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Christian Communities (Asia)

11 am

Mr. David Drew (Stroud): I am pleased to have the opportunity to raise such an important issue. Why do I bring the subject to this forum at this time? Our debate is one of several that avowedly Christian Members of Parliament have brought before the House to highlight the persecution and other such treatment of Christians. I declare an interest as a Christian, and make no apology for raising the subject. I do not pretend to be an expert on Asia—I have taken a greater interest in Africa—but anyone who has seen the number of parliamentary questions on the subject and talked to any of the relevant organisations will know that the Christian community and those of other faiths have expressed concern about what is going on in Asia.

As I said, other hon. Members have secured debates on similar subjects. They include a debate on the Moluccas introduced by the hon. Member for Gainsborough (Mr. Leigh) in December 2000; and one on Sudan introduced by the hon. Member for Salisbury (Mr. Key) in March 2002. I want to build on those debates about the way in which the Christian community is treated around the world, but I do not intend to blame other religious faiths or those of no religion. I shall talk about why Christians are under attack—and some of the figures that I shall give make the fact that they are under attack only too clear.

I give thanks to those who have helped me to ensure that the subject is brought to the attention of Parliament. It is good to see present several hon. Members whom I know will talk about different parts of Asia. I intend to speak generally, albeit with some specific references to North Korea, about which I am especially concerned. I thank Christian Solidarity Worldwide, especially Dr. Alan Hobson; he and I have discussed the repercussions of what has happened over several months.

It is opportune that we now have time to debate this important issue. I shall cast no aspersions, but instead explore ways in which the Government can by active involvement ensure that they protect the Christian faith and Christians., That is what we, as a Christian country, want to do. In addition, the issue is true to the spirit of the United Nations. We in this country try to be religiously tolerant, although perhaps less successfully than some of us want, and the same should happen in other parts of the world.

There are good reasons to consider the plight of Christian communities. A report written in America a few years ago concluded that Christians suffered more persecution than any other religious group. That view is echoed in another report published last year, which estimates that between 200 million and 250 million Christians worldwide are persecuted for their faith, with a further 400 million living under threat of persecution and non-trivial restrictions on their religious liberty.

Statistician David Barrett estimates in the World Christian Encyclopaedia, which was updated in 1996, that each year as many as 160,000 Christians are killed for their faith. Furthermore, more Christians were killed for their faith in the 20th century than in the previous 19 centuries. If we pause to consider that those centuries encompassed the frequent bouts of persecution that

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took place under the Roman empire, it helps to bring home the magnitude of what has happened in the past hundred years.

Although Christians are heavily persecuted in many parts of the world, a great deal of the persecution is taking place in Asia. Asia contains a wealth of cultures and histories; it has landscapes of spectacular beauty, and much else to admire. Many of the world's great inventions and advances in civilisation have emanated from that great continent, and it has been home to some of the greatest empires and civilisations that the world has ever seen. However, despite the vast differences between the cultures, languages, histories and systems of government of the different countries of Asia, it remains true today that Christians are severely persecuted in many of them. The problem covers a wide geographical area: even if we discount the persecution of Christians in the middle east, which is technically in western Asia, there is still a wide arc of persecution, stretching from the central Asian republics such as Turkmenistan, through the Indian sub-continent, and on to south-east Asia.

The position of Christians is precarious in most of the former Soviet republics of central Asia, where Governments tend to follow an aggressive form of Islam. The worst in terms of its treatment of Christians is Turkmenistan. Last year, for example, the Turkmen authorities badly mistreated Shageldy Atakov, an imprisoned Christian. He was tortured and physically abused and, in a sinister throwback to the worst excesses of the old communist era, he was forcibly injected with psychotropic drugs. Other Christians, especially Baptists, have been targeted; if they fled because they had found out that the authorities were about to swoop, they were subjected to a manhunt.

In India, although the Government profess their allegiance to religious tolerance, Hindu militant organisations have been targeting Christians for some years. According to the Indian Government's figures, Hindu militants killed 33 Christians in just two years—1999 and 2000. In Pakistan, it is Muslim extremists who target Christians. Their attacks last year on two churches in which more than twenty people were killed hit the headlines, but many other cases of Christians facing violence and discrimination in Pakistan are less well known. Several hon. Members, including myself, have raised individual cases, and I am sure that the Minister will refer to those cases and others to show that it is a matter of ongoing concern.

In Burma, the State Peace And Development Council regime is notorious for the vicious attacks it perpetrates upon its own ethnic minorities, who include Christians as well as many other religious groups. However, some Christian churches and pastors in the capital, Rangoon, are specifically targeted by the regime.

In south-east Asia, a number of different systems of government are engaged in the persecution of Christians. Those include atheist communist countries such as Laos, Vietnam and North Korea. In Laos, many churches have been closed down, many Christians have been imprisoned in the past few years, and Christians are killed from time to time. In November last year, a Christian pastor in northern Laos was shot dead. It was unclear whether the authorities were behind the killing or whether it was the work of a relative angry at the fact

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that the man was a Christian—both parties had made threats. Whatever the case, the man was killed because of his Christian faith.

In Vietnam, many Christians, especially Christian leaders, have been imprisoned, and a large number languish in prison today. While we debate the issue in the comfort of our liberal democracy, churches in Vietnam have been destroyed and a number of Christians are believed to have been killed.

Highlighting one country might help to illustrate the point. North Korea is a good example of wrong, and of why this country and the Government need to do something. North Korea operates a system of absolute and brutal control over its population; even the slightest aberration from the Government line is punished with severe, sometimes fatal, reprisal, and torture, imprisonment in conditions of severe deprivation and execution are routinely used to control the population. Political prison camps are one of the key means used to deal with dissent.

Christians in North Korea are specifically targeted. That can be traced back to the 1950s, when Kim Il Sung implemented the juche philosophy in the country. The main purpose of that philosophy, which was designed to impact on every area of North Korean society and Government, was to cement the hold on absolute power of Kim Il Sung, and, later, his son, Kim Jong Il. The central teaching of juche is that there is no power greater than that of Kim Il Sung, "the great leader", and Kim Jong Il, "dear leader". Christians are a particular target of the regime because they believe in God and refuse to acknowledge that their country's leaders represent the ultimate power. Christians are the most targeted group in North Korea, apart from suspected South Korean spies, who occupy a place of comparable suspicion in the eyes of the regime.

For decades the rulers of North Korea have tried to eradicate Christianity from the country. If someone is suspected of being a Christian they are arrested, and possessing a Bible is an arrestable offence. Often when someone is arrested for being a Christian, three generations of the family are arrested at the same time, because the grandparents, parents and children within that family are just as liable as the original person. That is an attempt to prevent the spread of what is seen as the insidious influence of Christianity. Once Christians have been arrested, they are either executed immediately, or sent to political prison camps.

