House of Commons 

Hansard of: Persecution of Christians

4.25 pm

Naomi Long (Belfast East) (Alliance): I am pleased to have secured this debate on the increasing threat to freedom of religion in certain parts of the world, which is an important issue. Due to time pressure, I apologise in advance for the fact that I may not be able to accept many interventions. These are issues, however, on which I have placed significant emphasis during my time in Parliament not only because I believe passionately in the inherent importance of protecting fundamental human rights but because the evidence demonstrates that those societies that protect and respect fundamental rights tend to fare better in their protection of other human rights.

In preparation for this debate, I have worked closely with Open Doors, an organisation focusing on freedom for persecuted Christian Churches. I also thank Christian Solidarity Worldwide, His Grace, Bishop Angaelos of the Coptic Orthodox Church in the UK, and others who have circulated briefing materials ahead of today’s debate.

Although my focus is on the persecution of Christians, it is important to acknowledge that Christians are not unique in facing religious persecution. Indeed, I have previously hosted a debate on the persecution of Baha’is in Iran. Nor are Christians the only group affected when they are marginalised in society or excluded from public life. Rather, everyone suffers from the loss of talent and the undermining of the principles of fair treatment, the rule of law and access to justice. The defence of freedom of religious belief, as defined by article 18 of the universal declaration of human rights, is important not only for Christians but for everyone.

In Africa, as a result of the growing influence of Islamic extremism in countries not previously associated with persecution, there has been a marked increase in such activity. That has been most notable in Mali, but it is also increasingly evident in countries such as Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda, Ethiopia and Niger. Persecution manifests itself in many ways, including violent attacks by Islamic extremist groups, radical Muslims infiltrating politics, business and the judiciary to gain influence to be used against other religions, and extremists filling power vacuums in countries in flux, such as Mali.

Andrew Selous (South West Bedfordshire) (Con): The hon. Lady has mentioned Open Doors. Does she agree that all Churches in the UK could usefully have copies of its world watchlist of the 50 countries where Christians are most persecuted? The watchlist is informative, helpful and useful for all Churches.

Naomi Long: I absolutely agree. The watchlist is a helpful aid for those who are interested in this issue.

I have previously highlighted the persecution of Christians in countries where they are a minority, such as Sudan and Somalia, and persecution is still perpetuated at both state and community level. The current trend, however, is towards increasing civil unrest by Islamic extremists in countries where Christians are a majority, such as Kenya and Uganda. Small, local footholds have been created where radical Muslims do not tolerate anyone with a different belief system or religion. That

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trend has been most potent in the area of Kenya bordering Somalia. The pattern of infiltration and strategic positioning ultimately makes life impossible for Christian residents. How do the Government and the international community respond to that emerging challenge? What support can be offered to national Governments to combat that threat to freedom?

Although the Arab spring appeared to offer hope for progressive reform in many countries, it has failed to deliver on that promise in many cases. In many countries, the Arab spring has had disastrous consequences for religious freedom and has promoted a major exodus of Christians from the middle east. Already a reality in Iraq, the phenomenon is extending to other nations, most notably Egypt and Syria. Although we are all aware of the wider security and humanitarian crisis in Syria, there is a very real, but less publicly acknowledged threat to Christians. Jihadists have reportedly infiltrated the rebel movement, and tens of thousands of Christians have fled as a result. As one of the Governments involved in both Iraq and Syria, the UK Government must recognise that exodus and work with others in the international community to do all they can to protect people of whatever religion who are suffering persecution in an already desperate situation. What specific consideration have the Government given to that in their wider interventions in those countries?

Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP): Is the hon. Lady aware that in Syria there are some 300,000 Christian refugees who refuse to be associated with the Sunni opposition or the Assad regime? In other words, they are in a neutral place. Because they are neutral, as Christians, they do not receive the aid or assistance that they should receive through the Arab nations or the Red Cross. Does she feel that that is an issue for Christians in Syria? They do not get the aid or the financial assistance that they need, because they try to stay neutral because of their Christian beliefs.

Naomi Long: I hope that the Minister will be able reflect on that in his response.

