My Lords, I also congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Elton, on securing the debate. I declare an interest as a former trustee of Christian Solidarity Worldwide, which for 30 years has been doing sterling work advocating on behalf of persecuted Christians.
This is a huge and important subject. We certainly need to raise awareness of the suffering of Christians and those of other faiths throughout the world for doing nothing more than belonging to a faith community and expressing that faith in words and actions. Indeed, it is frequently humbling to read of the courage that so many of them display in such difficult circumstances.
I will focus on Christians because, according to the Pew Research Center, which has been mentioned, they face more religious restrictions than any other religious group. According to the International Society for Human Rights, they are the victims of 80% of acts of religious discrimination, despite accounting for only 30% of the global population. What can be done? Like other noble Lords, I start by commending the Foreign Secretary’s firm and courageous speech in launching the independent review led by the Bishop of Truro. Of course, I accept that the persecution of people of other faiths is no less important.
I will stick to two aspects of which I have direct personal experience: the Foreign Office and Syria. I looked through the bishop’s very thorough report, published just a few days ago. It was certainly tactfully written but it confirmed my suspicions that, all too often, Foreign Office officials have simply been going through the motions when dealing with religious persecution, including the persecution of Christians. I agree with the recommendation that religious literacy should be an integral part of induction training. Religion is enormously important in understanding the many foreign societies on which such officials will have to report in the future; they should start by understanding the ins and outs, and the massive importance of religion for so many people.
Many of the report’s recommendations provide a helpful framework. However, I make a plea for some realism. That would include the recognition that no Government welcome what they regard as interference in their internal affairs. Some depend on religious supporters to retain their power and some have only limited capability to deal with low-level harassment, yet others have judicial systems based in religion, such as in the Islamic world. Realism would also have to accept that our diplomatic posts are there to promote and defend British interests and that, especially nowadays, they have very few UK-based staff. That said, you can make the argument that religious persecution is contrary to our interests, but you must have a hierarchy in the work that you ask your posts to do.
This serious and thorough investigation deserves to be commended and, so far as is possible, put into practice. I endorse the remark of the noble Baroness, Lady Berridge, that Church and religious leaders in foreign countries should be consulted; they know how to find their way around the many difficulties that they and their people face. Before we leap into action in some distant country, we should know that we have consulted them and understand what they are dealing with.
Lastly, I turn to the report’s chapter on Syria. I declare another interest as a board member of the British Syrian Society. The report makes incredibly dismal reading for someone who has a great deal of respect and affection for the Syrian people, whatever their religion or sect. It rightly focuses on Islamic extremists as the perpetrators of what amounts to genocide against Christians, as the noble Lord, Lord Alton, mentioned. Fortunately, the report does not fall into the absurd error of accusing the regime of discriminating against Christians. Quite the contrary—the Alawites, themselves a minority of only about 10%, have long looked to the Christian community for support, or at least acquiescence. That continues to be the case. None the less, as we know, hundreds of thousands of Christians have been forced to leave Syria as a result of the conflict. The British Government are to be warmly commended for the massive amounts of aid that they provided to the UNHCR to provide for the basic needs of these refugees. The Government do not receive the credit they deserve for this considerable expenditure, not even in this House.
I have one criticism of the Government; here I strongly support the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Anderson of Swansea. Taking only refugees recommended by the UNHCR has the effect of discriminating against Christians, for whom it is unsafe to live in refugee camps, including those in south-east Europe. Indeed, the report acknowledges that. Let us be frank: this policy smacks of political correctness. It is high time that it changed and I hope we will hear an appropriate response from the Minister.