Those prison camps are often known—with good reason—as concentration camps. The human rights non-governmental organisation Christian Solidarity Worldwide has sent several fact-finding missions to the region in the past two years, and it has heard first-hand accounts of the treatment of Christian prisoners in the camps. The treatment of all prisoners in the camps is dire, but because Christians are seen as such a threat to the regime, they are singled out for particularly harsh treatment. Prison guards are rewarded if they manage to force a Christian to recant his or her faith, which gives them a particular incentive to target them for beatings, torture, harsh labour, rape and other such treatment. One former prisoner reported that she saw a guard pour molten iron over living Christians because they refused to renounce their faith.

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Christians in the camps are also subject to a decree that their faces must permanently face the ground. Because they believe in God and would look to heaven, they are not allowed to look up. A former prisoner reports that after years of keeping that position, many Christian's necks are permanently deformed. When Christians die guards break their necks and bury them face down to prevent them from seeing heaven.

Many Christians in the camps are worked to death. According to reports from former prisoners, they are singled out for the worst and most dangerous jobs. Men are sent to work in iron foundries and other factories in which the mortality rate is high because of the dangerous conditions and exposure to extreme temperatures. Women are subjected to intense labour such as making shoes in primitive conditions, or are made to clean cesspits where they are often overcome by toxic fumes. Men and women work for 16 to 20 hours a day, seven days a week. It is not surprising that of all the prisoners in the camps, Christians tend to have the shortest life expectancy.

Much of that is not widely known because North Korea is one of the most closed countries in the world. Because the media are selective about which reports they present, we do not know as much as we could or should know. I hope that today's debate will redress the balance to some extent. Hon. Members will note that early-day motion 345 draws attention to the political prison camps in North Korea. I was happy to sign it, and was pleased to see the signatures of more than 100 other MPs. I hope that we will get further signatories as a result of today's debate.

Another aspect to the persecution of Christians in North Korea is the treatment of those who attempt to escape over the border into China. Some are captured and punished by the North Koreans, but even if they succeed in reaching China, that is far from the end of their troubles, because the Chinese do not recognise them as legitimate refugees and their position is therefore precarious. Although in the past China often turned a blind eye to such people's presence, a recent crackdown has led to many being repatriated to North Korea, where some have been executed and others brutally punished.

Even those who avoid detection are not always safe. Women are especially vulnerable to abuse. After fleeing from North Korea, women are often taken by men posing as guides to an area of supposed safety; once there, they find themselves escorted to a home where they find that unwittingly they have been sold to Chinese men as brides. Such a woman is viewed as a man's property: he can keep her locked up or even shackled, sexually abuse her, rent her out to other men as a prostitute, physically attack her, or even sell her on to another man. The woman is unable to take any action, because she can be threatened with being handed over to the authorities and repatriated. Such women often suffer enormous physical and emotional harm.

Many other North Koreans, driven either by hunger or by a desire to escape the repressive regime, attempt to flee their country, but Christians face special dangers if they are caught and repatriated, because not only have they committed the serious crime of escaping from the mother country, but they adhere to a detested and feared faith. Those are very serious issues.

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I turn to what I believe the Government should be doing to highlight those issues and to promote religious tolerance. On 22 January 2002, my right hon. Friend the Minister for Europe declared in an answer to a written question:

That echoes statements made by other Ministers, including my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, West (Mr. Battle) when he was at the Foreign Office. He said:

That is commendable, but it needs to be backed up with action. North Korea is a good example of a country in respect of which action could be taken.

It is possible to envisage links between our country and North Korea growing during the next decade or so. We should be careful not to let the matter rest, but instead to push for aspects of religious liberty to be upheld. The North Korean regime needs to be made aware that Governments, including ours, uphold and believe in human rights and religious tolerance. In particular, I ask the Government to press the North Korean regime to allow human rights monitors unrestricted access to political prison camps. I draw the Minister's attention to the Chongjin and Khechen camps, which are two of the most notorious.

Will the Government allow us to include details of religious persecution in the next annual human rights report? While there was much to commend in the most recent report, it was disappointing that it reflected no real awareness of the issue, which needs to be emphasised. We must also deal with organisations such as Christian Solidarity Worldwide, which has produced accurate witness statements and a great deal of evidence to show what is going on.

I would argue that if we are to come to terms with regimes such as North Korea's and bring such countries back into the family of civilisations, we must ensure that that does not happen at any cost. We must make sure that people's human rights are defended, which involves dealing with the Chinese as well as with the North Koreans. Such regimes employ many tactics that must be highlighted. As the North Korean example shows, by holding up such regimes as examples to the world, we can do a great deal to shame them into behaving in a more reasonable way. North Korea ratified the international covenant on civil and political rights in 1981, yet among the many articles of that covenant that it blatantly ignores is article 18, which guarantees the right to choose one's religion or belief, the right to freedom of conscience in religion and the right to practise that religion in public and in private. It is about time that that issue is tackled in the North Koreas of this world.

I know that other hon. Members want to talk about similar abuses and use their chance to highlight some of the world's wrongs. I have focused on North Korea because to my mind it is the worst example of what is

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happening in Asia, but there are, unfortunately, many other places that could be used in evidence. I urge the Government to look for fresh ways to ensure that human rights become a reality.

I hope that the desk officers and heads of section in the Foreign Office and the ambassadors in the countries concerned make religious freedom a priority. I hope that they are aware of the mistreatment of Christians and other religious minorities in certain countries and regularly bring that to the attention of those regimes. I ask that the Government work actively to take up such issues. There are many ways in which that can be done, both bilaterally and through the multilateral agencies, specifically the UN. As I mentioned earlier, religious tolerance is a key element of the UN's charter, so will the Government raise the issue with the UN?

In conclusion, the Government should report on issues of religious persecution. Such issues are key to people who are avowedly Christian, and to all people who believe in the rights of which the House of Commons is proud and on which it has a strong record, past and present. The Government should consider regularly reporting back to Parliament, through parliamentary questions and debates such as this. That would show the Government's commitment to ensuring that religious freedom is a key element of an ethical foreign policy—something in which I hope we all believe—rather than just an idea to which lip service is paid.

11.20 am

Alistair Burt (North-East Bedfordshire): I am grateful to the hon. Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew)—for the purposes of this debate, he is my hon. Friend—for raising the important issue of religious persecution, in particular persecution of Christians throughout the world.

I start with two preliminary points. First, I have been a member of Amnesty International for many years. I do not agree with everything that the organisation says—that would be too much—but I genuinely believe that it has provided a real light in the darkness and a voice for people in very difficult circumstances who have been unable to speak out. Its stance on human rights and religious freedoms is to be commended. There is sometimes a danger of commentators believing that Christian-based organisations have exaggerated circumstances and examples, so to have a secular-based organisation as a second reference point is often helpful.

