Freedom of Religion and Belief — Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 5:23 pm on 16th July 2015.

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Photo of Lord Palmer of Childs Hill Lord Palmer of Childs Hill Liberal Democrat 5:23 pm, 16th July 2015

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Alton, not only for initiating the debate but preying on my conscience and encouraging me to contribute. Sadly, history shows us that religious wars and conflicts are not new. However, in modern times there has been more of an acceptance that those of different faiths and none have to get on together and at least tolerate one’s fellow man, if not necessarily love him.

We have heard and will hear from other noble Lords of repression and lack of freedoms in the current unstable world situation. As a Jew, I feel strongly about the Holocaust, which touched my own family, who lost a grandmother and an aunt in Poland in the 1940s. So, I was very moved to hear reports of a rescue operation last week to seek, in a modest way, to take action against the barbaric treatment of Christian sects in the IS heartland of Mesopotamia, the cradle of civilisation. This appears to be an operation by the Barnabas Fund, an international relief agency for the persecuted church with the financial co-operation of certain Jewish organisations and philanthropists, to transfer Christian families to safe havens. I understand that this in an ongoing project to evacuate Christians from those lands where they have dwelt for 2,000 years. What these Christian communities are experiencing is not new to the Jewish communities throughout the Middle East and North Africa, whose persecution led to an exodus of some 850,000 Jews from Arab lands.

The clash of faiths causes these confrontations. It may seem a paradox but the country in the Middle East that is most welcoming to Christians, as the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Carey, mentioned in passing, is Israel. Christianity is one of the recognized religions in Israel and is practised by more than 161,000 Israeli citizens—about 2.1% of the population. In Israel, there are approximately 300 Christians who have chosen to convert from Islam. Very sadly, such apostasy is not allowed in much of the rest of the Middle East. The noble Lord, Lord Alton, gave a graphic description of many of the injustices that take place and which I cover with the word “apostasy”. I will not repeat them as he did it so well.

Adversity, however, does reveal heroes. A few days ago, one of the heroes of the Holocaust died at the age of 106. I refer of course to Sir Nicolas Winton, who organised eight trains to take 669 children to London from Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia. The British people made room for these refugees and I can only hope that in Britain and the rest of Europe we will rise to the challenge in the present times. We are so fortunate in the United Kingdom but the tolerance we have requires vigilance to ensure that it stays that way. When we see the intolerance of people’s religion and beliefs in many parts of the world, which has been referred to by other noble Lords, we must praise the courage and resilience of those affected; many would have given way to despair.

In the modern world, many now describe themselves as secular. But a very large number of people, as has been mentioned by other noble Lords, follow one of the three Abrahamic faiths: Christianity, Judaism and Islam. Although all three of these faiths share a common history and traditions, they too often emphasise their differences rather than their common beliefs. Christianity has, I believe, 2 billion adherents, Islam 1.3 billion, and Judaism, which comes slightly further behind, a mere 14 million. But there are splits within all these religions, be they Catholic-Orthodox, Catholic-Protestant, Shia- Sunni, or Orthodox-Reform. Whatever the differences, as the Motion before us says, we should as a nation uphold freedom of religion and belief and not enforce or impose our beliefs on others by the sword. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Leicester, whom I must compliment on his superb speech, talked about defending religious freedom. That is what this is about. But it is also about allowing one to give up one’s faith, to change one’s faith, or to have no faith; it is a defence of freedom, of which religion is a part. I will end with the words of Nelson Mandela:

“As I walked out the door toward the gate that would lead to my freedom, I knew if I didn’t leave my bitterness and hatred behind, I’d still be in prison”.