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Tuesday, 22 March 2011

Transcript of MP Andrew Stephenson's speech at Westminster Hall 22nd March 2011

Here is a full transcript of the original speech prepared by MP Andrew Stephenson, delivered in Westminster Hall today. Due to interjections the presentation was broken up but essentially remained much the same

Government Policy on Pakistan
Westminster Hall 22nd March 2011 12:30pm

In January a cross Party group of eight UK Parliamentarians, including myself, visited Pakistan, to look at the challenges facing that country. Given the close historical, economic and social ties between our two nations, with over one million people who trace their roots to Pakistan living in the UK and Pakistan being on the front line in the war on terror, getting our policy towards Pakistan right is of crucial importance.

The aim of the visit was to give UK politicians a better understanding of the democratic challenges facing our parliamentary colleagues in the National and Provincial Assemblies. To understand the impact of Amendment 18 to the constitution, to energise existing bilateral links and learn more about the work of the UK Foreign Office, Department for International Development and British Council in Pakistan. So all of us who went hope to have a longer and broader debate on the UK Governments policy on Pakistan on a future date, something I’m also sure other members present would wish to participate in, however for today I would like to focus my remarks on one specific issue.
That issue is the murder on 2nd March of Shahbaz Bhatti in Islamabad, and the plight of Christian’s in Pakistan.

Our delegation met Shahbaz Bhatti in the Ministry for Minorities during our visit and discussed a range of issues with him including interfaith dialogue and also the murder of the Governor of Punjab, Salman Taseer, a Muslim politician killed by one of his own bodyguards after he criticised Pakistan’s Blasphemy laws. Shahbaz Bhatti was the only Christian in the Cabinet, but he stood up for all minorities in Pakistan wanting to see a tolerant, liberal and secular country that its founding father Jinnah had envisaged when he said “let all people worship freely in churches, masjids and temples.”

At this point it may be worth me explaining a bit more about Shahbaz Bhatti and the work that he did. He was the first Federal Minister for Minorities from 2008 until his assassination at the age of 42. At the time of his appointment as the Minister for Minorities, he said that he accepted the post for the sake of the "oppressed, down-trodden and marginalized" of Pakistan, and that he dedicated his life to "struggle for human equality, social justice, religious freedom, and to uplift and empower the religious minorities' communities." And he added that he wanted to send "a message of hope to the people living a life of disappointment, disillusionment and despair".

During his time as federal minister, he took steps in support of religious minorities. Under his guidance, the government introduced affirmative action for minorities – 5% of all federal employment – and designated 11th August a holiday to celebrate minorities. He banned the sale of properties belonging to minorities whilst law enforcement authorities took action against them. He launched a national campaign to promote inter-faith harmony through seminars, awareness groups and workshops and was initiating comparative religion classes into schools and universities.

Shahbaz Bhatti introduced a prayer room for non-Muslims in the prison system, and started a 24-hour crisis hotline to report acts of violence against minorities. He began a campaign to protect religious artefacts and sites that belong to minorities.
Shahbaz Bhatti, a Catholic, was also a critic of Pakistan's blasphemy laws and it was this that led to his recent murder. He had been the recipient of death threats since 2009, when he spoke in support of Pakistani Christians attacked in the 2009 Gojra riots in Punjab. These threats increased following his support for Asia Bibi, a Pakistani Christian sentenced to death in 2010 for blasphemy.

It is worth pointing out that Asia Bibi is a 45-year-old mother of five from Punjab province and has become the first Christian woman to be convicted and sentenced to death, by hanging, under Pakistan’s blasphemy law. As of today she remains in jail despite many acknowledging that she was falsely accused of blasphemy and repeated international calls for her release.

According to the BBC, Shahbaz Bhatti was travelling to work through a residential district, having just left his mother's home, when his vehicle was sprayed with bullets. At the time of the attack he was alone, without any security. The group Tehrik-i-Taliban told the BBC that they carried out the attack, because Shahbaz Bhatti was a "known blasphemer."

His assassination was condemned by a Pakistani Government Spokesman, saying: "This is a concerted campaign to slaughter every liberal, progressive and humanist voice in Pakistan." President Zardari vowed to combat the forces of obscurantism, and said, "we will not be intimidated nor will we retreat." The government declared three days of mourning and Prime Minister Gillani led a two-minute silence in parliament.

His murder was also condemned around the world with the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, calling on Pakistan to reform its blasphemy laws. And the Pope said his “moving sacrifice” inspired “courage and commitment to strive for religious freedom for all men.”

Shahbaz Bhatti was not just a Christian he was one of Pakistan's most progressive politicians and his death is not just a blow to the Pakistani Christian Community but to all Pakistani’s.

Following his death I tabled EDM 1518 not just to condemn his murder, but to recognise the work that he had done in Pakistan and urge the Government of Pakistan to consider reviewing section 295 of the Pakistan Penal Code, commonly referred to as the “blasphemy laws”. I am pleased to see that as of this morning my EDM has so far gained the support of 82 other MP’s.

