My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord on his initiative and his timing, coinciding as this debate does with the publication of the final report of the Bishop of Truro.
Your Lordships’ House is blessed with the presence of a number of champions of persecuted minorities. Some I see here: the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, the noble Lord, Lord Alton, and the noble Baroness, Lady Berridge, who chairs the all-party group which produced that valuable report last year. In addition, my noble friend Lord Collins has been a persistent voice for persecuted minorities, just as the Ministers—the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay, and the noble Lord, Lord Ahmad—have shown real zeal for the subject. We in the UK are fortunate to have the benefit of a large number of NGOs active in this field: CSW, Open Doors, Barnabas Fund, Aid to the Church in Need and Release International. All are ever ready to brief parliamentarians.
Appropriately, the bishop called the Government’s performance, like the curate’s egg, good in part. Last week’s debate on the human rights record of Pakistan and possible conditionality of our aid revealed that the Government, by failing to provide refuge in the UK for Mrs Bibi, acted in a cowardly way, probably because of fear of extremists in this country. Another negative example is the Government’s record on resettling Christian refugees from Syria. The figures for the first quarter of last year were released last July, only in response to an FoI request from the Barnabas Fund and an order from the Information Commissioner’s Office threatening the Government with contempt of court proceedings.
Of the 1,112 Syrian refugees resettled in that first quarter, there were no Christians and no Yazidis. All were Muslims. This appears to be evidence of government discrimination. Christians are specifically targeted by jihadists. The Home Office has refused to publish further figures in response to Parliamentary Questions, allegedly to protect the privacy of those being resettled and to support their recovery—surely weasel words designed to mask the reality of a failure of policy.
The Government rely on the UNHCR to select candidates, but Christians and other vulnerable groups such as the Yazidis fear taking shelter in UNHCR camps because of religiously motivated violence. Other countries, including Australia and Belgium, have no such problems and rely in part on charitable institutions and churches for candidates.
The Government’s response is surely shameful, as if they are uncomfortable about assisting Christians because of political correctness or colonial guilt. This should also be seen in the context of the refusal of visas for three bishops from the region and the Government’s failure to accept visa applications from the Nineveh Plains, where Christians are increasingly subject to ethnic cleansing. Can we expect a change of policy? Figures show that Christians are the most persecuted minority in the world; Muslims are the second, but much of their discrimination is Muslim on Muslim.
I offer a few random reflections. First, there are many relevant international conventions, including the universal declaration. The problem is not declaration, but implementation. As Pope Benedict XVI told members of the diplomatic corps in 2011,
“it seems unnecessary to point out that an abstract proclamation of religious freedom is insufficient”.
The Commonwealth is hardly a shining exemplar, in spite of brave declarations from Harare onwards. The Open Doors 2019 world watch list has 50 countries where it is most difficult to be a Christian: nine are Commonwealth members, including Brunei, with its record on the gays, and the Maldives, which is reapplying for membership. We hear little of this in parliamentary debates on the Commonwealth and should be more honest about Commonwealth failures in this field. Five of the seven focus countries in the bishop’s report are in the Commonwealth.
Secondly, tolerance should begin at home. If our representations abroad are to be taken seriously, we should be strong on Islamophobia; otherwise, this will blunt our pressure on cases such as that of Mrs Bibi and the blasphemy laws. Equally, if we turn a blind eye to anti-Semitism at home, including in our student unions, we will be less credible abroad. I hope our political leaders will heed this. We should listen carefully to the Jewish community and publicise more of its massive contribution to our national life.
My third reflection is about UK performance. It is clear that there has been some improvement in the Foreign Office since I joined it in 1960. The bishop’s welcome survey actually shows huge discrepancies in the performance of missions abroad, some simply because of the zeal or otherwise of individuals. What plans do the Government have to follow up the recommendations? There should be a more serious effort at mainstreaming, training and improving liaison with NGOs. The bishop’s survey showed the FCO’s response to be “patchy and inconsistent”.
The US provides the gold standard and we should be ready to learn from it. For example, the US is bolder on Saudi Arabia, where citizens are not entitled to hold Christian meetings even in the privacy of their own homes. I recall that in the past our embassy there did not even hold Christmas services. Has that changed? The Emiratis, to be fair, are more enlightened. The temptation is always to be strong on the weak and weak on the strong. We should not hold back from criticising the treatment of Uighurs in China, but quiet diplomacy may produce more of an effect there, as I found when I was a member of the human rights mission to China initiated in 1992 by John Major and wonderfully led by the late Geoffrey Howe.
I have two final, speedy observations. There is a danger of being picked off for sanctions if one works alone, as happened to Denmark with The Satanic Verses. It is far better to work with allies to cover one’s back. Our weight is likely to be diminished if we do not remain part of the European Union but become a mere lobbyist of it.
Finally, if we feel the need to refresh our commitment to religious freedom, we need go no further than room 52 at the British Museum and gaze in wonder at the Cyrus Cylinder, created in 539 BC—a true symbol of tolerance and freedom, which some view as the first charter of human rights in liberating the Jewish minority from its Babylonian captivity. This is an example for today’s Iran and for the growing anti-Semitic movements in our Europe today.