Religious Persecution - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 2:45 pm on 11th July 2019.

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Photo of Lord Elton Lord Elton Conservative 2:45 pm, 11th July 2019

My Lords, I cannot possibly do justice to this vast subject; I doubt that anybody could. However, together we may arrive at useful conclusions and certainly spread useful information. The Motion draws attention to the scale of what is going on. To dispose of an outline of that straightaway, I quote the United Nations special rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, who said that,

“a large share of the world’s population in 2016—83%—lived in countries with high or very high religious restrictions (up from 79% in 2015)”.

He immediately qualified that by saying that,

“these restrictions … do not necessarily affect the religious groups and citizens of these countries equally, as certain groups or individuals … may be targeted more frequently by these policies and actions than others. Thus, the actual proportion of the world’s population that is affected by high levels of religious restrictions may be considerably lower than 85%”.

That is not in itself reassuring, because we are still left with a very large number, so I looked for something more exact.

Before I go further, I should declare an interest, as all noble Lords are supposed to do at the beginning of their speeches. My principal interest in this is that I am a Christian believer. I undertake to try not to make this an occasion to plead a special cause for my faith. The important aspect of this is that it relates to all faiths. We are all in the same rather small and leaky boat.

When he commissioned the Bishop of Truro, the Foreign Secretary said:

“I was deeply disturbed to learn that 215 million Christians faced persecution in 2018, according to a study by the campaign group Open Doors. Christians faced harassment in 144 countries in 2016, according to the Pew Research Centre, compared with 128 in 2015”.

The numbers are enormous, and going up. Open Doors, a respectable organisation which specifically monitors Christian persecution around the world, has put this more dramatically and estimates that, on average, 345 Christians are killed every month for faith-related issues.

The Truro report is an impressive piece of work. It convincingly estimates that 80% of all religious-based persecution affects Christians. I repeat that I do not wish to bias what is said. This does not mean that their plight should monopolise our attention, because the other 20% is still a vast number. Persecution is a shared burden, so I turned to a supposedly neutral source: the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. Every year it publishes its Human Relations and Democracy Report: the latest was in 2018. Chapter 5 contains a priority list of 27 countries for human rights, up from 19 in 2015. Most of these have FoRB; I should explain that the shorthand for what we are discussing is “freedom of religion or belief”. That term is not mentioned in the Motion but it is definitely what one has to have, as we shall see later.

I remind noble Lords of something that is not often enough brought to our notice but which is a hidden driver of this sort of atrocity. We all know about flight or fight as an instinctive human reaction but, to decide between flight and fight, you have to decide between “us” and “them”. The awkward thing about that is that it is instinctive: we tend to feel safe among people like us, preferably people we know. When we are among others, the “them”, we are not safe; when we are with “us”, we are. That powerful instinct is very handy for dictators, unscrupulous politicians and scurrilous criminals, as it is very easy to whip up a feeling of “they are other” about anyone who has an obvious marker.

One obvious marker is the faith of the quarry, if I may call them that. Too often they are people of faith but when they are persecuted they are almost always in a minority. That gives them two sorts of difference: first, to the others, “they are not us”; and secondly, “They are not so important. There are less of them, but they are a threat”. That is the background and it seems to me that “them or us” is a cry that has gone up over centuries—thus Margaret Thatcher’s cry in her urgent response to a suggested promotion of a particular person to an important post, “Yes, but is he one of us?” That same question has been asked in thousands of languages over tens of thousands of years within the human race.

As I say, persecuted faiths are almost always in a minority and easily identified, but there are often other dimensions of difference. Those few Rohingya who still exist in Myanmar, for instance, are not only Muslims among the Buddhist majority, they are also Indo-Aryans among a Bamar majority: they are an ethnic as well as a religious minority. Another dimension, crucial in the rare examples of persecution where the majority/minority nexus is contingent to but not part of the problem, is at the interface between the predominantly Muslim north and the predominantly Christian south of what used to be simply Sudan—the area that divides them. The Christians are settled there and are arable farmers and horticulturalists. Their persecutors are nomadic, and are graziers and drovers. Hence we get the awful pillaging that goes on along that corridor, and it can be argued that it is entirely religiously motivated—if we are told that it is not, then why are the churches always burned down?—or one can say that it is entirely due to the pressing needs of feeding families. The fact is that it is never simple. What we need to make sense of this, and possibly to cast a little faint light by which to proceed further, is a core definition in a meaningful political and historical context.

I cannot believe that I have been going for nine minutes, but if it is true I have not got much longer—noble Lords probably think I have been going on much longer already.

We are looking at a truly global phenomenon, affecting the quality and even the continuation of the lives of millions of people. The definitive statement of human rights was made by the United Nations in 1948 in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and it is the nearest thing we have to an agreed statement by the human race about what it wants its future to be. To resile from it would be a huge betrayal of hope, and of generations of effort. That is a fitting context, and the directly relevant part is Article 18, which 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”.

One of the most poignant and least often cited examples of persecution is what has happened to the Ahmadiyya people in Pakistan. This is not on the horrifying scale of the Rohingya but there are 5 million of them in a population of 197 million—a significant minority. The founder of Pakistan, Muhammed Ali Jinnah, issuing his call to the faithful of his persuasion, gave the strongest reassurance possible to those of other faith:

“You are free; you are free to go to your temples. You are free to go to your mosques or to any other places of worship in this State of Pakistan. You may belong to any religion, caste or creed—that has nothing to do with the business of the state”.

That was in 1947. In 1974, Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto amended the constitution with the effect that Ahmadis were from that point non-Muslim for all legal purposes. In 1984 the President, General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq, issued Ordinance XX, by which an Ahmadi could get three years in prison, a fine or the death penalty for calling himself Muslim, for calling his faith Muslim, for calling his place of worship a mosque, for uttering the call to prayer which we hear coming from minarets in thousands of cities, for preaching, or even for using the greeting “Peace be on you” in Arabic or “posing as a Muslim”. The closure of mosques, defacement of graves and memorials, and charges of blasphemy and killings followed.

Other faiths are caught up in this—