Fiona Bruce: Let’s make freedom of belief for life – not just for Christmas

23 Dec

Fiona Bruce MP is the Prime Minister’s Special Envoy for Freedom of Religion or Belief, and is MP for Congleton.

I have been the Prime Minister’s Special Envoy for Freedom of Religion or Belief (FoRB) for a year now now – so a lot of reports about violations of FoRB have reached me. Accounts of people losing their homes, jobs, livelihoods, freedom, even their lives, simply on account of what they believe. So, you would think that I might be inured to accounts of suffering.

However, I can say without hesitation that the report last month from Aid to the Church in Need, Hear Her Cries, moved me more than any other I have read.

After I had finished reading it, I just sat and cried, reading accounts from brave women of their kidnapping, forced conversion, sexual victimisation and unimaginable suffering.

Like little Farah aged just 12, a Christian girl from Faisalabad, who was abducted by men who forced their way into her grandfather’s home and took her.

During five months of sexual enslavement, she was shackled and forced to work long hours cleaning animal dung in her abductor’s yard.

Farah said: “I was chained most of the time… It was terrible. They put chains on my ankles and tied me with a rope. I tried to cut the rope and get the chains off but I couldn’t manage it. I prayed every night, saying: ‘God, please help me.’ ”

Her ankles were wounded where she was shackled. The court ruled the marriage unlawful, but no action was taken against Farah’s abductor. However, this report has to do more than just move us to tears: it has to move us to action.

As Liz Truss, said recently, announcing a major Ministerial conference on Freedom of Religion or Belief to be hosted by the UK next year in London: “There are still too many places around the world where practising one’s religion, or having no religion, can cost you your freedom or even your life. The challenges to these freedoms continue to grow in different shapes and forms around the world. So we must act.”

We must act to fight for change so that the hundreds, indeed thousands of women and girls who have suffered and indeed continue to suffer like this have hope for change.

We must ensure there is much wider help in terms of humanitarian assistance for such women, and more extensive training in specialised trauma counselling. We need to call out when authorities in countries turn a blind eye or, tragically, even condone at times such action where the legal system fails them. We must ensure that steps are taken against the perpetrators to hold them to account. We must better learn how to identify early warning signs to avert atrocities, and work with others in the international community to better do so together. We must better understand the double jeopardy of women who are members of religious minorities – often also amongst the poorest and most vulnerable in their societies.

Many will have seen on the news the dreadful plight of Afghans, now at the mercy of the Taliban, attempting to escape. I have spoken directly to members of several religious communities, including Christians, Sikhs, Muslims and Hazaras, and the non-governmental organisations supporting them.

Those who do not submit to the beliefs of the Taliban are frequently at risk of losing their life, and some have lost their lives. We heard of some thousand Hazaras who had been thrown out of their homes and were wandering the countryside, with a dozen or so found by others beheaded at the roadside.

As I told the Prime Minister in the penultimate PMQs before Christmas, there are individuals who have targets on their head just because of their belief now waiting on the UK and other countries to give them the promised gift of refuge before the end of Christmas

One of my Christmas wishes is for the planned Afghan Citizens Resettlement Scheme (ACRS) to include some people from such religious minority groups. The U.K. can be proud of its efforts to evacuate 18,000 people from Afghanistan to the U.K. since 15th August.  More recently, specific vulnerable groups like women judges, footballers and LGBT members have been given protection.

However, as efforts shift to progressing the ACRS it is important that some of the first tranche include religious minorities because of their acute vulnerability.

So as we approach Christmas this year with concerns about restrictions on our ability to see family to see family and friends, spare a thought or a prayer for those in countries like Afghanistan, Nigeria and Pakistan who wake up each year on Christmas Day worrying for their own survival as a result of their religion or belief.

This matters for us all. As the Prime Minister said at this time a year ago, “We all know that wherever freedom of belief is under attack, other human rights are under attack as well”.

We all need to work together – Government, Parliament and civil society – and we need to ensure that this fundamental human right is upheld for generations to come.

That’s why I have launched a nationwide campaign with my newly appointed Deputy Special Envoy, David Burrowes, to ‘EndThePersecution’ with a particular focus on young people, creating Young Ambassadors for FoRB so that they can continue to champion this cause.So let’s be resolved in 2022 to make freedom of religion or belief for life not just for Christmas.

Chris Whitehouse: One elderly recipient burst into tears with joy that we had made the delivery. My own story of anti-communist smuggling.

29 Mar

Chris Whitehouse leads the team at his public affairs agency, The Whitehouse Consultancy.

