Barnabas Edit: UK MPs unite on Christians persecution

December 16, 2013 by  
Filed under newsletter-lead


The debate was secured by Jim Shannon of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP)

The debate was secured by Jim Shannon of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP)

Pakistan, December 12, 2013: “Let us be honest: if this were happening to almost any other religious group it would be something of a national scandal. That makes it all the more important to put the ongoing persecution of Christians in many parts of the world on the political map.”

The persecution of Christians around the world was the subject of an impassioned debate in the House of Commons last week.

The well-attended three-hour session on 3 December followed a number of other key debates and statements on the topic by British politicians in recent weeks.

On 16 November, Baroness Warsi, the UK’s first Minister for Faith, made the persecution of Christians the subject of a pivotal speech at Georgetown University in Washington DC, describing it as “a global crisis” that requires an international response.

This was preceded by debates involving both MPs and Lords on the plight of Christians in the Middle East.

Last week’s debate was secured by Jim Shannon, Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) MP for Strangford. As with the previous ones, Barnabas Fund was able to provide MPs with material to inform their contributions, and it was clear that they had taken note of its content, as well as of reports supplied by other Christian organisations.

In opening the debate, Mr Shannon outlined how “Christianity is the most persecuted religion globally” with “reports that one Christian is killed every 11 minutes somewhere on earth for their faith”. His motion called on the Government “to do more both in its foreign policy and through its aid work to defend and support people of Christian faith”.

The motion attracted cross-party support, with numerous MPs speaking out in strong and uncompromising terms against the way Christians are being targeted for their faith.

Sir Tony Baldry, Conservative MP for Banbury, said:

There is now practically no country – from Morocco to Pakistan – in which Christians can freely practise their religion. That must be a matter of real concern to this House.

A number of comparisons were drawn with the Holocaust. Sammy Wilson, DUP MP for East Antrim, said:

When the Nazis carried out such acts in concentration camps we pursued the prison guards and those responsible to the ends of the earth, to prosecute them and to make sure they were brought to justice, yet it seems there is not the same response when it comes to the persecution of Christians.

He said that this was not to do with just the Government but with the media also, adding:

I thought it was striking that when 80 Christians were blown up at the beginning of November (sic) as they worshiped in Pakistan, the BBC found it so important that it came below the Emmy awards in the news agenda. That seems to be the level of seriousness that is attached to such issues.

I was particularly impressed with comments made by Rehman Chishti, Conservative MP for Gillingham and Rainham, who comes from a Muslim background; his father was an imam. He spoke emphatically, denouncing the persecution of Christians that is taking place in 130 of the world’s 190 countries as “completely and utterly unacceptable”.

Mr Chishti focused his speech on Pakistan, where he was born, and in particular the country’s controversial “blasphemy laws”. I will return to his specific comments about that in my editorial next week.

DILUTING THE ISSUE

Government minister Mark Simmonds tried to broaden out the issue

Government minister Mark Simmonds tried to broaden out the issue

The outrage and determination of the backbench MPs stood in stark contrast to the limp response of the two frontbenchers, representing the government and the opposition, who both attempted to dilute the issue by broadening it out rather than focusing on the persecution of Christians.

Speaking for the government, Mark Simmonds, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, made a number of comments such as this:

It is not just Christians but people of other religions who are suffering such persecution.

And:
We should not be standing up for our co-religionists or Christians in particular; we should be supporting the right to freedom of religion or belief for all.

His shadow minister Kerry McCarthy of Labour did likewise, referring frequently to human rights in general rather than the persecution of Christians in particular:

I do not think that we should start carving up human rights by saying that some abuses are worse than others. That would be entirely wrong, because there are countries in which people of other faiths are being persecuted and killed, and we see persecution when we look at violence against women and attacks on LGBT communities. I accept that the persecution of Christians is a growing problem and that it is horrific in many countries, but I just do not think that we should divide it up.

The backbenchers did not let Mr Simmonds and Ms McCarthy get away with this, taking them to task time and again for trying to divert attention away from the matter in hand, and calling for a more robust response.

Sir Edward Leigh, Conservative MP for Gainsborough, said that if they were to accept the minister’s argument, “we should not have complained about the persecution of Jews in Nazi Germany”, adding later:

I have heard this Foreign Office speech many times before. Dare I say that I do not detect a sense of burning anger about what is happening to Christians? This is something that has increased, and it is one of the most terrible things happening in the world today… Everyone who has taken part in this debate demand that the Government take this more seriously and speak out more powerfully.

Sir Tony Baldry was equally forceful, arguing that it was “not sufficient to say that because some other people are being persecuted, we should not be concerned about the persecution of Christians”. He told the frontbenchers said that House was “not prepared to continue to stand by while there is global persecution of Christians. They should not think that the line they want to take is sufficient.”

FINANCIAL LEVERAGE

But at least Mr Simmonds and Ms McCarthy were there, which is more than can be said for the Department for International Development (DFID).

Fiona Bruce, Conservative MP for Congleton, who brought the previous debate on the persecution of Christians in the Middle East, said that she was “disappointed” by the absence of a DFID representative. She called on the department to prioritise tackling anti-Christian persecution through its aid provision.

Stephen Pound, Labour MP for Ealing North, provided some figures for the amount of aid Britain has allocated between 2010 and 2015 to a number of countries where Christians are suffering severe persecution: £1.392 billion to Pakistan, £1 billion to Nigeria, £710 million toAfghanistan and £643 million to Tanzania.

A number of MPs called for the government to use financial leverages against countries where Christians are persecuted by attaching conditions to its aid programme and trade agreements.

The DUP’s Sammy Wilson got to the heart of the matter:

When we point to and specify the persecution of Christians, perhaps we are actually pointing the finger at Governments who, possibly for political reasons, we sometimes need as allies, and at Governments who, for commercial reasons, we need as trade partners. If that is the reason we are not prepared to be specific about this persecution, it is a great shame on the Government of our country.

The minister, Mr Simmonds, tried to stress “how seriously the Foreign and Commonwealth Office takes this issue”, but the examples he gave of measures that are being deployed to address it fell far short of the MPs’ demands. He spoke repeatedly in terms such as, “raising issues”, “condemning violence” and “convening meetings”.

The question for the government now is whether or not it is prepared to put its money where its mouth is.

PLEA TO PRAY

I was extremely impressed by the many backbench MPs who took such a dogged stand on behalf of persecuted Christians and was particularly heartened to hear some of them testify to their own personal Christian faith, something that I could hardly believe I was hearing in the House of Commons.

I would like to end with a few lines from Labour MP Stephen Pound, who made a heartfelt plea for people to pray for suffering Christians in the run-up to Christmas:

We must assist wherever we can financially and materially and we must raise the profile, but we must never, ever forget to pray for our fellow co-religionists. The power of prayer is immense and it has an incredible force. Let us never forget suffering Christians in our prayers. Let us continue to do that. Advent might be a couple of days old, but this is a powerful season for prayer.

– patrick sookhdeo

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