My Lords, I begin by thanking all noble Lords who will participate in this balloted debate, which draws attention to Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Right. Article 18 states:
“Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance”.
Today we will hear from many distinguished Members of your Lordships’ House, including my noble friend Lord Sacks, who says in The Dignity of Difference:
“The great faiths provide meaning and purpose for their adherents. The question is: can they make space for those who are not its adherents, who sing a different song, hear a different music, tell a different story? On that question, the fate of the 21st century may turn”.
The urgency of that challenge was reflected in a recent speech by the shadow Foreign Secretary, the right honourable Douglas Alexander. Among systematic violations of Article 18, he particularly drew attention to what he described as “anti-Christian persecution”, which he said,
“must be named for the evil that it is, and challenged systematically by people of faith and of no faith”.
I know that we will hear later from the noble Lord, Lord Bach, who will expand on that important speech.
Two recent cases underline the universal applicability of Article 18. A young Indonesian man, Alexander Aan, was jailed for more than two years simply for declaring his atheism on Facebook. Mubarak Bala, a Nigerian, was confined to a mental institution for the same reason. Ben Rogers of Christian Solidarity Worldwide visited Alexander Aan in prison in Indonesia and campaigned for his release. Such welcome advocacy by a group of one religious persuasion working for the freedom of another, whose beliefs are different—hearing different music, telling a different story—is echoed in a letter by world Buddhist leaders, including His Holiness the Dalai Lama, calling for an end to violence against Muslims in Burma. The Dalai Lama is emphatic that:
“The violence in Buddhist majority countries targeting religious minorities is completely unacceptable. I urge Buddhists in these countries to imagine an image of the Buddha before them before they commit such a crime”.
Not only is Article 18 a universal human right; it is a human right that is violated universally. Last year, under the admirable chairmanship of the noble Baroness, Lady Berridge, the All-Party Parliamentary Group on International Freedom of Religion or Belief, of which I am an officer, published Article 18: An Orphaned Right. It noted that,
“almost 75% of the world’s population live in countries with high levels of government restrictions on freedom of religion or belief”.
Thanks to major speeches by His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales and the Prime Minister, and the crucial work of the noble Baroness, Lady Warsi, the introduction of the European Union Guidelines on Freedom of Religion or Belief and the excellent work of the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief, this issue has been given greater prominence. I know that today’s important debate will contribute to that.
Yet, compared with Canada’s Office of Religious Freedom and its ambassador-at-large, the excellent Andrew Bennett, or the US State Department and the US Commission of International Religious Freedom, the Foreign Office has just one official specifically focused on freedom of religion, and only for a third of her time. The FCO has said that it wants to develop a toolkit on freedom of religion or belief for diplomats, stating that,
“every minister at the FCO is an ambassador for religious freedom, raising and promoting these issues in the countries with which they engage”.
But how will they do that? How are our diplomats trained in religious literacy? Compare the £34 billion spent on military operations since the Cold War with the paltry resources deployed in promoting Article 18
—in promoting religious coexistence, public discourse and dialogue, foundational to building peaceful societies in a world increasingly afraid of difference.
In an all too brief survey of worldwide violations of Article 18, I inevitably begin in the Middle East, where, in the midst of an orgy of violence and brutality, we are fast approaching a time when Christianity will have no home in its ancient homelands. In Syria, the brutal murder in April of the 75 year-old Dutch Jesuit Father Franz van der Lugt, who had served there for 50 years, working in education and with disabled people, illustrates why an estimated 450,000 Christians have fled. Followers of other religions, notably the Mandeans, Yizidis, Baha’is and Ahmadis suffer similarly.
In Iraq, a Christian population of 1.4 million has been reduced to 150,000. In recent weeks, the depredations, beheadings and crucifixions by ISIS are almost beyond belief. For the first time in almost 2,000 years, Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, no longer has a Christian community. Its churches are now closed, most having been desecrated. In what has been described as “religious cleansing”, ISIS says that anyone who refuses to convert and defies it will be,
“killed, crucified or have their hands and feet cut off”.
ISIS has taken a sledgehammer to the tomb of Jonah, replaced the cross with the black Islamic flag on top of Mosul’s St Ephraim’s Cathedral, and beheaded or crucified any Muslim who dares to dissent. This week in Istanbul, the head of Turkey’s Directorate of Religious Affairs, Professor Dr Mehmet Görmez, in his address to the participants of the World Islamic Scholars Peace, Moderation and Common Sense Initiative conference said that 1,000 Muslims are being killed each day, and that 90% of the killers are also Muslims. He said:
“They are being killed by their brothers”.
Yesterday, the archbishops of Iraq united in their condemnation of these events but also called on the outside world to help. The only people who have successfully withstood ISIS are the Kurdish Peshmerga forces. To its credit, the Kurdish leadership has been generously offering safe haven to Mosul’s fleeing Christians and has asked for international aid to help it do so. This crisis justifies huge humanitarian and resettlement aid that could include micro and business loans to help people to help themselves. The West must also press the Gulf to end the funding of ISIS. Where in Mosul is the “responsibility to protect”, let alone Article 18? I hope that the Minister will be able to tell us.
Elsewhere, in Egypt, these are increasingly dangerous and menacing times for freedom of belief. As honorary president of the UK Copts, I saw the way in which Copts were targeted by the Muslim Brotherhood. Last year, in the single largest attack on Christians in Egypt since the 14th century, more than 50 churches were bombed or burnt. It was Egypt’s Kristallnacht. What priority do we give to Egypt’s minorities as we engage with the new President?
In Iran, the so-called moderate, Hassan Rouhani, in the 12 months since he was elected, has executed 800 people and imprisoned and tortured many others. Iran continues to target religious minorities, particularly
Baha’is, whose cemeteries have been desecrated; 136 Baha’is are in prison, some since 2008. As “unprotected infidels” they can be attacked with impunity. Repression against Christians in Iran includes: waves of arrests and detentions; raids on church gatherings; raids on social gatherings; harsh interrogations; physical and psychological torture, including demands to recant and to identify other Christians; extended detentions without charge; violations of due process; convictions for ill defined crimes or on falsified political charges; economic targeting through exorbitant bail demands; and threats of execution for apostasy. What priority will our new chargé d’affaires in Tehran be giving these Article 18 issues when he meets the regime’s leadership?
I return now to Sudan and the treatment of Meriam Ibrahim, which was described by the Prime Minister as “barbaric”. In May, this young mother of two was charged, and sentenced to death for apostasy and 100 lashes for adultery. Having refused to renounceher faith, she was forced to give birth shackled in a prison cell in Khartoum. Happily, given a debate where we will be hearing so much that is so very sad and tragic, international pressure, often led by young internet campaigners, has led to her release. This morning, she arrived safely in Italy. However, Meriam Ibrahim’s case is not an isolated one. Archaic and cruel laws lead to stonings and lashings, with Al-Jazeera reporting that in one recent year, 43,000 women were publicly flogged.
In Nigeria, another crisis is looming for religion and unfolding on a daily basis. There are reports of collusion between elements of the military and Islamist forces. This week marks 100 days since Boko Haram abducted more than 200 schoolgirls in Chibok. Are we any nearer to finding them? My noble friend Lady Cox has just returned from Nigeria and will have much more to say about the situation and her report documenting that jihadist violence.
As the Minister responds to Article 18 abuses in Nigeria, might we hear something, too, about the plight of Christians in Kenya, who face increasing threats and attacks from al-Shabaab, and in Eritrea—another serious violator of freedom of religion? The UN has just established a Commission of Inquiry on Eritrea, and I look forward to hearing how we will assist its work.
I have focused extensively on the Middle East and Africa, but across Asia, Article 18 faces serious threats as well. We will hear from the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, about the situation in Pakistan. Think of the bombing last September of the Anglican church in Peshawar, killing 127 and injuring 250, of the attacks on Shias and Ahmadis or of the imprisonment of and death sentences on Christians, such as Asia Bibi, charged with blasphemy. For challenging those laws, Shahbaz Bhatti, the Minister for Minority Affairs, was assassinated in 2011, and no one has been brought to justice.
Meanwhile, in Burma, Muslims are facing growing religious intolerance. In March 2013, I visited a village just outside Naypyidaw. In the charred embers of a burnt-out madrassah, I took statements from the few Muslims who had not fled. I met Rohingya Muslims and heard from ethnic Kachin and Chin Christians facing terrible persecution. Proposed new legislation to restrict religious conversions and interreligious marriage will hardly help; practical initiatives countering hate speech and intolerance might. Could we not ask the UN Secretary-General to visit Burma, specifically to address rising religious intolerance, and encourage the establishment of an international and independent inquiry into the violence in Rakhine state, Kachin state and other parts of the country?
Elsewhere in Asia, religious intolerance is rising, too, for example in Indonesia. I would welcome the Minister’s response to CSW’s new report, Indonesia: Pluralism in Peril, and the Government’s view of Prabowo Subianto’s attempts to undermine religious coexistence and his challenge to this week’s election results. There are also threats to Article 18 in India, with a BJP attack on an evangelical church in Uttar Pradesh last week; in Sri Lanka, where anti-Muslim violence has erupted; in Bangladesh, where, earlier this month, nuns were brutally attacked and beaten; in Malaysia, where a court has ruled that only Muslims can use the term “Allah”, even though Christians have traditionally also used that same term in their texts and in their languages; and in Brunei, where a full Sharia penal code is being introduced.
Turning to the Far East, I hope we will hear whether we have protested about the demolition of Protestant and Catholic churches there; the continued detention of the Catholic bishop of Shanghai, Thaddeus Ma, arrested in 2012; and the well-being of the Tibetan Buddhist monk and scholar Tenzin Lhundup, about whom nothing has been heard since his arrest in May, and the self-immolation of 131 Tibetans since 2009. In 2009, I visited Tibet with the noble Lord, Lord Steel. Together, we published our report Breaking the Deadlock and, in highlighting the religious dimension, we argued:
“Any attempts to resolve the political situation … must take due account is of the profound spiritual life of Tibetan people”.
In Laos and Vietnam, the situation is perilous; I have given the noble Lord details. We had a debate only yesterday about what some have described as genocide in North Korea. For 10 years, I have chaired the all-party group and I commend the Hansard report of yesterday’s debate to all Members of the House.
As I have outlined in a speech which rather inadequately has tried to set the scene for the many more detailed interventions which will follow, Article 18 is under threat in almost every corner of the world. As we approach the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta, we should recall that, long before Article 18, it asserted the importance of religious freedom.
Societies which deny such freedoms are invariably unhappy societies. Research shows that there is a direct link between economic prosperity and religious freedom. In 1965, Dignitatis Humanae, the Second Vatican Council’s proclamation on religious freedom, said correctly that a society which promotes religious freedom will be enlivened and enriched and one that does not will decay.
Article 18 is a foundational human right—many would say the foundational right—because, while there should be no hierarchy of rights and all rights are interdependent, without the freedom to choose, practise, share without coercion and change your beliefs, what freedom is there? As my noble friend Lord Sacks says, on this question, the fate of the 21st century may turn. I beg to move.
My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Alton, has just pointed to the clear and indisputable fact that religious pluralism is in the deepest peril worldwide. My sense is that this is at its highest point today within the Muslim world, despite the terrible fate of Christians in Mosul and elsewhere in Iraq that the noble Lord, Lord Alton, pointed to. We must all deplore the attacks of Sunni on Shia, of Shia on Sunni and of both Shia and Sunni, when they can, on Alawites and Ismailis. It is Muslim on Muslim, exactly as the noble Lord, Lord Alton, said.
