My Lords, I shall tell you a story. Three years ago in Kerala in South India, the heart of a Hindu man was transported across Kerala for a Christian patient in dire need of a new one. Funds were raised by a Muslim businessman to pay for the operation which was performed by the state’s top heart surgeon: a Christian. Kerala is known as “God’s own country”. Over the centuries, people have come from different cultures and communities and travelled to live in Kerala—Jewish and Christian migrants, Arab merchants, European traders and colonisers. The city of Cochin—Kochi, as it is now called—has the oldest active synagogue and the oldest European church, both from the 16th century. Kerala is a symbol of religious co-existence—not just tolerance, but co-existence in a world that is struggling with virulent intolerance and violence, which is what this debate is all about. The state has a mix of three of the world’s largest religions—30% Muslim; 20% Christian and 50% Hindu.
The essence of all this is when it comes to religion we are all too quick to focus on what divides us rather than what brings us together. The former Indian President, Pranab Mukherjee, said that a society as diverse as India can be governed only as a democratic, federal and pluralistic polity.
I thank the noble Lord, Lord Bourne, for leading this debate and everything that he does for the communities in our country, which I have seen first hand. He wrote an article in the House magazine, headlined:
“We will not allow hatred and intolerance to go unchecked”.
He summed it up by saying:
“Britain is a proudly tolerant nation—a nation where everyone has the right to live according to their beliefs. Indeed, this is a quality Britain champions and recognises as one of its great strengths. We believe that our differences make us stronger—that together we can learn from one another and grow as individuals and as a society”.
Yet if we look at the statistics in the data provided to us, they show that Christians have declined from 72% to 59%; Muslims have increased from 3% to 5% and the number of Hindus, Sikhs and Buddhists rose slightly, while the Jewish population remained broadly the same. There were 80,393 offences recorded by the police in which one or more hate crimes was a motivating factor. The majority were race hate crimes—78%—but 7% were religious hate crimes. There has been a surge in reports of hate crimes directed at people in England and Wales because of their religious beliefs. They rose by 40% from 5,949 to 8,336 this year, according to Home Office data. To back up what the noble Baroness, Lady Warsi, said, most religious hate crimes—sadly, 52% of all offences—were aimed at Muslims.
I am so happy that the Government have appointed the noble Lord, Lord Ahmad, as a special envoy to promote religious freedom. As the Prime Minister said:
“Tolerance for those of different faiths is fundamental to our values, and is an issue I know is already of great importance to Lord Ahmad, who is constantly looking for fresh ways to promote religious liberty in his role as Minister for Human Rights at the Foreign Office”.
I commend the work that he does.
Minorities in this country make up 14% of the population. We have to keep this in context. Sadly, we have heard, and I shall not repeat it, about the religious prejudice that exists at the moment within political parties. These statistics were again provided to us. In the Labour Party in particular there have been statistics after statistics of anti-Semitism, and I shall cite just some of them. The Conservative Party and the Labour Party were prejudiced against six groups: Christians, British Jews, British Muslims, British Hindus, Sikhs and atheists. In the case of the Conservative Party, definite or probable prejudice was said to range from 13% against Christians to 27% against Muslims but for the Labour Party it was 11% against atheists to 36% against Jews.