Religious Liberty

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 9:34 pm on 24th October 2001.

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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.