Religious Liberty

– in the House of Lords at 9:14 pm on 24th October 2001.

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Photo of Baroness Cox Baroness Cox Conservative 9:14 pm, 24th October 2001

rose to ask Her Majesty's Government what is their response to the escalation of violations of religious liberty in many parts of the world and whether they will consider measures similar to those adopted by the United States Congress.

My Lords, I thank all noble Lords who will contribute to what is sadly a timely debate.

Religious freedom, enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, is so significant that many people are prepared to sacrifice their lives for their faith. However, more than 2 billion people are estimated to be suffering from restrictions to religious freedom. Many millions endure persecution that ranges from harassment, intimidation and discrimination to imprisonment, torture and martyrdom.

The causes of religious intolerance are diverse: religious, ideological, political, social and economic. Broadly, we can identify three types of ideology that are responsible for most contemporary religious persecution. The first is atheistic communism. Despite the end of the Cold War, several communist regimes persist, and they all restrict religious liberty. Examples include China, Vietnam, Laos and North Korea. In China, the state permits religious practice only in state-controlled organisations, thus controlling their leadership, meetings and teaching. Those who refuse to comply pay a high price. Muslims, Tibetan Buddhists, the Falun Gong and Christians are suffering oppression. Tens of millions are believed to be suffering harassment, fines, detention, forced labour, "re-education", imprisonment and torture.

In Vietnam, many suffer for their faith. In April 1999, the government cracked down--again--on the Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam, with the arrest, harassment and intimidation of monks. A Buddhist monk, 57 year-old Thich Huyen Quang, was arrested and given excruciating electric shocks that left him with long-term after-effects. However, he still spoke out. He said:

"Just as the bird on the verge of death sings its most poignant song, so I, an old monk on the threshold of departure from this world, cannot tell a lie: the Party cannot keep on persisting in policies that drive our people to poverty, and repress religions".

In North Korea, the plight of religious believers is especially grim. A Christian Solidarity Worldwide team went to the North Korean border area and obtained details of the treatment meted out to Christians and others who are perceived to be a threat to the regime. That regime promotes the Juche ideology, which is a mixture of atheism and the virtual deification of the leader, Kim Jong Il. Anyone who does not worship him is interned in concentration camps, where Christians are often given the most dangerous tasks and their children are put in cages--within sight but out of reach. Atrocities are committed daily. On one occasion, a guard reportedly poured molten iron over a group of Christians to punish them for refusing to renounce their faith.

The second category of religious persecution is associated with militant religious extremism. India is a contemporary example. Militant Hindu groups, some of which have close connections with the authorities, have attacked and killed members of religious minorities, such as Sikhs, Muslims and Christians.

The third category of contemporary religious persecution is linked with the ideology of violent Islamism, which must be clearly distinguished from the religion of Islam, in order to forestall the development of Islamophobia and a backlash against the vast majority of peaceable Muslims.

Islamism is an aggressive ideology that is committed to vanquishing other faiths, which are seen as being incompatible with its own version of Islam. It is associated with violence and terrorism, as in Sudan, Indonesia Afghanistan and, in recent weeks, the United States.

In Sudan, the National Islamic Front, which is an Islamist regime, took power by military coup in 1989 and declared a jihad in its most militaristic form against all who oppose it, including moderate Muslims and traditional believers as well as Christians. The toll of suffering from war-related causes exceeds 2 million dead and 5 million displaced. I believe that the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chelmsford will say more on that topic, for which I am grateful.

Since 11th September, attention has focused on the Islamist Taliban regime. Its record of religious intolerance is notorious. Earlier this year, Hindus were required to wear a strip of yellow cloth to identify them, which echoes the treatment of Jews in Nazi Germany. Eight western aid workers are currently under threat of death for allegedly trying to teach Christianity, and more than 50 Afghan national colleagues are detained for failing to report them. That case raises the general principle of symmetry of respect for human rights, including religious liberty. People who come to the Britain rightly expect their freedoms to be protected. However, in many of those people's countries, comparable rights, such as the freedom to build places of worship, are not accorded to others. Examples include Saudi Arabia, where Christians have virtually no religious freedom of any kind.

I turn briefly to Indonesia. I recently saw in the Moluccas the tragic aftermath of religious conflict between Muslims and Christians, who had lived peaceably together. Both communities have suffered. But now, more than 2,000 Lasker Jihad warriors have poured into the region--many were from the Middle East and Afghanistan--with the intention of driving Christians away from that part of Indonesia.

I could continue the litany of modern violations of religious freedom. They represent one of the most overlooked erosions of freedom. The United Nations has dedicated a convention, a treaty, a body, a special rapporteur, a day, a week, three decades and a world conference to racial discrimation but has dedicated very little to religious discrimination other than a special rapporteur.

The United States has demonstrated its concern. In 1998 Congress established the Commission on International Religious Freedom to monitor religious freedom in other countries and to advise the President, the Secretary of State and Congress on how best to promote it. The appointed commissioners include leaders from different faiths and experts on international law, religious freedom and human rights. They travel extensively to investigate violations of religious liberty.

The State Department also has its own Office of International Religious Freedom, headed by an ambassador-at-large. This office can designate countries of particular concern where gross violations of religious freedom occur; or other categories such as "particularly severe violators of religious freedom". The American Government can then apply a range of political and economic pressures.

At present "countries of particular concern" are Burma, China, Iran, Iraq and Sudan. The Taliban regime is designated a particularly severe violator of religious liberty. The commission has recommended adding Turkmenistan, North Korea, Laos and Saudi Arabia to the list of countries of particular concern.

Both the Office of International Religious Freedom and the Commission on International Religious Freedom produce comprehensive reports which have a high reputation. Some of their recommendations have been acted upon. Therefore there is a case for Her Majesty's Government to give religious freedom a higher priority in foreign policy.