The nature of persecution is incredibly variable. In some situations, it will take the form of a “squeeze”, with pressure being applied, while in others it is in the form of “smash”, with recourse to violence. However, either kind represents a denial of article 18 and should be resisted. Recent trends suggest that squeeze pressure, where there is no physical violence, but pressure is applied to prevent Christians from being able to freely express their beliefs, has increasingly become the main form of abuse. It is much harder to identify and document. However, and perhaps as a result, it can be the most pernicious and damaging to individuals and families.

Life in the family sphere suffers, particularly for those who exercise their right to change religion. Hostility from the state or neighbours can place not only the individual but their family under considerable pressure. That social and religious pressure can occasionally lead to pressure from within the family, with divorce and death threats common after conversion. The right to change religion is specifically protected by the wording of article 18. Reports that within the UN there is a reluctance to promote the freedom to change one’s

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religion as a vital component of freedom of religious belief for fear of a backlash from the Organisation of the Islamic Conference nations are a concern, and I would be interested to hear the Minister’s view on that specific matter.

Persecution also impacts on the community sphere, manifesting itself as restrictions on employment or access to resources. There is evidence that Christian villagers have been denied access to water wells in northern Nigeria, for example, purely by reason of their faith. In Kenya, covert persecution of Christians has increased. Speaking of his own experience, one Christian states:

“The area is already very hostile, but now we are also suffering hidden persecution at our work places. Many of our jobs are in danger because of fabricated negative reports from our superiors; our colleagues at work discriminate against and isolate us—just because of our faith.”

Such persecution has affected teachers, who have been placed on forced leave or transferred from the region, while other professionals have lost their job, all on fabricated charges of incompetence. Those newly posted to the area are monitored, and if perceived to be Christians, are then targeted. It is very difficult for the aggrieved party in such circumstances to seek redress, because of the concealed nature of the persecution. Those who do report unfair treatment encounter a marked lack of corroboration for their reports from colleagues, often as a result of fear, leading to the dismissal of their complaints.

I would welcome reassurances from the Minister that, in the face of that more covert and insidious form of persecution, the Foreign Office has engaged with religious groups and national Governments to identify such trends and address their impact. It is important that international pressure focuses on the right to access justice for those who are affected.

Some Governments actively restrict the freedom of Christians to participate in the national sphere through the limitation of access to civil society and public life. As hon. Members will be aware, I have previously highlighted the fact that the state is the primary persecutor of religious minorities in Iran. Article 18 specifically protects the freedom collectively to express faith without interference, but as I have also previously highlighted, it has proved all but impossible to register church buildings and legalise church meetings in Algeria, so that despite the appearance of facilitating religious minorities, the effect in reality is to the contrary.

Such persecution aims not overtly to ban particular beliefs, but to restrict freedom of religion to a person’s private life. Worryingly, President Morsi of Egypt recently said:

“As long as the apostate keeps it to himself...he should not be punished...However, someone who proclaims his apostasy in public, and calls for others to follow suit, is a danger to society...the law and the shari’a intervene.

He gave open expression and Government endorsement to this restrictive practice.

Although the rise of radical Islamist groups has posed a particular threat to Christians, it is not the only threat. The Government in Eritrea, for example, have banned all religious groups other than Orthodox, Catholic, Lutheran and Islamic groups, and other Christian believers are persecuted, often with the active co-operation of state-

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recognised Churches. It is estimated that up to 2,000 Christians in the country are imprisoned for their faith, 31 of whom died in 2012.

Despite the growing prevalence of squeeze persecution in the region, many people still suffer acts of violence and aggression. Between November 2011 and October 2012, Open Doors recorded 1,201 killings of Christians worldwide, of which 791 happened in Nigeria and 161 in Iraq; 2,121 attacks on Christians, mainly in Nigeria, India, Syria, Kenya, Indonesia and Egypt; and, during the same period, 280 churches or other Christian buildings were burned or destroyed. In that context, I want to focus briefly on the plight of Christians in Egypt.