I predict that this terrible intolerance of one sort of Muslim for another is spreading fast from the near and Middle East with attendant violence, even now, to countries such as Indonesia, which is the largest Muslim-majority nation on earth and has hitherto had quite a good reputation for religious pluralism and interreligious harmony.
Of course, Christians of different sorts have been just as bad in centuries past. We must never forget that. In England a few centuries ago, my co-religionists routinely burned or eviscerated and cut up the co- religionists of the right reverend Prelates on the Bishops’ Bench. When times altered politically, the Protestants took the chance to return the grisly compliment to my co-religionists. This is a terrible stain on both of us, which we must never forget. It can never be eradicated, any more than the joint attacks by both forms of Christianity on the Jewish faith, particularly in Europe, which are another stain on our history. Fingers should be pointed not at individual Muslims but simply at present facts. Centuries and horrors later, we all go to each other’s churches, visit each other’s synagogues and, despite terrible attacks on the latter which still happen in so-called civilised Europe and while our theological debate can be pretty vicious within different faiths, interfaith harmony more or less obtains between us.
Alas, in the Muslim world interfaith disharmony is spreading fast, not diminishing. That may take not just decades but centuries to play out until it reaches what Christians and Christians and Jews have managed to reach, if the lamentable history of interfaith warfare is any guide.
The noble Lord, Lord Alton, has already pointed to Indonesia. We have the danger of that country being next. It is a complex country that I have visited. So much depends on the actions about freedom of belief by the new President. He faces increasing harassment, discrimination and violence, which fly in the face of the Indonesia constitution, against not just Christians but Ahmadis and adherents of traditional indigenous faiths and beliefs. Only zero tolerance by President Yudhoyono towards religious intolerance will stop the rot spreading, to the great disadvantage of minority religions and the stability and peace of the many islands that make up Indonesia. In the short term, Christian churches face persecution, such as happened this Thursday at churches such as HKBP Philadelphia church in Bekasi or the Yasmin church in Bogor, to give just two examples.
These threats spread and we see them spreading now, today, into Brunei in a state-sponsored way. There, the new penal code introduced by the ruler brings full-on Sharia penalties for those of other beliefs or those wishing even to change their beliefs. I have been trying to tot up the number of international agreements this breaks under the new Brunei code, starting with the declaration of human rights, through to the Convention on the Rights of the Child and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, both ratified by Brunei, to the ASEAN charter on respect for fundamental freedoms, under Article 2. The list lengthens. Unless Brunei draws back from the introduction of severe penalties of the most violent physical sort for even the propagation of faiths other than Islam or for persuading people to change religion, it will unleash a moral, civil and religious tiger within Brunei, and that country will end up turning on itself.
My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Alton, on his timely initiative. He gave many examples. In Mosul last weekend the Islamic state effectively declared war on the Christians of Iraq. They may soon be given the choice: convert or face the sword. Some 200 schoolgirls, as yet unaccounted for, were taken by Boko Haram in northern Nigeria. In May we learnt of the fate of Meriam Ibrahim who, happily, just today has reached Europe. How many other cases of a similar nature have we not heard of? All are examples of a wider pattern of religious intolerance, mainly by Islamic extremists and the ignoring of Article 18 principles.
The good news, among the gloom, is that there is now a new recognition of the problem. I cite the all-party report on Article 18 and congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Berridge, and her colleagues on that. I pay warm tribute to the noble Baroness, Lady Warsi. Her speech at Georgetown University on
“It seems to me that we cannot ignore the fact that Christians in the Middle East are, increasingly, being deliberately targeted by fundamentalist Islamist militants”.
Last month I organised a visit on the subject by a Council of Europe colleague and was happily amazed by the number of NGOs in London that are involved with this problem. The fact is that of the 131 countries of a broadly Christian culture, not one lacks religious toleration. Of the 49 countries of a Muslim culture, 17 tolerate no other religion. Pew Research shows that Christians are the most increasingly persecuted for their faith; Muslims are the second but that is mainly Muslim on Muslim save, for example, in Burma and
“At least 734 Baha’is have reportedly been arrested since 2004 and 136 are currently detained”.
The same report stated, on Christians:
“In recent years, Christians, many of whom are converts from Muslim backgrounds, have faced a similar pattern of persecution”.
Why does it concern us? It concerns us because world peace depends on building bridges across such divides. States that honour Article 18 will honour other human rights. How do we, in the United Kingdom, respond? We can respond bilaterally, giving a good example by promoting human rights generally at home and not diminishing the work of the Council of Europe convention on human rights, for example. Secondly, we can focus not only on Christians, but highlight the persecution of Shia in Mosul, for example. We can speak up and express indignation in, for example, the annual human rights report. Equally, and more controversially, we should consider some conditionality on aid for those countries that are the major defaulters in this area.
Multilaterally, we are now a member of the United Nations Human Rights Council. Have we taken any initiatives in this field? There is EU conditionality. Are the EU External Action Service and the high representative adequately staffed in this area? The Council of Europe has a series of relevant partnership agreements with Morocco, Jordan and Palestine.
The overall situation is worsening though there are some signs of increasing recognition of the problem.
“Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to Jesus, ‘Teacher, rebuke your disciples!’ … ‘I tell you,’ he replied, ‘if they keep quiet, the stones will cry out’”.
My Lords, I, too, join in the congratulations that have been expressed to the noble Lord, Lord Alton, on giving us this opportunity to deal with violations of Article 18 around the world, in particular the violations by Muslim on Muslim which have been mentioned by all three noble Lords who have spoken so far.
I want to ask what the Government are doing in particular about the assassinations and massacres of Shia Muslims in Pakistan by the terrorist organisations Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, Ahle Sunnat Wal Jamaat, and Tehreek-e-Taliban. These organisations share a common ideology based on returning to the principles of governance and legal systems that they believe were followed by the rightly guided caliphs who succeeded the Prophet in the 7th century. They share a hatred of other forms of Islam, including particularly the Shia, who form 20% of the population of Pakistan. However, anybody who does not share the terrorists’ medieval beliefs is seen as a target, including Ahmadi Muslims and Christians, who are also victims of targeted assassinations and legal persecution under the blasphemy laws.
To see the destination to which these people would take Pakistan, look at what is happening in the areas of Syria and Iraq occupied by ISIS, a similar band of off-the-wall genocidal thugs. They have executed thousands of Shia and, as the noble Lord, Lord Alton, said, are driving out the 4,000 year-old Christian community of Mosul after stripping them of all their property. The Pakistani fundamentalists say on the internet and at public meetings that the Shia are infidels who must be killed. In 2013, the International Imam Hussain Council recorded nearly 700 Shia murders. The actual number was higher because reports dried up after media workers were killed and threatened.
The Pakistan army has launched a major operation against the terrorist bases in North Waziristan, but military action is also needed to counter the terrorism in Sindh and Punjab. The anti-crime campaign in Karachi, which has been going on for nearly a year, has not been a success. The newspaper Dawn reported that, in the first few months, several TTP killers had been arrested but their political masters raised a hue and cry. Both Imran Khan and Nawaz Sharif supported Aurangzeb Farooqi, head of the ASWJ, when he stood under the banner of the Wahhabi alliance at the 2013 elections. He was one of 53 alleged terrorists whose candidature raised not a word of protest from the conventional parties. These parties are naive enough to believe in the existence of the “good Taliban” who can be persuaded to play by the rules of democracy and the UDHR. But when negotiations were attempted in February, there was no sign that the terrorists would abandon their objective of transforming Pakistan into a Wahhabi caliphate.
The spread of violent extremism in Sindh, and in Karachi in particular, is fuelled by the growth of religious seminaries peddling a doctrine similar to Wahhabism and funded by sources in the Gulf, and Saudi Arabia in particular. According to the New York Times, there are 4,000 of these seminaries across Sindh and the ASWJ has signed up 50,000 members in the province in parallel. In Islamabad, 26 unauthorised Deobandi mosques provide sanctuary to TTP-ASWJ terrorists. There is no system of inspection of mosques to ensure that their curriculum is within the law—a matter which should interest us in view of the revelations about schools in Birmingham.
It is the ideology that says God orders its adherents to kill people with different beliefs that needs to be eliminated. The UN Human Rights Council should identify and block the funding that spreads religious hatred, and we should press far more robustly for the infamous blasphemy laws in Pakistan to be repealed.
In April, the Select Committee on International Development asked the Government to produce clear evidence that our aid programme was effective in reducing the extremist threat in Pakistan. In response, the Government pointed out that,
“Education is vital to transforming Pakistan’s future and is where a significant proportion of our funds are directed. This is firmly in the UK’s own national interest”.
However, the country has one of the highest illiteracy rates in the world, and the popularity of the madrassas is largely due to the inadequacy of the public education system. Perhaps my noble friend the Minister will elaborate on how we assess value for money in our educational spending in Pakistan and how it combats religious hatred and intolerance.
My Lords, I also congratulate my noble friend on this important debate. Time only allows me to highlight two often forgotten situations: the plight of Ahmadis, and northern Nigeria, which I recently visited.
Ahmadi Muslims in Pakistan continue to suffer violence, murder and attacks on their mosques, businesses and properties. Although they adhere to their principle of “love for all, hatred for none”, they also suffer persecution in Indonesia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Bulgaria and the Middle East. I wish I could say much more, but time only allows me to put this concern on the record.
In Nigeria, the 12 northern states and Plateau state have suffered for many years from conflicts associated with religious tensions and the nomadic Fulani. Thousands of Christians and many Muslims have been killed. Hundreds of churches and some mosques have been burnt. Systematic discrimination and repeated attacks have led the Anglican Bishop of Kano to describe as “religious cleansing” the mass exodus of non-indigene Christians long before Boko Haram arrived.
Boko Haram’s agenda is the expulsion of all Christians from northern Nigeria. Many Muslims who do not support Boko Haram have also been slaughtered, while bombings in public places inflict death and injury indiscriminately. I and a small group from my NGO, HART, returned just two weeks ago from those areas. The suffering wrought by Boko Haram is devastating. There are almost daily reports of killings of civilians. Reliable statistics are hard to ascertain, but an estimated 5,000 people have been killed since January. Widely reported bombings this year include three on Abuja, with over 430 deaths, and two in Jos, killing 125 people. Kaduna, Kano, Bauchi and other north-eastern cities have also suffered regular bombings.
The majority of Boko Haram’s victims are killed during the almost daily attacks on villages across the north-east that receive far less attention. Just three examples while we were in the region include attacks on
The scale of abductions is horrific. Even before the widely publicised kidnapping of the schoolgirls at Chibok, at least 1,800 people had already reportedly been abducted in Maiduguri, and 60 girls and 31 boys have subsequently been abducted. Boko Haram’s hatred of western education and education for girls has resulted, since 2012, in the burning of more than 300 schools, with more than 10,000 children deprived of education. Some 173 teachers have been killed this year. Some live in such terror that they will not even carry a pen as it would indicate their profession. Brutal attacks on teachers on school property have been reported with security forces standing by.
