Freedom of Religion and Belief — Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 5:17 pm on 16th July 2015.

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Photo of Baroness Howells of St Davids Baroness Howells of St Davids Labour 5:17 pm, 16th July 2015

My Lords, I, too, thank the noble Lord, Lord Alton, who often places a demand on this House to examine what, for believers, is God’s big idea. This debate asks us to examine an idea that was introduced by the creator, as Christians believe. The author Myles Munroe suggests that the idea is beyond the philosophical reserves of human history. The big idea appears to have germinated all religions to which humans adhere. Today we examine the big idea and ask: have we achieved it—a culture of equality, peace, unity and respect for human dignity? No, we have not.

Faith has always played a major role in the lives of individuals and institutions. It is the basis on which we build our lives and our perspective of the world. Faith is the belief that, even in the darkest of times, there is still hope to hold on to. But as our world has become more intolerant and more hateful, the candlelight that guides believers from all denominations is being forcibly snuffed out at an alarming rate.

The deprioritisation by the international community of upholding the right to freedom of religion set out in Article 18 has had a detrimental effect on all human rights of the persecuted. Not only are they forced to worship in secret but, if caught, they can be murdered, tortured, imprisoned, beaten and even expelled from public life, including from the right to vote. According to a report by Open Doors, 100 million Christians face persecution worldwide. That is 100 million people from just one faith, having all their rights stripped away. If we show solidarity and do more to protect the rights of marginalised religious groups across the globe, I am sure we shall see an increase in respect for human rights as a whole. Can man ever be truly free if he is not allowed to have his own thoughts? If a believer can stare down the barrel of a gun and state, “My belief shall not be shaken”, we must be brave enough to stand up and say to those oppressive governments, “It is time to protect your civilians, who committed no crime but to have faith”.

However, we must lead by example as faith has long been the bones behind the laws of our country. But now the laws of our country are breaking those bones. How can we champion human rights and freedom if we do not implement Article 18 to its full extent? There has been a worrying trend emerging in British politics, a trend that is moving to oppress the freedoms of religious minorities. We say we are a Christian nation, yet there is nothing Christian in the actions of the Government in recent weeks. Article 18 can be invoked when a Government or organisation enacts a policy that unfairly impacts on minority religious groups. The two-child tax credit limit will have a distinct impact on the rights of many Catholics who, as a choice of their conscience, do not use contraception. Giving them a choice between poverty or breaking their religious code is a distinct attack on freedom of belief and conscience.

Further limitations on religious freedom have come from the heart of Westminster in a package that is supposed to suppress terrorism and protect our western values. I hope this House agrees with me that you cannot protect democracy and freedom by taking away democracy and freedom, yet that appears to be the aim of the Prevent strategy and the passing of the Counter-Terrorism and Security Act 2015.