Secondly, as an evangelical Christian, I believe that Christians frequently speak out on behalf of others, and many have given their lives for those of other faiths. I believe that religious freedom is absolutely indivisible from other human rights and freedoms. In many countries, laws that might be used to protect Christians are there to protect other minorities as well. That is something that really does bind us together.

I echo the hon. Gentleman's thanks to Christian Solidarity Worldwide and those who have helped us to prepare for the debate. I also commend various Christian organisations for the work that they do on behalf of Christians throughout the world. The statistics quoted by the hon. Gentleman on the persecution of Christians certainly make sober reading. They are a graphic reminder of why we are discussing the plight of

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Christians today. That in no way detracts from the suffering of many other religious groups in many parts of the world, and the policies that we pursue to address the plight of Christians will address their plight as well.

It is fair to say that religious liberty has not been given the same prominence as other basic freedoms that we hold dear. I make one example to illustrate that point. At the UN, a convention, a treaty body, a special rapporteur, a day, a week, three decades and a world conference have all been allocated to the important topic of racial discrimination. However, apart from a special rapporteur, the UN has no such mechanisms in place for the equally important topic of religious discrimination. Such examples help to show the extent of the problem.

Religious liberty is often marginalized in human rights discourses. That is worrying, because it is a vital issue that we need to address. I need not go into detail as to why that is so, as I am sure that hon. Members understand the reasons. As the hon. Member for Stroud has noted, the Government have publicly stated:

I commend that statement.

In a western world seemingly slavishly devoted to the commercial and the material, understanding that religion and a spiritual dimension form a crucial part of an individual's—and a people's—sense of identity is exceptionally important. Any significant curbing of the freedom to practise religion can therefore have highly detrimental consequences for individuals and for society. If a state will not respect the most intimate beliefs of individuals, it is far less likely to respect other personal rights. Religious liberty can be seen as a benchmark for how well human rights in general are flourishing.

I shall focus my remarks on Asia and the treatment of Christians there. Many of the civilisations that have emanated from the continent of Asia over the centuries have a long and honourable history. It is therefore all the more sad that severe persecution of Christians is taking place in so many countries in that continent. Broadly speaking, three types of ideology are responsible for the persecution of Christians in Asia today. The first is atheistic communism. Despite the fact that the cold war has long since ended, several countries in Asia still cling to that ideology, and all of them actively persecute Christians and other religious minorities. The hon. Member for Stroud gave the example of North Korea. Another is China, where many Christians, as well as other groups such as Falun Gong, are persecuted. Other countries included in that group are Laos and Vietnam.

The second type of hostile ideology is militant Hinduism. In India and, to a lesser extent, Sri Lanka, militant Hindu groups—some of them closely connected to the authorities—actively persecute Christians and Muslims. Many Christians and Muslims have been attacked and several have been killed. Hon. Members will not need to be reminded of the recent slaughter of up to 2,000 Muslims in Gujarat.

The third type of ideology is Islamism, which can be distinguished from Islam. Such a distinction is helpful and necessary to avoid Islamophobia. Islamism is the

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aggressive propagation of Islamist ideology and the attempted vanquishing of other faiths, which are seen as incompatible with Islam. It is often associated with violence and terrorism. Examples of countries in Asia where Islamism is strong include Indonesia and Turkmenistan. Christians face severe persecution in parts of those countries.

It is crucial to distinguish the faith from those who prosecute it so actively that they bring it into disrepute. All too often, we tread on eggshells when discussing religious matters, but sometimes the facts have to be faced. The world is not as nice as we would like it to be, and people are not as tolerant as we want them to be, and nor are the countries from which they come. Unless we face facts honestly, we do the world a disservice.

Amnesty International's report on Pakistan for 2001 states:

The background to the blasphemy law in Pakistan is, I suspect, reasonably well known, but it deserves a further hearing. The law is contained in section 295C of the Pakistan penal code and prescribes the mandatory death penalty for anyone found to have

It neither defines the terms "defilement" nor looks into the criminal intent of the alleged offender. The law has frequently been abused to imprison people on grounds of religious enmity, but it has also proved to be an easy tool to imprison people when the real motives are business rivalry or land issues.

Local human rights groups, minority rights organisations and Amnesty International have called for the introduction of procedural safeguards to protect against abuse. President Musharraf said in April 2000 that procedural changes would be introduced to lessen the possibility of abuse of the blasphemy law. However, the amendment was withdrawn a month later on the grounds that the ulema—the Islamic scholars—and the people had "unanimously" demanded that it be withdrawn.

Violence against Christians in Pakistan is all too frequent, and some of the examples are graphic and not pleasant. One case arose last year. A 14-year-old Christian girl, Naira Nadia, spoke to her friends at school about her faith; as a result, an armed group of Muslim extremists kidnapped her and gang raped her. She is still missing. In an attempt to absolve themselves of their crime, the perpetrators forcibly converted the girl to Islam and sent her parents a certificate of conversion. She has not been returned to her family, who are under intense pressure from local Muslims to drop the case.

In February this year, 16-year-old Shakeela Siddique, a Christian girl, was reportedly raped by her Muslim landlord at gunpoint. Her father attempted to confront the landlord but was badly beaten up. He noted:

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To date, the police and the authorities have refused to investigate the crime properly. In May 2000, eight Christian girls were allegedly gang raped by six men on their way home from work. In spite of corroborating medical and police evidence, the attackers were acquitted. It is widely believed that the judgment was given under pressure and intimidation from militants who packed the courtroom at each stage of the proceedings.

Those are not isolated incidents. Crimes against women from religious minorities, especially Christians, continue to escalate. Many women who are raped are forcibly converted to Islam and married off to their rapists or sold into prostitution. In 1999 the organisation Human Rights Watch issued a report on violence against women in Pakistan, saying that there was a virtual epidemic of crimes of violence against women, with domestic violence and rape being used all too frequently in that society.

Many Christians and other minorities fall foul of the blasphemy laws. Four Christians charged with blasphemy have been killed by Islamic extremists since 1992, and attempts have been made on the lives of at least three others. In 1997, a judge who acquitted two Christians on blasphemy charges was murdered by extremists who were angry at his decision.

The case of Ayub Masih has been reported. In April 1998, he was sentenced to death for speaking favourably about Salman Rushdie during a dispute with a Muslim villager. During the hearing, a witness shot Mr. Masih in the courtroom, but no complaint was made against the assailant, and Mr. Masih was sentenced on 27 April. Protesting against the sentence, Bishop John Joseph of Faisalabad, a long-time activist for religious minorities shot himself—committed suicide—on 6 May. It was widely believed that Ayub Masih's accusers hoped to drive the Christian family from the village and gain control of their land. The Pakistan Minister for Law and Justice at the time, Khalid Anwar, acknowledged the possibility and is reported to have said:

The problem in Pakistan remains acute because the state seems unwilling or unable to follow the instincts of some of its leaders to amend the law. My case on behalf of Christians who are being persecuted is that they are not the only ones who stand to gain from change; others, too, would gain. I appreciate that security measures recently implemented by President Musharraf have afforded some further protection for religious minorities, but I hope that the Chamber accepts that more can be done, in view of the cases I have described. To protect against obvious abuse, the blasphemy law needs to be reformed—and, preferably, abolished. Prisoners accused of blasphemy should be housed in separate cells from other inmates. More fundamentally, much greater protection should be afforded to religious minorities throughout Pakistan and, in particular, to women.

