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.