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‘Harassed. Attacked. Arrested.’ Humanists in Parliament hear about global worrying rise in non-religious persecution

Yesterday, members of the All-Party Parliamentary Humanist Group (APPHG) heard moving testimonies from three victims of non-religious persecution in Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Nigeria, as well as from the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion and Belief on the extent of the problem more generally and the UK Government on what it is doing to tackle it. Each speaker highlighted a worrying rise in state sponsored persecution and mob violence against the non-religious.

Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon, Minister for Human Rights at the Foreign, Commonwealth, and Development Office, began the meeting by providing a thorough outline of the UK Government’s work in support of freedom of religion or belief. He discussed his work with his Pakistani and Nigerian counterparts to challenge cases where the country’s blasphemy laws have been used to persecute individuals from minority groups, including humanists. He restated the UK Government’s commitment to promoting freedom of religion or belief for all.

He was followed by Gulalai Ismail, a humanist and internationally recognised human rights activist. She was forced to flee her home country of Pakistan after being placed on a Government ‘kill list’ and having to spend a year in hiding. Drawing on her own experiences, she described how Pakistan is using blasphemy, anti-terrorism, cybercrime, and sedition legislation to suppress and marginalise minority groups including the non-religious and Ahmadiyya Muslims. She also highlighted how these violations of freedom of religion or belief have affected women. In Pakistan an estimated 1,000 women a year are kidnapped and subjected to forced marriages and conversions.

Leo Igwe, founder of the Humanist Association of Nigeria, provided a passionate description of the deteriorating situation for the non-religious in West Africa, with reference to his colleague and the current President of the Association, Mubarak Bala, who has been imprisoned for over a year without charge following accusations of blasphemy.

Asif Mohiuddin, a Bangladeshi humanist blogger, provided a harrowing account of how online censorship is being used as a means to silence and oppress the non-religious community in Bangladesh and how this has led to a rise in targeted brutal killings across the country in the past five years. He outlined his own experience of Islamists making an attempt on his life, seriously injuring him, only for him to then be jailed for blasphemy.

The final speaker was Ahmed Shaheed, the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion and Belief, who gave an eloquent speech based on his expert knowledge of the situation globally. He expressed how the pandemic has increased challenges facing non-religious, especially those at risk of violence from their families and immediate communities, and is concerned that the right to freedom of thought is being eroded more frequently worldwide.

After the presentations the panellists took part in a Q&A session and responded with clear calls to action for APPHG members, including implementing sanctions on foreign officials involved in these acts of persecution, supporting the abolition of blasphemy laws, and working closely through international mechanisms to ensure access to critical thinking in education.

Additionally, the speakers answered questions from non-parliamentarian audience members, including from Archbishop Angelos, the Coptic Archbishop of London, who talked about the need for freedom of religion or belief to be for everyone, the right to dissent from beliefs, and for us all to stand together to tackle violations of these rights.

The APPHG is a cross-party group of Members of the House of Commons and Lords from all the main parties. The event was chaired by Baroness Bakewell. It also featured the AGM of the Group, at which she was re-elected as Co-Chair alongside Crispin Blunt MP. Elected as Vice Chairs were Clive Lewis MP, Tommy Sheppard MP, Jeff Smith MP, Aaron Bell MP, Lord Taverne of Pimlico, Baroness Burt of Solihull, and the Viscount Ridley, while Baroness Massey of Darwen was elected Secretary and Lord Dubs of Battersea was elected Treasurer. Humanists UK provides the secretariat to the APPHG.

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For further comment or information, please contact Humanists UK Director of Public Affairs and Policy Richy Thompson at press@humanists.uk or phone 020 7324 3072 or 07534 248 596.

Read more about the All-Party Parliamentary Humanist Group.

Read about our international campaigns.

Read Humanists UK’s Twitter thread for a full outline of the meeting.

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