Perhaps I may offer some ideas for consideration: for example, the establishment of an office for religious freedom, the appointment of an envoy for religious freedom to investigate cases of alleged religious persecution and to prepare briefings for government departments and parliamentary committees, the monitoring of HMG-sponsored aid to ensure that its distribution does not preclude any people on the grounds of religion; or giving greater financial commitment to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office Human Rights Fund for increased funding for human rights initiatives and indigenous NGOs working to promote and protect religious freedom, or perhaps giving FCO legal and technical assistance for governments such as those in the former Soviet Union, preparing legislation dealing with religious registration to assist them in developing the principles and policies of civil society, or requiring British embassies to report on religious persecution in countries where violations occur; or the promotion of a more coherent EU response to violations of religious liberty comparable to the agreed position on the death penalty; or, finally, the establishment of a religious liberty commission similar to that in the United States.

I conclude by emphasising that many millions of people are suffering from religious intolerance and persecution which are the primary causes of most of the conflicts, oppression and man-made disasters in the world today. The terrible events of 11th September brought these tragedies to our own doorstep. There is urgent need to act now to monitor and check trends which could develop into further destruction of life and liberty. Nothing can bring back lives already lost, but we can learn from history and try to prevent comparable tragedies in the future.

I finish with the words of a Buddhist monk in Vietnam, who speaks more eloquently than I can, on behalf of all those suffering from violation of freedom of religion and who look to us who live in freedom to use our freedom to help them in their hour of need. He says:

". . . in Vietnam today, Vietnamese citizens have the choice between only two alternatives: either to go to prison or to toe the Party line. Those who toe the Party line must abandon their identity. They have mouths but cannot speak, have brains but cannot think, have hearts but cannot love their people or their country as they choose. . . Those who choose prison or re-education camp may think and speak freely--but only to themselves. What kind of freedom is this, where human dignity is totally denied?"

Photo of The Bishop of Chelmsford The Bishop of Chelmsford Bishop 9:25 pm, 24th October 2001

My Lords, I welcome the opportunity to speak in support of the noble Baroness, Lady Cox. Her question raises a number of important and sensitive issues at this time, with both the global and national context in mind.

The right to choose and to practise one's religion is fundamental. Nevertheless, it is undoubtedly true that the enjoyment of religious freedom has also proven to be one of the most elusive and fragile of all human rights down the centuries. In 1612, for example, Thomas Helwys, founding father of the Baptist movement, wrote of the need to safeguard the freedom of the creature and the creator:

"Let them be heretikes, Turks, Jews, or whatsoever, it apperteynes not to earthly powers to punish them in the least measure".

The right of religious freedom has been incorporated more firmly into UK law since the autumn of 2000 through the Human Rights Act 1998. Article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights--the declaration on freedom of thought, conscience and religion--reads as follows:

"Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief, in worship, teaching, practice and observance".

The Churches strongly support this assertion of the right to freedom of religion and belief for reasons deeply rooted in a Christian understanding of the dignity of the human person and community. But as the noble Baroness has indicated, we do not have an equivalent of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, which seeks to monitor the abuses of religious freedom in different parts of the world. In recent years in the Sudan, for example, there have been--these figures have already been quoted--2 million dead and 5 million displaced by war, a toll of anguish that exceeds that of Rwanda, Somalia and the former Yugoslavia combined. The National Islamic Front regime continues to hold power by military force in a reign of ruthless oppression and terror. Its victims include moderate Muslims as well as Christian and traditional believers. It targets and slaughters innocent people, carries off women and children into slavery and manipulates humanitarian aid.

The NIF has been indicted by the United Nations Security Council for its terrorist activities; it is known to harbour terrorist training camps; and it is accused of complicity with terrorist activities such as the bombing of the United States embassy in Nairobi. Therefore, it should not command any respect or support from the international community.

I believe that the British Government must respond more effectively and robustly to the violations of human and religious rights by the NIF. At present the Government's position is one of critical dialogue which is widely seen by Sudanese people inside and out of the Sudan as long on dialogue and short on effective criticism. I believe, for example, that the Government should respect the spirit of the UN Security Council sanctions, such as restrictions on invitations to representatives of the NIF regime and not giving them red-carpet treatment. The Government should restrain from encouraging trade with the NIF and they should withdraw the DTI publication that implicitly encourages investment in the Sudan in ways that help the NIF. Furthermore, the British Government should explain why they have allowed the sale of dual-purpose supplies, capable of civilian or military use, to the Sudan with no end-user accountability.

I believe that it is time for all those who have any concern for peace and justice to stand up for the victims in Sudan today and do everything in their power to bring an end to this largely forgotten, yet the world's greatest, contemporary manmade tragedy before the toll of suffering, death and destruction reaches even greater proportions.

We belong to one world, but in raising concern about the escalation of violations of religious liberty in the Sudan and many parts of the globe, we would do well to exercise greater vigilance in our own country. One of the key issues is that of identity. For many people in Britain and Ireland today religion is one of the most important aspects of their identity. To build truly inclusive societies means enabling people of all religious faiths and beliefs to share fully as citizens in social, economic and cultural life. There is now evidence to show that significant groups of people feel that they cannot yet do this because of the unfair treatment that they experience on the grounds of their religion or belief. Respecting the identity of and not demonising those whose beliefs are different from our own is vitally important in our multi-faith, multi-cultural society.

I think of incidents in my own diocese, which covers Essex and part of East London, involving mindless vandalism at mosques in Southend and Chelmsford. Although there have not been similar attacks in East London because of the much larger number of Muslims--there is strength in numbers--there have been humiliating incidents in which the hejabs which cover the faces of Muslim women have been pulled off. In another part of the country a teenage Hindu girl suffered a fractured skull when a gang of Muslim youths with hammers and axes rampaged through her school.

Finally, I should like to touch on the anxieties felt by some of our fellow Jewish citizens in view of the heightened focus on Israel since 11th September. Only this week Jo Wagerman, president of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, expressed her worries about the growth of anti-Semitism since the New York attacks:

"What is noticeable for those of us with our roots in the Jewish community, but our branches in the wider British community, is a very disturbing, knee-jerk anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism coming out. It isn't attacks in the street; it's the chattering classes; it's the dinner parties; it's in schools and in conversations".

