Pakistan: UK Aid

Lord Bishop of Guildford Excerpts
Thursday 25th April 2024

(2 months, 3 weeks ago)

Grand Committee
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Lord Bishop of Guildford Portrait The Lord Bishop of Guildford
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My Lords, I am privileged to be the first of a trio of Bishops speaking in this debate.

For the past eight years or so, the diocese of Guildford has partnered with the diocese of Sialkot in the Majha region of Punjab. Sialkot is probably best known for the production of medical equipment and World Cup footballs. The diocese also includes the Mirpur district, which has strong connections to the British-Pakistani community—not least in Woking, just a few miles from where I live, which boasts the oldest purpose-built mosque in the UK. I was privileged to visit Sialkot and Mirpur in 2019; Mirpur had just suffered two devastating earthquakes. I am a vice-chair of the Pakistani Minorities APPG.

I am hugely grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Alton, for initiating the debate and for his tireless championing of freedom of religion or belief over so many years. I fully support the suggestion that religious minorities should be explicitly included in the list of marginalised communities when it comes to the provision of UK aid.

As we have heard already, there is no question that discrimination exists on all levels against religious minorities in Pakistan, most notably against the Ahmadi, Christian and Hindu communities. In part, that is due to extremists who frequently use the blasphemy laws to whip up public anger and acts of violence, with the arson attacks on dozens of churches and hundreds of homes in Jaranwala on 16 August last year a particularly egregious example. In part, it is also due to an entrenched institutional malaise despite the specific protection of religious minorities under the constitution. Aspects of that malaise are well documented; many of them have been highlighted in both the opening speech of the noble Lord, Lord Alton, and subsequent speeches. They include: a biased educational system; a legal code that specifically discriminates against Ahmadis; the blasphemy laws, which are so widely drawn and frequently abused; and the continuing legacy of the caste system, which frequently leaves Christians and Hindus at the bottom of the pile.

Issues of modern-day slavery have been highlighted by the noble Lord, Lord Alton, especially in the huge brick-making industry and in the sewers, where—as my friend the Bishop of Sialkot, who came to lunch last Saturday, tells me—there are deaths reported almost every week due to a lack of basic personal protective equipment. Complaints about abduction, rape, forced conversion and forced marriage are frequently given short shrift in the courts. One particular concern in the diocese of Sialkot was the effective confiscation of eight church schools, which remains in place despite a subsequent ruling by the federal Government that they should be returned. That is a particular tragedy for both the Christian community and wider society given that so many of the key Muslim leaders across many aspects of Pakistani life have benefited in the past from a church school education, often giving them a wider, more tolerant perspective on those who adhere to faiths other than their own.

I could cite various examples on the other side that have sent out more hopeful and positive messages to minority religious communities in recent years. There are courageous people across Pakistan who believe in the constitutional protection of religious minorities and who seek, often very bravely, to promote that belief. I was privileged to meet some such people in my visit in 2019. However, as this is a short debate, I do not want to add to it unnecessarily. My points here are that the negative stories remind us of the continuing need for change, in which UK aid can play a significant role if carefully directed, and that the positive stories remind us that change can happen—especially when we pay proper attention to religious tolerance and the equity that flows from it.

Many of the problems for minorities emanate from the fact that they are often very poor, with illiteracy the primary cause of that poverty. Indeed, it is something of an irony that, although it was often the Christian missionary schools that began to educate many from a variety of religious backgrounds, all too often the Christian community is left behind today. As the noble Baroness, Lady Foster, pointed out, the survey taken by the Punjabi Bureau of Statistics on the social and economic well-being of women showed that, while women’s literacy in a general population was 64%, women’s illiteracy in a minority population was also 64%, showing the extraordinary imbalance between the two groups. From those statistical foundations flow unemployment, poverty, early marriages and poor health outcomes in a cycle that can be broken only by renewed efforts to improve the educational opportunities for children, especially girls, from minority communities. The UK Government could help to advance that ambition through carefully targeted aid to the educational institutes that promote it.

In conclusion, I suggest the following. First, UK aid should include religious minorities in the list of marginalised communities within Pakistan. Secondly, I support the suggestion of the noble Baroness, Lady Foster, that a percentage of the aid budget be set aside for minorities, using most of it on education and professional training projects, in line with the Government’s MDGs and the Pakistan Government’s allocated quotas for minority groups.