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Persecution of Christians (South-East Asia and China)

2.30 pm

Mr. David Drew (Stroud) (Lab/Co-op): I am delighted to open this debate and serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Taylor.

It is well known that I am third choice for this debate.   The hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate (Mr. Burrowes) originally secured the debate, but he is sadly either in or just out of hospital—our thoughts are with him. I know that my good friend the hon. Member for Buckingham (John Bercow) would also like to have led the debate, but he is busy acting on behalf of us Back Benchers in the main Chamber, so I will let him off on this occasion. I hope also that other Members will drop in, particularly my hon. Friend the Member for Loughborough (Mr. Reed).

The issue is important: whether we are a Christian or follower of another religion or none, we should never lose sight of what is happening to Christians in other parts of the world. I thank my good friend Dr. Alan Hobson of Christian Solidarity Worldwide, with whom I have worked closely in raising a number of questions and in previous debates. I also pay due regard to John Prince of the Library, who has produced an excellent debate pack. I hope that, if people do not read the speech, they will at least look at the debate pack, which gives a good overview of what is happening in China and other parts of south-east Asia and which supplements what I will say today.

I am grateful for the opportunity to raise the issue. Hon. Members will be aware that there is a huge amount of persecution of Christians in many parts of the world. Of course, they are not alone in being subjugated, but I should like to concentrate on their plight. This follows on from a debate three years ago, which looked at the violence against Christian communities in Asia. We will look at part of Asia today, but it shows what is happening and what should not be happening.

When we examine south-east Asia and China, we can find many examples of what is happening to Christians who bear the brunt of persecution for their views. I hope to show that there is action that we can take, and it is good to see my hon. Friend the Minister for Trade present to answer. Although I will spend most of my time talking about the issues, I hope that there will be actions linked to them.

In the previous debate, my good friend the hon. Member for North-East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt) made the following observation:

That remains as true today as it was then, and it is worth reiterating. By standing up for the rights of persecuted religious groups, we also help to tackle other human rights abuses and promote a healthier respect for human rights across the world.

South-east Asia and China are both areas of outstanding natural beauty, and they contain a rich and extraordinary history. There is much to commend the
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region, but unfortunately major human rights abuses are occurring in a number of the countries in it. Many of those human rights abuses deserve full debates in their own right, but it is important to be realistic about how much we can cover in this hour-and-a-half debate. I shall look at specific countries and specific abuses.

Human rights abuses in China are widespread, and among the most prominent is the persecution of Christians. It is true that Christians in some parts of China fare better, or less badly, than those in other parts. Christians who belong to the state-controlled Protestant and Catholic Churches are tolerated to a much greater degree than those who follow other Christian religions. To achieve that tolerance, however, they must sacrifice some of their beliefs and activities. For many Christians, that is too high a price to pay. These Christians, of whom the most conservative estimate is that there are tens of millions, have decided that forming and running underground Churches is the best way to practise their faith while remaining true to the fundamentals of that faith. That decision should be their right under international law, but the reality is very different. I hope that the hon. Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire (Mr. Crabb) will allude to that if called to speak in the debate.

Christians in Vietnam and Laos have long suffered systematic persecution at the hands of the Communist Governments there. Those authorities perceive Christianity as a threat partly because they see it as a foreign religion and partly because Christians tend to give their primary allegiance to God rather than the state. At the same time, however, Christians are very loyal members of those communities and good members of those states. A related factor is that those Governments tend to see all religion as a competitor with the communist ideology for the hearts and minds of their peoples. In the eyes of the dictators, politicians and officials who subscribe to that view, there should be only one winner—the state—so there is brutal repression of views that do not necessarily correspond to the mainline view.

To be fair, I should point out that the situation in Laos has improved somewhat and the central Government there have a more relaxed attitude to Christianity than they used to have. However, local authorities in some parts of the country are still eager to persecute Christians.

There are examples of persecution of Christians in other countries in the region. In Burma, there have been instances of Christians in the Karen and Karenni ethnic groups being forced by State Peace and Development Council troops to destroy their churches and build Buddhist temples instead. There are many causes of the persecution of ethnic minorities by the SPDC, but one subsidiary cause appears to relate to religion.

In the Philippines, although religious freedom is widespread and established, Christians occasionally suffer at the hands of Islamist terrorist groups, such as the Abu Sayyaf Group and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front. For example, in 2003 the MILF attacked a Christian town in M'lang in North Cotabato, killing five people.
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Even in Malaysia, which has a long record of religious tolerance, the Iban-language Bible was temporarily banned by the Government in 2003, and four Malays from Kelantan were imprisoned twice, in 1992 and 2000, for renouncing Islam.

In Indonesia, more than 8,000 Christians were killed in violence at the hands of Islamists in parts of the country in the period from 1999 to 2003. I am pleased to note that the situation in Indonesia is now much improved. However, three Christian women have just been arrested on charges of Christianisation in west Java. More than 100 Mujaheddin militants have regularly attended the court hearings for their trial, freely shouting death threats in the court. These incidents are, of course, very worrying.

Today, however, I shall focus on Vietnam. Official ideological opposition to religion in Vietnam remains systemic. The terminology and tone of Government documents and actions on religion show continued Government suspicion of religion in general and Christianity in particular and an assumption that religious people are unpatriotic. I know this from my own dealings with the regime in Vietnam. I was able, with Lord Chan, to go on a lobby—I think that that is a fair description of it, although some would see it as a bit more robust than that. We were outside the Vietnamese embassy. Representatives of the regime refused to meet us, but we indulged in some correspondence. I have the letter here, which I think it is fair to say roundly denounces us for our association with Christian Solidarity Worldwide and for raising certain issues with them—there was not much of a meeting of minds.

Protestant leaders say that the Government plan to eradicate Christianity, frequently stressed by hard-line local officials, continues gradually but steadily. All villages and hamlets have a constant military and/or police presence, which is often used specifically against Christians. The following quote helps to show that. Rev. Tran Mai, general director of the Inter-Evangelistic Movement of Vietnam, says:

There are many other reports that I could mention. In Vietnam, there are some awful cases of the most direct action against Christians. For example, bulldozers, tractors with ploughs, and saws and hammers have been used to destroy plantations that are owned by Christians. The Government prevent Christians in many parts of Vietnam from receiving international foreign aid for poverty alleviation and for disaster relief. There are examples of children being expelled from school because they are Christians. Anyone who is a Christian believer who buys land, or a house, or tries to cultivate a field, will have a hard time getting local officials to sign the papers. There are also regular and systematic attacks on house churches in Vietnam, as a result of which people are often denied personal ID
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cards and family residence papers, which means that they are very likely to suffer attack. The security police work constantly against those who profess the faith. There are many examples of house church leaders being put at significant risk because of what they have said and done.