Many people are concerned by indications that Boko Haram is supported by senior figures in the military and the Government, by its increasingly sophisticated training and weaponry, by the allegations of evidence of international support from Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Iran, by links with al-Shabaab, and by the use of foreign mercenaries from Syria, Chad, Niger and Libya. Consequently, there is very widespread anxiety over the possible disintegration of the nation of Nigeria and/or the spread of militant Islam beyond the northern states to other parts of the country; and that the President and the Government do not have the will or the capacity to withstand the process of Islamisation spearheaded by Boko Haram.
More positively, there are creative initiatives to foster reconciliation between communities fractured by violence between Christians and Muslims. We visited one programme in Jos and were deeply encouraged by the friendships between the different faith traditions. It is hoped that such confidence-building measures will reduce the propensity for renewed violence and help Muslims who do not wish to radicalise to withstand pressures from extremists such as Boko Haram. But it remains to be seen whether these positive developments at grass-roots level can make a significant difference for the future of the nation.
I ask the Minister: what representations have Her Majesty’s Government made to the Government of Nigeria to ensure the security of all civilians, the protection of their right to freedom of religion and belief, and the provision of humanitarian assistance to the victims of Boko Haram’s assaults? What assistance is being given by DfID both to provide humanitarian assistance to those victims and to support those much needed initiatives to promote reconciliation and confidence-building between Christian and Muslim communities, particularly in the epicentres of violence, such as Bauchi and Jos, which are the current front lines in the battle against Islamist extremism, which poses such grave threats for the future of the nation and, ultimately, further afield throughout Africa?
My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Alton, gave us a splendid and comprehensive opening speech, for which we are all extremely grateful. It is a particular pleasure to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Cox. I have unstinted admiration for her courage, tenacity, energy and all that she does to stand up for what is good, honest, holy and of good report.
A civilised country must have as its hallmark that it allows its citizens to believe in peace and to worship in public without any threat. In the admirable report produced by my noble friend Lady Berridge and others, it is shameful to read that in 139 countries between 2006 and 2010 Christians were harassed. Although I am proud to be a Christian and we live in what is still essentially a Christian country, we should all be concerned, whether the persecution is of Muslims in Burma, Hindus in Pakistan, Falun Gong in China or Baha’i in Iran.
In the brief time I have, I would like to make one or two concrete proposals to my noble friend who will respond to this debate. First, I would like to see a unit in No. 10 devoted to religious freedom around the world. Secondly, I would like to see a high-level ambassador appointed to travel the world and give this message. He may not thank me for the suggestion but who better than my right honourable friend William Hague, who will have time on his hands next year? As the author of a notable biography of William Wilberforce, who better to press these points home?
I would also like us to have another of these summits. Summits seem to be the flavour of the time. We had one recently on female genital mutilation—very important indeed. We have had others. But a summit in London summoned by and addressed by the Prime Minister and the other political leaders could do a great deal to focus world attention on this terrible problem. It is a terrible problem because the future of civilisation—no less—is at stake.
Progress can be made. I speak with some small personal knowledge here. When I entered another place in 1970, I helped to form, with the noble Lord, Lord Janner of Braunstone, the campaign for the release of Soviet Jewry. I spoke to persecuted Jews in Moscow as the KGB was knocking at their doors to arrest them. In 1990, 20 years later, as chairman of an international human rights organisation, I—who had been forbidden any visa to go into the Soviet Union, who had had the Soviet embassy door slammed in my face—was there in the heart of the Kremlin handing a Bible to the chef de cabinet of Mr Gorbachev, symbolic of a million that they were allowing in. During the course of that conversation, I was told that by the end of the year, no one in the Soviet Union would be in prison for their religious belief. We have all been reminded recently that what is going on in Russia at the moment is not all sweetness and light, and we are deeply exercised by what we have heard. But, nevertheless, the fact that such progress could be made in those 20 years, and that even now Christians in Russia are indeed allowed to worship in freedom, as are others, is the mark of real progress.
Last Sunday I attended a patronal festival in St Margaret’s Church, Westminster. It was the feast of St Margaret of Antioch and the Dean of Westminster preached a moving and splendid sermon. He referred to the desecration of Mosul and spoke, with the degree of concern and embarrassment that we all feel, about some of the dictatorships that did allow Christians and others to worship in freedom. We must address what has happened, unequivocally declare war on extremism wherever it is to be found, and by doing the sort of things I proposed a moment ago, this Government could play a significant part in doing precisely that.
My Lords, I begin by thanking the noble Lord, Lord Alton of Liverpool, for securing this debate and introducing it so well. The freedom to profess and practise religion is obviously a fundamental human right, so I will not spend any time emphasising its importance. The noble Lord, Lord Alton, gave us a catalogue of all the various countries where this right has been systematically violated, and we have seen horrendous cases of religious hatred, bigotry and violence.
I want to shift the focus slightly. Although we have been looking at the rest of the world, it might not be entirely amiss to look at ourselves from time to time.
Let us consider, for example, the controversy in France about wearing the hijab; Muslim girls are not allowed to wear it. There is the referendum in Switzerland which has declared that minarets on mosques should not exceed a certain height. This is not only a matter for day-to-day politics. It has been embodied into the Swiss constitution so it cannot be changed without an enormous amount of effort. Let us consider the trouble that Sikhs encountered here in our own country in trying to wear their turbans when working on building sites and so on. I want to suggest that, while it is absolutely vital that we should fight all forms of religious bigotry where it exists, it might be useful to look at the kind of difficulties that countries which are otherwise well-meaning face in implementing religious freedom. Extremes are easy to spot and to deal with, but what is not so easy is dealing with the practices of countries like our own, or India or most others, that mean well but get into certain difficulties and face dilemmas. I thought I would alert noble Lords to around half a dozen of the difficulties which different countries have faced from time to time.
The right to profess religion includes the right to propagate it, although it is striking to note that Article 18 makes no reference to the right to do so. However, we all recognise that religious freedom must include the right to propagate it. How far does propagating one’s religion go? Does it include proselytising? If it does, how far can proselytising go? Can you use financial inducements in the way so many American evangelicals have done in India? Can you use social or moral tricks such as saying, “If you do not convert to Christianity or Islam, your soul will be condemned to damnation”? When these things happen in certain countries, naturally people get a little worried and begin to ask themselves what legitimate limits might be placed on religious freedom. That is one area of controversy.
Another area is this. Religious freedom is fine, but religion includes all manner of beliefs. What sorts of belief might we tolerate and what might we not? For example, Catholics have taught over the years that Jews killed their Lord and are guilty of deicide. Is that the kind of belief that should be freely allowed? Should Muslims be freely allowed to tell their children that all idolaters—unfortunately, I, as a Hindu, would be an idolater—are condemned to go to hell and should be summarily dispensed with?
Thirdly, there are religious practices: church bells, for example, or muezzins calling people to prayer, or wearing a hijab, which is the kind of problem the French faced. Should all religious practices be allowed? Going a step further, there are religiously based social practices. For example, if my religion says polygamy is permitted, should it be allowed? If my religion says untouchability is sanctioned, should it be allowed?
Fourthly, there is the scope of religious freedom. This is the problem they faced in Switzerland. Minarets became a problem not in themselves, but because it was felt that minarets of a certain height changed the landscape and the identity of the country or of the area in which they were located. That is something that worried them. It was not a question of human rights because the question cannot be articulated in the language of human rights. No one’s human rights were violated. It can be articulated only in the language of collective identity. Does a nation or culture have a right to a certain kind of environment and landscape in which it can recognise itself?
My suggestion is simply that, while we ought to concentrate on these enormous acts of religious violence and hatred and deal with them as effectively as we can, there are two important issues to remember. First, problems to do with religious freedom arise in all societies—civilised and so-called not so civilised. Secondly, religions over the centuries have lived in peace in one form or another. We need to ask ourselves what has happened in modernity and what new forces it has generated, so that we can understand why people who once knew how to live together—had developed traditions, good sense and practices of living together—suddenly are at each other’s throat.
My Lords, I thank my noble friend for introducing the debate. In recent years, we have seen how closely foreign affairs and home affairs interact. For that reason, I strongly welcome the statement by 100 British Muslim imams against young men going to Syria, Iraq and other places for jihad. I trust the imams know of the work in Iraq, ever since the fall of Saddam, of Canon Andrew White. He has brought together the senior religious leaders of all traditions. Many participants in these meetings had never met each other before. The results were unprecedented: joint Shia-Sunni fatwas, first against suicide bombing and later against violence of any kind directed at minority groups. The high-level meetings were followed up by a series of local ones.
The congregation of St George’s church, Baghdad, which is technically Anglican and served by my friend, Canon White, contains people from every Christian tradition that ever existed in Iraq. Next to the church is a fully equipped, free medical clinic, serving all comers.
Despite the almost total exodus of Christians from the city of Mosul, which has been mentioned, I am glad to say that last Sunday there was a joint Christian-Muslim service in St George’s Catholic Chaldean church in or near Mosul. They celebrated their common Iraqi citizenship. Patriarch Sako was quoted as saying:
“I carry every Iraqi in my heart”.
The aforementioned exodus was caused by the so-called Islamic State. My other friend, Mr Yonadam Kanna, a long-serving member of the Iraqi Parliament, sadly reported that five Christian families in Mosul had been forced to convert to Islam because they were too old or too ill to flee.
In the last 100 years, the once-thriving Armenian and Jewish communities have been almost entirely driven out of Iraq. There are now only five or six Jews remaining. As my noble friend Lord Alton mentioned, Iraqi Christians once numbered about 1.5 million in 2003; today, they are reduced to perhaps 250,000. Many have been killed, while others fled to neighbouring states or, if possible, reached Britain, North America or Australia. Humanitarian support for all groups is now more needed than ever. That is why I greatly welcome the concern recently expressed by the Pope and the UN Secretary-General.
In the Middle East outside Iraq, violence in Palestine and Israel has led, I am sorry to say, to fall-out in Europe. I condemn as strongly as possible violence in France and Germany against Jews or anywhere against Muslims. Branding people unjustly as terrorists or scapegoating them because of their religious affiliation is wrong. It recalls the dehumanisation of the other that took place in Nazi Germany or in Rwanda and leads all too easily to genocide. There are no sub-humans. We have to discover and to respect each other’s God-given dignity, remembering that the blood in the veins of all is always red.
Do Her Majesty’s Government see Article 18 of the universal declaration as an important criterion for the selection of the next UN Secretary-General? If that person will not uphold freedom of conscience and faith, and freedom to change one’s religion, then who will?
What is the Government’s policy towards the 23 countries with laws on apostasy? Will they take up this matter with the Arab League and the Organization of the Islamic Conference? Will they bear in mind that so-called crimes of apostasy and blasphemy are often punishable by death? Many countries that have abolished or suspended capital punishment should be useful allies on this point. Everyone should know that freedom to choose and respect for diversity are both desirable in themselves and good for society.
My Lords, like other Members of your Lordships’ House, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Alton, for securing this debate and pay tribute to his great efforts on this vital issue. I thank him for his reference to the 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta. I have a personal connection with the charter, as one of my predecessors, William, was among the reverend fathers who advised the King to enshrine its principles of justice and freedom, including freedoms of religion. Magna Carta, despite our own failings—to which reference has been made—to live up to its logic, remains the seed of a tree of which Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is part, and under the cover of which all the peoples of the world should be allowed to stand.