Reading the article by Harry Phibbs about his youthful exploits smuggling leaflets into the then communist Soviet Union, I admit it, I too was a smuggler. In my case a smuggler of books into the then communist Czechoslovakia through an informal network in which my contact was Alex Tomsky [see here and here] who was a senior figure in the charity, Aid to the Church in Need, which supports persecuted Christians around the world, particularly, back then, in the then Eastern Bloc. Tomsky was known by Margaret Thatcher and lent her a book every month for three years.

I made the run to Prague three times (1988-1989), each time accompanied by a different friend, two of whom I cannot name, but the third trip was with David Paton, now Professor of Industrial Economics at Nottingham University.

The deal was simple. A benefactor (not the charity itself) would pay the flight and hotel cost for a budget weekend break in Prague. As book-runners, we would place our own things in the hand luggage, but the main suitcase was filled with books. Our task was to take that suitcase through customs checks and then deliver it to an address we were given.

We were assured that there was not much chance of us being caught, books not being as detectable as, say, drugs or explosives; and that if we were caught the outcome would likely be an interview with the authorities, a night in the cells, then deportation. It seemed a great prospect for an adventure, with little downside. But, for those to whom we were delivering the books the risks were much greater. Their interrogation would no doubt be much more robust and intense, and the subsequent spell in prison, indefinite.

The books were a variety. Bible tracts to political pamphlets; George Orwell classics to Ivan Klima and first editions of Czech writers whose manuscripts had been smuggled out of the country on trips by other smugglers. The recipients were yearning for this content to feed their craving for news and for new ideas, for hope that the situation might change.

One elderly recipient actually burst into tears with joy and relief that we had made the delivery – then a sobering dark cloud descended on a young Chris Whitehouse. As the books that we’d smuggled were unpacked, I realised with a shock that one of those pamphlets was one of which I had been the author, on the subject of abortion law reform. That somebody would be willing to risk a long prison sentence, in God knows what conditions, for something that I had written and published with no thought of its value, was a truly humbling moment.

We met a wide range of subversives, from Catholic priests to punk underground bands, from intellectuals to the publishers of samizdat leaflets; and we got an early liking for real Budwar and Pilsner Urquell beers long before they were widely available in the West, even meeting for drinks with the team who were working closely with Vaclav Havel who went on to be President of the country with the fall of communism in Czechoslovakia following the “velvet revolution” in 1989.

The only downside for this trip was that at that time, wheels on suitcases were not that common, and I’m sure my arms stretched a little carrying that full case of books through customs trying to make it seem so much lighter than it was.

But this was not my first experience of communism and the excitement of visiting the Eastern Bloc. My first visit was to communist Poland in 1981 as a guest of the “official” trades union movement in that country. To be fair, they treated us well, with time in both Warsaw and Lodz, followed by a trip to Gdansk where we were allowed to meet the local Solidarity leader, soon to be President, Lech Walesa. We hadn’t expected this, and had come unprepared, so we took a collection in Western currency (then worth in cash much more than the official rate) to contribute to the movement’s funds. Our guides were shocked, but there wasn’t much they could do about it.

Martial law was declared in Poland that same year, but communism fell in November 1989 after the Berlin Wall came down on 9th November. I had also visited the Wall, in 1981, whilst on a trip to East Germany with the British East German Friendship Society that offered a week-long tour to foster relations between the two peoples for just £100. I wasn’t, needless to say, a supporter of the communist government of that country, but at that price, who could decline? Every town we visited had a prominent display of opposition to the deployment of cruise missiles by the United States of America.

Crossing the East German border on a train at midnight, whilst it was being searched by guards with Alsatian dogs was an experience I’ll never forget.

On all those visits, the strongest emotions were of excitement on my part, but of fear and resentment amongst the people. We weren’t to know it at the time, but those were the dying years of the Soviet Bloc. The people we met weren’t without hope, not anywhere we went, but they were definitely without expectation.

Edward Leigh: If Pakistan won’t crack down on the kidnapping of young girls, we should cut off aid

24 Nov

Sir Edward Leigh is Member of Parliament for Gainsborough.

On 13th October, in Karachi, Pakistan, 13-year-old Catholic girl Arzoo Raja, was kidnapped in broad daylight by a 44-year-old man called Ali Azhar. Her parents were told she had converted to Islam and decided to marry him.

Her parents went straight to the police and produced a National Database and Registration Authority (NADRA) birth certificate showing she is 13. They argued the marriage was invalid in line with the Sindh Child Marriage Restraint Act, that forbids marriage to anyone under the age of 18.

Yet, on 29th October, the Karachi High Court ruled that she was neither abducted nor had she been forced to marry.