Legislation by itself can be largely ineffective in countering the violations of religious liberty in this country or elsewhere unless it is backed up by education, the encouragement of good practice and the continuing development of positive inter-faith relations; for example, the Encounter Youth Exchange Programme which brings together young people from different national, religious and cultural backgrounds, as in London in past weeks when young Jewish, Muslim and Christian people met. But to aid that whole process of education, good practice and partnership, I urge Her Majesty's Government to consider measures similar to those adopted by the United States Congress.

Photo of Lord Hylton Lord Hylton Crossbench 9:34 pm, 24th October 2001

My Lords, the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, is quite right to draw our attention to religious liberty and freedom of conscience. I join with all other night-watchmen in thanking the noble Baroness for this opportunity to debate the intolerance that is all too common today. Despite the end of the cold war and the break-up of the Soviet Union, we are still far from reaching mutual respect and harmonious relations between all secular and religious groups.

In this House yesterday we discussed internally displaced people in the United Kingdom; those expelled, often for sectarian reasons, from Northern Ireland. There are still some children who even now need police escorts to get to school.

Today, we should reflect on attacks in Britain on mosques, synagogues and churches. The slaughter in New York and Washington can in no way justify attacks in our streets on people whose clothing shows their religious identity. Interfaith dialogue and co-operation is urgently needed now. We can develop it in this country. I am in full agreement with the sentiments of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chelmsford.

Overseas, aggressive intolerance often takes the form of destroying religious buildings and sometimes also their congregations. One recalls Stalin in Russia or Ceaucescu in Romania, while current examples include mosques in India, Bosnia and Macedonia, as well as churches, for example in the Sudan and Indonesia. Alarm bells, should start ringing as soon as ideology comes to power or insinuates itself among religious believers. Here I find myself strongly in agreement with the noble Baroness, Lady Cox.

We need to consider how intolerance and ideology can be modified and reduced by both domestic and foreign policy. If our policy in the world is to have moral and ethical content, it must surely be concerned with basic human rights, among which religious liberty and freedom of conscience should be central.

I illustrate this proposition by looking at examples drawn, first, from communist and former communist countries and, secondly, from the Islamic world. In both China and the former Soviet Union, there is a hang over from earlier periods whereby governments still insist that religious groups must be registered. From that they deduce that unregistered groups must of their nature be subversive or at least constitute dangerous cults. In China this results in persecution, imprisonment, forced labour and some abuse of psychiatric hospitals. The chief sufferers are of course unregistered Christians, Muslims, Tibetan Buddhists and the Falun Gong. In Russia it leads to problems for the Salvation Army--for example, in the city of Moscow, where the case of registration or non-registration is now sub judice--and to difficulties for many other minority religions which have been and still are reported by the Keston Institute.

Will the Government, in both bilateral and multilateral discussions, work to convince China and Russia that registration is unnecessary? Reliance instead should be placed on the normal criminal law concerning public order, incitement, conspiracy and such matters.

I am grateful to the Prime Minister for making clear today that the current campaign in Afghanistan is in no way a campaign against Islam or against Muslims. That is an important clarification.

In the Islamic world we find that the Baha'i are usually regarded with deep suspicion because their founder came from a Muslim family and many of their members are former Muslims. In particular in Iran they have suffered persecution and discrimination. Apostacy--leaving Islam to join another religion--can have dangerous consequences in several countries that have, or aspire to have, an Islamic constitution. Other problems arise in several states when attempts are made to impose Sharia law on non-Muslims. We have recently seen severe loss of life and property destruction through intercommunal riots in Nigeria, where the Sharia question has been aggravated by recent world events.

Islam is and always has been a missionary faith. For that reason, it is constantly gaining new members, both in Britain and elsewhere. I trust that it will come to accept that sometimes it will also lose members to other faiths. If we are to live in mutual respect, such give and take is of the essence.

Will the Government raise all the issues which I have mentioned concerning Islam whenever they have the opportunity? Will they consult with institutions such as the Conference of Islamic States and the Commonwealth in order to achieve peaceful solutions? Will they continue to raise these matters with the appropriate organs and agencies of the United Nations?

At home, will the Government take into account the benefits and advantages of integrated cross-denominational education--of which I have seen a good deal in practice in Northern Ireland--when they consider proposals and applications for new religious schools in England? If such new schools can be developed on an inter-faith or inter-denominational basis, they could become seed beds for better co-operation in Britain. Will the Government also encourage grant-making bodies such as the lottery boards, the Millennium Commission, the Commission for Racial Equality and others, to support inter-faith dialogue, in particular when that is sponsored by voluntary organisations? Those are some of the ways in which home policy can reinforce foreign policy and make it more credible.

I hope that, when he comes to reply, the noble Lord will be able to assure the House that regular consultations will take place between the Home Office and the Foreign Office on these matters.

Photo of Baroness Park of Monmouth Baroness Park of Monmouth Conservative 9:42 pm, 24th October 2001

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend Lady Cox for initiating this debate. Her speech has been both wide ranging and profound. I shall confine myself to relevant developments in Russia. For my knowledge of those I owe much to the admirable Keston Institute, which has reported for so long on the situation there and on religious persecution. I may also have an advantage in that I have served both in Vietnam during the Vietnam War and in Russia when it was still the Soviet Union. I shall also discuss briefly what is taking place in what the Russians call their "near abroad"; that is, the states of Central Asia, which once formed part of the union.

Both Russia and Vietnam were militantly communist and religion was persecuted. I fear that nothing has changed in Vietnam, where both the Buddhist and the Catholic faiths continue to be persecuted. When I served in Hanoi, the Catholic cathedral was opened once a year to allow the regime to give media coverage to an Easter service, as though that were a normal proceeding. In fact, the building served as a grain store for 364 days of the year. Now I imagine that they do not feel the need to make such cynical gestures.