Freedom of belief, including the freedom to change one’s belief, is like a canary in the mine of human rights. Abuses of religious freedom are often an early indication that all is not well. Indonesia, to which we have already heard reference, has shown worrying signs of this dynamic, with properly licensed churches being closed by an alliance of local government and extremist groups tolerated by the national state, followed in its wake by wider restrictions on freedom of expression. We look for more hopeful signs in this new future.
Where religious freedom is abused, peace and security often become more elusive. Blasphemy laws in Pakistan give rise to societal hostility to minority groups, legitimising people of violence. And then, when extremism sets in and takes hold, Governments are tempted to restrict everyone’s liberty in their attempt to overcome extremists but, in fact, strengthen their hand by weakening the democratic voice of others and restricting the democratic space for all, as we saw in Egypt under President Mubarak, and there is a greater risk under President Sisi.
Promoting freedom of religion is an important counterterrorism strategy. Matters of religious freedom are woven throughout many of the greatest foreign policy challenges facing our nation so it is self-evident that we must have an effective, religiously informed, philosophically sound strategy to guide how our Government will protect and promote it abroad. I hope therefore that the Minister will be able to give assurances that the recent Cabinet reshuffle will not lead to a weakening in the Government’s own commitments to freedom of religion and belief, including the role of the former Foreign Secretary’s Human Rights Advisory Group and the newly formed working group on religious freedom. I hope that, on the contrary, there will be, following the very fine proposals of the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, a strengthening of our systems and capabilities.
Ensuring Her Majesty’s Government’s commitment to upholding and defending Article 18 remains critical since, by any measurement, as we all know, this freedom is under serious and sustained pressure across so much of the globe, with an estimated 76% of the world’s population enduring a high or very high level of restrictions, among them the estimated 250 million Christians bearing persecution in one form or another and nowhere more so, as we have heard, than in the ISIS-controlled areas of Iraq. The desperate, dignified letter of the Armenian Patriarch of Babylon following recent events in Mosul,
“to all who have a living conscience in Iraq and all the world”,
is a tract for our times. We cannot be silent or inactive in the face of such suffering. We must also, according to the same conscience, at the same time, with the same resolve—as the noble Lords, Lord Anderson and Lord Avebury, and others have said—speak out for the Shi’ite Muslims and Sufi minorities in that place, who are facing barbaric cruelty. I was very impressed with the Iraqi al-Khoei Foundation’s statement this week, condemning the destruction of the Christian community in Mosul and beyond.
In that spirit, my hope is that churches and faith communities here in the UK will find ways to speak out together in a regular and routine manner whenever Article 18 is threatened, giving people a clear space and affirmation, encouraging them to be able to sing their song in different places and in different ways. Speaking together and acting in this way would draw on the deep patterns of peaceful coexistence that religious communities at their best have lived out through the centuries in cities such as Mosul throughout the world. It would be a common witness against the politicisation of religion and the manipulation of it by people of violence with evil intent, and a witness against the internal degradation of religion. It would model new ways of relating that would challenge the way international religious freedom is understood. It would help to counter accusations of colonialism, often reinforced in media reporting, that sometimes construe Article 18 along narrowly confessional lines. It would help to build a wider international consensus that creates the necessary space for Governments around the world to defend this most basic freedom of humanity.
My Lords, I declare an interest as chairman of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on International Religious Freedom. In 2012, Pew Research found that there was violence or the threat of violence to compel people to adhere to religious norms in 39% of countries, up from just 18% in 2007. Muslims and Jews experienced six-year highs in the number of countries in which they were harassed by governments, individuals or groups. Christians and Muslims were harassed in the largest number of countries—110 and 109 respectively. This accelerating deterioration is not confined to any particular religion, belief or ideology and all continents are affected.
In Pakistan, Hindu families are fleeing to refugee camps because Hindu women and girls are being kidnapped and forced to convert to Islam and marry Muslim men. These girls include Lucky Bhel, who was kidnapped in the Sindh region and forced to convert and marry the disciple of a local religious leader. In other areas of the world, it is Muslims who face restrictions, such as Chinese Uighur Muslim students who are being denied the freedom to observe the Ramadan fast. Monitored by teaching staff, they are threatened with not receiving their degree if they refuse to eat. Ironically, in Iran this month, five inhabitants of Kermanshah were flogged and in Tehran the lips of a Christian were burnt with cigarettes for not fasting.
In Colombia, 200 churches have been forced to close by armed criminal gangs, and the constitutional court has held that indigenous Colombians do not have the same rights relating to religious freedom as the rest of the population. The report Freedom of Thought 2013 by the International Humanist and Ethical Union states that you can be put to death for expressing atheism in 13 countries. Kazakhstan recently imposed two five-day prison sentences on a Muslim and a Baptist. Their offences were, respectively, distributing religious literature that has not passed the state censorship that allows Muslim literature to be only Sunni, and meeting their fellow Christians for worship without state permission.
The former situation of Meriam Ibrahim in Sudan pinpoints the nub of Article 18. It is the right of every human being to choose their own religion, to choose not to have a religion or to choose to change their religion. You may choose to follow the faith of your family but it is not like DNA: you do not have to inherit the faith of your parents. Meriam was deemed a Muslim because that was her father’s faith, but she chose the Christian faith of her mother.
The failure to protect the Article 18 rights for 76% of the human population is nothing short of a global crisis. In the time allowed, I have two brief suggestions. First, in our international development policy, freedom of religion and belief must be a priority, as it is in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. The noble Lord, Lord Hylton, referred to Canon Andrew White, who has been in Baghdad of late. In response to a Written Question, I asked whether any of the humanitarian aid had gone to supporting his reconciliation work. Unfortunately, the reply I received was that he had not applied. I ask the Minister: when Canon White returns to the country this weekend, could we perhaps telephone him to see if he needs any assistance?
Secondly, we must put our own house in order. It is easy to see abuse of Article 18 rights as something that happens in countries where more people hold to more religious views, more passionately. However, are not the issues in Peter Clarke’s report about schools in Birmingham also about respect for Article 18 rights of both Muslim and non-Muslim children? “Dispatches” revealed centres in north London that teach children according to an alleged interpretation of Judaism and curtail contact with the outside world. The same concern exists at the extreme end of allegedly Christian communities.
Can it really be the case that the Ahmaddiya Muslim community has been told that it cannot join SACRE in Birmingham unless its members refuse to call themselves Muslims? Leaders I have spoken to say that this is reminiscent of how the persecution began in Pakistan. We will not be heard on a world stage if we neglect Article 18 duties here at home. Are we dealing with concerns relating to Islamic extremes while ignoring others? We may not be Sudan, saying, “You have to have the faith of your father”, but are some children not exposed to other messages or beliefs in our plural society? Without such exposure, can these young people be said to have made any choice, particularly one that complies with Article 18?
RE is a valuable part of the school curriculum, but should not Article 18—your right to choose your faith—also be a key feature of our curriculum? Combined with the anecdotal evidence of difficulties for some people in the UK to convert, is it not time we had an Article 18 assessment here at home or invited the UN special rapporteur to visit us?
ISIS has used social media for ill, but we have yet to see religious communities use it to promote their messages. Smartphones have the potential to expose young people to messages like never before and create huge shifts in people’s religious affiliations. For that reason, urgent action is needed. Article 18 will be the primary challenge in human rights law for the next generation.
My Lords, it is a privilege to follow the noble Baroness, who has done so much for the cause of religious freedom. I have also been impressed by the many noble Lords who have reported on human rights violations of Article 18 around the world.
I will concentrate not on what ought to be, but on what is, and why. The UDHR was more or less a dead letter in the years of the Cold War. We each tried to protect out patch and let the communists do what they liked by way of persecution. Their persecution was secular, not religious—they persecuted the religious and atheists alike. It is only since the breakdown of the Cold War in 1991 that the discourse on human rights has become important in the international sphere. I remember that because I did some work on it for the United Nations Development Programme some years ago. What has happened since the beginning of the 21st century is that the golden period of about 10 years when we could talk about human rights and enforce human rights has now gone, for two major reasons. First, the rise of Islamism, as a threat to Muslim states in the Middle East and Asia, has weakened the state in those countries. Islamism has also posed a terrorist threat to western countries, whereby the whole question of religious identity has become somewhat debatable.
In the past three or four years, we have witnessed the breakdown of the international order. We were used to an international order, with the United States, the UK, France, and so on going out to protect certain kinds of freedom around the world. What we have witnessed in Syria and since is that nobody is going to police this world. If nation states are weak with respect to attacks on minorities—if not complicit sometimes in attacks on minorities, as in ISIS, and Brunei and in various other places—and if the international system is not capable of rushing to the aid of people whose human rights are being violated, it is clear that that sort of international system is now dead. Not all that many years ago, people were against a unipolar system and were dying for a multipolar system of international relations. Well, it is here—and it is dreadful, because a multipolar system is an anarchic system, and in an anarchic system whoever has the power of armaments and money will get away with violating people’s human rights. It is not just about Article 18; the sheer safety of civilians is being violated across the Middle East. As many noble Lords have said, Muslims are killing Muslims in larger numbers than ever in the past. It is not just Sunnis killing Shias and Shias killing Sunnis; Sunnis are killing Sunnis as well, in ISIS.
The international system is helpless, because we have decided that liberal interventionism is no longer possible. That is our decision. Whether it is right or not, we have decided that it is not possible. If you cannot be a liberal interventionist, you cannot enforce human rights. You can have advisories, ambassadors and Ministers going around the world and cajoling states to do this or that, but they are not going to take any notice; why should they? Unless there is some sort of sanction of arms—let us be absolutely frank about this—behind our determination to restore human rights, they will not be honoured.
The only thing on which I would disagree with my noble friend Lord Parekh is that religions have not always lived in peace with each other—in fact, hardly ever. Eras of religious peace are rare; religious tolerance is a rare thing, which is why we always talk about it. I do not have time to go into examples, but most of the time religions are nasty to each other. World history could be written around that.
In this limited sphere, what can we effectively do? As in the example of Meriam Ibrahim, yes, if you can harness public opinion in a very large way, perhaps you can make a partial difference. However, our problem arises from the breakdown of the international order, rather than any particular nastiness on the part of any particular religion.
My Lords, I, too, am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Alton, for securing this important debate. We have heard moving accounts of Muslims in Burma and Tamils in Sri Lanka persecuted by militant Buddhists, with Christians persecuted and marginalised in much of the Middle East, Sudan and other parts of Africa. Yesterday’s Times carried a moving article by the noble Lord, Lord Alton, on the plight of Christians in Iraq. We are all disturbed by the loss of life in conflict between the Shias, Sunnis and Alawites in Syria and Iraq and the persecution of Ahmadiyyas and Shias in Pakistan. I could go on. We can continue to condemn such killings, but if we are to make real progress, we need to look hard and dispassionately at why people of religion become either victims or perpetrators of religious hatred.
I hope that your Lordships will forgive me if I speak frankly. Religions do not help themselves by claims of exclusivity or superiority. This simply demeans other members of our one human race and suggests that they, the others, are lesser beings. We all know what happens in the school playground when one boy boasts—it is usually boys—that, “My dad is bigger or stronger or cleverer than your dad”. The end result is fisticuffs. My appeal to our different religions and the leaders of religion is to stop playing children’s games. Guru Nanak witnessed the suffering caused by this children’s game of “my religion is better than yours” in conflict between Hindus and Muslims in the sub-continent in the 15th century. In his very first sermon, he declared that the one God of us all is not in the least bit interested in our different religious labels, but in our contribution to a fairer and more peaceful world.