Three days later, after protests and international criticism, the court changed its mind and Arzoo was “recovered” and placed in a women and girls’ shelter. There was a medical examination of Arzoo which found she is “around 14 years of age”. Her abductor is now on judicial remand and Arzoo is still in the shelter.

Unfortunately, cases such as Arzoo’s are not uncommon in Pakistan. In April, another Catholic girl, 14-year-old Maira Shahbaz, was bundled into a car at gunpoint by three men during the lockdown in Madina Town, near Faisalabad.

As with Arzoo, Maira’s mother was told her daughter had married one of the men who abducted her, Mohamad Nakash Tariq, and converted to Islam.

Maira’s family also went to the police with a NADRA birth certificate. This time it showed she was 14. Nakash said she was 19. The case went to court and eventually the Lahore High Court ruled in Mr Nakash’s favour. The marriage was valid. She had “embraced Islam”.

Two weeks after this decision, Maira escaped Nakash and went straight to the police. She told them:

“I found myself at an unknown place where the accused forced me to have a glass of juice that contained some intoxicant. I was semi-conscious at that moment and the accused raped me forcefully and also filmed me naked. When I came to my senses, I started shouting and requesting them to release me…They threatened to murder my whole family. They have also shown me my naked video and pictures which they have taken on their mobile while raping me.”

Maira is now on the run, with extremist mobs going door-to-door looking for her. In their eyes, she is an apostate and they will kill her if they find her. This is why for #RedWednesday this year, Aid to the Church in Need have launched a campaign calling on Maira to be granted asylum to the UK so that she can rebuild her life free of this threat. They have launched a petition which has been signed by over 8,500 people.

Sumera Shafique, her lawyer, said: “Maira’s life is in constant danger because she is condemned as an apostate by her abductor and his supporters. Unless Maira and her family can leave Pakistan they will always be at risk of being killed.”

These are not isolated examples. The Movement for Solidarity and Peace in Pakistan calculate that every year in Pakistan, up to 1,000 Christian and Hindu girls and young women between the ages of 12 and 25 are abducted.

Pakistan is the biggest recipient of UK aid. It is reported that we pay an estimated £383,000 per day in aid to Pakistan. Over 20 years, it adds up to £2.8 billion. In 2019/20 we sent £302 million. In 2018/19 it was £325 million. Should we really send such a large sum of taxpayers’ money to a country where women are treated so poorly? What message are we sending by funding a country that treats its religious minorities so abhorrently?

Cases like Arzoo and Maira’s are endemic in a society that has serious issues with its treatment of women and religious minorities. To be both a Christian and a woman in Pakistan is a double jeopardy. The ostracisation they face on a daily basis puts them in a dangerous position. They are soft targets for predatory and rapacious men. For example, Maira had been forced to drop out of school and work because her family are so poor. That she also has no father around made her more vulnerable.

Archbishop Sebastian Shaw of Lahore spoke to ACN about the kidnappings of these girls, condemning it as a “crime”. He said: “Yes [abductions of under-age girls] are happening” and added that “there have been many kidnappings recently.”

He added: “Kidnapping is a crime. It has to be treated as one. This is the only way to stop it. The girls are usually 14, 15. The men often already have one wife. They can be 25 or older. They can be younger, more like 20.”

As Archbishop Shaw rightly points out, both Azhar, Arzoo’s abductor, and Nakash Tariq, Maira’s abductor, were middle-aged and already married with children. Nakash Tariq has two young children. Archbishop Shaw also raised another motivation for the men. He said: “It is lust. They think ‘she is pretty I want her’. It is a crime. But it has a possible religious component too.”

According to these men, the girls, of their own volition, decided to convert and get married. Yet, a number of questions arise. Why is it only ever young girls so desperate to convert to Islam? Why never young boys? Why never middle-aged women? Why never middle-aged men?

Further, quite why Maira would need to be bundled into a car at gunpoint – an event captured on CCTV – when she was converting of her own desire is unclear. And if Arzoo was such a willing convert and would-be bride, why was she only taken as soon as her parents left for work?

The evidence suggests that the problem of abduction, rape, and forced marriage and conversion to Islam of underage girls of religious minorities is a serious problem in Pakistan. ACN told me that their contacts estimate that there are probably far more than 1,000 cases each year, but families are too scared or too poor to raise them.

The UK needs to use its position as a global power, and generous benefactor of Pakistan, to deal with this problem. It is unclear to me the wisdom of sending such an administration vast sums of money. Perhaps for the government of Pakistan to bring about the requisite change, we need to hit them where it hurts: their coffers.