Christians: Persecution - Question for Short Debate

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords am 8:01 pm ar 25 Mawrth 2024.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

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?