There is another important area that must be tackled if we are to move away from continuing conflict between religions. Most religious scriptures were written many years after the death of the founder of the religion. Scriptural texts often contain a complex amalgam of history, social and cultural norms of the day that can easily become dated. They can easily mask and distort important underlying ethical imperatives about our responsibilities to one another and to future generations. It is sometimes claimed that often contradictory texts in different religions are the literal word of God. Those who wish to resort to violence in the name of religion can all too easily ignore the context and use quotations in scriptures to justify negative attitudes and violent behaviour towards others.
I believe that what is required is greater open dialogue that puts transient social and cultural norms embedded in scriptures in their true context. It is not easy. My plea to our Government is for them to give an energetic lead in promoting true interfaith dialogue that puts distorting history and culture in their true perspective to reveal common underlying ethical imperatives in our different faiths. Such a dialogue would provide sane and uplifting guidance for responsible and peaceful living in the complex world of today.
My Lords, I have always had a particular interest in Article 18, because it was persecution that brought me to this country as a child. I hope that noble Lords will not mind if I speak about Article 18 closer to home, like the noble Lord, Lord Parekh. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Alton, for introducing this debate.
The Jewish community has a strong connection with the Convention on Human Rights. The first draft was prepared by Eleanor Roosevelt. Its second draft and the underlying structure were prepared by René Cassin, a French jurist and the son of a Jewish family. What I did not know—and I am indebted to a briefing from Rabbi Lea Muehlstein—was that in 1945 he founded the Consultative Council of Jewish Organizations, which was dedicated to providing encouragement from a Jewish perspective to a nascent UN human rights system. There is an organisation named in his honour, which continues his work today, promoting and protecting universal rights, drawing on Jewish experience and values. So, from the start, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was embraced by Jewish people.
As the noble Lord, Lord Alton, and others have recounted, some religious groups preach fundamentalism. Some religious teachers think that Article 18 permits religious law to take precedence over civil law. Jews faced this dilemma as far back as the 14th century. Then rabbis decided that the law of the land is the law. They dictated that religious practices must not be in contravention of the law of the state. Article 18 brings this up to date, allowing spiritual and religious self-fulfilment for all faiths. However, there are fundamentalists today in all religions who do not accept this. That is why, to counter this, here and elsewhere in Europe government and local authorities have to make sure that no group is excluded. No one should be left out of housing policy, employment policy, education policy, welfare, skills training and all the other parts of a civilised society.
There is another way that this Government can help Article 18 to flourish in Europe: they can stop confusing the European Court of Human Rights and the European Union in order to placate Eurosceptics. All members of the European Union are bound by the Charter of Fundamental Rights, but that itself is based on the European Convention on Human Rights, which belongs to the Council of Europe. Withdrawing from the European Union has nothing to do with deporting radical preachers or giving prisoners the vote. Will the Minister tell us whether, to satisfy Eurosceptics, the Prime Minister is considering withdrawing from the European convention, or passing a law limiting its powers in the United Kingdom? Or are we going to have our own Bill of Rights, which I believe is being concocted by a group of Conservative lawyers? For all of us in Europe who value the freedoms we have under Article 18, any of these alternatives would be a disaster. Not only would they undermine our position under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, but picking and choosing which bits of human rights law we like and which we do not would inevitably lead to the suggestion that the way to deal with fundamentalism and radical fundamental preachers is to withdraw from Article 18.
Last week, the Institute for Jewish Policy Research, a secular think tank of which I have the honour to be the honorary president, published its research on the perceptions and experiences of anti-Semitism among Jews in this country. The report stressed that in general most Jews in Britain feel comfortable in the UK with their Jewishness and with their Britishness in spite of a perceived rise in anti-Semitism. Although they may not know it, this feeling of comfort is due in large part to the benefits granted by the state, as laid out in Article 18. Let us keep it that way for the benefit of all faiths.
My Lords, I add my thanks to the noble Lord, Lord Alton, for introducing this debate so inspiringly.
I have no strongly held religious beliefs but I feel lucky that I can stand up in our Parliament’s second Chamber and proclaim what I do or do not believe. But, more than that, I can link on my blog to my short speech today without any fear of reprisal. I can tweet, I can put it on Facebook and, if I am feeling particularly sociable, on Tumblr as well, all of which I can do without fear of any consequence.
As with so many areas that your Lordships’ House tackles, technology is changing the landscape. Human rights and freedom of expression are no exception. When Article 18 of the UN declaration was created, there was no way that we could have conceived of the future connectivity of the world. I make a plea that we do not forget the vital importance of these new technology platforms and that we continue to champion their availability. An open internet ensures that people are able to share views, get support and reveal abuses of freedom. I also caution, as we come to understand this brave new world, that there are many risks to navigate.
I asked my wise Twitter followers for examples of where technology had enabled religious freedoms. One story hit home. A young man, who asked to remain anonymous, found me to tell me that he was a gay Christian in Zimbabwe and felt worthless—that was until he got connected. He then found many digital communities all over the world where he could talk about the complex issues that he faced. I was touched that he wanted to tell his story to me in particular because he had seen on the BBC news website that this Chamber had passed the gay marriage legislation.
People find solace and relief in the networks of the online world. Take the example of the girls snatched by Boko Haram or the tragedy of Meriam Ibrahim. Such incidents spread around the world with a pace and scale that was unimaginable before. Just this morning I was reading that journalists are being informed from the depths of Gaza by Twitter. It seems that you can hardly be a self-respecting religious leader without active social media management. The Pope has 4.2 million Twitter followers and the Dalai Lama has 9.4 million. I hope that the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury is not dispirited with his 60,000.
Religion takes many forms online. There is a page on Facebook for the Bible, with more than 4.5 million followers. God Wants You to Know is an app that has 2 million active monthly users. Perhaps my favourite are ads that are now being bought around the web saying “pray for an atheist”, encouraging people to do just that. I found examples as diverse as a nun who tweets from her silent order, a global group of Jesuits and a portal for Mormons.
I believe that we cannot debate Article 18 without also making sure that we are demanding a free and open internet. No Government should be allowed to shut down the platforms that enable people to express themselves. There are currently 44 countries worldwide that are censoring the internet, and this is immensely serious. It is perhaps no surprise that the five worst-performing countries against the criterion of an “open and free” internet, as mapped by the Web Foundation, are Saudi Arabia, Vietnam, China, Yemen and Qatar. In China, during peaceful protests by law-abiding Muslims in the north-west provinces in 2009, the Government shut down Twitter, Facebook and YouTube. In 2009, Tunisian dictator Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali attempted to ban Facebook but, as we know, 18 months later, activist youths employed that tool in the beginnings of their revolution in the so-called Arab spring.
The global connectivity that we now enjoy can deliver enormous gains in freedom of speech and belief. However, it would be naive of me to suggest that it is not also leading to a far more complex and interlinked world of extremist behaviour. I emphasise that I believe that the vast majority of activity online is benign, but we have only to look at the very effective way that ISIS in Iraq has used technology to push out its twisted messages, as well as raise money, to see the other side of the freedoms of the web.
However, I urge policymakers to be cautious. Surely it is always better to err on the side of freedom of speech and to tread lightly and carefully. Of course, we must prosecute people who fall foul of international law, but I would hate to see a world where expressing religious views in the digital sphere, which some people find unacceptable, might lead to a knock on your physical door. We in this country are mercifully far away from that scenario but many people are not.
My Lords, I, too, thank the noble Lord, Lord Alton, for his masterly—if deeply worrying—overview of this problem. Article 18 speaks to the very core of who we are and, indeed, is an essential component of our identities as human beings. We are having this debate against the dreadful news that for the first time in the Christian era there are now no Christians at all in Mosul. This is perhaps mitigated in some small part by the welcome news of the safe arrival in Rome this morning of Meriam Ibrahim, who was sentenced to death in Sudan.
An illustration of how the religious freedom problem in India criss-crosses all faiths is the persecution in India of the Dalit community, formerly known as “the untouchables”. They are persecuted not only if they convert to Islam but also if they convert to Christianity. As many noble Lords have said, freedom of religion or belief ensures that we are not compelled to believe anything that we do not want to, taking agnostic or atheistic positions if we choose. It is important that Article 18 does not stand alone. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is clear on this. Freedom of opinion or expression, freedom of association or assembly, and freedom of religion or belief are three strands that together make up that greater freedom, vested in human dignity, to which all people of good will aspire.
Around the world, sadly we see conflict situations where respect for freedom or belief has to be the crucial element in any sustainable peace. Reference has already been made to the current crisis in Iraq, the conflict in Rakhine State in Burma, and post-conflict situations such as Sri Lanka, to name only a few. There are currently two glaring cases of abuse of or contempt for Article 18 in North Korea and Eritrea, to which the noble Lord referred. I hope that the Minister can assure the House that Her Majesty's Government are doing their utmost to secure implementation of the recommendations of the UN commission on North Korea and will support the UN commission of inquiry on Eritrea announced earlier this year. It is only by ensuring that Article 18 remains firmly on the agenda, and by seeking to tackle violations of it in a systematic fashion, that we can hope to have some impact on the many desperate situations faced by so many in the world today.
What steps can we take? Religious tolerance for those of us living in the United Kingdom very much begins at home. I was interested in the references by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Coventry and my noble friend Lord Patten to Magna Carta, which plays such a great part in American culture as well as our own. This country has a proud record of tolerance. It sets an example possibly more appreciated by our neighbours than we sometimes realise. I note the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Parekh, lest we get too smug; the noble Lord, Lord Singh, made reference to this; and I was deeply moved by what was said by the noble Lord, Lord Haskel, as to his origins. The tradition of your Lordships’ House, part of the bricks and mortar of this place, is that a speaker is willed by the House, whatever his or her political views, to give of his or her best. My predecessor in this debate, the noble Baroness, Lady Lane-Fox, has given an interesting sideline on the internet implications of this.
This tolerance by example needs to be carried out into the wider world of Article 18, to be raised wherever possible as a high priority at bilateral and multilateral levels. I am pleased to see that the FCO’s latest democracy and human rights report states that,
“every minister … is an ambassador for religious freedom”.
That action is being taken to educate those within the department and across government on how better to tackle these issues—again, the noble Lord, Lord Alton, referred to this. It is also important that the European Union speaks, for once, with one voice in implementing its guidelines on freedom of religion and belief, and I would welcome an update on progress from my noble friend the Minister.
In conclusion, I refer to the work of the office of the UN special rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Anderson, who is not in his place. I understand that, despite a reported shortage of funding for his department, he has nevertheless championed, in addition to his own brief, some sensitive but important issues, including women’s rights. Here, again, I would welcome an update from my noble friend the Minister.
My Lords, I find this a very troubling debate. The situation is getting worse and we do not know what to do about it. I begin by quoting the special rapporteur’s report last year, which states:
“In practice, manifestations of collective religious hatred frequently overlap with national, racial, ethnic or other forms of hatred, and in many situations it may seem impossible to clearly separate these phenomena. As a result, the label ‘religion’ can sometimes be imprecise and problematic when used to describe complex phenomena and motives of collective hatred. Nevertheless it remains obvious that religions and beliefs can serve as powerful demarcators of ‘us-versus-them’ groupings. Unfortunately, there are many examples testifying to this destructive potential of religion. At the same time, one should always bear in mind that anti-hatred movements exist within all religions and that most adherents of the different religious and belief traditions are committed to practising their faith as a source of peace, charity and compassion, rather than of hostility and hatred”.
