My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lord Elton for securing this important debate. It is particularly timely, given the publication of the Bishop of Truro’s independent review. We are privileged to be able to stand here today and say that religious freedom is a fundamental building block for the prosperity of this nation, having been fought for throughout our history. Contrary to what some may believe, religious freedom is not a minor issue, and religion plays a significant part in our world today.
Around the world, almost 85% of people identify with a religious faith. Demographically, over the next century the world is likely to become more religious, not less. Between 2015 and 2060, the world’s inhabitants are expected to increase by 32%, but the Muslim population is forecast to grow by 70% and the number of Christians is also forecast to outstrip overall population growth rates. Having the freedom to express faith does, and will, continue to matter to the majority of people.
However, it is estimated that around a third of the world’s population suffers from some form of religious persecution, with Christians, as we have heard, the most persecuted group of all. It is easy to think of the persecution of Christians as something from the medieval age, relegated to history, but the reality of religious persecution is that it is a very modern phenomenon. As we have heard, Open Doors UK has estimated that, on average, each month 345 Christians are killed for faith-related reasons. Research from earlier this year shows that approximately 245 million Christians living across 50 countries face the most extreme persecution and are at severe risk just for following their faith.
This persecution is increasing in severity and has spread at a significant rate. According to the Pew Research Center, Christians were targeted in 144 countries in 2016, an increase from 125 countries the previous year. According to Open Doors UK, in the past five years the number of countries classified as having “extreme” persecution has risen from one—North Korea—to 11. Yemen, Iran, India and Syria, among others, are now included in the most dangerous places to be a Christian. This has not just happened as a social phenomenon; it is accompanied generally by an increase in government restrictions on religious freedom.
The Legatum Prosperity Index, in which I declare an interest, shows a reduction over the past decade in the number of people reporting freedom of religion and belief being effectively guaranteed in 65 countries. Even then, this does not fully capture the deterioration of rights for many groups targeted in countries such as China and Myanmar, as we have heard. Generally, in the past decade personal freedoms have marginally improved around the world—for example, tolerance of immigrants or the LGBT community has risen globally—which makes the concurrent significant decline in religious freedom particularly concerning.
Even in the UK, although we generally think of ourselves as a tolerant society, perceived freedoms, as we heard from my noble friend Lord Farmer, have been reducing in the past decade. According to the Pew Research Center’s social hostilities index, which captures the degree to which social hostilities with religious motivation are present, the UK has seen a significant increase in hostilities over the past 10 years. The UK now ranks just below Algeria and Turkey for social hostilities towards religion. This is not to say that those of faith in the UK are persecuted, but that we should be careful that we are not undermining personal freedoms at home and that we continue to be vigilant as we create a genuinely tolerant society.
Generally, in the UK today there is a high level of religious illiteracy, as we have heard in this debate. This has led to many situations where religious belief is misunderstood and a move towards the assumption that religious belief should be a private activity, whereas our unique history as a nation clearly demonstrates the weaving of faith through the public square. Will my noble friend the Minister say how the UK Government will work to reverse this rise in religiously motivated social hostilities in the UK?
For a country to truly prosper, religious freedom is paramount. Societies that foster strong civil rights and freedoms tend to enjoy increased levels of satisfaction among their citizens. A study undertaken by researchers at Georgetown University and Brigham Young University in 2014 found that countries with low religious restrictions and hostilities are twice as likely to be strongly innovative. Generally, a country benefits from higher levels of national income when its citizens’ personal liberties are protected and when it welcomes the social diversity that stimulates innovation. According to the Human Freedom Index, countries in the top quartile of freedom enjoy a significantly higher average per capita income—more than three times higher than those in the bottom quartile. Religious hostilities and restrictions create a climate that can drive away local and foreign investment and hamper the development of a nation. According to data from the Pew Research Center, there is a clear correlation between government restrictions on religious freedom and education and health outcomes.
This would not be a debate on religious persecution were we not to raise the subject of Nigeria. We have to ask ourselves: are we being sufficiently vigilant? Systemic, targeted violence against Christians, perpetrated by Boko Haram, arguably meets the UN definition of genocide. In 2018, over 3,700 people were killed for reasons directly related to their faith—more than anywhere else in the world—and another 200,000 are at risk of being killed. Historically, given that the denotation of genocide is a judicial matter to be decided at an international level, the UK Government have opted not to term this situation thus. However, given the content of the Bishop of Truro’s report, and the growing body of evidence that Boko Haram’s activities in Nigeria meet the criteria for genocide, can the Minister say whether the UK Government believe this to be genocide and, if not, what would need to happen before they categorised it as such and took the appropriate action?
Given the importance of this issue, the focus that the Government have chosen to give to freedom of religion and belief under the leadership of the Secretary of State is to be applauded. I thank my noble friend for seeking this debate and look forward to hearing the Minister’s response.