In the central highlands, from September 2002 to date, Government campaigns have forcibly disbanded many hundreds of local churches and have sought to force Christians to renounce their faith. Nearly 300 Christian leaders are known to have been arrested and incarcerated. At least 60 Protestant leaders, including eight regular pastors of local churches, languish in the infamous Ba Sao prison in Nam Ha province; all have been given long prison sentences.

In Dak Lak, a province where travel is restricted for residents and visitors alike, the state recognises only four Christian groups, which meet in the homes of certain pastors. Christian leaders report that there are 439 meeting places in the province, but four out of 439 is less than 1 per cent. The pastors of the four groups supposedly recognised by the state are not even free to visit their own parishioners without getting official permission.

Christian leaders in the province say that the vast majority of the approximately 150,000 Protestant Christians must now practise their faith underground. Worship, teaching, baptisms and the observance of holy communion must be done out of sight of the authorities. That situation is replicated in many other areas.

In Dien Bien province, which is well known because of the 1962 battle that took place there, in which the French were roundly defeated, Pastor Thao Chu Gia reports that in December 2005, the local chief of police, the chairman of the commune and more than a dozen police officers

He continued:

Police officers and district and provincial Government officials are spreading the word in Dien Bien province that they will completely eradicate Christianity from Vietnam. That situation is matched in Lai Chau province and Hai Phong city.

I shall finish this point and then make some more general points about how Christians are treated in south-east Asia. I have asked a number of parliamentary questions about the subjugation of the Vietnamese Mennonite Church. The incidents have included summoning individual Mennonites to police stations where they are interrogated and attempts are made to force them to renounce their Christianity. A prominent Mennonite pastor, Pastor Quang, was arrested in June 2004 and the state-controlled media began a campaign of vilification against him. Le Thi Hong Lien was arrested with him; the torture and abuse that she suffered in prison led to her complete physical and mental breakdown and even then she was still beaten by police.
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Another Mennonite pastor, Nguyen Van Phuong, completed his one-year sentence on 3 March and was duly released from prison. He, too, issued a report about the abusive treatment he received in prison, detailing severe beatings, threats during interrogation and forced labour. All the reports say the same thing: that they are subject to enormous mistreatment because of their faith.

We ask the Minister to talk to the authorities in Vietnam about the unacceptable treatment, and I hope he will respond to that request. Vietnam is party to the international covenant on civil and political rights—the ICCPR. Article 18, which closely mirrors the same article of the universal declaration on human rights, is especially relevant. It states:

We ask the Minister to raise the issue directly with the Vietnamese authorities to make it clear that there is documented evidence of mistreatment of people in their community trying to practise their religion, which the Vietnamese have signed up to, and of those who have been arrested as a result of their religion. We should be taking up such cases and telling the Vietnamese authorities that we know what is going on and that they must desist.

In November 2004 Vietnam changed the ordinance regarding religious beliefs and religious organisations, which brought additional fears because the state is institutionalising some of the actions that it can take against Christians. We wish the Minister to take up with Vietnam the implications of that ordinance and the instructions based upon it. That is a concrete action that he can take.

I have used Vietnam as a touchstone, an exemplar of what is happening to Christians in that part of the world. Other hon. Members will allude to Christians in other countries where there are serious problems. This is not just about people's ability and right to profess their faith and in community with others to demonstrate that faith but also about human rights, the right that they should have to know that what they want to do they should be able to do, with support from the state but also with the knowledge that they will receive protection from those who clearly wish to try to eradicate their views. They should certainly not have to fear being attacked by the state.

I am making these points not just because of my religious faith, which is important to me, but also because of my interest in human rights. This issue concerns human rights abuses and it should be as important as the abuses in Burma and Tibet. Those of us who are members of the two groups that campaign on these issues rightly take up what is happening with the authorities involved. When the Chinese or Burmese authorities make statements that try to justify what they are doing, we argue against them and say what is really going on.

I should like the Minister to take up a vigorous stance now on behalf of the Government and consider in particular cases such as that of Pastor Quang, who was arrested and suffers daily subjugation in prison.
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We should see Vietnam for what it is. Our duty in this place is to make representations and try to get the regime to reform; it is desperately in need of that.

2.50 pm

Mr. Stephen Crabb (Preseli Pembrokeshire) (Con): I am grateful for the opportunity to speak in this important debate and I congratulate the hon. Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) on his excellent opening speech. I should also like to put on the record my congratulations and thanks to my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, Southgate (Mr. Burrowes), who was successful originally in securing this debate. We wish him a speedy recovery and give him our best wishes.

I want to focus on the situation in China. There are quite a few concerns about human rights abuses in China, one of the most significant of which is religious persecution. The Chinese Government seem to regard religion as a threat to their power. As a result, they place severe restrictions on religious activities and seek to control them. They also seek to eradicate religious activities that are not Government-controlled through the Chinese State Council's religious affairs bureau. Religious groups that refuse to accept the control of that bureau face severe consequences, including, I understand, heavy fines, repeated arrest, interrogation, torture and incarceration in prison or labour camps.

A number of religions face discrimination and persecution in China, including Protestant and Catholic Christianity—other than the official state-controlled versions of each—Tibetan Buddhists, Uighur Muslims and the Falun Gong, whose practitioners have also faced severe persecution, although they do not claim it to be a religion.

I should like to focus in particular on the persecution faced by the unregistered, unofficial Christian Churches, both Protestant and Catholic. Although exact figures are hard to come by, it is estimated that tens of millions of Christians belong to such underground Churches. They regard the official state-controlled Churches as fatally compromised and unable to function and flourish as true Churches. In the state-controlled Churches, preaching about Christ's second coming, his resurrection and miracles—all of which are part of the fundamentals of the Christian faith—is forbidden. That helps to show why the underground Churches feel as they do.

