Church of England offers sympathy, but will not press the govt to save Asia Bibi

Questions poised by MPs to the Second Church Estates Commission on Asia Bibi and the persecution of Christians

On 29 November 2018 the Second Church Estates Commissioner, Rt Hon Dame Caroline Spelman MP, answered questions in the House of Commons on persecuted Christians overseas

From Hansard

The right hon. Member for Meriden, representing the Church Commissioners was asked—

Fiona Bruce (Congleton) (Con): What steps the Church of England is taking to raise awareness in the Government of the persecution of Christians throughout the world. [907930]

The Second Church Estates Commissioner (Dame Caroline Spelman): The Church of England remains concerned about the increase in violence and intimidation against Christians and all religious minorities across the globe. In fact, my right hon. Friend the Member for New Forest West (Sir Desmond Swayne) reminded colleagues ​at this week’s Prime Minister’s questions of the visit of the Patriarch of Jerusalem, His Beatitude Theophilos III, who will be in Parliament next Wednesday. He is regarded as a senior cleric from the Christian communion in Jerusalem, and he is to give a talk about the future of Christians in the Holy Land.

Fiona Bruce: Aid to the Church in Need’s latest world persecution report and Baroness Cox’s “Hidden Atrocities” report, both published this month, state that the religious element of attacks by militants on communities in northern and central Nigeria is increasing. For example, 539 Christian churches have been destroyed in Nasarawa state alone in 2018. Catholic Bishop William Avenya of Gboko has now warned the international community,

“Please don’t make the same mistake as was made with the genocide in Rwanda.”

Will the Church of England engage with Department for International Development and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to help fully address those grave concerns?

Dame Caroline Spelman: I can give my hon. Friend that assurance. In fact, on Monday, the Archbishop of Canterbury will brief members of the all-party parliamentary group for international freedom of religion or belief, as part of its inquiry on Nigeria. He knows the country extremely well, as he worked there, and has visited it as recently as October. He is deeply concerned about attacks on Christians and has urged our Government to help Nigeria to enforce security and promote reconciliation between people of different faiths.

Helen Goodman (Bishop Auckland) (Lab): The Rev. Steven Saxby organised for me an excellent briefing with Anglicans from the Philippines, where there are serious human rights abuses. Could the right hon. Lady ask the Church of England whether it is tackling that in a structured way?

Dame Caroline Spelman: One advantage of the size of the Anglican communion is that its reach is across all continents, and the persecution of Christians in all continents is a matter of great concern to the Church of England, as part of the Anglican communion. I will certainly look more closely into what is happening in the Philippines, and I thank the hon. Lady for that suggestion.

Sir Desmond Swayne (New Forest West) (Con): I attempted to restrict the scope of a question to the holy lands and was summoned to the Table Office to change the offending words. It is not persecution, but does my right hon. Friend resent that secular agenda as much as I do?

Dame Caroline Spelman: That is almost a question for the Chair, rather than the Second Church Estates Commissioner. I am concerned about religious literacy and understanding better the Holy Land. I was fortunate to be able to make a visit with five Members of Parliament, led by the Speaker’s Chaplain, Rose, to the Holy Land for the first time, to see for myself the plight of Christians there and the complexity of the issues in the Holy Land. I do not think we should baulk at calling it the Holy Land, for many of the world’s faith regard it as such.

​Several hon. Members rose—

Mr Speaker: What a delicious choice—I call Jim Shannon.

Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP): Can the right hon. Lady outline whether she has had any discussions with the Home Office, to request that Asia Bibi and her family are offered asylum in the United Kingdom, and the outcome of those discussions?

Dame Caroline Spelman: I can give the hon. Gentleman reassurance, and I sympathise with his concern for Asia Bibi. The information we have is that we need to be extremely careful that we do not exacerbate risks to Asia Bibi and her family. The Prime Minister answered a question during PMQs about what the Foreign Office is doing and confirmed that the UK is in conversations with other Governments, including the Government of Pakistan, on how to make Asia and her family safe.

Dr David Drew (Stroud) (Lab/Co-op): We had an excellent debate this week on Nigeria, initiated by the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon). Will the right hon. Lady urge the Archbishop of Canterbury to visit another bedevilled part of the world, South Sudan? Although it is a Christian country, many Christians are being persecuted there.

Dame Caroline Spelman: The Archbishop of Canterbury is very alive to the situation in South Sudan. Every well-read Christian Member of Parliament surely must be. In my tenure as shadow International Development Secretary, I went to southern Sudan, and it is probably one of the most distressing places I have ever visited. The women there told me they had very little confidence of peace being secured, because they fear their men just like to fight.

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