“PLURALITY of religion and belief is a crucial ingredient for a stable society,” MPs were told during a debate this week on religious persecution. To view religion as the main cause of violence and terrorism was too simplistic.
The debate was introduced by Jim Shannon, the Democratic Unionist Party MP for Strangford, who also chairs the APPG for International Freedom of Religion or Belief, in Westminster Hall, on Tuesday.
Mr Shannon was taking questions from MPs on religious persecution in the Middle East, and its effect on the UK. There was particular concern for the Yazidi communities facing persecution by IS (Daesh) in incidents which the United Nations Commission of Inquiry on Syria said last month may amount to war crimes against humanity.
“Weak governance in Syria and Iraq has left societies in which violent terrorist groups wreak havoc and implement their own rule of law and punishments, in blatant violation of international human rights standards and law,” Mr Shannon said.
He urged the Department for International Development “to be sensitive to the complexities that religion brings, particularly to political action, which in many cases is contradictory to international law, that people use religion to justify.”
He went on: “When working with partners in the Middle East, it is crucial that we discuss means for individuals to be free within their own nation’s context to manifest their religion or belief.”
There were also calls from MPs for the Home Office to compile statistics on claims for asylum on the basis of religious persecution, and to abolish its “crass and clumsy” approach to applications from asylum-seekers who have converted to Christianity.
Mr Shannon pointed to a report published last month by the APPG, Fleeing Persecution: Asylum Claims in the UK on Religious Freedom Grounds which suggests that applications by asylum-seekers who have converted to Christianity are being rejected by the Home Office, on the suspicion that their conversion is motivated solely by a desire to gain asylum (News, 10 June).
The Home Office must, he said, “recognise its genuine shortcomings and equip itself with well-trained staff and suitable translators to ensure a fair hearing of all cases.”
But the new Minister for Immigration, Robert Goodwill, defended his office, saying: “An interview is far more an exploration of a claimant’s personal experiences and journey to their new faith in their country and the UK than it is a test of religious facts.”
Mr Shannon later called for the Syrian vulnerable persons resettlement scheme to be extended to include Iraq. “Prioritising Iraqis alongside Syrians for resettlement in the UK is the least we can do. Daesh does not discriminate depending on whether individuals are Iraqi or Syrian, and neither should we,” he said.
Mr Goodwill replied that since the war in Syria began, the UK have granted protection to more than 6500 Syrians and 900 Iraqis, but that, “our priority must be to seek an end to the conflicts in the Middle East through diplomatic efforts, and . . . to exert diplomatic pressure on foreign governments to protect minorities and uphold fundamental human rights, including freedom of religion and belief.”