In Russia in my day and throughout the communist era, only a very brave handful of men and women practised their religion. Perhaps they went once or twice to one of the very few churches of the Orthodox faith, possessed a crucifix or a Bible. For all those acts, they often paid with 20 years or life in the gulags, the infamous camps which few survived. In those days, and until perestroika under Gorbachev, the full force of the KGB was put into eradicating religion, while at the same time manipulating the Orthodox church as a most useful propaganda tool abroad in such circles as the World Council of Churches by placing young KGB officers in the church as priests. To this day, the Orthodox church is an honourable exception, a faithful organ of the state in Russia.

In his letter to the Soviet leaders in 1990, Solzhenitsyn wrote:

"Your dearest wish is for our state structures and our ideological system never to change, to remain as they are for centuries. But history is not like that".

And, indeed, at the height of the anti-dissident campaign, another admirable dissident, Lydia Chukovskaya, prophesied that, one day, there would be squares in Moscow named after Solzhenitsyn and Sakharov.

For a while after the Berlin Wall came down, after Yeltsin saved Russia from a KGB coup, everyone thought that there would be total religious freedom in Russia and, indeed, such religious dissidents from the Gulag at Gleb Yakunin actually became members of the Duma. But the power of the nomenklatura, who had always ruled Russia, survived, and after a few years when religions of all denominations--Catholics, Baptists, Muslims--were all free to worship and even to proselytize, the 1997 law was enacted which effectively left only the Orthodox Church that freedom. The rest had to secure permission for such basic things as funding and finding a building in which to worship or for bringing in a Bible and religious literature. They had to be registered in order to do their work and they were under surveillance. They still are.

Under President Putin, a former KGB officer of strong authoritarian tendencies, life for Christians in Russia is again becoming hard. They are bound by a hundred petty regulations and are often now regarded as potential enemies of the state. This year an American Protestant, after eight years working there, was expelled "as a matter of national security", and foreign missionaries are suspected by religious affairs officials, so called, of trying to weaken Russia by exploiting other alien spiritual values.

In the countries of the near abroad, especially Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Tajikistan, there is pervasive state control of religious literature--and this includes foreign Islamic literature--conducted by the committee for religious affairs. Article 19 of the 1998 changes to the religious law forbids the religious groups to import any religious publication unless they are registered religious bodies. But to gain that status they must have registered communities in eight of the country's regions. So far only six groups have achieved this status.

Even if they secure permission, they can import only one book for each member of the religious group and must pay heavy customs dues. Books in Russian are allowed, books in Uzbek are not. The committee is obstructive and often raids homes to confiscate religious literature.

I had innocently thought that the coming of the Internet would mean that there could be no closed frontiers, but it is reported that e-mails are scrutinised and those containing suspect religious words such as "God", "Church" or "Pray" are returned undelivered with the comment "message error". Freedom of religion is seriously at risk and to worship is becoming dangerous.

I have spoken on this matter because it is essential that our Government recognise that the tide in Russia and the near abroad is turning against religious freedom. Trofimchuk, appointed by President Putin to head the Kremlin's council for co-operating with religious organisations, wants Russian state policy to put spiritual security on the same plane as national security, and he regards foreign missionaries as emissaries of their country acting against the interests of Russia. As is not unusual in Russia, like the USSR before it, the 1997 law says all the right, virtuous things about freedom of conscience, but it is in fact as arbitrary in its exercise of power as it ever was.

I am concerned lest in our need for President Putin's support in the present crisis, and indeed for that of the Central Asian states, we should allow ourselves to be manoeuvred into condoning, and even appearing to support, deeply authoritarian and anti-religious positions. Putin's position over Chechnya, for instance, raises considerable problems since one of the most important and delicate areas of our co-operation with Russia, and of our future relationship with many Islamic countries, concerns our own attitude to religion. We must tread carefully. We shall be despised if we tacitly play down Christianity; we shall be respected if we make it clear that, while respecting other faiths, we cannot condone or support militant attacks on the followers of one religion by those of another or by the state. If we are persuaded to accept such behaviour for "reasons of state", we shall be betraying many simple and decent people, who ask only for freedom to practise their religion and their faith peacefully.

Those who survived the persecution of the Soviet era and those still suffering in China, in Africa, in Vietnam, in Indonesia, must not be betrayed by a general feeling in the West that vague human rights are the same as faith. Osip Mandelstam, the great Russian poet murdered by Stalin, wrote of the connection between the loss of inner freedom and the abandonment of Christianity. Nadezhda, his wife, spoke presciently to Anna Akhmatova about the shadow of the future over a world until recent times still Christian. We are careful to respect other faiths, let us not fail to value our own. It will be a serious political mistake--dealing as we are with people of strong and sometimes even fanatical beliefs--if we do not have a well-defined position of positive belief in the tenets of our own faith.

I understand that the FCO embraces religious policy and reporting within the rubric of human rights. I support the view of the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, that there could be real value in the creation of a roving ambassador to deal specifically with international religious freedom. I suspect that he or she would be seriously overworked, but it would send a message to both the oppressed and the oppressors and could contribute very usefully to the briefing of Ministers entering upon negotiation in areas where religious freedom is an issue, as it is today in Africa--notably in Nigeria and the Sudan--and in Asia, as well as in China and Russia.

Once, our aid was linked to contracts. We have ended that policy. It would be my hope, however, that we could link it with a withdrawal of aid, or a withholding of it, where religious persecution exists and nothing is done about it. I hope, too, that the Human Rights Fund can be markedly increased, specifically to help the victims of religious persecution from whatever quarter. Finally, I hope that the Foreign Office may feel an irresistible urge to give some money to the Keston Institute.

Photo of The Bishop of Lichfield The Bishop of Lichfield Bishop 9:51 pm, 24th October 2001

My Lords, I, too, am grateful to the noble Baroness for her Question concerning the Government's response,

"to the escalation of violations of religious liberty in many parts of the world".

