My Lords, the Government are pleased to note the 40th anniversary of Religions for Peace, although they do not plan to mark it formally. The Government welcome the important work Religions for Peace undertakes through its global network of religious leaders to promote peace, end poverty, and protect the environment through religious co-operation and dialogue. The United Kingdom works with a wide range of non-governmental and civil society organisations through our international diplomatic and development work. We value their expertise and the contribution they make to our policies.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for his positive reply. Would the Government consider giving publicity to this 40th anniversary, perhaps by means of a commemorative stamp? Does he agree that religions have come in for a great deal of criticism over their involvement in violence, so would it not therefore be appropriate to give them maximum encouragement when they work constructively for peace?
My Lords, these efforts should of course receive maximum encouragement from all sources, but whether one should necessarily mix up the international relations between Governments with the very valuable work of non-governmental organisations, voluntary organisations, religious organisations and professional groups is a wider question. My own view would be that this organisation, which the noble Lord knows a great deal about, has done and continues to do immensely valuable work, and in a way gains prestige and effect by standing clear of the pattern of intergovernmental relationships which often has to deal with very hard and sometimes violent and difficult issues.
My Lords, does the noble Lord agree that an appropriate involvement of faith communities in discussions relating to human conflict, poverty and the environment could, under some circumstances, be highly advantageous?
My Lords, we know that religious disputes often lead to serious conflict. Would the Government consider encouraging the establishment of a global forum of faiths that could meet perhaps on a semi-permanent basis to resolve religious and cultural disputes before they get totally out of hand?
Again, these are movements and inspirations that best come from beneath, as it were-from the bottom up rather than being imposed by government organisation. In a sense, my noble friend is referring to organisations very similar to Religions for Peace, with which this Question is concerned; that is, the desire for the faiths to come together and bring their message of peace to every corner of the world and to every religion and practice throughout the planet. That is exactly what Religions for Peace has done so successfully for many years past.
My Lords, what resources are available within the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to champion the issue of religious liberties? In these turbulent times, is the Minister able to give some thought to the plight of the imprisoned Baha'is in Iran; the minorities in the ancient churches, the Chaldeans and Syrianis in Iraq, who have been facing a campaign of asphyxiation; and the Coptic community in Egypt, especially at present following the terrible attacks launched in Alexandria only a couple of weeks ago?
The noble Lord is quite right to begin the catalogue-sadly, it goes on even further than he mentioned-of the persecution of religious minorities. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office and Her Majesty's Government are determined, wherever we see such persecution, to make the strongest representations through our posts. The noble Lord mentioned three instances of hideous persecution and I have a list in front of me of four or five more areas of the world where there is direct persecution of religious minorities of a highly intolerant kind. In every instance, personnel in our posts and in the Foreign Office here in London continuously and vigorously pursue our concerns, suggestions and proposals that this intolerance should cease forthwith.
My Lords, the Minister said that there is a reason to separate religious organisations from government-on the whole, I suspect that many of us might agree-but, on the Question raised by the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, I point out that Religions for Peace has been working on a code for the holy sites, which will have a particular resonance for those who are interested in Jerusalem. This is a matter where Governments must take a serious role because of the implications for all the parties involved. Have the Government looked at the work done by Religions for Peace on the code for the holy sites and, if so, do they agree with its outcome?
I cannot give a detailed answer to that. I accept the noble Baroness's proposition that religion and politics become intertwined, sometimes disastrously and sometimes to the benefit of those who seek peace, stability and worthwhile aims. I shall look into the matter of the holy sites. It is not a situation with which I am familiar but, obviously, anything to do with Jerusalem and the holy sites has a highly political content and raises all sorts of sensitive issues.