The UK should support the values of humanitarian relief for the most vulnerable, alongside freedom of religious belief that we must continue to advocate for, argues Dr Lisa Cameron MP

During my time as an MP, the COVID-19 crisis ranks amongst the most difficult challenges we have faced. Constituents have variously told me of losing their loved ones, their physical pain, job losses, and the pain of not being able to visit their loved ones, all the more over the recent Easter period.

However, as the West begins to flatten the curve of infections and deaths, we are seeing less economically developed regions struggling with the outbreak.  This struggle is even more pronounced for vulnerable minorities in some of the world’s harshest ideological regimes, such as the Christians of the Sahel, a border region touching both the Sahara and the countries south of the desert. As international and African medics fight to save those in the more accessible cities, it is unimaginable for them to reach the ruralised and terrorist-encircled Christian communities in countries such as Nigeria and Mali.

The Department for International Development, located in my constituency, requires directing efforts, funding and time to combat the pandemic in Africa. Alongside the grave humanitarian need to do so, if we cannot contain the virus abroad, the risk of re-infection in the West is fearfully high. This strategy necessarily involves the continued fight against emerging terrorist groups in the region, which are known to harass vulnerable local populations and monopolise medical and other valuable resources, as well as chasing away foreign medical help.

Largely unknown and unreported in the West, a resurgent ISIS saw an estimated over 1000 Christians slaughtered in North-Eastern Nigeria in 2019. These are just a fraction of the over 6000 deaths since 2015.

The militant group Boko Haram have abducted and killed those who refuse to conform to their extremism. Attacks by armed groups of Muslim Fulani herdsmen have resulted in the killing, maiming, dispossession and eviction of thousands of Christians. As International Christian Concern shows, in the first three months of 2020, there have been 200 violent incidents involving terrorist or militant groups throughout Nigeria. These three brutal months also saw 766 deaths related to terror or militant activity, with Christians farmers making up the highest number of casualties after Boko Haram terrorists and military personnel are factored in.

Innocent and vulnerable girls such as Leah Sharibu, whose mother visited London in February to plead Boris Johnson for help, have spent their early adulthood as slaves and denied basic human rights, captive to a resurgent ISIS.

Shockingly Nigeria, a Commonwealth member with a Christian population of around fifty per cent, ranks twelfth on Open Doors World Watch List 2020 of the countries in which Christians are most persecuted. By comparison, Syria ranks eleventh and Saudi Arabia ranks thirteenth, with Iraq fifteenth and Egypt sixteenth. That Nigeria is currently just one rank below ‘extreme’ in terms of such persecution, makes its annual receipt of over £300 million of UK taxpayer money an issue that deserves further scrutiny.

Some of the £300 million we spend in Nigeria could be focused upon local charities with contacts and experience on the ground reaching the most vulnerable, many of whom are persecuted. Medical and security agencies are equally vital in the ravaged north. Wise investment will short-circuit expensive bureaucracy, targeting precisely the groups most at risk of suffering from terrorism and the virus, which is more likely to go undetected in areas of frequent violence.

I commend the efforts of the humanitarian organisation PSJ UK, which is working tirelessly to stop this impending genocide. It has recently launched a global social media campaign, ‘Silent Slaughter’, reaching millions worldwide in a bid to make the Nigerian and Western governments listen to the cry of the Sahel’s most vulnerable Christians and other minorities.

Since the Bishop of Truro’s full report on Christian persecution around the world, which was commissioned by former Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO), interest in the cause is rising fast among political actors. Indeed, PSJ UK’s campaign builds on the Prime Minister’s Christmas message, which vowed to defend persecuted Christians around the world, and the promises of the FCO to implement the Bishop of Truro’s recommendations, which have been taken on by the PM’s Special Envoy for Freedom of Religion and Belief Rehman Chishti.

DFID must invest every penny wisely with the utmost scrutiny, particularly in regions facing the dual threat of rising terrorism and the coronavirus pandemic, both of which require support to be directed to upholding humanitarian needs and rights of the most vulnerable.  In meeting our commitment to the Global Development Goals, we must leave no one behind. By hearing the cry of those most in need, especially at a time of crisis, DFID can support the values of humanitarian relief for the most vulnerable, alongside freedom of religious belief that we must continue to advocate and hold so dear.

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