Christians: Persecution - Question for Short Debate

Part of the 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

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.