In closing, I want briefly to mention two further issues. First, the United States is occasionally vilified over human rights. However, it has both an Office Of

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International Religious Freedom and a Commission On International Religious Freedom, both of which produce regular reports and have a high reputation. It also has a specific religious liberty ambassador, and every United States embassy is required to produce human rights reports in respect of their respective country. We do not have anything comparable to that. Although the annual reports on human rights produced by the Foreign Office are welcome, they lack the thoroughness and systematic sweep of their American equivalents. Can the Minister assure us that our reports will become more detailed and wide-ranging, and will he take on board suggestions to appoint a commission for international religious liberty, or at least something resembling that model?

Secondly, although I gather that some training in human rights is given to staff at the Foreign Office, there is room for improvement. One prominent NGO with which I have some links reported that whereas many desk officers at the Foreign Office are very helpful, some do not appear to make human rights and religious liberties a priority. May I ask that a prominent place is given to both human rights and religious liberty in the training programme for staff? The Minister and his colleagues have asserted that religious liberty is an integral part of their foreign policy. I look forward to renewed initiatives along the lines suggested by myself and the other hon. Members who speak today.

11.33 am

Mr. Andy Reed (Loughborough): I shall keep my comments brief because I know that other hon. Members want to speak. I am grateful for your permission, Mr. Deputy Speaker, to leave at 11.55. As vice-chair of the all-party textiles group, I have a long-standing commitment at the Department of Trade and Industry.

I declare my position as chair of the Parliamentary Christian Fellowship in the same way as my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) declared his Christianity. I congratulate him on that. I declare also that I have formally been asked to join the board of Christian Solidarity Worldwide for some of the work that we have done with it over the years. I hope to promote its work, particularly during the few minutes I have this morning.

In general, I agree with the two previous speakers: religious freedom cannot be considered in isolation from everything else. We have to recognise that it is a fundamental human right, and it must be at the centre of everything that we do as a Government. When we, as Members of Parliament, look at other countries, we must consider what religious freedom means to individuals in those countries and how we can assist them. As the hon. Member for North-East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt) said, this subject is not about being anti-Islam or against any other religion; we are talking about religious freedom across the board. Anything that promotes Christian religious freedom in Asian countries will, rightly, have an impact on the human rights of minorities in those countries. Freedom of expression and association is fundamental to this debate.

Before it seems as though we are being negative, we should recognise that in some parts of Asia, Christianity is flourishing. Those of us who have seen what is

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happening in South Korea, for example, and the number of churches that are growing, do not want to take a blanket anti-Asia tack on the subject of religious freedoms. We must ensure that we speak positively about the many countries that promote Christian and religious freedom.

The opening up of China over the past two decades has resulted in a lot more freedom in many areas. However, the Chinese Government have cracked down heavily on the underground Church over the past few years. As a country, we must work out the best way to work with each of the Asian countries. With its entry into the World Trade Organisation and its opportunity to host the 2008 Olympics, China wants to be a central part of the world community. We therefore have a great opportunity to engage positively with the Chinese Government, to ensure that some of the things that concern us are rectified.

In the past few years, hundreds of pastors and other Christian leaders have been arrested and imprisoned, with some being given long sentences. Five Christian leaders of the South China Church have been sentenced to death, although, fortunately, their sentences have been suspended for two years to allow for appeals. That demonstrates what we are up against. A number of women from the South China Church were tortured and sexually assaulted by their interrogators in an attempt to force them to testify against the main leader, Pastor Gong. Early this year, more than 50 Catholic clerics were arrested or put under surveillance by their Government. Those people were targeted because of their religious beliefs. We should deplore all such actions.

Directives issued by the Chinese Government and other documents show a targeted campaign against a number of evangelical Christian movements and—as we all know—against the Falun Gong religion. Early-day motion 975, which deals with death sentences on Chinese Christians, covers some of those issues and has been signed by nearly 130 MPs. That shows the depth of feeling in the House, across the political divide.

In the past few years, several Christians have died after being tortured in police custody. The official state Churches, both Protestant and Catholic, are subject to heavy interference from the Government. Their doctrine is widely regarded as very liberal, putting loyalty to Government before loyalty to God. Hence, many believers prefer to attend the underground churches and house churches. That makes the state even more nervous about what is happening. There has to be a balance to ensure that the recognised Church is able to flourish so that it is more open and it is less difficult for the Chinese Government and others to understand what it is about.

China is a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council and has ratified various UN conventions. Today, we call on the Government, through their agencies and the United Nations, to ensure that fundamental human rights—in particular, article 18 of the universal declaration on human rights—are observed in China. China's entry into the WTO and its hosting of the 2008 Olympics give us an ideal opportunity to engage positively with it and to demonstrate that Christians are no threat to the current

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status or the current state. We can demonstrate that permitting religious freedom and religious expression will allow problems to be worked out.

As for what our Government can do, I was heartened by the responses that I received to parliamentary questions that I tabled earlier this year. The Government are committed to ensuring that religious freedom is a fundamental part of human rights. However, religious freedom will not at present be included specifically or individually in human rights reports, as we want.

Strangely for me, I think that the Government should follow the United States' example and make religious freedom a specific part of the human rights report on each country. I know that that will entail a little more work, but it will ensure that desk officers and others who monitor what happens in other countries have a much broader understanding of why some freedoms are denied. It is important that they then see the issue in a human rights context, because once a country starts to chip away at the fundamental right of religious freedom, other freedoms will follow.

The plea from most hon. Members present will probably be that we should keep religious freedom as a fundamental right. We must keep it at the heart of our foreign policy, but we must follow up our fine words with a few actions to ensure that reports to Parliament are at the heart of the process. In that way, we will know what is going on not only in Asia, but throughout the world, and we will know where to apply extra pressure so that religious freedom remains genuinely at the heart of our foreign policy.

11.41 am

Mr. Alistair Carmichael (Orkney and Shetland): I congratulate the hon. Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) on securing this debate and on the detailed and highly competent manner in which he introduced it. It always strikes me as strange that we congratulate hon. Members who secure debates in Westminster Hall on winning the ballot—in effect, a raffle—but that we do not comment on what they say after achieving the magnificent feat of having their name pulled out of a hat.

Like other hon. Members, I have to declare an interest. Like the hon. Member for North-East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt), I am a member of Amnesty International, and, like all other hon. Members who have spoken, I am a practising Christian. The hon. Gentleman described himself as an evangelical Christian; I often wonder what a non-evangelical Christian is, but I am aware that I would risk your wrath if I explored that point at any length, Mr. Deputy Speaker, so I shall leave it hanging for another day.