The Blasphemy Laws first introduced by the British in a mild form that gave equal protection to all faiths in 1860 and carried a maximum sentence of two years in jail, were given their present form by General Zia ul-Haq in 1986. There is now a mandatory life sentence for desecrating the Qur’an and a mandatory death sentence for “blaspheming” Muhammad. Unlike the Racial and Religious Hatred Act here in the UK, which prohibits people from stirring up hatred against religious groups or individuals on religious grounds, the Pakistani blasphemy law protects the Islamic scriptures and the person of Muhammad from criticism or insult. Although all of Pakistan’s population of 170 million are subject to the blasphemy law, it is worth remembering that religious minority groups only make up about 4% of that number.
Although no one has yet been executed by Pakistan for blasphemy, many have died in custody or been killed before any case is heard in court. Most recently Qamar David, a 51 year old Christian, was found dead in Prison whilst appealing a life sentence imposed under the Blasphemy Laws. Shehrbano Taseer, the daughter of murdered Salman Taseer, recently wrote in the Guardian that “more than 500 Muslims, 340 Ahmadis, 119 Christians, 14 Hindus and 10 others have been charged under the laws. Thirty-two of those accused – and two Muslim judges – have been mowed down by Islamist vigilantes.”
It is worrying that religious zealots in Pakistan have now deemed these man-made laws as nonnegotiable, with the very real threat of murder hanging over anyone who disagrees.

I would therefore welcome the Ministers comments on the “blasphemy laws” in Pakistan and more importantly their abuse and misuse in the settling of scores and other disputes, often against Christians, in the country.
I hope he will agree with me that we should stand shoulder to shoulder with those of all faiths who want to see a debate over the reform of these laws, so they can no longer be used as a tool of oppression against Christian and other minority communities in Pakistan.

I met with a group of Pakistani Christian’s on Sunday 13th March at Woodlands Road Baptist Chapel in Nelson. In addition to many Pakistani Christians who live within Pendle, such as David Dean who organised the event, we were joined by others including Canon Yacub Masih and Wilson Chowdhry from the British Pakistani Christian Association. I know the Minister is aware that there are a number of Pakistani Christian’s living in my seat, as some attended an event that he was kind enough to speak at in my constituency prior to the election.

At the meeting I heard from many about their shock at Shahbaz Bhatti’s murder but also their desire that his death should be a wakeup call not just for the Pakistani Government, but for the International community as well. Those at the meeting felt that there was no better illustration of the rising problems of anti Christian discrimination in Pakistan than the murder of Salman Taseer and Shahbaz Bhatti over reform of the “blasphemy laws”. Concerns were also expressed about whether the UK couldn’t do more given the amount of money we give to Pakistan in Foreign Aid.

As the Minister will be aware this was an issue that was picked up by Cardinal Keith O’Brien last week when he criticised the government for increasing overseas aid to Pakistan to more than £445 million without demanding religious freedom for Christians and other religious minorities, such as Shia Muslims. Cardinal O’Brien was quoted in press as saying “I urge William Hague to obtain guarantees from foreign governments before they are given aid.....To increase aid to the Pakistan government when religious freedom is not upheld and those who speak up for religious freedom are gunned down is tantamount to an anti-Christian foreign policy.”

Whilst I share the Cardinal’s concern about the plight of Christian’s in Pakistan I am not sure withdrawing or cutting of aid in response to Shahbaz Bhatti’s death would be the most productive thing to do right now. I would however welcome the Ministers comments on what the Cardinal said as I know many would agree with his comments.

To date no one has been arrested and brought to justice over Shahbaz Bhatti’s murder, something which makes matters even more painful for the religious minorities who hold him in such high regard. It is of course possible that the security services in Pakistan and the government do not know who the killers are. However with no one being arrested and held accountable for so many other incidents of violence against minorities, such as Sangla Hill in 2005 or Gojra in 2009, the fact no arrest have been made is a deep concern.

In the time allowed I have tried to describe the situation in Pakistan as best as I can. There are numerous other incidents of persecution I could have added in, many detailed to me by Pakistani Christian’s now living here in the UK.

I would finish by saying that I believe that the best long term way that we will see Pakistan become a liberal and tolerant nation, which values and treats all of its citizens fairly, is through increasing rates of education in the country. I was therefore pleased to see an increasing focus on education in DFID’s recent Aid Review. Something the Minister may like to touch on in his remarks.
The Government of Pakistan also need to do more to reverse the “gun-culture”, to promote tolerance and ensure that no parts of the Government, Military or Security Services are appeasing or supporting extremists.

I would also pay tribute to the work of organisations such as Christian Solidarity Worldwide and British Pakistani Christian Association, who do so much good work to promote interfaith harmony and raise the profile of the issues I have outlined today. Issues that would rarely make the British press without their help.
By focusing just on the issue of Christian and minority rights today I fear I have painted a fairly bleak picture of Pakistan and the country’s future. That has not been my intention. I believe that with the right leaders things can and will change for the better.

The country has so much potential and we need to work with Pakistan to ensure that issues like the ones I have outlined today are resolved. In doing so we will ensure that Shahbaz Bhatti did not die in vain, but gave his life to make Pakistan a greater more tolerant

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