I understand the strength of feeling on this issue – where freedom of religion or belief is under attack, other fundamental freedoms often face threat as well. I am appalled by the persecution suffered by millions of Christians across the world who seek only to practise their beliefs openly, in peace and safety. Here in the West those freedoms are all too often taken for granted.
This is an issue upon which there is much Parliamentary consensus, and that within Government, much cross-departmental work is being done on these issues. I am pleased that the Government has recently launched an independent review looking at the persecution of Christians.
In order to expand its efforts to tackle religious persecution, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) has established an expert advisory group, increasing training to improve its religious literacy and using these insights to inform Government work in international bodies and individual countries. In January, the FCO also announced the £10.6 million Magna Carta Fund for Human Rights and Democracy 2016/17 programme, which encourages strong bids for projects focused on promoting freedom of religion or belief. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office has recently reissued its toolkit on Freedom of Religion or Belief (FoRB) to all of our overseas embassies and missions across the world and encouraged them to promote and defend this important human right. Additional funding of £12 million has also been made available through UK Aid Connect, to work with faith groups, NGOs and academics to promote religious diversity and help countries worldwide embed FoRB policies alongside poverty reduction and development.
I can assure you that the Government is motivated by deep concern for religious communities in the Middle East. Ministers have stressed the importance of guaranteeing religious freedom when working with the Lebanese Government and the new Government in Iraq. Additionally, the Government is prioritising reaching the most vulnerable people across Syria, including Christians and those who have suffered from the ongoing violence, with its extensive aid programme.
With regards to recognition of genocide in Syria, please be assured that the Government firmly believes genocide has indeed taken place. However, as I understand it, genocide is a matter of legal rather than political opinion, and any determination on whether genocide has occurred is strictly a matter for the international judicial system. The UK seeks an end to all violations of International Humanitarian Law, and to prevent their further escalation, irrespective of the definition of specific international crimes. Britain is supporting the gathering and preservation of evidence that could be used in future to hold Daesh to account. British and international justice have a long reach and a long memory, and will track down those who commit these atrocities and hold them to account, no matter how long it takes.
Ultimately, the best way to prevent future atrocities against Christians is to defeat Daesh and its violent ideology. That’s why the UK is playing a leading role in a Global Coalition of 66 countries to respond to Daesh’s inhumanity. The Coalition is attacking Daesh militarily, squeezing its finances, disrupting the flow of fighters, challenging its poisonous ideology and working to stabilise liberated areas.
The Government continues to work with non-governmental organisations to seek improvements on the ground. I know that this has included funding groups such as Christian Solidarity Worldwide, an organisation that works to defend the freedom of religion or belief, both in the Middle East, and more widely. During this tax year, the Government is spending £758,000 on freedom of religion projects worldwide, including in Pakistan and Iraq.
One project is helping to develop lesson plans for secondary school teachers in the Middle East and North Africa. The aim is to teach children about religious tolerance, religious acceptance, and the absolute right to freedom of religion or belief. I strongly believe that teaching children in that way is a vital part of promoting tolerance and respect at grassroots level and of helping to build future resilience against extremism.