The situation of unregistered Christian groups in many parts of China has worsened since the introduction of new regulations on religion at the beginning of March. As was widely feared, they are being used as a pretext for increased pressure on religious groups that are not registered. A good example of such repression is a recent incident in Jilin province. The crackdown there began on Sunday 22 May at about 5 am when about a dozen Chinese police burst into the home of the house church leader Zhao Dianru and arrested him. His house was searched, even though no warrant had been shown, and he was taken away and detained in Jiutai city detention centre in Jilin province. He was kept there until 6 June, when he was released.

Zhao is a prominent local house church leader who oversees about 18 churches in the area. He was recently asked to join the Government-sanctioned Church three
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times, but he declined each time. According to reliable sources, his arrest document accused him of using other means to instigate and disturb social stability, but did not mention religion or Church activities. About 20 boxes of Christian books were confiscated during the police raid.

Meanwhile, according to reports, police and public security bureau officers simultaneously raided about 100 churches in the area of Changchun, the capital city of Jilin province, and nearly 600 house church Christians were taken into custody. Most were released after interrogations lasting between 24 and 48 hours. However, at present, about 100 of the leaders of such house churches, including professors at Changchun university, remain in custody in various detention centres.

It is reported that large proportions of the congregations of the independent unregistered Churches that have been targeted are drawn from among university students, professors and young intellectuals. It is thought that the campaign is co-ordinated to rid the university areas of house church influence. Just more than a week earlier, on 13 May, 20 house church leaders were arrested while conducting a Bible training class at Pinglu county, Shanxi province. Among them were two well-known local house church leaders, Pastor Zhang Guangmin and Elder Li. Although most of those arrested were released almost immediately, Pastor Zhang and Elder Li were held for two weeks and one month respectively at Pinglu county detention centre before they were released.

On 24 May, three female house church believers were arrested by four Public Security Bureau officers at Yiyang county, Henan province while visiting a Christian leader's home. Miss Liu Lianying, Miss Xue Haimiao and Miss Zhang Xiulan were all released after extensive interrogation at Yiyang county detention centre. None of them were given or shown any arrest-warrants or release papers. They were accused of attending a religious black hole, which was a reference to their attendance at house churches. According to an eye-witness report, the three women were brutally beaten. Miss Liu Lianying was released before the other two women because the beatings caused her to suffer a heart attack.

Last month, several hundred house church Christians were detained at Xinjiang construction military corps. The corps consists of several large paramilitary units and was sent to the remote north-west province by the Chinese Communist party in the 1950s to suppress the so-called rebellious Muslims, who resisted the communist occupation. After suppressing the Muslims successfully, members of the paramilitary units along with their families were ordered to stay in the area and become civilians. Many have since become Christians and secretly hold house church worship services at their homes. According to a representative of one group of house churches there, the local authority has clamped down increasingly on them over the past three years with punitive measures, such as imprisonment, deduction of welfare payments and arbitrary fines if they were found believing a religion.

A few weeks ago on 24 June at about 8 am, while house church leader Pastor Chen Dongming was leading a church leadership training meeting at his home in Hezhai village in Henan province, more than
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50 Chinese police and public security officials raided and searched his house without a search-warrant. They had first surrounded the entire village, as if they were hunting dangerous armed criminals or terrorist suspects. Instead, their target was a harmless, middle-aged Christian pastor who was doing nothing more than trying to serve God. After bursting into the building, the security officers conducted thorough body searches of each of the pastors—both men and women—and then arrested Pastor Chen and others. Private property, including cash, chairs, TVs, books, blankets and rice, was confiscated and carried away by police trucks.

In raids around the same time, about 100 pastors from several major cities in the province were taken away and detained at Qi county detention centre. While most of the pastors were released later the same day after intensive interrogations, nine of them, including Pastor Chen Dongming, remain in jail. One pastor who was released said that they were accused of engaging in an illegal religious gathering.

Meanwhile, even before the crackdowns based on the introduction of the new regulations in March, Christians were continuing to suffer in many parts of China. Among the many Christians in detention, Pastor Zhang Rongliang is a figure of particular concern. He is the leader of the China for Christ Church, which is estimated to have about 10 million members. He is one of the most prominent house church leaders in China and has been featured in Time and Newsweek magazines. He was arrested on 1 December 2004 in Xuhai villague, Zhengzhou in Henan province. The arrest was followed by wide-ranging raids on other churches in the area. His family all fled into hiding.

Pastor Zhang, who is 53 years old, suffers from serious diabetes and there are particular worries about his welfare and safety. He had been wanted for his religious activities for many years and has already spent 12 years in prison for his faith during five separate detentions. He suffered severe torture during those detentions and, according to the last report that was received about his whereabouts, it appeared that he was being held incommunicado in the Jinshui area in Zhengzhou.

There are real fears for Pastor Zhang's health and whether he will be able to endure the mistreatment that he is likely to be facing. The likelihood of renewed torture has been increased by his international profile and because he is the leader of a large house church network. The Chinese authorities are afraid of large religious groupings and label them as evil cults. That is done even when the groups are part of mainstream Christianity, with no theological deviation.

The account to which I shall now refer gives a graphic example of the brutal way in which many Christians are treated while being held in detention in China. It consists of a few brief extracts from an account by Liu Xianzhi of a series of interrogations that she underwent between 27 May and 9 June 2001. She delivered the account at a gathering of the National Press Club in February. She could not make public her sufferings much earlier, as following her interrogations in 2001 she was sentenced to three years of hard labour, and she was released only last year. Although her sufferings occurred several years ago, they are still relevant today for two
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reasons. First, they are based on a recent account, so they have not been in the public arena for long and need to be aired. Secondly, and more importantly, they provide a good summary of the sort of suffering that many Christians are undergoing in detention in China.

Liu was a committed member of the South China Church, and her accusers were trying to force her to incriminate her pastor, a well known Chinese house church leader. Liu says:

She continues:

It is important to put extracts from this account on the record.

