Speaking in the House of Parliament recently Fiona Bruce MP said:
"I beg to move,
That this House has considered the effect of the covid-19 pandemic on freedom of religion or belief.
It is a genuine pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Rosindell. Yesterday, 25 November, the world marked Red Wednesday, whose purpose is to draw attention to the plight of those who are persecuted for their religion and beliefs, and the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women. To mark them, the all-party parliamentary group for international freedom of religion or belief tabled early day motion 1179. I thank colleagues who have already signed it, and I ask others please to do so. In that EDM, we urge the Government and the international community to act to mitigate the impact that covid-19 has had on vulnerable minority communities globally and on women and girls from them, who are doubly discriminated against because of their gender and their beliefs.
The chair of our all-party parliamentary group, the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) led the call along with the hon. Member for Glasgow East (David Linden) to secure this debate. We thank the Backbench Business Committee for giving us time. The hon. Member for Strangford is unable to be with us today, and his compassionate voice will be much missed during this debate. As a vice-chair of the all-party parliamentary group, I am sure I speak on behalf of many of us when I express the most sincere thanks to him for his dedicated work for the persecuted.
I aim to highlight with examples from around the world how, tragically, both Government and non-state actors have exploited this global health crisis to violate human rights, and in particular the right to freedom of religion or belief. I will show how living conditions have worsened for those who are detained, whether in prison or as refugees, on account of their conscience. I aim to illustrate that the distribution of aid and humanitarian relief is often biased or withheld from those with minority beliefs, and I will speak of the spread of misinformation targeting minority religious or belief communities. There is clear evidence of an increase in violence, both domestic and more widely, affecting those with particular beliefs. I will demonstrate how, in other ways, the right to worship and manifest faith or belief has been curtailed.
All that illustrates how important it is for our Government to be vigilant in pressing others to uphold human rights and fundamental freedoms during this pandemic, including in particular the freedom of religion or belief. I look forward to hearing from the Minister how the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office in particular is doing so.
In countries around the world, many marginalised religious and belief communities have faced intensified discrimination since the outbreak of covid-19. According to the UN special rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief,
“Antisemitic hate speech has risen alarmingly since the outbreak of the COVID-19 crisis”.
Many faith communities have even been blamed for the virus. The BBC reported that in Somalia, the Islamic extremist group al-Shabaab is warning Muslims that Christians are transmitters of the disease. Such messaging is terrifying for the handful of Christians there who are already forced to practise their faith in secrecy for fear of their lives.
In India, Muslims faced accusations that they were deliberately spreading the virus and a campaign of Islamophobia, in which Muslims were labelled bio-terrorists and corona-jihadists ensued, leading to many instances of violence and discrimination against Muslims. For Christians in India, too, life has become more difficult during the pandemic, on top of a serious increase in anti-Christian violence over the last few years—I see the hon. Member for Glasgow East nodding—particularly but not exclusively in Uttar Pradesh.
We hear of problems in India of mob vigilantism, violence and surveillance of home churches by non-state actors. I thank the Backbench Business Committee, which has already approved a separate debate on the persecution of Muslims, Christians and other minority groups in India. I hope that parliamentary time will be found for that much-needed debate very soon.
The scapegoating of minorities during this pandemic is a truly global problem. According to the Institute of Development Studies:
“In a significant amount of the nations which have encountered outbreaks of the novel coronavirus, politicians and opinion leaders have openly condemned religious minority populations under the guise of epidemiological containment, through hateful messages on social media, public speeches and official policies.”
That scapegoating has contributed to the many reports of individuals from these communities around the world being attacked, denied aid or otherwise prevented from accessing life-saving humanitarian interventions.
Accounts of discrimination in food distribution and the biased distribution of humanitarian relief materials are widespread. Alliance Defending Freedom International reports from the Gulf region that people have become so desperate that they are forced to trade their religion for food—they are forced to convert to Islam for just one sack of flour.
In Iraq, there are reports of Christian communities being the last to get necessary food and medical supplies. In Pakistan, there have been reports of non-governmental organisations denying food and aid to Hindus and Christians, or serving only them after Muslims have been served. Some members of the ethnic and religious minority Hazara group in Pakistan have claimed that they need to disguise themselves if they hope to receive medical treatment or testing.
One of the problems is that where national Government aid is being distributed by local groups or where foreign organisations use local staff at the frontline of aid distribution, discrimination against minorities can occur at that point, regardless of the foreign organisation’s central anti-discrimination policies. It is important that our Government do what they can to call for mechanisms to be put in place to ensure that religious minorities at the frontline of aid distribution, particularly UK aid distribution, do not face additional discrimination because of their faith.
Certain states have also utilised the covid-19 outbreak as an excuse to intensify persecution of marginalised communities, and not only through church closures. In Uganda, there are reports that the Government’s response to covid-19 has systematically excluded religious minority groups, by allowing only certain major religions to attend consultative meetings on the coronavirus response.
China has increased its interference and surveillance of Tibetan Buddhists, under the pretence of attempting to tackle the coronavirus, even using contact tracing apps to monitor every movement of Tibetan citizens. Also in China, where the clampdown on freedom of worship over recent years has been alarming, the pandemic has sadly given an opportunity for state surveillance of religious worship by minorities to increase. Some church members who tried to meet for online worship were detained and had police stationed at their homes to prevent them from joining online services.