Freedom of religious expression is a fundamental freedom. For a Christian, it must entail not only the freedom to worship, but the freedom to evangelise and proselytise. Without that second element, it is meaningless and sterile; indeed, it is no freedom at all.

Like the hon. Member for Loughborough (Mr. Reed), I shall confine my remarks largely to the Chinese Government's record. I shall be able to keep my speech short because he said much of what I had intended to say. The hon. Member for Stroud said that

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some Christians had fled from North Korea to China. That is ironic—indeed, the expression "out of the frying pan, into the fire" sprang to my mind.

The Chinese Government's record in respect of the Christian community's right to practise is of particular concern to me. It is especially ironic given that article 36 of the Chinese constitution guarantees freedom of religious expression. The manner in which that article is implemented and the restrictions that the hon. Member for Loughborough mentioned mean that the registered churches are unable to bear true witness. There is great dissatisfaction among many Chinese Christians because they are able to express their Christianity only in underground and house churches.

I understand that the vast majority of Protestant Christians in China have opted to join unregistered churches and that about half the Roman Catholics in China practise and worship in that way. Since 1996, that has led to a sometimes violent campaign to close down and destroy many unregistered house churches. In preparation for today's debate, I discovered that police had forced some 400 house churches to close in Shanghai alone. As a Christian, I almost envy them having 400 lively churches to suffer such persecution, but that is a side issue.

I shall not list all the persecutions that Christians, especially those who practise in house churches, have suffered, but I want to place a few on record. In May 1996, five house churches were demolished by public security bureau officials near the town of Wenzhou in the Zhejiang province. In the same month, three large churches in Yongjia county near Wenzhou city were dynamited to the ground. Two of the churches had congregations of more than 1,000 members. Another church in the suburb of Wenzhou was set upon by public security officials, who tried to dismantle it manually with axes; they gave up and instead posted a banned notice on the front of the church.

There have also been violent attacks on individuals. I think in particular of Zhang Xiuju, a 36-year-old woman from Xinhua county in Hunan and a leader of a Protestant house church, who was dragged from her home by the police during the night and beaten to death the following day. The litany goes on and on, but I do not intend to do so. It is all very well identifying the problem; the solution is inevitably a great deal more complex. To that extent, I do not envy the Minister his task.

There is impatience among Christians in this country who are aware of what is happening. We want more than fine words from the Government. We know that the Government regularly raise these matters—I know that because I have corresponded with the Minister about it. I ask the Government to use the time between now and the 2008 Olympic games to draw attention to the whole panoply of human rights abuses in China, especially the persecution of religious minorities such as the Falun Gong and the Christian community.

If we allow ourselves to be seen as tolerating such abuses, the danger is that the view from inside China will be that we are more than tolerating them—that we accept and agree with them. That would be entirely regrettable.

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11.48 am

Bob Spink (Castle Point): I feel quite humble standing to speak after such eloquent, well-informed and passionate speeches. In particular, I congratulate the hon. Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) on bringing this important matter before the House.

Like all the other speakers, the hon. Gentleman called on the Government to promote religious freedom, tolerance and human rights. I accept the Government's sincerity in wishing to promote human rights, good governance and religious freedom, but when I raised the matter in the House on 23 January in proposing new clause 1 to the International Development Bill, the Government opposed linking non-humanitarian development aid to human rights, good governance, religious freedom and the development of democracy. That linkage defines so-called smart aid, which was promoted by the USA in the late 1990s and is now being considered in institutions as strange as the European Union. I hope that the Government will now reconsider those Conservative proposals.

On 23 January, I spoke about the fighters of Laskar Jihad, the militant Islamic group responsible for killing thousands of Christians in the Moluccas and Sulawesi in eastern Indonesia. The conservative estimate is that between 5,000 and 6,000 Christians have been killed so far during the current problems. Laskar Jihad has recently infiltrated the Indonesian province of West Papua. The militants are training local militia who support Indonesian control of that province. The West Papuan-based human rights group, El-sham, reports that currently at least 3,000 Laskar Jihad fighters are there.

The British human rights group, Jubilee Campaign, which I congratulate on its excellent work, has long warned that Laskar Jihad's objective is one of forced Islamicisation and that that strategy is not confined to the Moluccas. It has been implemented through Laskar Jihad's extensive and systematic use of forced conversions against Christians. The militants began by invading the Moluccas in 2000. They then moved to Sulawesi and have now moved to West Papua, where there is a large Christian community. There will be much bloodshed if they are allowed to operate freely there.

Laskar Jihad sent armed fighters into the West Papua district of Fakfak and they are operating military training camps there. Some of the Indonesian authorities support the training that Laskar Jihad has been giving the pro-Jakarta, east Merah Putih militia. Unrest and fear have spread through the Christian community in the Sarong district of West Papua following the recent arrival of Jihad fighters who have been trying to provoke religious tensions there.

In May 2000, Laskar Jihad invaded the Moluccas with about 7,000 fighters to wage a jihad or so-called holy war against the indigenous Christians. That invasion caused unprecedented levels of violence and resulted in the deaths of thousands. In December 2001, the head of Indonesia's national intelligence agency, Lieutenant General Hendropriyono publicly confirmed that members of the al-Qaeda terrorist network were joining Laskar Jihad in fighting against Christians in Sulawesi. Due to pressure from fundamentalist Indonesian politicians, General Hendropriyono later

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retracted the statement. However, he did so only because of political pressure—the facts were totally accurate.

The Malino peace agreement, signed by Muslim and Christian leaders from Sulawesi and the Moluccas indicates that positive steps towards peace are being made. However, it is highly unlikely that there will be any long-term peace until Laskar Jihad is completely removed from that area. A massacre in Soya occurred just a few days after Laskar Jihad publicly rejected the Malino peace agreement. Jafar Umar Talib, the leader of Laskar Jihad, arrived in Ambon on 25 April and his presence added to the religious tensions in that area. During his sermon before a large crowd at the al-Fatah Mosque the next day, just two days before the massacre at Soya village, Jafar said:

That is a statement of unbridled hatred, bigotry and incitement. Shortly after the massacre, the Indonesian Government had Jafar arrested and I hope that they keep him arrested, so that no more such massacres take place.

In Central Sulawesi, about 20,000 Christians have fled from their torched villages to Tentena, a village of about 8,000 inhabitants. The Christians in Tentena are cut off and surrounded by thousands of Islamic fighters; if the Indonesian police and military fail to protect Tentena, there will be massive bloodshed. While President Sukarnoputri's dispatch of thousands of additional soldiers to central Sulawesi is welcome, it is deeply disturbing that those troops have already been reduced in number.

