Religious Liberty

Part of the debate – 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?"