What can we say? Where is the new intellectual paradigm, if I may call it that, to reconcile this vast contradiction between what is professed as the peaceful role of religion and the growth of this demagoguery and hatred? I believe that socioeconomic inequality and population growth have something to do with it; and I wish that the Roman Catholic Church would move in the direction in which the Pope seems to be going on the question of birth control. That is because many of the problems are in socioeconomic groups C, D and E on a world scale—in other words, in poor and poorer countries.
We will be accused of imperialism if we try to, as it were, lay down the law. That is extremely frustrating, possibly exasperating. So we have to ask why the United Nations cannot take stronger steps. I ask the Minister: what initiatives can the Foreign Office, in conjunction with Europe or otherwise, take? I speak as a middle-of-the-road member of the Church of England—perhaps we all ought to put our cards on the table. How can we, in our tradition, get better adherence mechanisms? There was something called the Rabat Plan of Action, but what sort of brainstorming can the Foreign Office put into achieving stronger adherence mechanisms in relation to the reports and findings of the special rapporteur? When push comes to shove, the question is: how can the big nations of the world simply ignore these things? It is a tricky political problem but we have to be a bit franker about it. One of the excellent briefing notes from the Library states that Article 18 is now an orphan. I am afraid that that rings a bell, does it not?
We all want to be tolerant but we do not want to be tolerant of other people’s intolerance. We know this in our religious traditions. There has always been—as many of us were brought up to believe—a belief that our religion had the exclusive knowledge of the truth, and that other religious beliefs were next door to apostasy. We have to become more secular at the same time as recognising that religion has more to contribute in the world. My noble friend Lord Desai was getting near to a good point. The post-Marxist analysis suggests that we no longer have the struggle of capital and labour, nor do we have the struggle of the colonised versus the coloniser. Does, as the rapporteur says, the identifier become something against the other? It is impossible in this debate to say anything useful in five minutes but I hope that the Foreign Office will think about what stronger adherence mechanisms could be promulgated for a world discussion? I hope that we can get India, China and other great nations on board to do something like that because I cannot see any other way forward.
My Lords, I, too, congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Alton, on securing this important debate.
I begin by affirming the great importance of the provision of an article in the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights that explicitly and specifically protects religious freedom. Back in the 1960s, it was common to hear academics suggest that religion was generally on the wane and that we were moving towards a more secularised world. While church attendance may be less than what it was in the United Kingdom, globally the world is becoming if anything more, not less, religious. In this regard we have seen an explosion of academic interest in religion and desecularisation. In this context, Article 18 is more important than ever, and I pay special tribute to the Lebanese philosopher, Professor Charles Malik, Lebanon’s first ambassador to the United Nations, who drafted and championed Article 18.
I now turn to the application of Article 18 domestically. I would like to focus particularly on the second limb, namely,
“freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance”.
In Christian theology, belief without action is meaningless. We are told in the letter of James—I make no apology for quoting from the Bible because discussions of religious freedom are meaningless if not rooted in an appreciation of real and relevant theology—that,
“faith without works is dead”.
The Christian understanding of worship as living out one’s faith 24/7 and of rejecting the idea that one is just a Christian on Sunday is absolutely central to what it means to be a Christian. This was set out so very clearly by William Wilberforce in the 1797 book that he called his manifesto, in which he explained how real Christianity means transforming belief into action across the whole of life, including politics.
In this context, I have to say that I very much agree with the American first lady, Michelle Obama, when she said:
“Our faith journey isn’t just about showing up on Sunday for a good sermon … It’s about what we do Monday through Saturday as well … especially in those quiet moments, when the spotlight’s not on us, and we’re making those daily choices about how to live our lives”.
In short, “doing God”, to coin a phrase, involves doing.
Secularists will generously tell us of their fierce commitment to religious freedom and then, in a move that makes them sound particularly supportive, say they believe that freedom of religious belief is an absolute right. In return for offering an absolute right to belief, however, they go on to argue that if ever there is a conflict between the right to manifest religious belief and any other right, the manifestation of religious belief should be curtailed. The truth is that the notion that providing an absolute right to religious belief in this country constitutes something meaningful and substantive is problematic on two bases. First, it means something only if you believe that the British state can get inside your head and prevent you believing what you believe, which does not seem likely. Secondly, it suggests that the centre of religious faith is belief and that one can constrain practice at will without placing religious liberty in jeopardy.
In order to see just how ridiculous this is, we must return to the active principle and that clear statement from the New Testament that,
“faith without works is dead”.
The Bible does not say that faith without works is truncated or diminished. It says that it is actually negated. There can be no faith without works. Mindful of this, it is absolutely right that Article 18 is very clear that the manifestation of religious belief is very broad based.
As I look around Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom, I see many wonderful examples of people of faith properly exercising their religious freedom in both belief and practice. Leading politicians have not been slow to affirm this with respect to welfare service provision, as indeed they should if they take their Article 18 obligations seriously. The willingness of politicians to affirm the right to manifest belief, however, is, I am afraid, rather selective. I say this with regret, not because I want to suggest that, if people claim that an action is in some way related to their faith, they should be allowed to proceed regardless—that would clearly be dangerous. Rather, I am suggesting that, if we are to respect the place of religion in our society, and the place of Article 18, we must make space for mainstream religious practice: both that which the secular commentariat agrees with and that which makes them uncomfortable. Sadly, this is not happening.
I would like to have said much more, but time has caught up with me. I would like to have said something in relation to Nigeria, but I totally agree with, and want to associate myself with, the remarks of the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, on this matter.
My Lords, like the noble Lord, Lord Morrow, I would like much more time, but would have liked it to prepare what I have to say. I do not think I have ever embarked on a debate and learnt so much about what is going on in the world that I did not know. I knew the generality, but we now have the particularity, which is very stark. It is interesting that we make this assault on this difficult problem seven days after what was probably the best and longest debate this House has held, on the Assisted Dying
Bill, where we looked at death on the individual scale. It seems that we are now turning the microscope round and using it as a telescope to look at death on the ethnic and global scale. The two chime together. It is a grim thought that this current of dark, heartless evil runs through the whole human race and through every faith at some stage in its development.
I approach this with perhaps an unusual level of humility as I listen to the expertise and the visible bravery and courage of others in the debate. First, I would like to leave in your Lordships’ minds—this may puzzle your Lordships until I get to the end—the thought that, when the Syrian disaster first began to grab our attention, it was clear, although not apparently recognised in the echelons of power, that all the minorities who were threatened actually trusted Assad and, rightly, feared the rebels.
We have had a number of approaches this morning and this afternoon. My noble friend Lord Anderson, who is not in his place at the moment, started by saying that peace depends on building bridges between faiths. He was echoed by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Coventry, who pointed out that it would be extremely helpful if, at the local and particularly the national level, all sorts of faiths represented in a troubled area could get together to show what was happening and to condemn it. The noble Lord, Lord Alton, pointed to where this is happening at the bottom of the pile, although involving people at the top. It is being done by the astonishing—and in future, I hope, saintly—Canon Andrew White, who is living out a very frail life, in extreme danger, bringing polar opposites in Iraq together. That is one element that we need to pursue.
Next, I echo my noble friend Lady Berridge, who pointed out the importance of religious education. It may amuse her to know that in the flotsam and jetsam that will eventually wash up on some distant Whitehall desk is a tiny paragraph or two of mine from the Queen’s Speech debate—not yet answered—on the similar point that religious education is needed to underpin the civics and the civil behaviour of our population. The noble Lord, Lord Parekh, was looking for some means of controlling micro-oppression, as I might call it. What does that is understanding, and education is where you begin to build it.
As has been described by many noble Lords, we are watching a forest fire. My noble friend Lord Patten said it was spreading to Indonesia, but we need to look the other way, too, as it is spreading here. Fires burn in different ways: a heath fire can burn underground for weeks and burst out long after the fire brigade has gone home and gone on holiday. It can also burn fiercely, brightly and scorchingly. That is what is happening.
The noble Lord, Lord Desai, used an interesting phrase. He said that Article 18 cannot be enforced and that, if we are honest, we need arms, I think he said. However, we cannot go down that road for reasons that the noble Lord, Lord Singh, pointed out and which our Lord pointed out to Peter somewhere near Caesarea Philippi, because, in the end, it brings evil in its train. However, we can at least deny to the forces of evil some of their materiel, or the weapons of war, which are now reaching a serious scale, for instance in Nigeria.
My noble friend Lady Cox pointed the finger at, among others, Saudi Arabia. That happens in other areas, too. Saudi Arabia was among the first to support the rebels in Syria. Has the time come not only for me to sit down—as my noble friend is pointing out—but for my noble friend and his colleagues to look carefully at whether the whole arrangement of our alliances in the Middle East and north Africa should be considered and, probably, drastically revised?
My Lords, I add my thanks to the noble Lord, Lord Alton, and make the comment that when he and the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, bring these issues to the House, all of us learn something. I am sure we are all grateful for the work that they do, not only here at home but where these problems exist.
I will speak about the abuse of human rights in Iran. Every so often, we get a chance in the House to ask Questions. I have repeatedly asked about the plight of the people in Camp Ashraf and Camp Liberty; perhaps the Minister can give us an update of what is going on in those areas. Can the Minister also say, in his reply, how many times the United Nations, through the Security Council or other forums, has condemned the brutality and inhumanity of the mullahs in Iran? I will also speak today about the persecution of Christians.
This week in Iran, on Monday, the mullahs’ regime publicly flogged five people, with 70 lashes each, in Nobahar Junction, Azadi Square, Ferdowsi Square and Motahari Junction. In yet another brutal measure, on
How different it is now from the outpourings of support for President Rouhani when he won the sham election last year. Since he won that election, 800 people have been executed. The litany goes on and on. In the debate this afternoon, I will talk about two young Iranian women, Maryam Rostampour and Marziyeh Amirizadeh. They were born into Muslim families in Iran and describe a period of questioning and exploring other religions which led to their conversions to Christianity in 1999. They met one another in 2005 in Turkey while studying theology and felt called to return to Iran to share the gospel with fellow Iranians.
Upon their return, the two women began a ministry together which involved Bible distribution and holding secret house church meetings for prostitutes and young people. This work eventually drew the attention of the Iranian authorities and they were arrested in 2009. Their initial detention lasted for 14 days during which they were interrogated, threatened with physical torture and put under pressure to give details of their contacts.
The charges levelled against them included apostasy, for which they were placed in Evin Prison and faced the very real threat of death by hanging. Maryam and Marziyeh spent the following nine months in the terrible, infamous Evin Prison, subject to regular interrogation and under pressure to recant, which they consistently refused to do. Considered infidels, they were denied medical treatment and access to other facilities. Despite the harsh conditions they faced, the women were able to give witness to fellow prisoners and the guards, and show them their belief in God.
The noble Lord, Lord Alton, and other noble Lords have referred to the situation in Mosul. I am confident that all noble Lords will be pleased to hear what Maryam Rajani, the leader of the Iranian Council of Resistance, said this week. Speaking two days ago about the stance taken by the Association of Muslim Scholars, which condemned aggression against Christians, she said, “It was a reasonable stance that challenges fundamentalism and religious extremism”. She added, “Aggression against Christians is unIslamic”, and I hope that message gets through. After 259 days without bail, Maryam and Marziyeh will welcome somebody speaking out for Christians in Iran. Six months after their release, those two ladies went to live in the United States. They have dedicated themselves to sharing their experience in a book, Captive in Iran, which I recommend.
