Religious Liberty

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 9:25 pm on 24th October 2001.

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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.