Britain should “turn the taps off” on aid to countries that fail to protect their Christian populations from persecution, a Catholic former trade minister has said.
During a Commons debate on Christian persecution, Tory Sir Edward Leigh singled out the Nigerian government and said it should be “held to account” for growing levels of targeting of worshippers and churches in parts of the country.
He added: “How are we helping when we are sending hundreds of millions of pounds to Governments that completely fail to protect their Christian citizens?
“We shouldn’t be afraid, I believe, to turn off the tap when there are lives on the line.
“We need to question countries with Islamist governments on why they will not allow freedom of worship and religion.”
Earlier in the debate, shadow Foreign Office minister Fabian Hamilton questioned whether Britain should be beholden to countries that abuse religious groups for trade deals.
He said: “How far (should we) compromise our very high moral values in this country in favour of trade deals that we desperately need?”
Mr Hamilton also asked for confirmation on whether the Prime Minister or Foreign Secretary has ever raised the persecution of Christian minorities within China with the authorities there.
He added: “I fear that our current Prime Minister is instead walking the footsteps of his predecessor (Theresa May) who was praised and acclaimed by the Chinese state media after her visit to the country last year for, and I quote, ‘sidestepping the issue of human rights’.”
Labour MP Lyn Brown (West Ham) said: “The protection of these rights needs to be at the heart of UK foreign policy.
“We need to do everything possible to ensure that people have the right to pursue their beliefs without fear.
“The Government has been asked multiple times about its position on the breaches of human rights in China and elsewhere, and once I’ve heard nice words and that our concerns are shared, I am anxious that the Government’s response has lacked depth.
“Dare I say, it has lacked courage.
“The severity of this situation calls for a stronger reaction and a clear declaration of intent.
“Statements of concerns for our Government simply are not enough.
“The Foreign and Commonwealth Office needs to be more than an extended Department of Trade because we, we who are in Britain, if we won’t stand up for those who cannot stand up for ourselves, who are we?”
Tory Andrew Selous (South West Bedfordshire) added: “This is bread and butter business as to what they are about.
“Trade deals matter but so does freedom of religion and belief.”
Tory backbencher Bob Stewart (Beckenham) urged the Government to use its presidency of the UN Security Council in 2021 to press for a UN-wide resolution outlawing the persecution of religious groups like Christians.
He told MPs: “Let us use that time in charge of the Security Council in 2021 to actually get the whole United Nations to sign up to an agreement not to persecute Christians or anyone else.
“It’s going to be difficult, but that is something our Foreign Office should put as a top priority.”
Foreign Office minister Heather Wheeler said that those of all religions, as well as those of none, should have the same freedoms.
“Today’s debate has focused on the persecution of Christians but we should not overlook the suffering of other religious groups around the world,” said Ms Wheeler.
She added: “This Government believes passionately that everyone should enjoy the same freedom to choose and practice their religion, or to hold no religion at all.
“We will continue to strive for that to become a reality for everyone, everywhere to strive for a world in which all nations respect and protect the right of all their people, irrespective of their faith or belief.
“Those suffering persecution today, including the 260 million Christians, deserve nothing less.”
Picture: Sir Edward Leigh MP. (House of Commons/PA).