examples of places where Christians are persecuted.

On the recent Open Doors World Watch List report, which the noble Baroness and many noble Lords mentioned, I was pleased to attend the launch event, as was acknowledged. There, we again heard the startling and shocking statistic of one in seven Christians being persecuted worldwide. Last year alone, 5,000 Christians were murdered—these are just the accounted for numbers. This is the reason we must continue to challenge violations and abuses wherever they occur. I assure all noble Lords that we are very much seized of this as a Government, and I will illustrate some of the detail in the short time I have. On the questions I do not answer, I will write to noble Lords in more detail.

My noble friend Lord Moylan said that the central message is to never take your eye off the ball. Persecution can happen any time, anywhere, and we need to remain vigilant, whether it is in the east, west or anywhere across the globe. The UK Government are firm in our position that no one should be persecuted, abused or intimidated because of their faith, religion or belief. The noble Lord, Lord Curry, rightly talked about Christians protecting all. I say to the noble Lord that that is reflective of all faiths and their protection of other faiths. Protecting and promoting this fundamental human right has been a long-standing commitment of the Government—indeed, of successive Governments in which I have had an opportunity to serve.

We demonstrated the depth of our commitment two years ago, when, together with the Prime Minister’s special envoy for freedom of religion or belief, I hosted an international ministerial conference. At that conference, we brought together over 800 faith and belief leaders and human rights actors, and 100 government delegations, to agree on a plan to promote and protect FoRB. Since the conference, we have taken several actions to build on the momentum. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Purvis, for his kind remarks, both about the work of the Government and my personal commitment. I agree that we must continue to act in a very focused manner on this.

The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Oxford talked about essential human rights and reflecting on our own country and the rising tide of attacks on different faiths, Islamophobia and anti-Semitism. As was rightly coined, we should be intolerant of religious intolerance.

We are strengthening international coalitions within FoRB. The noble Baroness, Lady Sherlock, asked about our work with the United States. I have a small personal anecdote. The then ambassador for freedom of religion Sam Brownback, who is well-known to the noble Lord, Lord Alton, asked me to have a meeting with him and one other individual in the US mission. That is where the International Religious Freedom or Belief Alliance was born. He asked me whether the UK would support it and I said that of course we would. Freedom of religion or belief remains a priority in our multilateral work.

We underlined our commitment on the national pledge to mark December’s anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. We regularly raise situations of concern at the UN Human Rights Council. Just a few weeks ago, we raised the plight of the Baha’i community in Yemen and Iran, the Ahmadi Muslims and Christians in Pakistan, and the Roman Catholic Church in Nicaragua, during an interactive dialogue with the UN special rapporteur. We hold states accountable for their obligations though the UN’s universal periodic review. In January, we were an active participant, when we focused on Nigeria.

There are other positive actions we are taking in different parts of the world. The Middle East was mentioned. While there are challenges in a number of countries, including Iraq and Iran, there is a positive element of the work that we do. Last June, we led a resolution at the UN Security Council, with the UAE, on tolerance and international peace and security, which was unanimously adopted for the first time. It directly addressed the persecution of religious minorities in conflict settings. After the global conference, we pledged to build coalitions to boost global efforts.

I commend my dear friend Fiona Bruce MP for her work and dedication in serving two consecutive terms as chair of the International Religious Freedom or Belief Alliance. Indeed, the FoRB role predated the Truro review. I had the honour to lead on it, as the first FoRB envoy, under the then Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson and then Prime Minister Theresa May. The Government are fully supportive of Fiona Bruce’s Private Member’s Bill. She has had that assurance from me several times privately, as well as publicly. I am delighted that my dear friend is watching carefully from the Gallery. Earlier this month, I was pleased to meet with both my honourable friend and the new chair of the alliance, Ambassador Robert Řehák of the Czech Republic. This network has now extended to 42 counties and has published numerous statements on persecuted religious minorities, including one last year on Christians, covering countries such as Nigeria and Myanmar. I know that these are a focus and interest of the noble Lord, Lord Alton, and the noble Baroness, Lady Cox.

When she was the chair of the international alliance, the special envoy established a scheme to raise awareness each month of different prisoners of conscience. Last year, we saw the release of Hanna Abdimalik, a Christian in Somaliland, and Shamil Khakimov, a Jehovah’s Witness in Tajikistan. Again, I pay tribute to the work of Fiona Bruce MP and that of the wider alliance in this respect.

On bilateral action, we do not shy away from challenging those not meeting their obligations. We have heard already from the noble Baroness, Lady Foster, in introducing the debate, about the challenges faced across the Middle East. I am reminded that I have raised in my interactions with Israeli interlocutors the importance of Jerusalem to the three Abrahamic faiths. During the current crisis, I have been in regular touch, including with imams and the Archbishop of Jerusalem. I pay tribute to his work.

The UK Government strongly condemn the violence faced by religious minorities in Pakistan. I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Alton, and to the honourable gentleman Jim Shannon, for raising the persecution of the Christian community in Jaranwala, in Punjab. During the most violent attack of recent years, mobs burned churches and attacked Christians’ homes. The Foreign Secretary raised the persecution of Christian communities directly with then Prime Minister Kakar. The noble Lord, Lord Alton, asked when we last raised the issue of religious persecution with Pakistan. I did so only last week, with the visit of its new Foreign Minister, Ishaq Dar. I also regularly raise concerns about the attacks on marginalised religious communities with the high commissioners of different countries, including Pakistan’s.

The UK regularly raises the issue of insecurity and its impact with the Nigerian Government. We heard from the noble Lords, Lord Purvis and Lord Alton, and the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, on various issues relating to minorities. I assure the noble Lord that we remain much seized of the case of Leah Sharibu.

India and China were raised. The noble Lord, Lord Alton, knows that our focus is on the Uighur Muslims. The noble Baroness, Lady Foster, the noble Lord, Lord Curry, and the noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, raised issues concerning India. On a recent visit there, I had a direct discussion with the Indian Home Minister, particularly about Manipur.

I am conscious that I have only about a minute and a half left. I assure all noble Lords that the reports from the Bishop of Truro have been embedded; 22 recommendations were made some years ago, after an independent review of our work. Implementing the recommendations has been largely positive; it was assessed that most recommendations were at an advanced stage of delivery or in the process of being delivered. In the interests of time, I shall write a letter on the detail of where we have progressed on the 22 recommendations and lay it in the Library.

I assure noble Lords that every recommendation, including on training and on the permanence of the FoRB envoy’s role, is embedded in our work. The FoRB envoy has hosted a series of round tables, including focus on areas such as Nigeria, Pakistan, Iran and Myanmar. Just last week, she brought together many committed FoRB advocates for a reception at the FCDO.

I assure noble Lords that we remain committed to the key priorities of raising the issues of Christian persecution. We marked Red Wednesday by lighting up the department’s UK-based buildings. I commend the hosting in Parliament by the FoRB envoy of Margaret Attah, survivor of a terrorist attack on St Francis Xavier church in Owo, Nigeria.

To conclude, this has been a short but important debate, focused directly on the issue of Christian persecution. As I said, it is an issue of which the Government are seized. Freedom of religion or belief must remain on the international agenda, and we continue to work with our international partners to forge a united approach to protecting and promoting not only freedom of religion but all human rights.

I end with the words of Jesus, who said, at John 13:34:

“I give you a new commandment: love one another. Just as I have loved you, you must also love one another”.

House adjourned at 8.50 pm.