Religious Liberty

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 10:12 pm on 24th October 2001.

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Photo of Lord Astor of Hever Lord Astor of Hever Conservative 10:12 pm, 24th October 2001

My Lords, the House will be grateful to my noble friend Lady Cox for introducing what she rightly said is a timely debate. Her speech was very moving, as one would expect from someone who cherishes and works tirelessly for human rights and religious liberty. I also congratulate the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Lichfield on his stamina in speaking in and listening to three debates, one after another.

As the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chelmsford said, violations of religious liberty are one of the most overlooked erosions of freedom and, sadly, they have become much more numerous over recent years.

My noble friend Lady Cox started her speech by emphasising the importance of religious liberty. The right to choose and practise one's religion should be a fundamental one, but, tragically, it has proved to be one of the most elusive and fragile of all human rights through the centuries. A figure of more than 1 million people in prison for their faith is deeply shocking. My noble friend set out the underlying causes of religious intolerance and gave the House examples of countries that restrict religious liberty or where religious persecution is associated with militant religious extremism.

The interim report of the UN Special Rapporteur of the Commission on Human Rights, dated July this year, mentions religious intolerance and discrimination in a number of other countries as well. I was particularly disturbed to read that Malaysia--a country that I am especially fond of--now apparently imprisons people for converting from Islam to Christianity and refusing to repent and return to Islam. I hope that the examples given will not be repeated in that country.

As my noble friend Lady Cox said, India continues to cause concern. Religious minorities continue to be subjected to unprovoked attacks in certain parts of the country. Figures released recently by the Indian Government show that there were over 400 recorded attacks on Christians alone in the past two years and that more than 30 people were killed. It is estimated that many other attacks go unreported. One Indian human rights organisation calculated that the true figure is nearly twice as large. Recent incidents include a nun who, in August, was shot in the face by four Hindu militants in Madhya Pradesh state, and a priest who suffered serious injuries after being attacked by more than 40 Hindu militants near Bombay.

The growing menace of militant Hindu groups, who are not representative of Hindu opinion as a whole in India, is of grave concern. I wonder whether the Government will press the Indian Government to curb such groups and to cut the links between the leading member of the coalition government, the BJP, and some of these shadowy extremist organisations.

In Nigeria, the situation continues to be worrying, as the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, said. A number of northern states have implemented Sharia law and a number of others are considering doing so, too. Christians and non-Muslims in those states feel isolated and vulnerable. My noble friend Lady Park gave the House a fascinating insight into religious intolerance in Russia and the "New Abroad". The noble Lord, Lord Weidenfeld, mentioned Syria, and the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, reminded us of the religious intolerance between Catholics and Protestants on our own doorstep.

Can the Minister tell the House what is the Government's response to the rapporteur's conclusions and recommendations? I was somewhat heartened by certain aspects of the rapporteur's comments. While intolerance and discrimination on the grounds of religion or belief continue in many parts of the world, there were some positive situations and improvements. My noble friend Lady Cox referred to the US Commission on International Religious Freedom, which includes leaders from different faiths. Can the Minister explain the Government's views on consultation with non-governmental organisations, including religious bodies? What steps will the Government take to continue dialogue on international matters with such organisations?

In this country, we are concerned about reports of crimes motivated by religious hate. It is fortunate that no one was hurt in the recent incendiary attack on a mosque in Edinburgh. We on these Benches are extremely sympathetic to the aims of the legislation to combat religious hatred. However, there needs to be a balance between protecting the rights of religious groups and maintaining freedom of debate and free speech.

Before legislation is rushed through, a serious discussion must take place between different religious groups and, indeed, those without religious conviction on how legislation can reconcile those two aims. There is a very real risk that poorly drafted legislation will impinge on freedoms of expression.

I look forward to the Minister's response to the many questions that he has received. In particular, I endorse the question raised by my noble friend Lady Cox on British embassies in countries where religious violations occur. I should very much like to see the embassies include those violations in their annual reports.