Religious Liberty

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 9:42 pm on 24th October 2001.

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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.