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MPs hear horror stories as the UK prepares to host conference on freedom of religion

30 June 2022

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The Temple of All Religions, Kazan, south-west Russia

The Temple of All Religions, Kazan, south-west Russia

THE plight of Christians, Muslims, and humanists around the world was raised in a Westminster Hall debate on Tuesday morning, in advance of an international conference on Freedom of Religion or Belief (FoRB) next week.

The session was opened by the Prime Minister’s special envoy for Freedom of Religion or Belief, Fiona Bruce MP.

“Millions of people today are being denied their FoRB,” Ms Bruce told the gathering of parliamentarians. “FoRB violations are getting worse in severity and scale. Right across the world people are losing their jobs, education, homes, livelihoods, families, freedom, access to justice, even life itself, simply on account of what they believe.”

The international Ministerial Conference on FoRB next week will gather more than 500 politicians, faith leaders, and experts to share best practice on protecting religious freedom and to inspire more action to be taken.

The Archbishop of Canterbury is due to address the conference on Tuesday morning. Other speakers at the conference will include those who have survived abuse over their religious beliefs, Ms Bruce said.

The DUP MP Jim Shannon, who chairs the All-Party Parliamentary Group on FoRB, said that “in a world of increasing division and hostility, I am very glad to say that those of us who work to promote FoRB in this House work across political divides and from a host of different faith and belief backgrounds.”

Contributions to the debate highlighted violations of FoRB around the world. Sir Edward Leigh MP said that the situation in Xinjiang, China, had “reached dystopian, genocidal levels”. The persecution of Uyghur Muslims in China was a “disgrace”. He urged the Government and British companies to “pivot away” from the Chinese economy.

Sir Edward also raised the case of Maira Shahbaz, a Pakistani girl who, at the age of 14, was abducted, raped, and forced to convert from Christianity to Islam, before eventually being able to flee from her kidnapper (News, 23 July 2021).

Sir Edward met the Home Secretary, Priti Patel, last year, to discuss the case. “Why has there been no progress?” he asked on Tuesday, noting that Ms Shahbaz and her family were still living in hiding. A Foreign Office minister, Vicky Ford, said that she could not comment on the case without endangering Ms Shahbaz and her family.

The case of Mubarak Bala was also raised in the debate. In April, Mr Bala, the president of the Humanist Association of Nigeria, was sentenced to 24 years in prison under blasphemy charges (News, 7 May 2021). Ms Ford confirmed that she had discussed the case with the Nigerian government, and that 14 delegates from Nigeria would be in attendance at the conference next week.

Several MPs asked what progress had been made in implementing the 2019 Independent Review of Christian Persecution, conducted by the Bishop of Truro, the Rt Revd Philip Mounstephen (News, 8 July 2019).

Ms Ford said that the Government would publish details of its progress in implementing its recommendations “in the near future”.

Alongside the conference next week, a programme of fringe events has been organised by the UK Freedom of Religion or Belief Forum. Many events are open to all, and some will be held online (londonforbfringe.com).

At a further briefing in Thursday morning, Lord Ahmad, Minister for South Asia, North Africa, the United Nations and the Commonwealth, expressed his pleasure at the involvement of the Foreign Secretary, Liz Truss, in hosting the conference.

“I look forward to discussing how we can best prevent persecution and protect and promote individuals’ right to freedom of religion or belief.”

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