FREEDOM OF THOUGHT, CONSCIENCE AND RELIGION – 1 May 2014
Dr Julian Lewis: The thoughtful and very disturbing speech by the hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh) is a piece of a jigsaw that I hope will be assembled in the course of this debate, building up a picture in country after country, affecting religion after religion – and not always just religious groups and communities – and showing a certain common template. The word that I expect to hear over and again is 'intolerance', which was flagged up by the opening speakers, particularly my right hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Sir Tony Baldry). I pay particular tribute to the hon. Member for Belfast East (Naomi Long), who has steered this topic to the Floor of the House and introduced it so comprehensively and with such a depth of detail.
Before I come on to questions of religious intolerance, I should like hon. Members to cast their minds back to 1978, when the great director Michael Crichton brought a terrifying film to the cinema screen. The name of the film was 'Coma'; I do not know whether that rings a bell with any hon. Members. It was a fictional story about how people would be placed in a hospital for minor operations, reduced to the state of a living vegetable, and then have their organs taken from them and sold for huge profits in an extremely sinister way. I found that film immensely unsettling, but I was able to comfort myself with the thought that, well, it was only fiction and nothing like that could really happen.
Unfortunately, something like that has happened and is happening, apparently, to this day. In this connection, I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish), who sadly cannot be with us today, for putting into the schedules of Parliament a meeting at which I learned about the persecution of Falun Gong in China. We are talking about not just religious intolerance, but the intolerance of atheistic regimes such as the communist regimes of China and North Korea towards groups such as Falun Gong that are spiritual but not really religions. North Korea has been identified in report after report as the most dangerous place, or at least one of the most dangerous places, in which to be a Christian in the present day.
I find the phrase 'organ harvesting' in relation to China and Falun Gong rather inappropriate. I would call it murder and butchery for money, which is what appears to be going on. It is a profitable business for the Chinese: I understand that a kidney can raise $62,000 and a heart more than $130,000. Interestingly, there has been an enormous increase in the number of transplantation centres in China in recent years, yet there is no national scheme for organ donation that could possibly account for the very large numbers of organs being made available for money by the Chinese.
It is not, I believe, denied that the organs of executed prisoners are used by the Chinese Government for that purpose. Many studies, including by special rapporteurs for the United Nations, have drawn attention to that terrible trade. As somebody from a Jewish background who read rather more than was good for my mental health at too early an age about what had happened in the medical block at the Buchenwald concentration camp, I think that the idea that that sort of atrocity could be going on in this day and age is absolutely unbelievable and abhorrent.
David Burrowes: I thank my hon. Friend referring on the Floor of the House to the Falun Gong, which does not always get the attention it deserves. I have some constituents who practise Falun Gong and it is the most peaceful of groups. When it campaigns here and in China, it does so peacefully. It is not a physical threat to the Chinese Government, but it may well be a cultural threat because of its different views. It is standing up for its beliefs and views, and if we are going to stand up for Christians and others, we need to stand up for Falun Gong as well.
Dr Lewis: My hon. Friend, who stands up for Christians and other groups remarkably well – as I have had occasion to observe over years in this place – is absolutely right. In fact, my understanding is that, originally, the Chinese authorities were quite well disposed to Falun Gong. It was only when it became hugely popular that they felt that any mass popular movement, even one as harmless as that, posed a threat to their totalitarian control.
I fully expect my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce), should she catch your eye, Mr Deputy Speaker, as I hope she will, to give us chapter and horrible verse about what is happening to Christians in North Korea. I want to flag up the fact that the splendid report that the United Nations arranged to be compiled describes what is going on in North Korea as analogous to the crimes committed by the Nazis. It states:
'In many instances, the violations of human rights found by the commission constitute crimes against humanity. These are not mere excesses of the State; they are essential components of a political system that has moved far from the ideals on which it claimed to be founded'.
Pakistan has been mentioned in one context today and I am now going to mention it in another. In June 2009, a Roman Catholic woman, Asia Bibi, got into an argument with some Muslim neighbours over whether she should be allowed to drink from the same water supply as them. As a result, she was accused of blasphemy. I have to say that the blasphemy laws of Pakistan are a very handy weapon for those who have an enemy anywhere in society, because all they have to do is to say that someone has defamed or insulted the Prophet or the religion and that person may, like Asia Bibi, find herself under sentence of death.
Mark Pritchard: My hon. Friend is speaking about Pakistan. Earlier, hon. Members agreed that the United Nations should do more. Does he agree that the Commonwealth should also do more, particularly for Christians and other religious minorities that are being persecuted in Pakistan, India and other parts of the Commonwealth, and that the Commonwealth human rights working group needs to be far more proactive?
Dr Lewis: That is absolutely central to the whole question. If the Commonwealth is good for anything at all, it is good for asserting the moral authority and best values that have bound our countries together. If we in this free Parliament do not speak out for oppressed minorities, nobody else will do so effectively.
To revert to the case of Asia Bibi, who remains under sentence of death, what is even more tragic is that the Governor of Punjab, Salmaan Taseer, who visited her in prison, was murdered as a result of supporting her and opposing the blasphemy laws, as was the only Christian member of Pakistan’s Cabinet, the Minority Affairs Minister, Shahbaz Bhatti. The prevailing circumstances in Pakistan really are atrocious.
Rehman Chishti: Will my hon. Friend give way?
Dr Lewis: I will, but I have very little time left.
Rehman Chishti: I have previously raised the issue of the blasphemy laws in this place. Does my hon. Friend agree that the real concern about the Asia Bibi case is that her appeal has been delayed and delayed for four years, and that such an indefinite delay is wrong for her and her family?
Dr Lewis: Absolutely. My hon. Friend knows far more about this subject than I do, and I hope that he will contribute to the debate.
In the less than a minute that I have remaining, I want to end on a slightly more optimistic point. Although the persecution of the Baha’i community in Iran remains severe, a very recent development is that Ayatollah Abdol-Hamid Masoumi-Tehrani has rather bravely reached out to the Baha’i community by making a presentation to them and other faith communities. A lot depends on what happens to this ayatollah, but if change is to come, it will come slowly and it will involve such gestures. Let us keep our eye on what happens to this particular cleric in Iran, and let us hope that the reaction to his welcome gesture is positive and encouraging.