Bishop of St Albans asks Government about freedom of religion in China

On 4th April 2019 the Bishop of St Albans, Rt Revd Alan Smith, asked a question he had tabled on religious freedom in China. The exchanges, and the follow-up questions from other Members, are below:

China: Religious Freedom

The Lord Bishop of St Albans: To ask Her Majesty’s Government what is their current assessment of freedom of religion in China.

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon) (Con): My Lords, there are several recognised religions in China, with tens of millions of practising Christians, Muslims and Buddhists, among others. However, we are deeply concerned about developing restrictions on freedom of religion or belief in China, including reports that authorities are tightening control over how certain religions are practised. At the United Nations Human Rights Council last month, I raised directly our concerns about restrictions on freedom of religion or belief in China, including on Muslims and Christians in Xinjiang.

The Lord Bishop of St Albans: I thank the Minister for his reply. There are deeply worrying reports coming out of China, not least about persecuting the Christian churches there—an ancient Christian church there was founded in the 7th century. Will he comment particularly on the developing situation concerning Uighur Muslims and the development of the network of re-education camps in Xinjiang province? What representations have Her Majesty’s Government made and what are they planning to do?

Lord Alton of Liverpool (CB): Has the Minister had a chance to read yesterday’s Spectator and last week’s Westminster Hall debate about forced organ harvesting from China’s religious minorities, including Falun Gong, Uyghur Muslims, Tibetan Buddhists and, possibly, Christian dissidents along with prisoners of conscience? Fiona Bruce, Member of Parliament and chair of the Conservative Party Human Rights Commission, described it as,

“potentially nothing less than a 21st century genocide”,

and “almost a perfect crime” because “no one survives”.

Will the Government attend this week’s China Tribunal hearings, chaired by Sir Geoffrey Nice QC—who prosecuted Slobodan Milošević—and modelled on the people’s tribunal into the Vietnam War, pioneered by Bertrand Russell and Jean-Paul Sartre? Their interim findings say that tribunal members are,

“certain—unanimously, and sure beyond reasonable doubt—that in China forced organ harvesting from prisoners of conscience has been practised for a substantial period of time involving a very substantial number of victims”.

Will the Government ask China for its response to these deeply disturbing findings?

Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon: I read the debate that took place, not the article, but I will do so. On a number of occasions, the noble Lord and I have talked about the specific issue of organ harvesting. I assure him that we are watching and working closely on the outcomes of Sir Geoffrey Nice’s review. The detailed report will also be out later this year. Our officials have attended every evidence session and will continue to do so and update accordingly. In raising this issue directly, I am deeply concerned, like the noble Lord, particularly because there is an issue of organ harvesting not just from people elsewhere: I have heard it suggested and was briefed on prisoners in the system being used for this purpose. The situation is deeply concerning and we are raising it at all levels.

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath (Lab): Is the noble Lord prepared to raise this issue with the World Health Organization? Its responses to concerns raised about the use of organs in the appalling way suggested by the noble Lord, Lord Alton, were very weak. I hope that the Government will be as vigorous in dealing with the WHO as they appear to be with the Chinese Government.

Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon: The noble Lord makes a valid point. I assure him that, as the UK’s Human Rights Minister, I will raise this issue with all appropriate organisations.

Baroness Berridge (Con): My Lords, I am grateful to hear from the Minister that we have made bilateral representations and used our seat at the Human Rights Council, but there are other, often more subtle, ways we can exert influence. The UK Government are an employer of many local staff in our embassies; our soft-power institutions, such as the British Council and perhaps the BBC, also employ a lot of local staff. Can the Minister outline whether the Government have a policy in situations like this to ensure that these persecuted minorities are represented within the local staff we employ?

Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon: My noble friend makes an important point. I assure her that, in recruiting for any post throughout the world, the United Kingdom adopts a policy of equality and justice. Her point is to ensure that all communities of a particular country are represented and that there is no discrimination in our recruitment. She makes an important point about soft power in other organisations working in China, which I will take back. I do not have the numbers in front of me on the different communities employed but I will certainly take that back and write to her, as is appropriate.

Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon: My Lords, I assure the noble Lord that I work very closely with Ambassador Sam Brownback on both this issue and freedom of religion across the world; we are co-ordinated. Another recent example was a visit to Pakistan. As I left Islamabad, Ambassador Brownback was arriving. We have ensured a co-ordinated approach on what the United Kingdom and United States are doing.

Lord Collins of Highbury (Lab): To follow up on my noble friend’s question about the WHO, I understand—and completely agree with—the Minister’s commitment to raising these issues with China, but organ harvesting has other implications, not only for universities, which could be co-operating. Can the Minister assure the House that he will raise this issue across Westminster and Whitehall to ensure that all departments take it seriously and that we do not start using organs harvested from prisoners?

Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon: The noble Lord is quite right. I am aware, from the question raised by the noble Lord, Lord Dholakia, of World Health Organization’s current, persisting view. I assure the noble Lord once again that this is important to the World Health Organization and Whitehall. For example, some countries are also adopting systems to restrict this. We are working with them to see how those restrictions are applied and we seek to review our own position in that respect.

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