This week in Parliament Fiona contributed to a debate on the Persecution of Christians and Freedom of Religion or Belief. The debate was called to coincide with Red Wednesday, a day that highlights Christian persecution as well as the injustices perpetrated against other faith groups.
"I welcome the Minister to his place, particularly knowing as I do his strong personal commitment to humanitarian aid provision over many years, not least from his time as Secretary of State for International Development, when I was privileged to serve on the International Development Committee, but also from our many summer recesses of volunteering when we both enjoyed the Umubano projects in Rwanda and Burundi. I know his commitment is real, and I look forward to working with him equally constructively in my role as the Prime Minister’s special envoy for freedom of religion or belief. It is very much with a constructive approach that I look at today’s debate.
My mandate, as stated on the Foreign Office website, is threefold: to bring together UK efforts to promote freedom of religion or belief; to work with the International Religious Freedom or Belief Alliance to raise awareness of cases of persecuted individuals; and to support the implementation of the Bishop of Truro’s recommendations, which support not just Christians persecuted for their faith, but freedom of religion or belief for all.
It is always with mixed sentiments that I speak at the annual Red Wednesday debate on the persecution of Christians. It is a privilege to thank the dedicated non-governmental organisations that support those who are suffering simply on account of what they believe. However, year on year, global persecution is rising across faiths and beliefs, and Christians are no exception, as we have heard. The report published yesterday by Aid to the Church in Need, “Persecuted and Forgotten?”, highlights the increase in persecution and notes that Christians are the most widely persecuted faith group in the world.
It is encouraging, however, that Governments across the world increasingly recognise the importance of engaging with freedom of religion or belief as a means of promoting world stability and security, and that across the world, more and more people and organisations are working together. Newly appointed envoys from different countries, ambassadors for freedom of religion or belief, academics, experts, NGOs, countries, people at the UN and the special rapporteur are working collaboratively together globally.
For example, this month the countries in the International Religious Freedom or Belief Alliance are campaigning against blasphemy laws—some involve the death penalty—which penalise people simply for practising their faith. We have timed that to reinforce work at the UN General Assembly on a global moratorium on the death penalty. It is also encouraging that the International Religious Freedom or Belief Alliance, which I have the privilege of chairing this year, has grown to 42 countries. It started formally only in spring 2020, with a handful of countries, and now countries are joining almost every other month. Our collective voice is far louder than each individual voice alone.
It is increasingly recognised that religious differences are the cause of much violence and terror across the world, and in turn of insecurity and poverty. I hope that the Minister, who is new to his post, will also recognise that fact, not least with regard to what is happening in Nigeria today. We must engage with that, including in decisions on humanitarian aid spend.
This week, Bishop Jude Arogundade is visiting the UK from Owo in Nigeria. It was at the church in his diocese, St Francis Xavier, where 40 were killed on Pentecost Sunday. The youngest was two years old. Yesterday, he described for us the scene of carnage that met him as he entered his church. Tragically, however, that was not an isolated incident. Right across many states in Nigeria today, Fulani jihadists—Islamic extremists —are kidnapping, ransoming and killing clergy, abducting school students, forcibly converting, raping and marrying Christian girls, seizing land and obliterating villages. They are killing whole communities and then renaming their land. They are dispossessing thousands, who flee to live in informal camps for internally displaced people. Those are not camps with UN support; they are often camps supported by NGOs. Hunger, thirst, fear and lack of shelter are rife there. I heard just this week of how two teenage boys who were hungry risked leaving the IDP camp to try to fish for food. Their bodies were returned; their heads had been split open like melons with machetes.
Time precludes me from providing more accounts of the multiple atrocities happening in Nigeria. I will send the Minister documentation that I have received for this debate, including from Dr Richard Ikiebe of the Pan-Atlantic University, ACN, Baroness Cox, Open Doors and the director of advocacy at Open Doors, Dr David Landrum, who visited just two weeks ago. He tells me that atrocities are happening not just daily but hourly. That cannot just be explained by climate change and a fight over grazing land. As Dr Landrum told me, it is happening now in the forests and the jungles. The kidnapping of the Chibok schoolgirls in 2014 had nothing to do with the fight over land, and nor did the abduction, ransoming or disappearance of thousands of school children, such as Leah Sharibu. Bishop Jude told us:“The massacre at St Francis Catholic Church Owo has nothing to do with climate change.”
We need to recognise—I implore the Minister to do so today—that religious differences have everything to do with this violence and, indeed, are the key root cause of the atrocities occurring in so many states across Nigeria. Aid to the Church in Need states: “In Africa the state of Christians has worsened in all countries reviewed amid a sharp rise in genocidal violence from militant non-state actors, including Jihadists.”
Will the Minister meet me and others to discuss how we can address that? Addressing religious differences now needs to be a priority in our decision making. The bilateral official development assistance spend in Nigeria in 2021-22 was more than £100 million.
Other Governments are recognising the importance of promoting religious cohesion and putting real funds behind their commitment. That is why I say that I want to be constructive in making some suggestions. The Netherlands, for example, is funding projects in Nigeria’s Kaduna and Plateau states, whereby young Christians and Muslims have worked collaboratively on projects such as one to get more electricity into their communities—and it has worked. Not only has that joint working promoted understanding and cohesion, but the women and young people who use sewing machines to produce clothes for their livelihoods can now work longer hours because of the available electricity. That is just one of many projects where joint working across religious communities can build trust.