Having lived in Uganda under Idi Amin in the early 1970s, I can remember the shock of fear, but also my feeling of powerlessness, when a car carrying children home from school was ambushed by Amin's bandits and the children were hurled out of the car, including my five year-old daughter. It was not long after that Janani Luwum, whose image is now on the front of Westminster Abbey, 100 yards from here, was murdered, possibly by Amin's own hand. I recall the powerlessness that we felt then.

In those years, I also had the great privilege of teaching young Sudanese in an African theological seminary. I saw at first hand the ravages and sufferings of the southern Sudanese: the Dinkas, the Azandes and all the rest. I saw the destruction of their homes, the affliction of the nomadic life, and the loss and injury to their children and families. The noble Baroness has been tireless in the cause of the southern Sudanese, as she is now in that of the religious communities in Indonesia. I support her totally in that work.

It is, however, on the second part of the Question that I want to offer some thoughts, and perhaps a word of reflective caution. The noble Baroness asks whether the Government,

"will consider measures similar to those adopted by the United States Congress"-- that is, through its Office of Religious Persecution Monitoring.

These measures by the United States Congress include a system whereby economic and diplomatic sanctions can be imposed on nations where clear violations of religious liberty are recorded. Under United States law, therefore, sanctions can now be instigated where there is,

"widespread and ongoing persecution of persons because of their membership in or affiliation with a religion or religious denomination, whether officially recognised or otherwise, when such persecution includes abduction, enslavement, killing, forced mass resettlement, rape or crucifixion or other forms of torture".

But recent history has taught us that the imposition of sanctions does not necessarily guarantee any improvement in conditions for members of persecuted minorities within that country. I experienced that myself when I was resident for some years in Uganda. Indeed, sanctions may even tend to increase community polarisation and international tension.

While I do not totally exclude sanctions as a possible response in some situations, it is vital to set such action within the wider context of international relations, a context which also recognises the great importance of religious identity. I dare to say that in my view on the whole the United States legislation fails to do this. But may I point out that religious communities themselves, independent of governments, can in some places play a vital role in the building of confidence and understanding between their different traditions?

One thinks, for instance, of the Crusades from Europe. One wonders whether those Crusaders would have conducted themselves with such fervour if their instigators had been more concerned with the teaching of the Gospels than with the preservation of Christian relics. In Wolverhampton, in my own diocese partnership, friendship, dialogue and inter-faith networks have achieved a great deal. Governments, too, can play a role by supporting programmes of education, dialogue, reconciliation and confidence building.

After the millions of pounds invested in military operations in the Balkans, is it not perhaps possible that an equal investment is now required to help the peoples of that region to discover a security which is not based on their identity as Muslim, Catholic or Orthodox, but rather on knowing that Muslims, Catholics and Orthodox can and should live a shared identity as reconciled people of faith?

The noble Baroness, Lady Cox, has a well-earned reputation for defending the rights of Christians in Sudan. But dare I point out that the complexities of Sudan themselves remind us that violations of religious liberties are rarely simply a religious issue? They are so often wider than that. The Sudanese Christian boy who is enslaved and his uncle who is crucified are not only Christian, they are also black Africans and the inhabitants of grazing land which others wish to exploit for oil. The Buddhist whose shop is burned down in Jakarta is not only a Buddhist, he is also ethnically Chinese and economically successful in a community where poverty is a daily experience for many. In both those situations the imposition of sanctions for the violation of liberty can be only a risk-laden beginning. There are also issues here of economics, ethnicity, education and community building all requiring urgent attention.

At this time when the eyes of the world are focused on Afghanistan is it not important that we seek to defend religious liberty but even more importantly that we do it in a way which avoids further polarisation, maybe unforeseen, and that we build, and seek to build, understanding and co-operation? Dare I add, with great respect, that I believe it is for our own Government, not the American Government, to determine our own response both to this issue and also to the other agonies of our world?

Photo of Lord Weidenfeld Lord Weidenfeld Crossbench 9:58 pm, 24th October 2001

My Lords, I join other noble Lords in thanking the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, for not only allowing us to discuss this important subject but also for having come forward with ground breaking suggestions for action both nationally and internationally.

The other day I was gratified to learn that the prestigious World Economic Forum in Davos will to a large extent devote its next session in February to the question of the fight against intolerance and the inter-faith discourse. The suggestions made by the noble Baroness should also be widely disseminated in the world's press.

When Vice President Cheney warned us a few days ago that the war against terrorism might last a lifetime, he expressed the view of many thoughtful observers that this is a struggle sui generis, widely differing from the rather linear last two world wars or the more episodic recent campaigns in south-east Asia or the Balkans. In this war theatres of operations and alliances may shift and explosions or implosions in obvious and unexpected danger zones may erupt opening ever fresh fronts. But in this new scourge of mankind we face a battle of Muslim extremism: Islamism fighting mercilessly against the world of what it considers to be the "infidel" and its own moderate mainstream ranks. Copts are being persecuted in Egypt, the earliest breeding ground for the Muslim brotherhood, and in the Sudan. In Nigeria, only weeks ago, religious fanatics and common criminals massacred hundreds of helpless Christians in the city of Jos. The catalogue of persecution and atrocities is much more copious.

The tragedy is that these persecutions are propelled by inflammatory sermons in the mosques and hate-inducing learning materials in schools, not to speak of press and television. They all feed on one another. If we seriously wish to break the cycle of prescribed intolerance and hate leading to terrorist action we must focus on the breeding grounds: the classroom and the pulpit. We have, alas, abundant evidence of their output. In sampling the past few weeks' Friday sermons broadcast by the Palestinian Authority Television in Gaza, we find that the faithful were commanded by Sheikh Ibrahim Madhi in these words:

"This war between us and the Jews will continue to escalate until we vanquish them and enter Jerusalem as conquerors, enter Jaffa as conquerors. We are not merely expecting a Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital but an Islamic caliphate".

Later Sheikh Madhi said:

"Those who die not for the sake of Islam will end up in the fires of hell".