During the Mubarak regime, the differences between Christians and Muslims were often used as part of a divide and conquer strategy. However, since that regime ended, there has been a resurgence of more radical Islamist groups and an increase in their representation in high-ranking Government positions from which they persecute not only Christians, who are the largest religious minority in Egypt, but other minority faith groups such as Baha’is and Jews, as well as Muslim minorities such as Sufis and Shi’ites.

Christian communities face bureaucratic hurdles when trying to build churches; there is no mechanism to allow citizens to change their religion to anything other than Islam; and representation of Christians in state institutions and Government bodies is negligible, and, at the highest levels, absent. Since the uprising and the subsequent political and social unrest, Christians have increasingly witnessed the violation of their freedoms and face intensified threats to their peace and security. These incidents include the burning and attacking of churches, the kidnapping of Christian girls, and attacks on peaceful marches, resulting in the loss of innocent lives.

In one of the most significant incidents, 28 peaceful demonstrators at Maspero were killed in October 2011. Most recently, the Coptic Orthodox patriarchate and the main Christian cathedral in Cairo were attacked by mobs and, disturbingly, the police were seen to do little, if anything, either to stop the violence or to bring those responsible to justice. That incident is disturbing, not only because it is indicative of the rise in violent attacks on Christians, but because it demonstrates the continuing lack of will shown by the authorities to deliver fair and equal treatment under the law, not only to Egypt’s Christians, but to other minority faith groups. If the main cathedral can be attacked with apparent impunity, it prompts the question: what Church or individual is safe?

Mrs Caroline Spelman (Meriden) (Con): Having a Coptic church in my constituency, I support absolutely the case that the hon. Lady is making for better protection for Coptic Christians in Egypt. Does she agree that, following the Arab spring, we must urge the Government to do all that they can to urge the new constitutions of those states to respect religious freedom?

Naomi Long: I absolutely agree and concur with all that has been said. It is hugely important that those countries are restructured in a way that will increase progressive democracy in those nations.

Rehman Chishti (Gillingham and Rainham) (Con): Will the hon. Lady give way?

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Naomi Long: I am afraid not. I have very little time and I want to make another point.

Attacks on churches are an assault not on an individual faith tradition, but on the rule of law, and, if a line is not held by the Government in addressing that, confidence in the state and its ability to uphold the rule of law in the face of pressure for all Egyptians will eventually be diminished. Statements confirming that the state takes responsibility for safeguarding freedom and security for all of its citizens and that it will investigate incidents are welcome, but what would be more welcome would be action by the security forces and police to intervene during such attacks and ensure that those responsible are brought to justice. The Egyptian state must employ its security apparatus and judiciary in a non-discriminatory manner to protect all Egyptian citizens—Muslims and Christians alike—and preserve their equal rights.

Finally, I would like briefly to reference the 2012 edition of the annual human rights and democracy report recently published by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. I welcome the open acknowledgement in the report of the growth of violence against religious communities and the affirmation of the right to freedom of belief, including the right to share, change and teach others about one’s faith. I also think that the restatement by the Foreign Secretary that such rights are not merely western constructs but are universal is important and bears repeating.

There is concern, however, that the sections on Somalia and Yemen make no mention of religious freedom, implying that this is not a major human rights concern in those countries, yet in both there is considerable evidence of the persecution of Christians and, in particular, of converts to Christianity. Similarly, the entries on religious freedom for Sudan and Eritrea appear to be weak. Perhaps the Minister will be able to reflect on those matters in his remarks.

In closing, the right to have a faith and to practise that faith, both in private and in community with others, and to change one’s faith and not be disadvantaged or endangered for reason of one’s beliefs, are basic and fundamental human rights that should apply universally. These are also rights that, although established in international law, remain under threat at national or local level. Where religious freedom is diminished, it is often accompanied by a generally unfavourable approach to the protection of other human rights and a lack of adherence to the rule of law and equal access to justice for all citizens, with wider implications for society.

I trust that continued focus on such matters in Parliament, whether through debates like this or through the work of the all-party group, will send out a clear message that religious persecution will not go unseen or unchallenged by the international community and that the cause of religious freedom and freedom of conscience will have a strong international advocate in the UK Government.

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