My Lords, I too am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Elton, for introducing the debate and doing it so well. I also thank the noble Lord, Lord Farmer, and the noble Baroness, Lady Berridge, for their excellent addresses.
I want to take a broader approach. It is often claimed that war between the religions is the cause of so much unrest and violence in the world. That is certainly not my experience. Six weeks ago I attended a conference in Tokyo, where I had the privilege of sharing in the G20 Interfaith Forum which met just before the G20 summit. Some 200 delegates were there with 4,000 participants. There were faith leaders from many organisations, including the World Faiths Development Dialogue, which I co-founded and chair, the United Nations Interagency Task Force and Faith Council, the Joint Learning Initiative, the King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Centre for Interreligious and Intercultural Dialogue, the Parliament of World Religions, and Religions for Peace.
The aim of the conference was not to settle scores between the religions but to share and participate in a common commitment to the world and to the securing of the sustainable development goals set by the United Nations. My experience over many years, starting when I was an 18 year-old in the Royal Air Force doing my national service in Iraq in the 1950s, is that there is compelling evidence that people of faith and good will have much in common and have lived in harmony for hundreds of years. I echo what my noble friend Lord Bhatia said about Muslims, Christians and Jews in the Middle East. Just two days ago a Christian man, who was having lunch with me here, told me of a mosque in Madaba, Jordan, which is called “Christ Jesus, Son of God, Mary”. What a remarkable statement of some shared belief.
It is a fact that mainstream religions recognise religious diversity and differences and have co-operated in fostering intrafaith and interfaith religious harmony and dialogue. There is increasing recognition that all religions should enhance mutual understanding and empathy through dialogue. “Harmony without uniformity” is a phrase often used in religious discussions as we learn to respect each other and jointly serve our communities. There is agreement that the use of religion for political purposes should be opposed and that religious extremism should be vehemently rejected. This is not to say that ideological differences do not exist between, say, Islam and the West, Islam and Christianity. They do exist, but on the whole mainstream faiths are not at war.
However, let me lay before your Lordships three destabilising facts that we must face. The first is that part of the picture is the worrying rise of authoritarianism and totalitarianism. Those of us of an older generation will remember the repression of religion behind the Iron Curtain, but just as notable is the persecution of the Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar, or indeed the Karen Christians in the same country, the widespread crackdown on house churches by President Xi’s regime and the campaign against Muslims, who have reportedly been forced to eat pork and whose families have been separated. Such is the degree of internment and re-education in the province of Xinjiang that it is estimated that some 1.5 million ethnic Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities are being held. Some have called this,
“the largest attempt at cultural annihilation of the 21st Century”.
It is horrifying and yet, according to Jonah Goldberg in the National Review, the United States Government, so vociferous about trade wars with China, are completely silent about human rights. We are grateful that the United Kingdom Government have been less reticent.
A second aspect of this century’s renewed persecution of people of faith is nationalism. It is the way in which political movements often co-opt faith as a marker of national identity, and in turn they exclude or scapegoat minorities. Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam and even atheism have all been wrongly used in this way. There are worrying signs, for example, that even in the world’s largest and most successful south Asian democracy, India, Muslim and Christian minorities are living in anxiety as Hindu nationalism creates an atmosphere of hostility and leads to many increasing incidents of persecution. In Pakistan, Christians making up less than 2% of the population are regularly persecuted and live in fear for their lives. If we think that all this has to do with “them over there”, we have only to think of anti-Semitism lurking in every aspect of western life and infiltrating our political parties. We should not be complacent.
The third aspect is the failure of the West. Other speakers have already drawn attention to this. On one level there is a failure of the West, until very recently, to notice that there is a problem. This is partly due to increasing religious illiteracy in western democracies. The contribution of Bishop Mounstephen’s recent report on freedom of religion and belief is an important aspect of the awareness raising that is needed. I hope that the House will eventually debate that report.
To take one region, the Middle East and North Africa, I regret to say that our foreign policy mistakes have contributed greatly to the near extinction of Christianity in some countries. In places where sizeable Christian communities have flourished for centuries, including Syria and Iraq—I echo what the noble Lord, Lord Green, said—Christians have been subjected to a savage genocide. They have had either to flee or be killed, and a tiny minority live in fear for their lives.
My time is up, and I regret that I cannot add to what I have said. In conclusion, the strength, resilience and significant presence of religious communities on the ground throughout the world indicate that they have huge potential in fighting prejudice and extremism. It would be a grave mistake to ignore a potential ally in our war against extremism.