Religious Liberty

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 9:51 pm on 24th October 2001.

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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?