When the most senior Islamic authority of the whole region, the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, Akram Sabri, was questioned recently in an interview as to why mothers cry with joy when they hear about their sons' death, he answered:

"They willingly sacrifice their offspring for the sake of freedom. The mother is participating in the great reward of the jihad to liberate Al Aqsa".

He continued:

"I talked to a young man, who said, 'I want to marry the black-eyed beautiful women of heaven'. The next day he became a martyr. I am sure his mother was filled with joy about his heavenly marriage".

That Holocaust denial, with medieval horror tales of the blood libel, are the daily fare of lectures in school and prayer houses is only too well known; but the chiming in by political leadership with proclamations of implacable hatred may explain why, despite all public protests to the contrary, the real will for peace is lacking so widely in many circles in the Islamic world. In Syria, where the highly centralised Baath Government have been in power for a generation, the systematic teaching of hate and contempt for the Jewish and disdain for the Christian faith is waged with great intensity. At a meeting in Damascus last week with a delegation from the British Royal College of Defence Studies, the Minister for War, General Tlass, said that the Mossad planned the ramming of the two hijacked airliners into the World Trade Centre towers as part of a Jewish conspiracy. He told the British visitors that the Mossad had given thousands of Jewish employees of the World Trade Centre advance warning not to go to work that day. A manual from the Ministry of Education prescribes courses for all grades to instil deep hatred for all things Jewish and contempt for the Jewish religion--a contempt which President Bashir Assad expressed in the presence of the Pope.

If I again raise the question of those school books, and am still awaiting a reply from noble Lords on the Front Bench, it is because I believe that we are in a questionable moral position. If we wish to forge an alliance against evil, we must not neglect to address ourselves to its springs and roots and use our influence. If this coalition is to survive the first round--the search for Osama bin Laden and the fight against the Taliban--those whom we accept or even embrace as road companions should be given a clear choice of pausing, reflecting and making appropriate amends--preferably system changes. If they do not do so, the inexorable logic and dynamics of events will lead inevitably to a brutal and bloody collision course. Surely our Government, who have so far steadily and credibly vowed to conduct an ethical foreign policy, could use their clout and break a lance for the respect of religious freedom. That means initiating or taking part in some form of international action against governments who flout this freedom with callous disregard and consistent brutality.

Photo of Lord Goodhart Lord Goodhart Liberal Democrat 10:05 pm, 24th October 2001

My Lords, nobody has a better right to speak of violations of religious liberty than the noble Baroness, Lady Cox. She has faced danger and great discomfort in her work to support the oppressed people of Sudan and we are grateful to her for introducing this short debate.

My noble friend Lord Avebury would, in the normal course of events, have replied to this debate on behalf of my party, but unfortunately his accident on his way to the House some three weeks ago has turned out to be more serious than was originally thought. Although he is making a good recovery, it will be a few weeks before he is able to take his place in your Lordships' House again.

I speak from a somewhat unusual viewpoint because I have no religious belief, although I have a mixed Jewish-Anglican background. I very much respect religious beliefs and have many friends who are believers, including ministers of religion in both the Christian and Jewish faiths. Two personal friends sit on the Bishops' Bench in your Lordships' House.

I believe that religion has done a great deal of good in the course of history, but it has done quite a lot of harm, too. There have been far too many wars of religion; we have not had many wars of scepticism. In England in the Middle Ages, the Christian community was responsible for the murder and expulsion of the Jews. In the 16th century Protestants burned Catholics and vice versa. Appalling atrocities were committed in Ireland by Cromwell, who was, ironically, a friend of the Jews and permitted them to return to England. Until well into the 19th century we discriminated in law against Catholics, Jews and Nonconformists.

Religion tends to create intolerance too often, especially among people who believe that the Torah, the Bible or the Koran is the literal word of God and cannot be questioned or modified. It is true, too, that much of the worst intolerance has come from those who are members of secular creeds, such as Marxism. We saw the persecution of Christians in the Soviet Union. I remember many years ago being in Smolensk and wanting to see the cathedral. Intourist arranged a guide to take me there. She was a Soviet woman who was unquestionably a sister of Rosa Klebb. Towards the end of my visit, she asked whether I believed in God. I hummed and hawed and said that I did not. She asked why I did not stay in the Soviet Union. She clearly thought that unbelievers in Britain were subject to the same persecution that believers suffered in the USSR.

The end of Communism in many countries has meant that secular persecution is less widespread. The situation in Russia for non-orthodox groups is still far from perfect, as the noble Baroness, Lady Park, said, but at least it is better than it was 30 or 40 years ago. The situation in most of eastern Europe is very much better.

A high proportion of violation of religious liberty flows, as it always has, from persecution of one faith by another. All religions should question their own attitude to others. We have seen the persecution of the Baha'is in Iran, as the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, said. There have been campaigns by Christian fundamentalists in the USA against those who do not share their beliefs about abortion. We have seen Muslim attacks on those who have abandoned the Muslim faith; we have seen Hindu attacks on Christians and Muslims; and we have seen Protestants and Catholics hating each other in Northern Ireland.

Freedom of religion is an essential human right, protected by Article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights, equivalent provisions in the International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights and again stated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

I have some reservations about setting up a separate government commission on international religious freedom, or creating a special government envoy, as in the USA. Freedom of religion is, of course, a central part of the structure of human rights, but that structure also includes freedom of speech, freedom of association and many other essential rights, such as the right to family life and the right to participate in free elections.

The Foreign and Commonwealth Office shows concern for human rights. It has just published a most interesting and valuable annual report on that subject. It does not always put human rights as high up the agenda as some of us would wish, but it undoubtedly now takes human rights seriously. It should continue to look at human rights together. It is inappropriate for a government department to set up a separate commission to deal specifically with religious liberty. If members of faiths on their own initiative set up an independent inter-faith group to report on violations of religious liberty, that would be welcome, but the initiative should come from them, not from the Government.