The Catholic Church is also heavily persecuted in parts of China—I am referring, of course, to the underground Roman Catholic Church rather than the Government-controlled Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association. The Chinese Government consider the underground Church to be an illegal organisation. Its activities must therefore be conducted in secret. Penalties for belonging to the underground Roman Catholic Church include exorbitant fines, imprisonment, house arrests, beatings and internment in labour camps. Bishops from the underground Catholic Church have been targeted by the   Government. For example, Bishop Su Zhimin, the unofficial Bishop of Baoding, Hebei, was arrested in 1996. He escaped and was rearrested in 1997. He was then not heard from or seen for six years. Finally, in November 2003, he was seen by chance in a hospital in Baoding. As soon as the authorities discovered that he had been seen, Bishop Su was spirited away again and disappeared. He has not been seen since. Inquiries to the Chinese Government from various United States Government agencies and non-governmental organisations about Bishop Su's whereabouts and well-being have never been answered satisfactorily.
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Bishop An Shuxin, the unofficial auxiliary Bishop of Baoding, was arrested in 1996. He has been seen only once since then, when, several years ago, he was permitted to go home to visit his elderly mother. It is not known where he is today, or even whether he is still alive.

Bishop Han Dingxiang, unofficial Bishop of Yong Nian, was arrested in 1999. He is elderly and in bad health, but he has been kept in detention for the past six years. Bishop Shi Enxiang, unofficial Bishop of Yixian, Hebei, was arrested in 2001. He is now over 80 years of age, and he has been detained for the past four years. Bishop Gao Kexian, unofficial Bishop of Yantai, Shandong, was arrested in October 1999. His whereabouts were unknown until he died in jail in January.

Currently every one of the approximately 50 bishops of the underground Roman Catholic Church is in jail, under house arrest, under strict surveillance or in hiding. One of them was rearrested just a few days ago. Bishop Jia Zhi Guo, the underground Roman Catholic bishop of the diocese of Zheng Ding in Hebei, was arrested by two Government officials at his home on 4 July. He was driven away to an unknown location. The Government officials telephoned him in advance to notify him that he was being picked up. They ordered him to tell people that he was being taken away to visit a doctor. However, he is not currently sick and there is no need for him to visit a doctor. He is 70 years old and was ordained as a bishop in 1980. He was previously in jail for approximately 20 years and has been under strict surveillance for many years. He takes care of approximately 100 handicapped orphans in his home. He has been arrested several times since January 2004.

In September 2004, the prominent Beijing house church leader Pastor Cai Zhuohua was abducted by three plain clothes officers, who were believed to be from the state security bureau. Shortly after his abduction, his wife, sister and brother-in-law were arrested while in hiding. Pastor Cai's wife has a prominent role alongside her husband in the Beijing house church leadership. What was his crime? Pastor Cai had allegedly run a printing business and used it to print about 200,000 copies of the Bible and other Christian literature, while making a profit out of it. Officially, only one publisher, belonging to the officially sanctioned Three Self Patriotic Movement, is allowed to publish and print a limited number of Bibles and other Christian books. The strict regulation does not allow the production of sufficient Bibles to meet the high demand of the house churches. Sources close to Pastor Cai's churches insisted that the confiscated material was solely for internal house church use and that he had made no profit from it whatsoever. The conditions of strict controls on the house churches made such production necessary.

The abduction of Pastor Cai, the arbitrary detention of his wife and relatives, and the use of torture during interrogation to extract a confession indicate clearly that the Chinese authorities did not follow proper procedure during the prosecution of the case. Pastor Cai was finally put on trial a few days ago. The trial lasted only half a day. I understand that the verdict has not yet been announced. The authorities seem to have gone out of their way to be obstructive. Nine lawyers had volunteered to be part of Pastor Cai's legal team, but only five were allowed in court. His family and friends were originally told that they would be allowed 10 seats
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in the court, but only three were permitted. The US embassy sent an observer to the trial but they were denied access. Only one defence witness was allowed. During the trial, Pastor Cai pointed out that the confession his interrogators claimed he had given consisted of statements that they had written. He had not seen the statements and he was forced by torture to sign. Three other accused Christians at the trial said that they signed their confessions under threat of torture.

The Chinese Government have attempted to fob off criticism by arguing that it is not a religious trial but an economic one. However, as one of Cai's lawyers said:

The verdict in the case will be announced at some point in the future. Sources say it could be a week or it could be a year. It is believed that the Chinese Government will try to find a time when political fallout from the decision will be least.

The cases that I have described are illustrative, but they are only the tip of the iceberg. They ought to serve as a stark warning to the international community of China's willingness to disregard universally agreed international human rights obligations. The fact that Pastor Cai Zhuohua and his wife are at present languishing in prison, that Bishop Su Zhimin is still unaccounted for, that people such as Liu Xianzhi can be brutally tortured, and that Zhang Rongliang remains detained without charge—in addition to many other cases, known and unknown—sends a stark signal that China has not softened and shows little sign of doing so.

The issue of the North Korean border crossers remains a key concern regarding China's respect for human rights. When refugees fleeing North Korea are caught in China, they are usually sent back to an uncertain fate. China still refuses to accept that they are genuine refugees, despite much evidence to the contrary. Obviously, this is not primarily a case of persecution of Christians. However, even in this instance, persecution of Christians is a subsidiary issue.

A few years ago, Dr. Alan Hobson, of Christian Solidarity Worldwide, travelled to the region and interviewed some survivors who had fled North Korea. Most of them had gone through China. Those who had been caught the first time, and sent back to North Korea by the Chinese, faced severe punishment. However, they said that the North Koreans were particularly harsh on any returnees whom they suspected to be Christians; thus persecution of Christians becomes an issue in the area of Chinese human rights abuses as well. China needs to take seriously the terms of the 1951 UN convention on refugees and start dealing a lot more sympathetically with those who flee the terrible sufferings and human rights abuses in North Korea and end up in China. Despite the Chinese Government's ratification of several human rights treaties, its stated adherence to the UN declaration of human rights and a provision in the Chinese constitution guaranteeing freedom of religion and belief, China continues to commit serious violations of religious freedom and belief.

I realise that the Foreign Office has often taken a robust line on China and that the China section of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office has done a lot of good work on taking up the issue of human rights
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abuses with its Chinese counterparts. However, there is still much to be done. I urge renewed effort to champion the cause of persecuted Christians in China, including the cases that I have raised today, and to impress on the Chinese the importance of allowing freedom of religion in China.