I turn to the plight of refugees and internally displaced persons. Many already live in overcrowded conditions, rendering them particularly vulnerable in the event of an outbreak of covid-19. Many are from religious communities who have experienced rights violations that occasioned their displacement and internment in the first place, such as the ethnic minorities who fled Burma’s decades-long years of conflict.
Covid-19 has reached the Rohingya refugee camps on the Bangladesh-Burma border, leading aid organisations to warn of an impending humanitarian disaster. First-hand observations by CSW—Christian Solidarity Worldwide—in the Rohingya refugee camps confirm that social distancing, self-isolation and even regular handwashing are an impossibility.
Elsewhere, the pandemic has highlighted failings in legal systems and criminal proceedings, and has underlined the degree to which religious discrimination can be institutionalised in some legal systems. In Sudan, for example, the legal system all but ground to a halt on account of the virus. Cases involving church leaders and church property, which were already proceeding slowly, faced further delays. Overcrowding in prisons during the pandemic has posed an additional threat to the welfare of inmates. A large number of prisoners are in Evin prison in Tehran, where conditions are overcrowded and unsanitary, and where prisoners have contracted the virus.
Eritrea is of particular concern; there, a stringent covid-19-related lockdown, enforced with violence by the armed forces, has provided the Government with an additional means of curtailing freedom of movement, which was already restricted. Tens of thousands of prisoners of conscience there, including long-standing Jehovah’s Witness detainees, are held in unsanitary, ill-equipped and life-threatening conditions, where insufficient access to water, food or medical facilities makes their plight desperate. An appeal by the UN special rapporteur for Eritrea for low-risk offenders and vulnerable prisoners to be released was rebuffed.
Although information from North Korea is difficult to obtain—I have the privilege of having been co-chair of the all-party parliamentary group on North Korea for some years now—last week there were disturbing reports about North Koreans with covid-19 being left to die in so-called quarantine camps. The full impact of covid in North Korea remains unknown, but we should not underestimate it, given that country’s virtually complete lack of respect for human rights, its limited health system and its concentration camps housing thousands of prisoners of conscience—all of which coincides with North Korea’s having suffered substantial food shortages this year.
The all-party group is currently conducting an inquiry into human rights violations in North Korea as a follow-up to the UN commission of inquiry of 2014. There is an opportunity to contribute to it through our website, appgnorthkoreainquiry.com, and submissions would be most welcome, particularly in the light of the limited information on the impact of the pandemic in North Korea.
Elsewhere across the world, it is clear that the pandemic has led to discrimination in employment. Open Doors reports having been told of Christian nurses being deliberately assigned coronavirus cases. When India went into lockdown to combat the coronavirus crisis, hundreds of thousands lost their jobs overnight. Many usually work as daily labourers and earn each day what they need to survive; without the day’s income they have no money to buy food.
Many work as sanitation workers. They are often from the Dalit community, which is the most neglected and marginalised in India—indeed, I would say, virtually in the world; it is heart-rending to hear how some of them can only come out at night. Their work involves great health risks, collecting waste, emptying sewage and cleaning the streets. We hear via Open Doors from Hyderabad how these people face a serious predicament and are putting their lives at risk, with even women sanitation workers performing these sanitation tasks without gloves, protective masks or even shoes, and often working by hand.
There is no financial safety net or furloughing scheme in India. Official aid is nowhere near enough for the people who need it and, sadly, Christians are often last in line for essential covid aid and food because of their faith. However difficult the pandemic has been in this country, these reports—I thank in particular CSW and Open Doors for their reliable and often first-hand accounts—show that the difficulties in other countries are further exacerbated for the vulnerable, minorities and women.
There is a second debate this afternoon on international development and gender-based violence, so I will not take any further time from other colleagues in this debate by focusing on it now. Suffice it to say that reports in The Lancet indicate that domestic violence against women and girls has increased by as much as 30% in some countries during the pandemic. This huge increase in domestic violence has led to several reports of women from minority communities, such as Yazidis, taking their lives.
Tragically, that increase in violence is by no means restricted to domestic situations during the lockdown. In Nigeria, villagers in Kaduna state and Plateau state were obeying state directives to stay in their homes to prevent the spread of the virus. Sadly, that made them even more vulnerable targets for attack than they were before the pandemic, because they effectively became sitting targets. Fulani militants have carried out multiple raids on villages, and there are reports that Christians have been killed. Christians believe that the militants are taking advantage of the pandemic to uproot them from the area, and although they have made efforts to alert security agents to the attacks, nothing has been done to prevent them. Once again, I call on the Government actively to address the concerns and recommendations of our all-party group’s report “Nigeria: Unfolding Genocide”, which was published earlier this year.
I look forward to colleagues’ contributions. Before I conclude, in the light of this debate, I ask the Minister to reflect on recommendation 21 of the Bishop of Truro’s report, about which I have spoken in a number of debates over recent years. The report highlights the importance of recognising the negative consequences of what he refers to as a “need not creed” mantra; of rejecting that mantra; and of the negative consequences of our aid being “religion-blind”.
Will the Minister consider the importance of challenging international partners to ensure that disinformation is combated; that there is access to justice; that where religious communities are attacked, there is accountability; that any emergency powers are proportionate; and—during this unprecedented crisis, now more than ever—that the needs of, and pressures on, religious minorities are taken into account, not ignored?"