The vital right of freedom of religion or belief

I put on record my thanks to all the hon. Members who are here today, as well as to the Minister—who I spoke to yesterday, and has spoken to me before—for their interest in the vital right of freedom of religion or belief. That right is close to my heart, and I am sure it is close to the heart of all those who are present. Many other Members would have liked to have been here, but we took this date when it was offered to us on short notice, and that unfortunately meant a clash in the diary of many other right hon. and hon. Members who wished to be here. Those of us who are present will carry the flag and speak out. I declare an interest: I have the privilege to chair both the all-party parliamentary group for international freedom of religion or belief and the all-party parliamentary group for the Pakistani minorities.

I thank the Backbench Business Committee for having granted this important debate. I initially applied for this debate back at the end of October so that it would coincide with international freedom of religion or belief day, but it had to be postponed due to the general election, so I thank the Committee for having persevered and found time for it today. Unfortunately, the problems we were to discuss back in November have not gone away, and in some cases they have gotten even worse.

For example, in January, I had the privilege of attending the launch of Open Doors’ “World Watch List” report, which highlights the persecution faced by Christians around the world. That report paints a grim picture of a worsening situation for Christians, with 260 million—an increase of 15 million since 2019—living in countries where there is a risk of high, very high or extreme levels of persecution. The report cites many other concerning statistics, such as 5,500 churches shut down in China over the past year, and at least 1,445 physical attacks and death threats against Christians in India during 2019.

That terrible state of affairs is why I welcome the Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s commitment to supporting persecuted Christians. I put on record my thanks to the Minister and his Department, as well as previous Ministers, for that commitment. I also thank the Minister, the special envoy for freedom of religion and belief, the hon. Member for Gillingham and Rainham (Rehman Chishti), and the FORB team for all they are doing to improve the situation. Many of us recognise that the Government have given that commitment, and we all welcome their generosity, commitment and time. Can the Minister update us on that work?

Will the Minister also inform hon. Members about the progress being made in implementing the recommendations of the Bishop of Truro’s report? In particular, I would ​like to know what progress has been made to improve training on FORB, and to make that training mandatory for Government officials working in countries with high levels of FORB violations. After all, how can we say sincerely that we care about freedom of religion or belief, that we recognise the tremendous suffering that people are experiencing because of denial of that freedom, and that we understand that FORB violations can cause and exacerbate conflict, but then turn around and say that we still do not know whether it is important enough to have mandatory training? We need to know that that mandatory training is in place and is having an impact. I urge the Minister to ensure that this training and the other helpful recommendations made in the Bishop of Truro’s report are implemented for the benefit of persecuted Christians the world over.

I will first speak about one particular case. This debate is about freedom of religion or belief, so I will talk about a number of faiths across the world, but I will begin with Christians, specifically Christians in Nigeria. Earlier today, I had the opportunity to meet some people from the International Organization for Peace Building and Social Justice, including Pastor Ayo and his private secretary, a fellow called John Candia. They gave me some details and information about what is happening in Nigeria. I pray; I am a committed Christian, and I have deep Christian beliefs, which focus my attention and my life on where we go. However, I also believe that as a Christian I have a duty and a love for all people of all religions in this world, and with that in mind I will speak up for each and every one of them.

Yes, what is happening in Nigeria is perhaps a wee bit uncertain. The conflict involving the Fulani herdsmen, they would say, is to do with land and climate change. However, with respect to the hon. Gentleman, there are indications that there are more attacks on Christians than on anyone else. That does not lessen what is happening, but it indicates to me that there are many attacks on Christians across the whole of Nigeria.

To mention just a few of those attacks, there were five major attacks against Nigerian Christians in Kaduna state between January and November 2019, resulting in an estimated 500 deaths. There were at least another five attacks in Bassa and Riyom local government areas, as well as many attacks in Taraba state. Boko Haram remains in power around the Chad border region, including parts of Borno state. Some 1,000 Christians have been slaughtered in north-eastern Nigeria since January 2019, ​in addition to the over 6,000 deaths since 2015. I will talk about some of those attacks to illustrate how horrific they are.

Veronica, 35, from Dogon Noma recounted some of the awful attacks inflicted on her family. Her home was attacked by Fulani militia, and only she and three others survived; 13 of her friends and family were killed. Naomi, 54, from Karamai lost limbs in a brutal attack on her home, in which her elderly and fragile father was shot in his bed. In Ta’aziya’s village, almost 50 people were killed and only two homes were not burnt down. Pastors and leaders have said:

“Boko Haram might launch an attack at any time…this morning at 4am, they arrived with bombs. They focus their attacks on Christians.”

Whatever the other reasons may be, that is clearly what they are about.

“They kill farmers. They destroy our homes and churches. They kidnap and rape women. Some women are forced to marry Muslims. Boko Haram also attack Government properties and the police. No one can go beyond five kilometres from town.”

I want to ask five questions of the Minister, if I can. First, in the light of the Nigerian Government’s admission that Christians are being targeted in northern Nigeria, will the British Government move a UN resolution to send in peacekeeping forces to protect vulnerable communities and citizens in Nigeria? Secondly, will the UK renew its offer to assist in the search and rescue of Leah Sharibu, an ISIS captive for two years now, and others abducted and enslaved in Nigeria? Alongside Baroness Cox from the other place, my colleague the hon. Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) and others, I had the pleasure of meeting Leah Sharibu’s mother Rebecca and her friend Gloria in this House, so I know how important this is for her.

My next question is: will the UK Government focus more or most of its international development aid on Nigeria to assist the victims and protect the vulnerable from Nigeria’s insecurity crisis? Will they use a large percentage of their aid budget to Nigeria to provide more direct assistance to internally displaced persons who live in poor conditions and to enhance security ​provision for vulnerable communities and people, including the Christian communities in the north-east and middle belt where they have been particularly targeted, by the Nigerian Government’s own admission?

Finally, given the Prime Minister’s call for increased post-Brexit trade and investments in Nigeria, in which the Prime Minister’s trade envoy, the hon. Member for Henley (John Howell), will be interested, what security advice and warnings are the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Department for International Trade offering to British investors? Those are all important issues.

Excerpt from Westminster Hall Debate on 12th March, click here to see the whole debate on Hansard.

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