3.10 pm

John Barrett (Edinburgh, West) (LD): I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) on securing this debate and on his choice of subject. He has a strong and detailed interest in this area, as was shown by the way in which he opened the debate.

On a day when 25 innocent children were killed in Iraq and 20 more children were killed in an attack on a school in Kenya, and in a week when London suffered 50 deaths in an outrageous terrorist attack, it is clear that throughout the world persecution and attacks are taking place on people of all religions and of no religion. Today we are concentrating on the persecution of Christians in south-east Asia and China, and it is sad to say that there is persecution in many other regions of the world.

During the past few months in the lead-up to the G8 summit, the Make Poverty History campaign has understandably resulted in an international debate centred on Africa and the need for international effort in that region. During the previous Session we debated attacks on Christian communities in Africa. However, the hon. Gentleman has done us and the House a service by reminding us of the continuing need for this country, working with our allies, to help those suffering from violence and persecution elsewhere in the world—in this case, south-east Asia and China.

I come to this debate remembering that the persecution of Christians in Asia was one of the first issues that I had to look into after being elected in 2001. Days after arriving in Westminster I received a detailed letter from a constituent, who wrote specifically on the plight of Indonesian Christians in the Malucca islands. I had not come across that issue before, but the more I looked into it, the more appalled I became. It did not take much research to realise that that problem was not isolated in those islands: it affected countries throughout south-east Asia.

It should be noted that although today's debate has focused on Christianity, this problem is not isolated to that group. There is a catalogue of evidence showing that Buddhists—especially Buddhist monks—are facing imprisonment and violence, and that problem is not isolated to one country or region. This problem should concern those of all religions and those of none.

Article 18 of the United Nations universal declaration of human rights clearly states:

That is a clear and definitive statement that should be respected and followed, yet in many parts of the world—particularly in south-east Asia—respect for freedom of religious practice and expression is not happening.
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This issue is far from being confined to one country, as previous speakers have mentioned. In China, despite a constitution that states that citizens should enjoy total religious freedom, the Chinese Government have continually attempted to restrict all religious practice to Government-authorised religious organisations and registered places of worship. The regulations, which were introduced earlier this year, have in many ways simply been used as a means of attacking those religious groups that are not registered with the authorities. Hundreds of Christian leaders remain imprisoned, churches have been raided and many followers have been forced into hiding.

Similarly, in Burma, where almost 2 million of the population are Christians, the only people allowed the freedom to practise their religion are those who are registered. Religious publications are censored, and it has been illegal to print translated Bibles. One Burmese army commander, after attacking Christian communities of Karen, was quoted as saying:

In Vietnam, which was mentioned by the hon. Member for Stroud, there continue to be major restrictions on Christian practices, religious schooling and even the charitable activities carried out by religious organisations. When some groups seek to register their church through the official channels, their church is raided and their meetings are labelled illegal. There remains a general and profound distrust of, and fundamental opposition to, religion in principle in Vietnam.

In Laos, there is ongoing Government-organised persecution of Christians, helped by the wording of the country's constitution, which allows the authorities to declare Protestant Christianity its foremost enemy.

A recent report by Aid to the Church in Need covered its investigations into persecutions in China in 2004. The report was covered by Zenit, the international news agency, which said the following:

or no

a number of regions, including

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Another report by the same news agency described how the destruction of Catholic schools throughout Asia has become the new trend, and is aimed at suppressing religious freedom. The director of AsiaNews said that

Those buildings are not just churches; they include schools and the homes of Christians. The aim is not just to silence the expression of faith but to prevent all social cohesion within Christian communities.

I appreciate that it is easy to document the problems. In many ways, it is much more difficult to come up with the solutions. When I was preparing for today's debate, I visited the excellent website of International Christian Concern, which lists in some detail the problems faced by Christians in south-east Asia. I noted that it provides a list of recommendations. The first suggested course of action in each country is prayer for the Christians affected. I practise no religion but respect the rights of others to do so, and I hope that the Minister will do more than just pray. I hope that he will do all that he possibly can, working closely with officials in his Department and others, to put pressure on the foreign Governments who at best allow the attacks and at worst orchestrate them.

In addition, all help must be given to those fleeing persecution, many of whom are living in camps on country borders and creating a new humanitarian challenge. I appreciate that, in many cases, the UK Government's power to influence such matters can be limited. There is no magic wand to be waved, but those difficulties should not prevent the Government from speaking out in the strongest possible terms against such atrocities or from applying as much pressure as possible on the affected countries and their Governments to change attitudes and bring about swift action.

Where the Government do have influence and scope to make a real difference is in the assistance of those who flee their own country because of religious persecution and who face challenges in a new land. I have asked the Government before about the border between Thailand and Burma, over which many Burmese people have fled, where they have lived in refugee camps. It is imperative that all help required by those people is forthcoming, whether that is food aid or, more probably, housing and medical equipment.

Will the Minister update Members on what action the Department for International Development is taking, both by itself and through the European Union, to help other displaced people within either their own or neighbouring countries? Access can be difficult, but when the UK has an opportunity to help, it would be good to know what help is offered and provided.

Many people will listen closely to the Minister's remarks today. He can be assured that he will receive strong cross-party support for the measures that he and his Government take to address the problem. It is not a new problem nor something that can be solved overnight. However, in the 21st century, violence against innocent individuals whose only wish is to practise their faith peacefully and without fear of oppression cannot be allowed to continue.
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3.21 pm

Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York) (Con): May I take this opportunity to welcome you to the Chair, Mr. Taylor, and say what a great pleasure it is to serve under your chairmanship?

I also welcome the Minister and add my congratulations to the hon. Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew), whom I am almost tempted to call my hon. Friend. I congratulate him on securing the debate and on his well thought-out and well researched contribution. He was modest enough to say that he was third choice as proposer of the debate. I am sure that, in the Westminster Hall book, he is always our first choice.

I join my hon. Friend the Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire (Mr. Crabb) in recognising the trauma of the illness suffered by our hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, Southgate (Mr. Burrowes). We wish him a full and speedy recovery. He will be incredibly disappointed not to be with us today, but the hon. Member for Stroud has done justice to the debate. I also congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire on his contribution. The fact that we have had such a good and positive debate across the parties means that we can bring the subject of persecutions on grounds of faith to a wider audience.