I shall finish with a brief story about my wife. She attended a school run by the Church Missionary Society--admittedly this was some years ago. When she was about 15, the headmistress told the girls at a school assembly, "Next term we have a Muslim girl coming to the school and you must all try to convert her". At that point, my wife got up and said, "How do we know that we are right and she is wrong". She says that that is the bravest thing that she has ever done. She was nearly expelled as a result, although she ultimately became the head girl of the school.

There is no answer to my wife's question. None of us can be certain that we are right and that members of other faiths or none are wrong. That is the attitude that secular governments should take to religions and that members of one faith should take to those of another. If that spirit can be pressed forward, we will see a reduction in violations of religious liberty.

Photo of Lord Astor of Hever Lord Astor of Hever Conservative 10:12 pm, 24th October 2001

My Lords, the House will be grateful to my noble friend Lady Cox for introducing what she rightly said is a timely debate. Her speech was very moving, as one would expect from someone who cherishes and works tirelessly for human rights and religious liberty. I also congratulate the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Lichfield on his stamina in speaking in and listening to three debates, one after another.

As the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chelmsford said, violations of religious liberty are one of the most overlooked erosions of freedom and, sadly, they have become much more numerous over recent years.

My noble friend Lady Cox started her speech by emphasising the importance of religious liberty. The right to choose and practise one's religion should be a fundamental one, but, tragically, it has proved to be one of the most elusive and fragile of all human rights through the centuries. A figure of more than 1 million people in prison for their faith is deeply shocking. My noble friend set out the underlying causes of religious intolerance and gave the House examples of countries that restrict religious liberty or where religious persecution is associated with militant religious extremism.

The interim report of the UN Special Rapporteur of the Commission on Human Rights, dated July this year, mentions religious intolerance and discrimination in a number of other countries as well. I was particularly disturbed to read that Malaysia--a country that I am especially fond of--now apparently imprisons people for converting from Islam to Christianity and refusing to repent and return to Islam. I hope that the examples given will not be repeated in that country.

As my noble friend Lady Cox said, India continues to cause concern. Religious minorities continue to be subjected to unprovoked attacks in certain parts of the country. Figures released recently by the Indian Government show that there were over 400 recorded attacks on Christians alone in the past two years and that more than 30 people were killed. It is estimated that many other attacks go unreported. One Indian human rights organisation calculated that the true figure is nearly twice as large. Recent incidents include a nun who, in August, was shot in the face by four Hindu militants in Madhya Pradesh state, and a priest who suffered serious injuries after being attacked by more than 40 Hindu militants near Bombay.

The growing menace of militant Hindu groups, who are not representative of Hindu opinion as a whole in India, is of grave concern. I wonder whether the Government will press the Indian Government to curb such groups and to cut the links between the leading member of the coalition government, the BJP, and some of these shadowy extremist organisations.

In Nigeria, the situation continues to be worrying, as the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, said. A number of northern states have implemented Sharia law and a number of others are considering doing so, too. Christians and non-Muslims in those states feel isolated and vulnerable. My noble friend Lady Park gave the House a fascinating insight into religious intolerance in Russia and the "New Abroad". The noble Lord, Lord Weidenfeld, mentioned Syria, and the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, reminded us of the religious intolerance between Catholics and Protestants on our own doorstep.

Can the Minister tell the House what is the Government's response to the rapporteur's conclusions and recommendations? I was somewhat heartened by certain aspects of the rapporteur's comments. While intolerance and discrimination on the grounds of religion or belief continue in many parts of the world, there were some positive situations and improvements. My noble friend Lady Cox referred to the US Commission on International Religious Freedom, which includes leaders from different faiths. Can the Minister explain the Government's views on consultation with non-governmental organisations, including religious bodies? What steps will the Government take to continue dialogue on international matters with such organisations?

In this country, we are concerned about reports of crimes motivated by religious hate. It is fortunate that no one was hurt in the recent incendiary attack on a mosque in Edinburgh. We on these Benches are extremely sympathetic to the aims of the legislation to combat religious hatred. However, there needs to be a balance between protecting the rights of religious groups and maintaining freedom of debate and free speech.

Before legislation is rushed through, a serious discussion must take place between different religious groups and, indeed, those without religious conviction on how legislation can reconcile those two aims. There is a very real risk that poorly drafted legislation will impinge on freedoms of expression.

I look forward to the Minister's response to the many questions that he has received. In particular, I endorse the question raised by my noble friend Lady Cox on British embassies in countries where religious violations occur. I should very much like to see the embassies include those violations in their annual reports.

Photo of Lord Grocott Lord Grocott Government Whip, Lord in Waiting (Whip) 10:20 pm, 24th October 2001

My Lords, this has indeed been an extraordinarily well informed and wide ranging debate. Obviously I have been taking notes as I have been going along. The countries referred to have included China, Vietnam, North Korea, India, the Sudan, Russia, Uganda, Egypt, Nigeria, Syria, Northern Ireland, Malaysia, and I may have missed one or two. I have to say to your Lordships that 12 minutes to respond to all those countries' problems is beyond the capacity of the Government Front Bench. However, I shall do the very best I can to deal with some of the issues raised. I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, on raising this issue. It is one on which I know she campaigns tirelessly.

I shall refer to certain speeches as I go through the various comments that I want to make, but perhaps I may be allowed a little prejudice of my own and refer to the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Lichfield, who happens to be my own right reverend Prelate. He spoke astonishingly movingly on the basis of his experience in Uganda.

Our starting point is familiar. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights states:

"Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion".

However, as we have heard today, reality can fall tragically short of the standards set down in international law. Despite improvements made in a number of countries, many believe that the world-wide trend is towards increased discrimination against minorities. The Government are committed to upholding the values that underpin our own security and prosperity--values of human rights, democracy and fundamental freedoms. That includes, I can say to the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, the right to change one's religion, which is obviously fundamental. We unreservedly condemn the persecution of individuals because of their faith, wherever they are and whatever religion they practise.