Jubilee Campaign reports that the tragic injustice remains of the desperate plight of 5,000 to 7,000 Christians who have been forced by Muslim militants to convert to Islam in the Moluccas —in the Bacan islands, Buru and Seram. However, the Indonesian Government have so far refused to evacuate the forced converts to a place of safety where they can revert to practising their Christian faith if they so wish.

To prevent further violence against Christian communities in the Moluccas, Sulawesi and West Papua, I urge the Government to put strong pressure on Indonesia to remove all Laskar Jihad members and all other non-local combatants from Sulawesi, the Moluccas and West Papua and to prosecute the Laskar Jihad leader, Jafar. The Indonesian Government should close down Laskar Jihad's head office and ban the organisation. That would offer a more permanent and thorough solution.

It is important to note that it is not only Christians who want Laskar Jihad removed from the Moluccas; many moderate Muslims, including the head of the council of Muslim religious teachers, Abdul Wahab Polpoke, have similar views. They do not agree with the violent and extreme interpretation of Islam that Laskar Jihad propagates through intimidation and violence, and they realise that the Jihad wants to restrict the freedom of moderate Muslims as well.

The British Government should pressure the Indonesian authorities to ensure that there are enough police and troops in the Moluccas and Sulawesi to enforce the peace and to ensure that the security forces act neutrally. Jubilee Campaign reports that on numerous occasions Indonesian police and troops have

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sided with Islamic fighters against Christians, causing much bloodshed. The Indonesian authorities should also be pressured to evacuate urgently to a place of safety all forced converts from Christianity. The Indonesian Government should provide adequate funds, military or police personnel and boats for the Moluccan Church to carry out such evacuations. Failure to evacuate the forced converts to Islam is to condemn them to a lifetime of captivity and intimidation, and to give succour to Islamic death squads.

11.57 am

Dr. Jenny Tonge (Richmond Park): While it is customary to congratulate hon. Members on securing a debate, I have wondered for most of the morning whether this sort of debate helps. I was comforted somewhat by the remarks of the hon. Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew), who kept his remarks general and talked a lot about religious freedom generally, as did his colleague, the hon. Member for Loughborough (Mr. Reed). However, I am uneasy about singling out a particular religion for protection, and some hon. Members have made reference to that.

We should defend the right of all human beings to religious freedom, as the Government's foreign policy states. Surely that is much more in line with the Christian teaching of loving our neighbour. [Interruption.] I am told that everyone has been saying that, but it would be nice if Christian Solidarity Worldwide protested against persecution of members of other religions, and not only Christians.

The hon. Member for Stroud commented on the numbers persecuted, saying that Christians are persecuted more than any other faith. I would like the Minister to comment on that, as I find it an extraordinary pronouncement. I do not think that it helps to do headcounts but, given the troubles in India between Hindus and Muslims, I wonder whether it is accurate. I endorse the remarks of the hon. Member for North-East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt) about Amnesty International, which does an extraordinary job. I, too, am a lifelong member. Amnesty International does an extraordinary job because it does not adhere to a particular faith; it defends all faiths and all freedoms.

It was interesting that the hon. Gentleman, talking about those responsible for persecution, simplistically listed communism, militant Hindus and Islamism, without mentioning that throughout the centuries Christians themselves have persecuted other people viciously and subjected them to all sorts of horrors and tortures. While we hope that that is not going on now, history is there, and nations and groups remember it. We hope that we do much better now, but the debate calls to mind the recent case of the children going to Holy Cross school in Northern Ireland. People who were supposed to be from one religious group were persecuting little children and terrorising them because they were going to the school of another religious group, yet both groups were within Christianity. Let us not be holier than thou.

The hon. Member for Loughborough and my hon. Friend the Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Carmichael) spoke very knowledgeably about China and the Falun Gong, and about the terrible things

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that are going on. We also heard about North Korea. The hon. Member for Castle Point (Bob Spink) spoke about Indonesia, which in recent years has become the country about which I hear most and am lobbied most. Laskar Jihad has a lot to answer for, as the hon. Gentleman said. His call for the Indonesian Government to get rid of it is no doubt supported by everybody in the House. The trouble is that that is easier said than done.

In the past three years, there have been increasing reports of persecution and attacks on Christians. I have heard most about incidents in Indonesia, which is a secular country that prides itself on having a secular Government, even though 85 per cent. of the population are Muslim. As the hon. Gentleman said—I will not repeat it all—Indonesia is infested with Islamists and fundamentalists, Laskar Jihad, with its alleged connections with al-Qaeda, being the most troublesome. I must add that it is using the reaction of the United States to 11 September as an excuse to prosecute its war against Christians in Indonesia.

I hear stories of the chaos. I came across one in The Independent that that

Even when the security forces go in, they divide themselves into Christians and Muslims and start fighting each other, on the pretext that they are defending the population. President Sukarnoputri has been denounced in Indonesia for visiting Hindu temples, and for consorting with Christian America. She has a difficult task to keep her Government together and to do something about the fundamentalists and Islamists, but she is afraid to take a strong line because a terrible hatred of the west, and of America in particular, is strongly linked with Christianity. That is a sad reflection on what has happened in recent years.

Mr. Carmichael : May I suggest to my hon. Friend that while there is profound hatred, and certainly distrust, of America in many eastern and middle eastern countries, that might have as much to do with America's foreign policy and that policy's double standards as with the fact that it is a majority Christian country?

Dr. Tonge : I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. He knows that I entirely agree with him. America has a lot to answer for. The ramifications of its foreign policies go much further than simple military action.

There are other factors in Indonesia, such as economic and educational differences, and we should not neglect them. I do not know enough about Indonesia, and I cannot go on the visit that is being arranged, but I wonder whether the Christian communities are perceived as superior or better off, with a better standard of living than the rest of the population. Perhaps the Minister can tell us. Various independence movements have been dotted all over Indonesia since the independence of East Timor. Is that something to do with the movement? Is that yet another excuse for persecution? Perhaps the Minister will enlighten us on that.

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Of course, it is not only Christians who are being persecuted. Indeed, I have heard reports of Christians destroying mosques. The International Crisis Group report said last year that the conflict can be understood only in the context of entrenched rivalries between two communities, in which both sides commit atrocities against the other. We need to take a balanced view. The problem is to know what to do about that persecution, both worldwide and, for me, especially in Indonesia. I wish that the European Union would intervene more often. We cannot expect America to help—on the diplomatic front, it would be an embarrassment to many Governments in the present circumstances—but the EU could do an awful lot more. In addition, United Nations human rights monitors need to be more widespread in China, Indonesia and North Korea. They need to get in there and see what is going on. Above all, they need to look for underlying causes other than religion that might be stirring up such hatred against Christians.

What are the churches doing about the problem? Where are the bishops and mullahs, and the leaders of the Hindu faiths? What about international, interfaith meetings? Cannot people of different faiths try to put pressure on their Governments to do something about this issue? It is not a matter for Governments alone; it is a matter also for the leaders of the faiths.