I am sure that everyone will join me, particularly in view of the events last Thursday, in recognising the significance of the good relations and tolerance that we enjoy in our multicultural and multi-faith society. I pay tribute to, and pause to recognise, the work of the Church of England, the Catholic Church and all Christians, particularly considering that we heard yesterday that the perpetrators of last week's atrocities were home grown and came from not far from my constituency. We all stand four-square behind the Prime Minister, offering cross-party support to show that all faiths are able to stand firm against the threat of terrorism and threats to any or all faiths in this country.

Tolerance of other faiths, religions and creeds is a hallmark of modern society and benchmark of any parliamentary democracy. It is important to recognise the right of individuals to enjoy life's freedoms without fear of persecution or violation of basic human rights, and the right to worship remains a fundamental human right. The Conservative party condemns the oppression of individuals on the grounds of religious belief. As the official Opposition, we deplore the persecution of any faith and the prevention of any individual from lawfully practising their religion anywhere in the world. We monitor closely any curtailment of such a basic human right in China, North Korea, Vietnam and other parts of south-east Asia, not to forget those African countries and regions, such as Zimbabwe and Darfur, that have been discussed in previous debates.

I welcomed the announcement of my hon. Friend the shadow Foreign Secretary on the establishment of a human rights group in the Conservative party. We are dedicated to publishing an annual audit of the human rights and foreign policy development records of various Governments around the world. It will be carried out in an informed and transparent manner.

Regrettably, human rights abuses are not confined to south-east Asia and China. Last month, my hon. Friend the shadow Foreign Secretary spoke to a Zimbabwean
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priest whose parish is at the heart of Mugabe's operation, "Drive out the trash". The priest said to my hon. Friend:

The long history of abuses and persecution on the grounds of religion is deeply depressing. The Library prepared an excellent supplementary note for this debate. It states:

south-east Asia and China—

I had not previously been familiar with Wikipedia. Its entry for the persecution of Christians in China in the 9th century states:

An entry about more recent times states:

Regrettably, the persecution of Christians in south-east Asia, China and other parts of the world has been going on for many centuries, but it is right that we bring it to the light, as the hon. Member for Stroud, my hon. Friend the Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire and the hon. Member for Edinburgh, West (John Barrett) have done this afternoon. It has been an excellent debate, and we have had a good discussion of the issues. I hope that through this debate we can bring those harrowing tales to the attention of the wider world.

I would like to praise and recognise the work of Christian Solidarity Worldwide, which has had a large hand in preparations for this debate. We congratulate it on its work and on the thorough research that it does in bringing issues to the attention of the wider public.

I would also like to pay tribute to the work of the Foreign Affairs Committee, particularly its fourth report, which was completed in 2005. The Library took from that report quite a few examples of multiple persecutions in China and Vietnam, and also quoted a long extract from the excellent US State Department's report on human rights. Those extracts set out the limits of religious freedom for all religions—not just Christianity—in the countries that we are discussing. In China, for example, Buddhists, Muslims and Christians have all suffered restrictions in recent years, and particular attention has been given to the Falun Gong, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire referred.

I want to take the opportunity to ask the Minister what work our Foreign Office does. I am sure that he is familiar with the United States of America's State Department's annual religious freedom report. That report has documented cases of persecution of Christians in the region, particularly in China and Burma, which are the main Government offenders.
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There are also examples of human rights abuses by the Vietnamese Government. In Indonesia and the Philippines, Islamist terrorist groups are responsible for most persecutions. That shows, in the words of the Prime Minister today, that Islamic terrorism has gone on in many countries for many years.

With your permission, Mr. Taylor, I will leave the Minister with an extract from that excellent US State Department report at the end of the debate and ask him to comment on the well documented cases in it from the Foreign Office point of view.

The Minister will recall that, when his Government were elected in 1997, the then Foreign Secretary, the right hon. Member for Livingston (Mr. Cook), spoke about ethical foreign policy at length and at every opportunity. We hear little mention of that now. I am interested to hear what audit of abuses the Government carry out, how regularly audits are done—is it on an annual basis?—and what organisation the Government use. It is a source of some disappointment that Human Rights Watch, which has done some excellent work, has not reported on the persecution of Christians since 2000.

I also ask the Minister whether he is minded to act on the request made by his hon. Friend the hon. Member for Stroud to make representations to the authorities in China and Vietnam and to urge them to respect human rights in their entirety. In particular, the right to worship and to practice one's faith should be recognised.

I welcome the excellent debate and the contributions that we heard and place on record our condemnation of human rights abuses wherever they occur, particularly persecution on the grounds of Christianity or of any other faith.

3.32 pm

The Minister for Trade (Ian Pearson) : It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Taylor. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) on securing the debate. The fact that he was third choice, which he admitted, does not in any way detract from the erudite and eloquent way in which he made his contribution. I also offer my best wishes to the hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate (Mr. Burrowes) and hope that he makes a speedy recovery.

I welcome the opportunity to set out the Government's position and to respond to the points of concern that were expressed by hon. Members in the debate. I share hon. Members' deep concern about the persecution of Christians in south-east Asia and China. I recognise that it is an issue that hon. Members and many people in the United Kingdom feel deeply about. I have been a Foreign Office Minister for about two months and from my mailbag I already know about the strong interest that hon. Members have in the subject. First, I will set out some general observations.

Promotion of human rights, including freedom of thought, conscience and religion, lies at the heart of our foreign policy. We condemn cases where individuals are persecuted because of their faith or belief, wherever it happens and whatever the religion of the individual or group concerned. Persecution is frequently counter-productive. Rather than crushing religious belief, it often has the opposite effect and inspires people. For
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example, the Chinese Christian Brother Yun, while suffering in prison in Burma in 2001, saw himself as a seed

It is, in my view, important not only to condemn persecution but to take action on a case-by-case basis. A large number of cases have been raised and I will refer to some of them. I will ask for further information on the others so that we can take them up. We raise our concerns in relevant international forums such as the United Nations Commission on Human Rights. We raise specific cases of religious persecution both bilaterally and with our EU partners. We take every opportunity to urge states to promote tolerance and mutual respect and to protect religious minorities against discrimination, intimidation and attacks.

