Asia Bibi – a Christian whose conviction and death sentence for blasphemy has just been overturned by Pakistan’s Supreme Court – should be offered asylum by the UK as it has a duty to protect Christians from persecution around the world, writes Stephen Kerr MP.
Our United Kingdom should be extremely proud of the role we have played advocating religious freedom. Enshrined in our law is the fundamental right to believe or not to believe in any religion without the fear of persecution. People from all religions live and work together for the greater good of our society.
We are far from perfect though. Reports of anti-semitism in the United Kingdom were the second highest in recorded history in 2018. There were over 45,000 Islamophobic hate crimes committed in 2017/18. Crimes against Catholics rose by 14 per cent in Scotland in 2017/18.
There is a lot to work required to combat religious hate crime in our country and I urge politicians of all parties to come together and tackle this issue.
I feel passionately about the subject because I am a member of a religious minority — the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — that has a long history of persecution and misrepresentation.
Happily, those dark days are largely behind us, but the lessons learned are deeply ingrained and any suggestion of intolerance or persecution of any minority religious group or minority group of any kind is anathema to me.
The first President of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Joseph Smith, declared the human right to exercise “that free independence of mind which heaven has so graciously bestowed upon the human family is one of its choicest gifts”.
It is core to my religious belief to respect the religious beliefs of others. This is a respect that is enshrined in the UN Declaration of Human Rights which states: “Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.”
We must protect this right and protect the rights of all faith groups and the right to atheism around the world. Within this must be a protection of Christians. As a member of the UN Security Council, our United Kingdom also has the moral responsibility to protect religious freedom across the globe.
The persecution of Christians is increasing at an alarming rate, particularly in Asia where it is estimated that a third of Christians face repression. In China, measures have recently been introduced by President Xi Jinping which have resulted in worshippers being detained, the sale of bibles restricted, and the crucifix being removed from public buildings. The Chinese Government has also banned Christmas in some cities.
India, a country with the proud history of promoting peace and the largest democracy in the world, has recently become the tenth most dangerous country in the world for Christians to live in.
A rise in Hindu extremism has resulted in a greater amount of violent attacks on churches and practising Christians. Across Asia and Africa, there has also been a substantial growth in attacks on Christian women, with higher rates of sexual violence, rape and forced marriages in North Korea, Afghanistan, Somalia, Libya and Pakistan.
The Foreign Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, has recently announced a global review into the persecution of Christians. This is a move that I welcome whole-heartedly. This review will make recommendations on the steps our Government can take to protect Christians around the world.
Before this review is complete, I believe that our Government should signify our determination to protect Christians by granting Asia Bibi political asylum.
Asia was convicted of blasphemy in Pakistan in 2010 after a group of women said they could not use a bucket she had used for water as she was unclean due to her Christian faith. The accusers claimed that Asia confirmed she made offensive comments about the Prophet Muhammad to the group of women, but this was after Asia was beaten up in her own house. She was sentenced to death by hanging.
After various international campaigns, Asia was acquitted in October 2018. The Government of Pakistan, however, signed an agreement with those leading the protests against Asia’s acquittal a month later which barred her from leaving the country.
This is despite her family having to go into hiding. A bounty of half a million Pakistani rupees has been offered to anyone who can kill Asia. It is obvious that Asia’s life is in danger whilst she remains in Pakistan. With the welcome news that the appeal to her conviction has been thrown out, Asia will now be free to leave the country. The people of Canada should be proud that an offer of asylum was made by their Government after the original conviction. The UK did not make such an offer and it should have. This needs to change and a clear message sent that we will provide a safe haven for people such as Asia.
Britain should be playing a leading role in protecting Christians around the world. The review announced by the Government is the first step in our becoming that. I look forward with anticipation to what it recommends but we must deliver more than words. Around 250 Christians a month are killed due to their faith and millions are oppressed. We must be brave and make it clear to the world that we, as a Christian nation, do not tolerate the persecution of Christians anywhere.
Stephen Kerr is the Scottish Conservative MP for Stirling