Christians: Persecution - Question for Short Debate

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords am 8:29 pm ar 25 Mawrth 2024.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

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.