In general, we believe that dialogue with individual countries, wherever possible, is the best way to achieve our goals. Foreign and Commonwealth Office officials, both here and overseas, work closely with representatives of religious groups and non-governmental organisations, such as Christian Solidarity Worldwide. I pay tribute to them and acknowledge the work that they do in this field.

I want to discuss how that works in practice and mention some of the specific cases that have been raised by hon. Members. My hon. Friend the Member for Stroud set out a number of alleged instances of persecutions of Christians in Vietnam. I share his concerns over any instances where individuals are persecuted or victimised for their faith. We are particularly concerned about the situation of the many unofficial churches in Vietnam, which can be the focus of abuse and mistreatment, particularly by local officials.

I assure hon. Members that human rights, including freedom of religion, is firmly on the agenda in our relations with the Government of Vietnam. We have an open and frank dialogue with Vietnam over human rights, including freedom of religion, both bilaterally and with our EU partners. For example, on 22 March my predecessor, my right hon. Friend the Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire, South (Mr. Alexander), raised the issue in this very House with the President of the Vietnamese National Assembly.

As part of our regular EU-Vietnam human rights dialogue, on 7 June the EU, including the UK, pressed the Vietnamese Government on freedom of religion, restrictions on religious organisations and the situation of Protestant groups. We have urged Vietnam to guarantee in practice the right of all religious groups to practice their faith freely in a community.

I believe that international pressure, including by the UK and the EU, is having some positive effect. Vietnam is now moving in the right direction on religious freedom. The US ambassador for international religious freedom, Ambassador Hanford, has recently recognised that and there is now positive engagement between the US and Vietnam on the issue of religious freedom. The Vietnamese authorities have recently eased restrictions on officially recognised Protestant groups and granted recognition to a number of new congregations.

Relations between Protestant groups and the authorities have shown a modest improvement. For example, the new ordinance on belief and religion
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published last November, and the prime ministerial instruction on Protestantism in February, are steps forward. We hope that they will lead to the recognition of more Protestant groups, so that those groups can worship free from official harassment. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud that the implementation of those new regulations is a key issue.

The EU list of prisoners and detainees of concern enables us to raise specific cases with the Vietnamese authorities. Seven of the 17 cases on the list are religious figures. So far in 2005, nine persons on the list have been released. We welcome that, but we will continue to press the Vietnamese Government for progress on the remaining cases on the EU list, as we did most recently on 7 June. Pastor Truong's case, which we are well aware of, was raised. We share the concerns that have been expressed in the debate over his treatment and are particularly concerned at reports that he has been given drugs. At our suggestion, he has recently been added to the EU list of prisoners and detainees of concern. His case was raised on 7 June. We have also asked to meet him and are awaiting a response.

My hon. Friend also raised the case of Miss Le Thi Hong Lien. We welcome the Vietnamese Government's decision on 26 April to free Miss Lien. We are aware of reports that since release she has faced further harassment, but is still free. We continue to monitor her case.

We remain in touch with the Vietnamese authorities about Pastor Quang's case and those of his Mennonite colleagues, such as Pham Ngoc Thach. Our request for attendance at Pastor Quang's appeal in April was denied, but we will continue to monitor and raise his case. My hon. Friend argued that the EU should have been stronger on the case of Pastor Quang. I assure him that we have ensured that the case is very closely monitored by the EU, and the Vietnamese authorities are well aware of our concerns and interest in the case. We hope that the positive developments that we have seen in recent times will continue.

I shall now turn to the case of Christians in China, and I address the comments made by my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud and the hon. Members for Preseli Pembrokeshire (Mr. Crabb), for Edinburgh, West (John Barrett) and for Vale of York (Miss McIntosh). The UK Government are concerned about the freedom to practise religion in China and follow developments in this area carefully. We raise our concerns at every appropriate opportunity.

As hon. Members will know, the Chinese state constitution permits freedom of religious belief and we acknowledge that the number of people practising religion in China, including Christianity, has increased greatly in recent years. Reports suggest that there are more than 140 million official religious believers in China and that some 21 million people practise through official Protestant and Catholic churches. However, it is very clear to us that the Chinese Government and the Communist party want to control strictly religion in China. That is done through a number of mechanisms: state registration of all churches; state approval and vetting of all religious personnel; and strict controls on the publication of religious materials. In our view those and other sorts of controls seriously undermine, and in some cases effectively deny, the freedom to practise religious belief in China today.
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We receive regular reports about the harassment of unofficial Christian groups in China—many such cases have been mentioned today—that cause us grave concern. In September 2004, Foreign and Commonwealth Office officials raised concerns with Chinese Government officials about the mass arrests of unofficial Protestant church leaders in Xinjiang, Kaifeng, and Wuhan and about the detention of several members of the Baoding diocese clergy.

Of course, sometimes people who are detained by the Chinese authorities are released quickly, but others are held for long periods and are sentenced to terms of re-education through labour or sent to prison. We have received credible reports of torture and abuse of such people in detention. Chinese officials tell us that people are never arrested for being religious believers and that a person must always have done something else to warrant punishment, but in our view there are people in prison in China for doing things that we consider to be the peaceful and legitimate expression of their religious beliefs. Chinese Catholics who, for example, recognise the authority of Rome rather than the Chinese Communist party should not, in our opinion, be harassed or imprisoned.

We have raised, over the years, a number of religious cases of concern with the Chinese authorities, including most recently that of Pastor Zhang Rongliang. Foreign Minister Li and my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary spoke about this case during his visit to China in January. We continue to urge that Pastor Zhang has access to a legal adviser of his choice and, if he has to stand trial, that the trial should be open.

The hon. Members for Preseli Pembrokeshire and for Edinburgh, West referred to the new regulations on religion that China introduced in March 2005. The regulations reaffirm restrictions on religious practice and maintain the requirement for all religious groups to register. Penalties are set out for non-compliance. There is an appeals mechanism that may allow local authorities that take a particularly hard line on unofficial believers to be challenged. However, our assessment is that those regulations are aimed primarily at limiting and controlling the development of religion. We do not expect that the situation of unofficial religious believers will improve.

The hon. Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire raised a number of cases, and I shall refer to some of them. We are aware of the case of Jilin province: indeed, Christian Solidarity Worldwide notified the Foreign Office of it. We are monitoring the situation, and our embassy is making inquiries about the incident.

