Religious Liberty

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 10:05 pm on 24th October 2001.

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Photo of Lord Goodhart Lord Goodhart Liberal Democrat 10:05 pm, 24th October 2001

My Lords, nobody has a better right to speak of violations of religious liberty than the noble Baroness, Lady Cox. She has faced danger and great discomfort in her work to support the oppressed people of Sudan and we are grateful to her for introducing this short debate.

My noble friend Lord Avebury would, in the normal course of events, have replied to this debate on behalf of my party, but unfortunately his accident on his way to the House some three weeks ago has turned out to be more serious than was originally thought. Although he is making a good recovery, it will be a few weeks before he is able to take his place in your Lordships' House again.

I speak from a somewhat unusual viewpoint because I have no religious belief, although I have a mixed Jewish-Anglican background. I very much respect religious beliefs and have many friends who are believers, including ministers of religion in both the Christian and Jewish faiths. Two personal friends sit on the Bishops' Bench in your Lordships' House.

I believe that religion has done a great deal of good in the course of history, but it has done quite a lot of harm, too. There have been far too many wars of religion; we have not had many wars of scepticism. In England in the Middle Ages, the Christian community was responsible for the murder and expulsion of the Jews. In the 16th century Protestants burned Catholics and vice versa. Appalling atrocities were committed in Ireland by Cromwell, who was, ironically, a friend of the Jews and permitted them to return to England. Until well into the 19th century we discriminated in law against Catholics, Jews and Nonconformists.

Religion tends to create intolerance too often, especially among people who believe that the Torah, the Bible or the Koran is the literal word of God and cannot be questioned or modified. It is true, too, that much of the worst intolerance has come from those who are members of secular creeds, such as Marxism. We saw the persecution of Christians in the Soviet Union. I remember many years ago being in Smolensk and wanting to see the cathedral. Intourist arranged a guide to take me there. She was a Soviet woman who was unquestionably a sister of Rosa Klebb. Towards the end of my visit, she asked whether I believed in God. I hummed and hawed and said that I did not. She asked why I did not stay in the Soviet Union. She clearly thought that unbelievers in Britain were subject to the same persecution that believers suffered in the USSR.

The end of Communism in many countries has meant that secular persecution is less widespread. The situation in Russia for non-orthodox groups is still far from perfect, as the noble Baroness, Lady Park, said, but at least it is better than it was 30 or 40 years ago. The situation in most of eastern Europe is very much better.

A high proportion of violation of religious liberty flows, as it always has, from persecution of one faith by another. All religions should question their own attitude to others. We have seen the persecution of the Baha'is in Iran, as the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, said. There have been campaigns by Christian fundamentalists in the USA against those who do not share their beliefs about abortion. We have seen Muslim attacks on those who have abandoned the Muslim faith; we have seen Hindu attacks on Christians and Muslims; and we have seen Protestants and Catholics hating each other in Northern Ireland.

Freedom of religion is an essential human right, protected by Article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights, equivalent provisions in the International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights and again stated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

I have some reservations about setting up a separate government commission on international religious freedom, or creating a special government envoy, as in the USA. Freedom of religion is, of course, a central part of the structure of human rights, but that structure also includes freedom of speech, freedom of association and many other essential rights, such as the right to family life and the right to participate in free elections.

The Foreign and Commonwealth Office shows concern for human rights. It has just published a most interesting and valuable annual report on that subject. It does not always put human rights as high up the agenda as some of us would wish, but it undoubtedly now takes human rights seriously. It should continue to look at human rights together. It is inappropriate for a government department to set up a separate commission to deal specifically with religious liberty. If members of faiths on their own initiative set up an independent inter-faith group to report on violations of religious liberty, that would be welcome, but the initiative should come from them, not from the Government.

I shall finish with a brief story about my wife. She attended a school run by the Church Missionary Society--admittedly this was some years ago. When she was about 15, the headmistress told the girls at a school assembly, "Next term we have a Muslim girl coming to the school and you must all try to convert her". At that point, my wife got up and said, "How do we know that we are right and she is wrong". She says that that is the bravest thing that she has ever done. She was nearly expelled as a result, although she ultimately became the head girl of the school.

There is no answer to my wife's question. None of us can be certain that we are right and that members of other faiths or none are wrong. That is the attitude that secular governments should take to religions and that members of one faith should take to those of another. If that spirit can be pressed forward, we will see a reduction in violations of religious liberty.