In conclusion, I still wish that the debate had been about the persecution of religious communities worldwide and not only Christian communities in Asia.

12.7 pm

Mr. Alan Duncan (Rutland and Melton): I begin by congratulating the hon. Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) on securing the debate. The subject is on the mind of all of us and, judging from the many letters that we receive, it is also on the minds of our constituents.

We live in a fast-changing world, an ever more interconnected world in which the free movement of people and ideas is a fact of everyday life. In such a world, it is ever more important that tolerance and the rights of individuals are respected, including the right to freedom of religion. Although the debate concentrates on Christianity, I mean any religion. Not only is religious freedom a basic tenet of our way of life, it is necessary for interracial and interfaith harmony in the modern world.

We should be clear from the outset that violence against Christian communities in Asia is totally unacceptable. Indeed, all violence against any people on the basis of their religious faith should be utterly condemned. That is certainly what every speaker has said today. We fully support the right of individuals to enjoy life's freedoms without fear of persecution or violation of their most basic human rights.

Since September 11, we have witnessed an unprecedented degree of international co-operation. We should use that co-operation to condemn violations of human rights, and to raise the profile of issues such as religious freedom and put them firmly on the international agenda. It is worth noting that the terrorist attacks on 11 September cost the lives of peoples from every religion, and that the war on terrorism is not a war on Islam but a war on those who would deny people not merely the right to practise their own religion, but the right to live in peace. It is important, in a debate on

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religious freedom, that we should reinforce the message that war on terrorism is not a war on a religion, but on terror.

In Asia, as across the world, there are far too many examples that I could choose to illustrate the points being discussed here, so I shall be selective. It is instructive that the hon. Member for Stroud said that according to a recent report Christians suffer more persecution than any other religious group. Much of that persecution occurs in Asia. He rightly pointed out the condition of Christian groups in the central Asian republics, but I shall focus briefly on Iran, Indonesia, Burma, North Korea and India and Pakistan.

Iran has not been mentioned this morning. We warmly welcome the moves towards reform and economic and political liberalisation being undertaken by President Khatami's Government, but we should not shirk from criticism where it is appropriate. The human rights record of the Iranian Government, including on religious freedom, is depressing. A recent petition circulated among MPs points out that vast numbers of executions and violent punishments have been meted out to Iranian citizens, and calls for an end to that situation. I hope that I will be forgiven for a brief digression into human rights in general, but religious freedom is one of those. The two issues are totally interlinked. We must be firm, but fair, in criticising a record that we believe to be unacceptable.

In Indonesia, there is widespread religious strife, as my hon. Friend the Member for Castle Point (Bob Spink) illustrated in such detail. Lately, many had hoped that the different communities, especially those in the Moluccas, Maluku and Sulawesi, had tired of that violence and were prepared to live together. Recently, moderate groups on both sides sought to bring the communities together again to live in peace. We also hoped that the attacks—not only those by one side against the other, but those on all moderates who talked of reconciliation—would cease. However, the attacks did not simply involve Muslims attacking Christians; the Hindu community, too, was vulnerable to violence.

Laskar Jihad, as my hon. Friend the Member for Castle Point has argued, is a group that is frequently mentioned in the context of interfaith violence in Indonesia. Although it has been suggested that that group has done some social good in some areas, perhaps improving the economic position of some impoverished groups, it has also been a driving force in communal violence, intent on carrying out jihad in a violent manner that is in no way consistent with authentic Islamic conduct. On that point, my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt) drew the crucial distinction between Islam, which we defend, and Islamism, which he defined as the violent assertion of Islam, holding the objective of vanquishing other faiths. The latter we condemn.

In Burma, we welcome the release of Aung Sung Suu Kyi as a step towards democracy and greater freedom, but it is only a small step, and we should be clear about the deplorable human rights situation in that country today. A lack of basic human rights tends to be reflected in the treatment of and attitude toward religious freedoms. Will the Minister elaborate on his Government's policy towards Burma and say what

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further steps might be taken to put pressure on the military regime and leadership there, and whether some targeted sanctions might yet be implemented?

I pay tribute to the valuable work done by NGOs such as the Burma Campaign UK and Christian Solidarity Worldwide, which has been mentioned this morning, in keeping the terrible situation in Burma and elsewhere in the public eye.

Bob Spink : Will my hon. Friend please add Jubilee Campaign to his list?

Mr. Duncan : I am very happy to add Jubilee Campaign, which does much good work, to my list. That was a grave omission on my part, for which I apologise.

As the hon. Member for Stroud said in his opening comments, it is in North Korea that we see some of the worst persecution of Christian groups. The system there is brutal and oppressive and violence is routinely used to enforce the Government line. As he pointed out, Kim Il Sung established a cult of personality. He attempted to deify himself, so adherence to any religion, but in particular to Christianity, is viewed as an overt challenge to the regime. Arrest and execution or imprisonment await Christians when discovered. Christian Solidarity Worldwide, whose work I wholeheartedly commend to the House, has done a lot of work and research in North Korea.

The tales of camps are chillingly resonant of what happened in Europe in the late 1930s. Christians are incarcerated, routinely beaten or worked to death. Recantation of their Christian faith or death appear to be the only forms of release from the ordeal. I hope that today's debate will bring attention to bear on this oft- forgotten situation. I shall not dwell upon North Korea any longer, as the hon. Member for Stroud focused on it in detail and told us, and a wider audience, what is going on there.

The communal violence recently witnessed in India and Pakistan has been horrific. There has been appalling violence not only in Gujarat, but by Muslims against Christians in Pakistan, and by Hindus against Christians in India, but we should not forget that the worst violence has been between Hindus and Muslims. The crux of the issue is not simply violence against Christians, but interfaith violence of any sort. We welcome the assurances offered by President Musharraf of Pakistan last year: he said that Christians would receive state protection for themselves and their property. However, attacks such as that by extremists on the Christian community in Quetta remain a threat, and we hope that the President's offers are backed up with firm action.

In Tibet, the same basic principles apply. We believe that the people of Tibet have the right to live their lives in peace and to enjoy the freedom to practise their religion free from unwarranted persecution. We must be clear that violence against any group on the basis of their religion is unacceptable, as are blatant abuses of human rights.

We are not advocating a missionary approach: it is not our role to encourage those who attempt to convert people, or break laws on such matters in the countries in which they live. However, where violence is used or

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tolerated against people practising their beliefs peacefully, we will and must take a stand against it. We welcome the moves in countries such as Indonesia to clamp down on such violence and to promote better interfaith relations, and we hope that that course will be pursued with renewed vigour. We must make it clear to countries and regimes that are not prepared to clamp down on the oppression of or violence against Christians or any religious group on the basis of their faith that that is wholly unacceptable.

I have touched on a number of examples, and we could all produce many more. I will conclude however with a quote from Steven McFarland, Executive Director of the US Commission on International Religious Freedom, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Castle Point referred. On 11 October last year, he said:

I wholeheartedly endorse that view.