The hon. Gentleman also raised the situation of Pastor Cai Zhuohua, who leads an official church and appeared in court on 7 July accused of illegally printing more than 200,000 bibles. He has been charged with illegal business practices, and the case has been adjourned without a verdict. Again, we are closely monitoring that case. We had 10 religious cases drawn from different backgrounds on the list of individual cases of concern that we handed to the Chinese Government as part of the UK-China human rights dialogue in June. The cases include that of Bishop James Su Zhimin, which was also raised by the hon. Gentleman.
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We monitor the situation in China carefully, and we raise incidents and cases with the Chinese authorities, through the human rights dialogue, through ministerial activity and through our support for EU activity. We are always willing to consider action when we have specific information. My officials have heard his speech and the particular cases that he raised. We shall require further information, and I am sure that they will approach either him or Christian Solidarity Worldwide about these matters.

Mr. Drew : I thank my hon. Friend the Minister for giving way, and for the kind offer that he has made. Will he also make a special effort for the North Korean Christians who have made their way to China and who are always under threat of being returned to North Korea? I know that the six-party talks are largely about security issues, but North Korea must understand that it must have a realistic approach to human rights. One way to ensure that is to put pressure on China.

Ian Pearson : I understand entirely what my hon. Friend says. I raised the issue of human rights when I visited China last week and spoke to the Vice-Foreign Minister. Coincidentally, I had a meeting with the ambassador of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea only this morning, and I made strong representations to him about general human rights issues and about how they treat their people.

One case brought to our attention by NGOs is that of Jiang Zongxiu. She was allegedly beaten to death in police custody on 18 June 2004 after she was arrested for handing out bibles in Guizhou province. It is clearly unfortunate that Jiang was arrested at all, but one positive aspect of the tragedy—if there can be a positive aspect—was the openness with which the Chinese official press reported her death. The UK Government welcomed that openness and the steps taken later by the Chinese Government to tackle torture. However, as I mentioned in a recent debate in the House on Tibet, more transparency would help to transform the situation for vulnerable prisoners in China and for the policemen and the prison warders who look after them. Our experience in the UK has shown that transparency helps to improve the situation radically, and we hope that China will bear that in mind.

I want to assure the House that the UK Government regularly raise concerns about the freedom to practise religion in China. On 6 June in London, at the most recent round of the UK-China human rights dialogue, which is a bi-annual, high-level Government exchange, we had an exchange about religion. We shall hold our next human rights dialogue with China in the autumn, when we lead the EU-China human rights dialogue.

Ministers and officials also raise human rights concerns, including religious issues, with Chinese counterparts at every available opportunity. I did so last week. I have raised our concerns with the Chinese ambassador to the UK, and we shall regularly press China about its progress on the ratification of the international covenant on civil and political rights, which contains provisions about freedom of belief, freedom of assembly, and the prevention of torture.

Miss McIntosh : What audit do the Government carry out? How dependent are they on non-governmental
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organisations rather than the resources of the Foreign Office? I have listened carefully to what the Minister said about his discussions with individual countries, and they are very welcome. However, what audit do the Government separately carry out?

Ian Pearson : I shall answer the hon. Lady's question, which she raised during her contribution, but I shall talk first about other issues that have been raised, such as those of Laos, Burma and Indonesia.

Our contacts with the authorities in Laos are limited; relations are covered by our embassy in Bangkok. However, we regularly raise with the Laos authorities our concerns about the persecution of Christians. Only last month a representative of the British embassy in Bangkok raised the issue with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Vientiane.

We also regularly raise the situation of the Hmong people with the Laos Government; most recently, that was done by an official from our embassy in Bangkok. Like the UN Secretary-General, we welcome reports that those Hmong people recently coming out of remote areas have been treated humanely, and we call on the Laos Government to continue to provide the necessary humanitarian assistance to them.

A number of hon. Members raised the situation in Burma. I agree that there remain instances of restriction on the right to exercise freedom of religion in Burma, and we have condemned that in successive, highly critical UK and EU-sponsored UN resolutions—most recently in April's United Nations Commission on Human Rights resolution on Burma, which expressed grave concern at discrimination and persecution on the basis of religious or ethnic background.

We are very concerned that offensives continue in Karen state, despite ongoing ceasefire talks with the Karen National Union. The Burmese Government are well aware of our concerns about human rights abuses in the ethnic minority areas. Most Burmese Christians are able to follow their religion relatively freely, but their freedom of assembly and expression are severely curtailed, as is that of other groups in Burma.

Our views on the human rights situation in the country are extremely well known and we will continue to press the Burmese Government to improve human
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rights. However, our simple trouble is that the Burmese authorities show no great willingness at all to listen to the representations that we and others make. We will continue to work with our EU partners and throughout the international community to promote national reconciliation in Burma so that all faiths there can live freely. We shall continue to put what pressure we can on the Burmese authorities to ensure that they address the issue of human rights, as they are clearly not doing at the moment.

The hon. Member for Edinburgh, West and my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud raised the issue of religious freedom in Indonesia and the case of three women recently arrested there. Members of the British embassy in Jakarta are looking into those reports. We have not been able to verify them so far, but will continue to look into the case. Together with our European partners, we are in regular dialogue with the Indonesian Government and we encourage them to ensure religious freedom, to maintain law and order and promote reconciliation in areas of conflict.

We have regular contacts with NGOs, including Human Rights Watch, on the human rights situation in China, and we take their concerns very seriously. They have a part in the UK-China human rights dialogue in that we give them feedback on how that dialogue goes.

The hon. Member for Vale of York raised the question of what auditing we do and gave the example of what is done in the States. We produce an annual human rights report, which is an extremely well researched and thorough document, drawing on a wide range of reliable sources, not just the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and our embassies and consulates. Last year it ran to more than 400 pages. This year's human rights report is due to be published this month. I can assure hon. Members that it covers religious persecution in south-east Asia and China, as well as human rights abuses in all other parts of the world.

Let me finish by assuring hon. Members of the seriousness that the Government attach to human rights abuses in south-east Asia and China. We take every appropriate opportunity to raise human rights abuses both bilaterally with the relevant countries and working with our EU partners and through all relevant international forums. We have a proud and strong track record when it comes to raising human rights issues, and we will continue to do that while we are in government.
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