Finally, I implore the Minister to ask our recently appointed Foreign Secretary to re-examine the Government’s relationship with the Iranian mullahs. Instead of talking about reducing the pretty ineffective sanctions, we should be seeking firmer sanctions to help those who are suffering.
Tolerance, respect for the other, care for the stranger without the gate: these are the core British values that are enshrined and honoured by our common rule of law. The careful wording of Article 18 meticulously reflects these values and encapsulates our worldwide common right to worship as we wish. If, as the noble Lord, Lord Alton, so powerfully proclaims, this right is under extraordinary attack, so too are our British values, entwined as they are with the article. We have an enemy here in the UK, and it is the same enemy that has erupted in parts of Syria, in Mosul and other cities in northern Iraq and elsewhere.
What is our enemy? We—Jews, Christians and Muslims—are all people of the book. Our capacity to co-operate, share, live, study and work together derives from that. Our common enemy, the Salafi, do not agree. For the Salafi, we are the enemy and must convert or die. The Salafi identify themselves as Muslims, but there are many different strands of Islam. Some may be hostile to other strands or other faiths, but Salafist thinking mutates disastrously to destruction, dominance and executions. It is important to distinguish between these common strands of Islam. Words that are thrown around so loosely now, such as “Islamist”, “fundamentalist Muslim” and so on, are not the Salafists. It is the Salafists and their cousins the Wahhabis who are our common enemy and the enemy of other faiths as well.
Let me give an example. The noble Lord, Lord Alton, spoke strongly about the situation in north Iraq. I speak about Mosul, which I know well. What is it like today with ISIS—that armed group of Salafists—having taken over the city and the region? Civil society has gone. All social life has disappeared from the streets. No family parks are allowed to function. No play areas for children can be opened. The coffee shops have shut. There is no judiciary. The ruler is the executioner. All minorities are subject to displacement, assault and execution. So, too, are the majorities. The holy shrines of prophets are being destroyed. All the mosques of other Sunni strands of Islam—that is to say, the non-jihadi Salafist group—have been taken over. The clerks have either been assassinated or persecuted. The synagogues have been taken over as well. The Shia are under the threat of killing wherever they are. They are the majority in the country. They are being executed. The Yezidi have been displaced from their homes and places of work. The Shabak groups are obliged to leave their areas. Christians have been turned out forcibly. They have had a special favour; they have been warned and told to leave.
The Shia are automatically executed when their names betray their strand of Islam. Anyone who is not Sunni jihadi—Salafi—must hide or run away. Women are not allowed to leave their homes without a niqab covering the whole of their face and should be accompanied by a man. That is not Islam. Show me the verse in the holy Koran that says that must be the case. You cannot find it. Public services are fractionally running, but there is separation of the sexes. The management team of your local health centre, if it still exists, is from ISIS. The directors-general of health and education are now prisoners in their own homes. They are Sunni. The health facilities are being run by few staff, with the majority remaining inside their homes in order to stay alive. Those who are working are uncertain about any salaries. Even worse, who is going to provide them with the drugs and fresh equipment when their stocks run out, which is happening? There will be epidemics, including cholera, which was in the area very recently. The new rule applied to schools and hospitals allocates a day for men and another for women, so that the two genders are not in the facility at the same time.
Is there not familiarity with the situation that was uncovered this week by Her Majesty’s inspectorate in its report on schools in Birmingham? Examples of this include altering the curriculum and schemes of work so that children are not allowed to hear musical instruments or to sing and changing the art curriculum so that they may see and draw only designs but not full faces or images. I recall having that argument with Hezbollah in south Lebanon. Indeed, in 2007 the Muslim Council stated that girls in schools should be covered except for their hands and faces. I cannot find the verse that tells me that that should be so. There is no Christmas, despite the fact that the birth of Christ is in the Koran and Jesus is a prophet in Islam.
What is the Islam that I know and love? It talks of music:
“’Tis said, the pipe and lute that charm our earsDerive their melody from rolling spheres;
But Faith, o’erpassing speculation’s bound, Can see what sweetens every jangled sound.We, who are parts of Adam, heard with himThe song of angels and of seraphim.…Music uplifts the soul to realms above.The ashes glow, the latent fires increase:We listen and are fed with joy and peace”.
What are Her Majesty’s Government doing to ensure that true Islam, like true Christianity, Sikhism, Buddhism, Hinduism and Judaism, is firmly embedded in the school curriculum, taught, implemented and demonstrated? Her Majesty’s Government must give an answer.
My Lords, I, too, am deeply grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Alton, for allowing us this opportunity to share our concerns about one of the most profoundly disturbing developments in our time. Seldom have I heard a more searing and devastating set of testimonies than I have heard today of the evils currently being committed in the name of the God of love and peace and compassion.
Twenty-five years ago, in 1989, Soviet communism collapsed, the Berlin Wall came down, the Cold War came to an end. Many believed that we were about to witness throughout the world the spread of market economics, liberal democracy and the kind of tolerances we associate with both. Today, we know it did not happen that way. We have seen instead a new tribalism, leading to massacres in Rwanda, Bosnia and Darfur, the division and balkanisation of societies along religious lines, and the return of the one thing that could take humanity back to the dark ages, namely the use of religion as the robe of sanctity to disguise and legitimate the naked pursuit of power.
The persecution of Christians throughout much of the Middle East, sub-Saharan Africa, Asia and elsewhere is one of the crimes against humanity of our time, and I am appalled at the lack of protest it has evoked. We have heard about this from many eloquent speakers today. What is happening to Christians in these places is the religious equivalent of ethnic cleansing. We must not forget either, as others have said, that the vast majority of victims of Islamist violence and terror are Muslim, and our hearts go out to them too, as they do to members of all other persecuted groups such as the Baha’i in Iran, and so many others.
I wish I did not have to speak about the position of Jewish communities throughout the world but, sadly, I do. In the past few weeks mobs have assaulted Jews in France, attacking synagogues and setting fire to Jewish-owned shops. There were attacks in Berlin. In November 2013, the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights published a report showing that two-thirds of the Jews in Europe regard anti-Semitism as a significant factor in their lives, three-quarters believe that it has worsened significantly in the past five years, one-third have personally experienced some form of harassment, and they are deeply afraid for the future. Forgive me if I say that I did not expect, 120 years after the Dreyfus case and 70 years after the Holocaust, that the cry of
“Death to the Jews” would be heard again in the streets of France and Germany.
In all this we recognise the power of the internet and social media to turn any local conflict into a global one. We see how the wilful confusion of religion and politics allows soluble political problems to be turned into insoluble religious ones. We witness the ignorance that allows people to mistake one strand within a faith for the whole of that faith, and we pay a high price for our fascination with extremists. It is the worst, not the best, who know how to capture the attention of a troubled and confused world.
That people in the 21st century are being murdered, terrorised, victimised, intimidated and robbed of their liberties because of the way they worship God is a moral outrage, a political scandal and a desecration of faith itself. I believe that God himself weeps at the evils being committed in His name. Let us urge, as strongly as we can, the worldwide implementation of Article 18 as one of the great challenges of our time so that we can all exercise our fundamental right to live our faith without fear.
My Lords, it is a privilege to follow the expert speakers in this debate and a particular privilege to follow the noble Lord, Lord Sacks, with his tremendous reputation. His speech today was full of wisdom and wise words, and it was excellent that he was here to take part.
This has been a major debate on a major issue of our times, instigated, if I may say so, by a major player in your Lordships’ House. Only two weeks ago we were debating the World Service and the British Council. Yesterday, as the House has heard, we were debating the United Nations commission of inquiry into North Korea, and today we debate an issue of fundamental importance to the type of world we want. What these debates have in common, of course, is that they were all secured by the noble Lord, Lord Alton. They also have in common an emphasis on human rights and decent values in a very imperfect world. The House and the wider public owe the noble Lord a great deal.
The central issue of today’s debate is, surely, the continued and increasing breaches of Article 18 in a large number of countries where Governments have a theoretical commitment to freedom of religion or belief. Governments have turned a blind eye or, in some cases, encouraged outrages against those who have dared to remain true to their faith or, even, to their lack of faith.
Recently, his Holiness Pope Francis said that there were more martyrs today than in the first centuries of Christianity, which, we were all taught at school, were scarred by blood and brutality. Almost every week, we hear of new outrages committed against people of faith. In our minds today are the Christians who have had to flee Mosul as they faced wicked threats and treatment from ISIS. Indeed, shocking news is coming through as we speak. The BBC is reporting that Islamist group ISIS has ordered women aged between 11 to 46 years in Mosul to undergo female genital mutilation. If that is true it has the capacity to shock even us, given all that we have heard today. There are, and have been for days, reports that last weekend ISIS was putting on Christian doors in Mosul in Arabic, the letter “N”, meaning Nazarene, to point out where Christians lived. It does not need me to say the parallels that there are with the last 100 years in Nazi Germany.
This is all in a part of the world where Christianity began and where, even under despotic rule, whether it be the Ottoman Empire or more recent dictators, Christians have been allowed to practise their religion without hindrance. The noble Lord, Lord Alton, wrote graphically in yesterday’s Timesreminding us that the number of Christians in Mosul has gone from 30,000 to zero. Of course, there are many other examples of this, not just in the troubled Middle East, but around the world. It was estimated that one-third of countries in the world had a high or very high level of government restrictions on freedom of religion and that 76% of the world’s population, calculated as 5.3 billion people, live in such countries.
The questions for us must include why, in a more globalised world, where people are able to mix, meet and travel more freely than ever before in human history, there is now more, not less, intolerance. What can we do about it? The All-Party Parliamentary Group on International Religious Freedom, chaired by the noble Baroness, Lady Berridge—it is a privilege to hear her today—in its paper on Article 18, talked with great force and made the point that although Article 18 remains the single most significant statement of the international community’s commitment to freedom of religion or belief, it is hamstrung in practice because it has never been the subject of a focused United Nations convention, unlike the rights of women, children, persons with disabilities, and others.
Professor Malcolm Evans, who I believe assisted the Committee, argues that there has been evidence of intention of creating such a convention, but it has not been achieved and, to use his words, is still “on hold” after 45 years. That is why the document that the committee of the noble Baroness produced is called Article 18: An Orphaned Right. The Government are rightly praised for describing freedom of religion or belief as,
“one of the Government’s key human rights priorities”.
It is good to hear that every Minister will be an ambassador for religious freedom when he or she goes abroad, and that the Government have a strategy for promoting this particular freedom. Indeed, one can see the influence of the noble Baroness, Lady Warsi, in these developments. Although it is always an enormous pleasure to debate with the noble Lord, Lord Wallace, and I am delighted to see him in his place, it is in one way a shame that the noble Baroness is not here today because this is really her territory. It seems to the Opposition that she has made a real mark on this subject in her years in office. The recommendations in the all-party report are very important. It would be good to hear from the Minister when he sums up what responses to them he can give on behalf of the Government.
Many countries are formally in breach of Article 18. Some have been referred to in today’s debate. Of course, what is happening in Syria and Iran, where Sunni is set against Shia and vice versa, shows us that interfaith behaviour is entirely relevant to Article 18. Historically, Christianity has hardly set a good example over the centuries—a point made by the noble Lord, Lord Patten. But that is no reason now for not arguing strongly that there is an urgent need for Article 18 to be complied with around the world.
