Heather Wheeler – 2020 Speech on the Persecution of Christians

Below is the text of the speech made by Heather Wheeler, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, in the House of Commons on 6 February 2020.

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the matter of the persecution of Christians.

I am very grateful to all hon. Members who want to contribute to this debate today.

The suffering of men, women and children persecuted for their faith or belief is a matter of deep concern to the Government. The Prime Minister’s special envoy on freedom of religion or belief, my hon. Friend the Member for Gillingham and Rainham (Rehman Chishti), would very much like to have been here today, but he is currently in Washington DC on a visit focused on this very subject.

The scale and severity of suffering is alarming, from daily discrimination in the workplace or in school to intimidation of businesses and families to large-scale violence or state-sanctioned persecution. On every continent, religious minorities are under threat. Everyone across the House will remember last year’s Easter bombing attack on churches and hotels in Sri Lanka, which was deeply saddening.

Defending freedom of religion or belief is a long-standing priority for the UK. Last August, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said:

“Freedom of religion or belief is at the heart of what the UK stands for.”

He also expressed our determination to use all the tools of British diplomacy in this cause.

However, despite our long-standing support of freedom of religion or belief, it is fair to say that we had not given the particular issue of Christian persecution the attention it warranted. That is why in 2018 the then Foreign Secretary, my right hon. Friend the Member for South West Surrey (Jeremy Hunt), commissioned an independent review to consider what more the Foreign and Commonwealth Office could do to support persecuted Christians overseas. The Bishop of Truro was asked to consider tough questions and make ambitious recommendations; his report highlighted the seriousness of the issue and gave practical recommendations on how the UK should respond and, as I am sure colleagues know, the Government have accepted all his recommendations. We reaffirmed our commitment to implement them in the Conservative party manifesto.

Before I say how we are implementing those recommendations however, I want to start with a note of caution: bluntly, we have to be a bit cautious about the scale of Christian persecution because we may not have the full picture. The reason for that is that, at the moment, only limited data is available on religious minorities. The UK is actively working to fill that information gap.

Michael Tomlinson (Mid Dorset and North Poole) (Con)

I am grateful to the Minister for leading this important debate in the name of the Prime Minister. She mentions data; will she join me in praising certain organisations, such as Open Doors, which does so much in this place? Each year, its event is possibly the best ​attended by parliamentarians, MPs and Members from the House of Lords; I think no fewer than 100 parliamentarians were present this year. Its evidence suggests that persecution continues to worsen, and there are 260 million Christians on its watch list. Is that a number that the Minister recognises?

Mrs Wheeler

It is a number I recognise, and if my hon. Friend is able to stay for the rest of the debate, he will hear me talking about that figure in a little while.

In the meantime, we use what data is available from the excellent non-governmental organisations in the field, and—here we are—one of them, the highly regarded Open Doors, estimates on the 2020 world watch list that a staggering 260 million Christians are at risk of high to extreme levels of persecution. Open Doors says that the persecution takes many forms, including the growing use of surveillance technology by Governments to identify and discriminate against Christians.

What have we done so far to help? We have made good progress in implementing the recommendations of the review, both through in-house changes in the Foreign Office and through policy change. For example, we have recognised that our diplomats and officials must fully appreciate the role that religion plays in people’s lives in political and social contexts, and that is why we are working to expand and enhance our religious literacy training. We have also appointed a senior champion for freedom of religion or belief, and we now mark “red Wednesday” in support of persecuted minority groups.

Policy-wise we are also making important changes. Colleagues will be aware of our plan to establish an independent human rights sanctions regime; this will allow us to take quick and effective action against those who commit serious abuses or violations, including against religious minorities, and will, we believe, act as a deterrent to others.

Ms Lyn Brown (West Ham) (Lab)

We have substantiated claims about the persecution of the Uyghur Muslims in China. Can the Minister tell me whether there are going to be any real actions against the Chinese state because of it?

Mrs Wheeler

The hon. Lady is a doughty fighter on the matter of the Uyghur; she has corresponded with me on this matter a number of times. Now that we have left the EU, we are setting up our own sanctions Magnitsky scheme, and where there is clear evidence of named people, we can take that forward.

We have also announced that it is our intention to use our position as a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council to highlight the issues faced by Christians and people of other faiths and beliefs in the middle east.

Of course, implementing the review’s recommendations is only part of our broader work to promote freedom of religion or belief around the globe. For example, we use our influence to speak up for persecuted Christians and individuals of other faiths in multilateral institutions such as the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe and the UN. Last year, we joined 87 other states to co-sponsor a UN resolution establishing the international day commemorating the victims of acts of ​violence based on religion or belief. We stand with the international community not only to honour those who have paid the ultimate price to practise their faith, but also to combat ongoing intolerance and discrimination, and that is why we call out specific countries that violate the right to freedom of religion or belief, including China, Iran and Russia.

Mr Steve Baker (Wycombe) (Con)

The Minister has mentioned tolerance, and I wonder whether she agrees that we need to remember that tolerance is not reaching the same point of view, but is when we profoundly disagree with one another yet do not resort to force, whether lawful or otherwise, in order to try to force people to our point of view. Tolerance is agreeing to differ. Does the Minister agree that at the heart of problems of intolerance are blasphemy laws, and that this Government and this country must always stand against blasphemy laws in order to ensure that we have promoted true tolerance?

Mrs Wheeler

I thank my hon. Friend for his pertinent intervention. “Tolerance” is perhaps an underused word; we might consider it to be a British trait, but we ought to make sure it works right across the board and across the world. I will come on to blasphemy laws a little later.

Bob Stewart (Beckenham) (Con)

We have a prime position in the Security Council of the United Nations, as a permanent member—one of the five. Do the Government intend to introduce a United Nations Security Council resolution, and lead on that to try to get the whole of the United Nations against the idea of states being allowed to persecute Christians—not just Christians, but those of any religion?

Mrs Wheeler

My hon. and gallant Friend puts forward a noble cause, but I am afraid I must write to him on that.

So, we call out specific countries, as I have mentioned, and through our extensive diplomatic network we also lobby Governments for changes in laws and practices, and we raise individual cases of persecution. As the House will understand, the safety of the people we support is paramount and, given that much of this work is sensitive, it is best done in private. Finally, we also support work to promote freedom of religion or belief; we have given over £1 million for projects in Iraq, Malaysia, Myanmar and Sudan.

I am proud of our efforts, but we know that we alone cannot defend freedom of rights or belief. It requires concerted efforts by faith groups, NGOs, civil society, human rights defenders and others, including parliamentarians. I would like to take this opportunity to thank all Members from across the House for their work to defend this human right internationally. With your continued support, I hope we will succeed in this ambition to end religious persecution once and for all. I look forward to the rest of the debate.