How can the UK engage in such a way? That is vital, because Nigeria is a huge country with more than 200 million people. As a result of the violence there, many young people feel increasingly disengaged and futureless. Time and again, I have warned that if the UK—Bishop Jude tells me that our voice still commands huge respect in Nigeria; indeed, more than that of any other country—does not engage, millions of young people who feel they have no future in Nigeria will seek to travel here. The devastating impact of that flood of potentially millions of migrants will overwhelm the countries in between, such as Niger. That point cannot be overstated, and it was mentioned to me strongly by a Member of Parliament from Niger when I met him here last month.
Providing better understanding between faith and belief groups, and between young people in a young country, as Nigeria is, is just as critical as providing education for them. Projects similar to the one I described involving young people and engaging them on FORB have been funded in other countries in many parts of the world. There are FORB-related projects in Somalia, the Philippines, South Sudan, Kenya and Mali. One project I heard of, which I understand is proving successful, is in the Central African Republic, bringing youth and religious leaders together to reduce hate speech in the digital sphere. Will the Minister discuss with me how the UK can play its part in supporting similar projects? Addressing the importance of freedom of religion or belief is vital today if we are to maintain our leadership role in tackling poverty and improving security across the world.
We cannot start too young. The alliance that I chair is taking forward a project from the London ministerial conference to produce materials for primary schools to help teachers to educate the very youngest children that it is just as important not to discriminate against someone on account of their beliefs as it is if they are disabled. I am delighted that one of the schools piloting this project—it was recently welcomed with interest by the Minister with responsibility for schools, the Minister of State, Department for Education, the right hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton (Nick Gibb)—is in my own constituency. Our alliance’s aim is to roll out these teaching materials, once they have been piloted, across the 42 countries in our alliance, an idea initiated by one of vice-chairs of the alliance, ambassador Robert Řehák of the Czech Republic. We cannot start too young to help people across the world to understand how critical it is to live peaceably with others of different beliefs, particularly as there is so much friction leading to violence in the world today.
If the Minister is still unpersuaded by reports from NGOs that the root cause of the current horrendous conflict in Nigeria is not climate change but attacks by religious extremists who are intent on genocidal destruction, would he perhaps support an impartial evaluation of what is currently going on in Nigeria and press for a UN commission of inquiry on Nigeria? Will he consider how addressing such freedom of religion or belief issues can be included more strongly in the wording of the revised integrated review, which was announced by the Chancellor today?
The current integrated review commits as a priority action: “To promote freedom of religion or belief…overseas, taking forward the recommendations of the Bishop of Truro’s 2019 independent review and raising awareness of cases of particular concern - including through collaboration with the International Religious Freedom or Belief Alliance. In 2022, we will host an international ministerial conference to agree steps to advance FoRB for all.”
The ministerial conference was held in London in July. No fewer than 88 countries sent official delegates, with over 1,000 delegates attending from over 100 countries in total. The Truro review is a manifesto commitment and there are still outstanding elements to be fulfilled. I hope that the Minister will concur with me—indeed, it is in accordance with the Prime Minister’s determination to address outstanding manifesto commitments—that work on the Truro review should be completed. It is about promoting not just freedom of religion for Christians, but freedom of religion or belief for all.
As required under the Truro review, an independent review of progress of the Truro work was carried out this year, commissioned by the FCDO. That independent review was led by three freedom of religion or belief experts, including the UN special rapporteur on FoRB, and it was published in April. Its recommendations were fully accepted by the then Foreign Secretary, my right hon. Friend the Member for South West Norfolk (Elizabeth Truss), in a written statement, and it highlighted that there is outstanding Truro work to be done. It included as a key recommendation the production of a comprehensive operational action plan to aid “a more integrated policy approach to mainstreaming FoRB” in the FCDO, and “informing multilateral and bilateral level engagement.” That is much needed. The experts highlighted that work on FORB in the FCDO would benefit from “more connectivity amongst those in the FCDO pursuing FoRB activities”.
I agree with that. It is now well over six months since that expert review was completed, and action on the comprehensive operational action plan needs to be taken forward. A lack of joined-up working within the FCDO on FORB means that resources are not being used as efficiently as they could be, and that needs to change.
I would welcome an opportunity to discuss this matter with the Minister, but that is not to disparage the strong commitment to FORB of our parliamentary colleague, Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon. It is about making the best use of FCDO resources in support of our mutual roles, and indeed in support of the Minister who is here today.
You will be pleased to hear, Dame Maria, that I will be concluding shortly. We also need to be bolder and better at raising awareness of specific cases of concern.
The whole point of advancing freedom of religion or belief is to make lives better. Where individuals are suffering and there is an opportunity for us to make their lives better, we should, in my view, be braver. Of course, this complies with my own mandate, which I touched on at the start of my speech.
We should be braver in raising particular cases of concern, so I will close by highlighting two. In the debate on this topic two years ago, I highlighted the case of Maira Shahbaz. Will the Minister look at how the UK can give safe haven to that poor girl? Two years on, she remains in hiding and in fear of oppressors, and she is living in one room with a sink. Will the Minister meet me to discuss not only her case, but the case of Sawan Masih, who is also from Pakistan? That case, which the hon. Member for Strangford has mentioned previously, involves a man who lives in hiding with his family because he fears being killed by the mob, having been acquitted by the court after being sentenced to death for blasphemy. I look forward to the Minister's response."