It is interesting to note that Article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which calls in the same way for freedom of faith and belief, seems on balance to have been much better observed over the years than Article 18, which we are debating today. Surely that is partly because there is an effective legal remedy if Article 9 of the ECHR is breached. Article 9 does not stand alone; it is embedded in practical law. That must surely be a lesson for us to learn.
The noble Lord, Lord Alton, referred to the speech made by my right honourable friend Douglas Alexander on this subject following an article he wrote in the Daily Telegraph last Christmas. I will quote from it but time is very short. He just said:
“It is simply wrong for any faith to be persecuted”,
and that to say so,
“is not to support one faith over another—it is to say that persecution and oppression of our fellow human beings in the name of any god or ideology is never acceptable and is morally repugnant”.
Surely he is right and action is necessary. We look forward to hearing what the Government propose. Of course, the House looks forward to hearing from the Minister.
My Lords, I am afraid that in the very short time I have, because we are running a little in this debate, it will be impossible to respond to everybody on every point that has been made. I apologise for that.
I was also going to apologise that, in this instance, I am summing up on something that is so very much the subject of my noble friend Lady Warsi. In preparing for this debate, I read the speeches she made in Georgetown, at the Pontifical Academy in Rome, in Oman and Kuala Lumpur. After that, my high respect for her rose further. It is partly because of who she is and where she comes from that she is able to speak with such conviction to diverse audiences and have them accept what she says. In particular, she talks about her background as the child of a mixed Sunni/Shia family and her comfortableness about being a British Muslim. In understanding religion, she quoted in one speech an imam who taught her that your religion flows across the bed of the society in which you live. That is a lovely concept. Therefore, to be a British Muslim is of course a little different from being an Omani or Saudi Muslim, and the same applies also for many other faiths. I pay very considerable tribute to the work my noble friend has done and is doing.
She certainly contributed to upgrading the Foreign Office’s emphasis and understanding of the importance of religion. The Human Rights and Democracy Report for this year has a very useful section on freedom of religion and belief which says,
“Baroness Warsi has made freedom of religion or belief an FCO priority, and now every minister at the FCO is an ambassador for religious freedom, raising and promoting these issues in the countries with which they engage”.
It goes on to talk about training and seminars within the FCO and briefings for representatives elsewhere. My noble friend Lord Cormack asked for a specific FCO envoy on religion. The problem that other states have found with appointing a specific envoy on religion is that a large number of countries then refuse to accept visits from him or her. However, everyone having this as part of what they do and say helps in the many difficult countries with which we must have this dialogue.
Of course, my noble friend Lady Warsi also worked with the Organization of the Islamic Conference, and one must have dialogue with a range of organisations around the world. As the noble Lord, Lord Sacks, will know, the UK currently holds the chairmanship of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance. Sir Andrew Burns has done some excellent work in that respect. He, my noble friend Lady Warsi and others have also encouraged various different faith communities to think about genocide and holocaust as something which moves across different faiths and has been a tragedy for many of them. In recent months, the commemoration of the tragedy of Srebrenica is very much part of all that.
I assure the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Coventry that the reshuffle will in no sense affect this emphasis. This Government, as my noble friend Lady Warsi said, “does God” because we recognise that religion, power, faith and ideology all flow in and out of each other. Religion can be misused as a force for evil as well as good.
As most noble Lords will know, my noble friend Lady Warsi convened a group within the Foreign Office on freedom of religion and belief, which includes people from a range of different faiths—and from none, because we emphasise that Article 18 includes the right to believe, to change your religion or not to believe. It is a statement of religious toleration and of toleration of thought altogether. The noble Lord, Lord Haskel, suggested that the United Kingdom was on its way to withdrawing from the European Convention on Human Rights and then, perhaps in time, from the UN declaration on human rights, or at least from Article 18. All I can say is: not this coalition Government, whatever a future Government might do.
The noble Lord, Lord Hylton, referred to our work with the Arab League and others on freedom of religion. We work with as many international organisations as we can on all these issues.
We heard in this debate a huge range of concerns about attacks on many different religions in many different countries. The most immediate concerns we all have are about the attacks on Christian communities across the Middle East, the region from which the three great monotheistic religions grew and within which different faiths have managed to co-exist, with occasional disasters, without too much hatred over so many centuries. We also heard about south Asia, from which a number of other global faiths emerged, where to our horror we see Buddhists attacking Muslims and Hindus. There is also the Muslim-on-Muslim violence that we see across the Middle East. We know that religion is used in a whole host of ways across a great many countries.
Religion has linked historically with power and has also—sorry; I have lost one of my pages. Religion was abused as part of the way in which states established themselves, such as forced conversions and killings of religious minorities. When I read of the way that ISIS is behaving in Mosul, I recalled that in 1870, when the tsarist Russians conquered the north Caucasus, they offered the Circassians and the Chechens the choice of conversion or expulsion. That is the origin of the Chechen and Circassian communities in Aleppo, Amman and elsewhere. It is one of the reasons why the king of Jordan has just visited Grozny to talk to the local Chechens about some of those links.
We all have to recognise that tolerance takes a long time to develop. Religion and modernity have had a difficult relationship. Indeed, the origins of religious fundamentalism were in the 19th century United States, as rural communities came to terms with the tremendous problems of transition to urban and modern life. We have seen that turbulence now running across the Middle East and elsewhere, where the speed of change from traditional society to modernity is so much greater and where, therefore, the fundamentalist reaction is often so much stronger.
We are conscious that the resistance to a liberal and open society has been there in a great many religions. I recall the papal bull that denounced liberalism and all its works in the 1870s. To some extent, the disillusion with Arab nationalism and the collapse of the secular faith of Marxist communism have left a hard-line version of political Islam as an all-enveloping ideology for the discontented, dispossessed and frustrated young men of so many countries, including some of our communities in this country.
A number of noble Lords have talked about the United Kingdom as an example. Among others, the noble Baroness, Lady Berridge, and the noble Viscount, Lord Bridgeman, talked about the importance of remembering that religious toleration begins at home. I am not entirely sure that we should quote Magna Carta in our defence. I know that Article 1 of Magna Carta says that the English church is to be free, but that is the defence of the organised religion, not of the individual. It is also the defence of the church and all its privileges from the king. That is not my understanding of Article 18, so we need to careful about quoting Magna Carta.
I interpreted it as the seed from which has grown the tree and a proper universal application of that principle of seeking for religion not to be controlled by the state.
My Lords, it was a very small seed and, sadly, the tree—looking back at British history—grew rather slowly. We had a civil war and quite a lot of killing of Protestants by Catholics and Catholics by Protestants and others on the way to the achievement of the religious toleration that we have.
I grew up as a Protestant and I was instinctively anti-Catholic. I did not have the category of Jewish in my mind so I had no concept of whether I should be anti-Jewish, pro-Jewish or what. I slowly learnt not to be anti-Catholic and so one has moved. Over the past two to three generations in this country, the levels of intolerance have, happily, gone down a great deal. When I occasionally go to services in Westminster Abbey where I was a choirboy, and where you would never have seen a Catholic priest in the 1950s, I see not only representatives of the other Christian churches, but a range of other faiths represented: the Chief Rabbi, representatives of Muslim, Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Jain, Zoroastrian, Baha’i and other communities. That is the way we should be going; interfaith dialogue and understanding in our schools and among different organised churches are what we should be doing to promote and defend an open society.
In particular, I regret that as regards what I think I learnt as a child about the three religions of the book—the Abrahamic faiths—we have lost some of that sense that the three great monotheistic religions belong together.
I was going to make another point, which is that we are all deeply aware at the present moment of the current conflicts in the Middle East, including between Israel and Palestine and the extent to which that spills over to some of the misunderstandings of our discontented young. I say to the noble Lord, Lord Sacks, that I went to address the Board of Deputies before the last election on behalf of my party and said, among other things, that we all have to understand that Jerusalem is a holy city for three faiths. I was heckled by someone who said, “No it isn’t. It’s the eternal city of the Jews”. We all recognise that there are some great sensitivities here, with different understandings of the past, and that what some call Judea and Samaria others call the West Bank and others call the Holy Land. They are matters that we cannot get away from and have to address.
There are many who do a lot of good work in that respect in the United Kingdom. I recall Tariq Ramadan, now on the panel of the noble Baroness, Lady Warsi, saying that he sees Europe as the society within which the necessary reconciliation between Islam and modernity will take place. Let us all work for that.
A large number of countries have been mentioned in the debate and it is impossible in these last few minutes—
I thank the noble Lord for that contribution.
The situation in Iran and across the Middle East, the question of south Asia, what is happening in Burma, Indonesia and the new laws set out in Brunei—a great many countries have been mentioned. Sadly, however, we have not mentioned the Central African Republic, where Christians, or people who call themselves and identify themselves as Christians, are killing Muslims, and people who call themselves Muslims are killing Christians. I regret to say that they are probably using the religious symbol as an excuse for competing with the others. We have to recognise that not just modernity, but rising population and shortage of resources fuel some of those conflicts that appear to be religious.
My Lords, I have two minutes left, which is why I am attempting to run through this. I promise I will write to the noble Lord, in so far as I can. I have already explained that the Foreign Office is actively engaged in all of this in terms of internal education and our constant dialogue with others. We have, again, come back on to the Human Rights Council so we are working across the board on this issue.
The debate has demonstrated our concern with the large number of countries in which religious toleration is absent and where there is discrimination against minorities within each religion and against different religions from that which is the official religion of that country. I can assure your Lordships that the Government are actively concerned with this. We see it as something that the British Government must actively work on, at home and throughout the world, as one of the important ways in which we help to maintain our open and tolerant society and to strengthen those principles of liberal, open societies across the world.
My Lords, although I had the privilege of entering your Lordships’ House in 1997 as an independent Cross-Bencher, the noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Saltaire, and I first met—in what seems a far-off age—when I was president of the National League of Young Liberals. I immediately recognised that I had encountered someone who had an extraordinary breadth of knowledge of world affairs. But as befits a former cathedral chorister, as he has pointed out, he also has a great knowledge of the relationship between faith and politics. Although he is not the noble Baroness, Lady Warsi, to whom we have all paid tribute for the extraordinary work that she does in this area, we are all indebted to him for his reply today, and we look forward to the correspondence that will come from the detailed questions that have been raised.
I thank all noble Lords who have made such rich, eloquent and knowledgeable contributions to this debate. None of us could have known how topical and timely this balloted Motion would prove to be. Many have spoken from first-hand experience. The noble Lord, Lord Patten, set us off with a metaphor about the unleashing of a tiger, and the noble Lord, Lord Elton, used a similar metaphor when he talked about the prairie fire that can spread. Many noble Lords referred to that fire, including the noble Baroness, Lady Nicholson.
My Lords, I inform the noble Lord that the reason that the noble Lord, Lord Wallace, took less than his time was because he did not have any more time than that to take.
I am sorry, my Lords, but people stuck to their time limits and one noble Lord removed his name from the list, so there was some extra time. The courtesy of the House is all that I am trying to observe in thanking all those who have participated in this important debate.
Article 18 demands an end to suppression, persecution and gross injustice. It should be at the heart of our concerns, not an orphaned right.
My Lords, I apologise, but the time allotted for this debate has now elapsed and I must put the question.