12.18 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr. Denis MacShane) : We have had an excellent debate with some thoughtful, passionate and detailed speeches. I am conscious of the issue of religious persecution because the church in my Rotherham constituency that I attend for midnight mass is called the Forty Martyrs. Anybody who has been brought up as a Catholic is well aware of the assaults that one faith can bring to bear on another.

I welcomed the comment by the hon. Member for North-East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt) about Amnesty International. Religious freedom is one with and indivisible from other human freedoms. Therein lies the importance of today's debate, initiated by my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) in a powerful and convincing speech. I shall try to address all hon. Members' points, but if I do not cover everything, hon. Members are free to write to me and I shall go into further detail.

The 1948 universal declaration on human rights is our starting point. Article 18 is unambiguous:

That is at the heart of Government policy. However, article 18 is qualified by an appeal to all religions not to demand that their particular perspective dominates public policy to the exclusion of others. That relates to the positions taken by different religions on issues such as gay rights, women being allowed to control their own bodies, and even the demand that religious perspectives are put into governmental or international state policy.

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In that sense, my fundamental belief as a man of belief is that international relations must be secular. Religious freedom, like the freedom to say what one wants, to travel where one wants and to assemble and organise as one wants, is a common and fundamental human freedom.

The Government unreservedly condemn the persecution of individuals because of their faith, wherever they are and whatever religion they practise. Our EU partners, the United States and the UK urge states to pursue laws and practices that foster tolerance and mutual respect and to protect religious minorities against discrimination, intimidation and attacks. Wherever possible, we aim to work with officials, religious leaders and non-governmental organisations both internationally and locally to promote mutual understanding and tolerance. For example, we co-sponsored a resolution at this year's meeting of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights in Geneva to work towards eliminating all forms of religious intolerance. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary travelled to Geneva to deliver the UK statement to the commission, which is the primary world forum for standard setting and discussion on human rights. He is the first Foreign Secretary to take the human rights work at the UN Commission so seriously that he went himself rather than dispatch one of his junior minion Ministers.

We work closely not only with fellow Governments, the EU and the UN, but with NGOs. The UK is home to some of the world's most renowned human rights NGOs such as Anti-Slavery International, Amnesty International, Christian Solidarity Worldwide, the Catholic Agency for Overseas Development, and Oxfam, and we have seen great movements such as the "drop the debt" campaign and the trade justice movement, which recently lobbied Parliament. Under the Labour Government, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office seeks to open its doors, share information and draw upon the expertise and commitment of NGOs in the policy-making process.

The FCO has a religious freedom panel that represents nearly all faiths. I had the honour of opening its last discussion, to which representatives of UK-based NGOs including Christian Solidarity Worldwide and representatives of different religions came to share information, discuss strategies and promote international religious freedom.

We support practical projects to promote human rights and religious freedom around the world. This year, for example, the FCO funded a project in west bank universities to incorporate human rights into religious education. We support the work of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe through its Office of Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, which offers technical assistance on legislation to help guarantee freedom of religion. The OSCE's advisory panel of experts on freedom of religion helped to develop a package for Armenian schools on religious tolerance, to prepare a draft law on the status of religious associations in Bosnia-Herzegovina, and to expand a website to identify and gather examples of legislative best practice on freedom of religion.

Those are small, step-by-step practical bricks in constructing the edifice of human rights around the world, and they will be discussed in the next issue of the

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human rights report, which I have in draft form on my desk at the moment. For me, the US State Department's human rights report has long been a green bible—I refer to its covers, not its content—but I do not think that it makes sense for Britain to duplicate page by page what the United States, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch currently do so well.

Our ambassadors, I as a Minister, and other Ministers take up key cases. In particular, we have raised with the Chinese authorities the question of allowing their people the right to freedom of religious belief. We have raised individual cases, such as that of Su Zhimin, an unofficial Catholic bishop, Li Dexian, a Protestant house church leader, and Pastor Gong Shengliang, leader of the South China Church. This week in Beijing, my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary raised issues of religious freedom with the Chinese Foreign Minister. We have a similar perspective on the Philippines. We welcome the action taken by the Indonesian Government against Laskar Jihad, in particular, the arrest of its leader, Jafar Umar Talib.

On North Korea, which is of particular interest to me as the Minister responsible, I can assure my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud, who spoke very eloquently about it, that that country will feature more prominently in this year's human rights report. The reason is that we now have an embassy in Pyongyang and can report directly from the country. Those who want to impose sanctions, or tie aid to particular conditions, must reflect that only through engagement can British Government officials, NGOs, British Council officials and others start to build networks to support human rights issues, in particular, religious freedom.

I can assure hon. Members that in all my meetings with North Korean officials and in written communications with the North Korean Government, it is made clear that we expect human rights issues to be addressed, as well as wider problems of terrorism, missile proliferation and the deployment of long-range ballistic missiles. Such matters are an essential part of our new dialogue with the North Korean Government. We will continue to ask the North Korean authorities to allow human rights monitors open access to different parts of the country so that they can seek out information on the camps to which my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud referred.

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The hon. Member for North-East Bedfordshire referred to the use of the blasphemy law in Pakistan. We must examine that issue a little closer to home, because I do not see how any modern country can keep blasphemy legislation on its statute books. I completely agree with his point that crimes against women take place under the guise of asserting religious supremacy.

Mr. Alan Duncan : Is it now Government policy to wish to remove the blasphemy laws in Britain?

Mr. MacShane : Lord Avebury has a Committee working on that matter. We need to look at it, because it is very hard to condemn one country for using or keeping on its statute book laws that allow the persecution or prosecution of any one religion, when we have not looked at the beams and motes in our own eye—as the hon. Gentleman could read in the Bible. There is no Government policy position on that matter as yet, but if it is our intention to be consistent, we should remember that consistency, like charity, begins at home.

My hon. Friend the Member for Loughborough (Mr. Reed) mentioned the need for more reporting back to Parliament. I agree with him. I think that I heard him describe Falun Gong as a religion, but my understanding is that Falun Gong explicitly says that it is not a religion. There is a very difficult question of interpretation for Governments to consider when getting into the field of Scientologists, Moonies and some of the odd cults in the United States.

I strongly agree with the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Carmichael) about the need to use the period between now and the 2008 Olympic games to raise these issues with China. The hon. Member for Richmond Park (Dr. Tonge) said that we should not be holier than thou. As a Liberal Democrat, she is an expert on that. The hon. Member for Rutland and Melton (Mr. Duncan) talked about Iran and referred to Christians, but we should also remember the persecution of Jews and the Ba'hai faith in that country. He referred to Burma—or Myanmar, because Burma is part of Myanmar in the same way that Holland is part of the Netherlands—and we will take that matter up as well—

Mr. James Cran (in the Chair): Order.

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