Christians: Persecution - Question for Short Debate

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords am 8:22 pm ar 25 Mawrth 2024.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

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.