At the Commission on Human Rights in Geneva in 2001, all European Union member states co-sponsored a resolution to work to eliminate all forms of religious intolerance. Intolerance is not the monopoly of any particular state or religion or indeed, as the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, suggested, the monopoly of any particular point in history. It can occur with monotonous geographic regularity and historically with wearying regularity.

Following the terrorist attacks on 11th September it has become clear that, regrettably, there are some people in Britain who have sought to stir up hatred against members of religious groups, especially Muslims, a point to which the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chelmsford and the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, referred. As a result the Government are considering proposals for legislation that will make it a criminal offence to incite hatred against members of religious groups.

The noble Lord, Lord Astor, quite rightly stressed that we must be very careful how that is phrased and how it is dealt with, and obviously it must be properly scrutinised. Even my limited experience of your Lordships' House tells me that there will not be any lack of scrutiny when the legislation comes to be considered by this House.

In parallel with everything that goes on here at home, we will continue to work actively abroad to promote understanding and tolerance. I can reassure your Lordships that our missions overseas are working closely with local non-governmental organisations--the importance of NGOs was again a point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Astor, and I wholly endorse that--to achieve specific human rights objectives in many countries of the world.

One example of the practical work that they are engaged in is an initiative in the southern Philippines--one country that was not mentioned by anyone this evening--to increase understanding, respect and tolerance amongst local religious groups as an essential first step towards resolving conflicts there.

In all of our actions we work closely with the European Union, the United Nations, the Council of Europe and the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe.

The noble Baroness, Lady Cox, referred to some of the measures taken by the United States in combating violations of religious liberty. That matter was also referred to by the noble Baroness, Lady Park of Monmouth, and by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chelmsford. We share with the United States a common commitment to universal human rights standards. But the approach of our two Governments inevitably differs, given our different constitutional structures. The noble Baroness suggested the establishment of an envoy for religious freedom and a commission with representatives of different faith communities. This Government greatly value dialogue with those outside government and have worked hard to strengthen it.

For that reason, Ministers and officials regularly discuss human rights concerns in a range of countries with non-governmental groups. For example, as part of our preparations for the 2001 United Nations Commission on Human Rights, my good honourable friend, John Battle, the then FCO Minister with responsibility for human rights, held detailed discussions with UK-based NGOs. Furthermore, officials at the FCO's Africa department met staff from the office of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Guildford before his visit to Nigeria. I can also tell the House that arrangements are in hand to hold the next meeting of the FCO's contact group on religious freedom in the near future. That contact group aims to enrich the foreign policy debate through discussion with NGOs and religious organisations.

We believe that the correct approach for this country is to reinforce the existing mechanisms which we have when dealing with the issues which we all agree are important. I echo the words of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Lichfield in saying that ultimately it must be our government of whichever political persuasion who make decisions which we think are right for our country in the light of our particular circumstances and the traditions of our foreign policy.

Our approach is to treat religious freedom as an integral part of our foreign policy. Human rights are inter-related and interdependent, as the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, stressed. In practice, violations of the right of freedom of religion are often accompanied by violations of other rights; for instance, of freedom of speech and association, freedom from torture and the right to a fair trial. Protecting and promoting freedom of religion is most effective when it is done in the context of the promotion and protection of other human rights. The noble Lord, Lord Weidenfeld, stressed that in particular in the context of the Middle East.

Therefore, we emphasise that human rights are everyone's business. That is why we have made human rights an essential element of training for policy staff, including ambassadors and staff serving overseas as entry clearance officers or managers. All decision-makers in the Immigration and Nationality Directorate receive training on the provisions of the Human Rights Act 1999 and the European Convention on Human Rights, which includes freedom of thought, conscience and religion. We have developed human rights strategies to promote human rights in many countries overseas, so we can target our efforts where they have most effect. With advice from our embassies overseas and the people working in them, we must of course ensure that we tailor our contacts and discussions to the particular needs of the particular states, including all those referred to in today's debate. We are expanding our network of human rights advisers to our missions overseas. The noble Baroness, Lady Cox, may be pleased to know that we are already increasing funding for the FCO's Human Rights Project Fund for the next financial year.

Aid and international development were mentioned by a number of speakers--indeed, several noble Lords who have contributed to today's debate have been most active in the international development legislation currently going through this House. The strategy of the Department for International Development on realising human rights for poor people makes it clear that in order to eliminate poverty, development should promote inclusive societies based on the values of equality and non-discrimination and the promotion of all human rights. That means that British development programmes support the inclusion of all groups, whatever their religious persuasion or cultural background.

The Government were pleased to publish their fourth annual report on human rights on 17th September as a demonstration of our openness to scrutiny. The report sets out some of the action that we have taken to promote religious freedoms in, for instance, Turkmenistan, Pakistan and China. The European Union also produces an annual report on human rights, which highlights some of the work that has been carried out to promote human rights, including freedom of religion.

The noble Baroness, Lady Cox, referred to the need to monitor international religious laws. European Union members and the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe regularly consider new legislation on religious registration. Relevant issues of concern were raised by several noble Lords this evening. Where appropriate, we remind governments of the need to comply with their international obligations and to uphold freedom of religion. In some cases, we offer technical assistance. For example, the UK funded the Office of Democratic Institutions and Human Rights--an institution of the OSCE--in its discussions with the Government, parliamentarians and NGOs in Kazakhstan. That resulted in a number of changes to their new draft law on religious organisations, to bring it closer into line with OSCE standards. The UK participated in an OSCE seminar on freedom of religion and belief in June this year, which considered, among other issues, the registration of religious groups.

We will continue to use our influence in the world to promote human rights, including religious freedom, and to confront oppression and human suffering wherever it appears. We defend human rights for others because those are the values that we demand for ourselves and which are integral to the kind of society in which we all want to live.

In conclusion, the Government continue to take very seriously indeed the issues that have been raised in this debate and the fundamental principle of religious freedom that underpins them.

House adjourned at twenty-seven minutes before eleven o'clock.