Religious Persecution - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:52 pm on 11th July 2019.

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Photo of Baroness Smith of Newnham Baroness Smith of Newnham Liberal Democrat 4:52 pm, 11th July 2019

My Lords, this time standing up at the right time, I must start by apologising to the noble Baroness, Lady Flather. I was so sure that the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, was the penultimate speaker before the gap that I did not turn over the page.

I thank the noble Lord, Lord Elton, for bringing this debate this afternoon. As so many noble Lords have said, it is a very timely debate, and in many ways it is profoundly shocking. We have heard from so many noble Lords of cases of religious persecution, and obviously the particular timing comes alongside the Bishop of Truro’s report, but other themes could have been explored in even more detail this afternoon.

Some noble Lords declared an interest of one sort or another, so I thought that I ought to declare an interest as a Roman Catholic and as a member of the APPG on Christians in Parliament, which began an inquiry on the position of Christians in the United Kingdom. As far as I know, there has not yet been a report from that inquiry, because so much evidence was taken that the chairman of the group has not yet arisen from the thousands of submissions.

One point about religious literacy came very close to home on Ash Wednesday. As a cradle Catholic, who went to a Catholic school where all my friends were Catholic, my Brownie pack was Catholic—essentially, as a small child I did not know people other than fellow Catholics—I was used on Ash Wednesday to having ashes put on my forehead, and nobody ever asked me what they were. When I became a school governor in a non-religious school in Cambridge, I was a little surprised to turn up to a governors’ meeting and be told by the headmistress, “You’ve got a dirty mark on your forehead”. Over the years, I became a little more used to that. This year, we had votes on Ash Wednesday, and several MPs and Members of your Lordships’ House came to mass at 6 o’clock where we had ashes imposed. When we came to vote, some of us, like the noble Lord, Lord Alton, thought, “We don’t want to demonstrate that we are wearing ashes, because it seems to go against Christ’s teaching that if you are fasting, do not wear sackcloth and ashes”. I wondered about taking my ashes off. I did not. People kept saying, “What’s that?”. I spent quite a long time explaining to people the concept of wearing ashes, and the noble Lord, Lord Alton, and I talked about it afterwards and discussed whether it was the right or wrong thing. It was very clear that the idea of wearing ashes—which is something that Catholics just do—is something that even fellow Christians find somewhat strange. Even within a Christian country with an established Christian Church, there are things that divide us but divide us in a way that can be easily explained.

As the noble Lord, Lord Elton, made clear in opening the debate two and a half hours ago, freedom of religion or belief is a human right enshrined in Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, yet we have heard this evening just how many countries face religious persecution across the globe. The statistics are absolutely shocking. It is not just in parts of the world where we are used to seeing terrorist attacks. It is not just in the Middle East, where IS has been so prevalent and the fate of Christians and Yazidis has been so clear. It is in Africa, in Nigeria, as the noble Baroness, Lady Stroud, said—a country which is part of the Commonwealth. That is not a genocide led by the Government; it is in a part of Nigeria, but it is a very significant phenomenon. As several noble Lords have said, in some cases Christianity is portrayed as something western and part of the western elite, but vast parts of Nigeria are Christian, and other parts are not. Those people should be able to live in toleration.

My noble friend Lord Taverne talked about tolerance, which is one of the things that we need to refind in the dialogue of faith. It should not be about us and them—though, as various noble Lords, including the noble Lord, Lord Sheikh, said, it can be about us and them, and that needs to be overcome. If we want to stop persecution, we need to find ways to bring together the common strands of our faiths rather than talk about the differences. As the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Carey, said, in many ways the common strands of the major faiths are very similar in what they teach, so that persecution should not exist.

Various noble Lords have touched on the situation in the United Kingdom, where we pride ourselves on our tolerance and human rights and think that there should not be discrimination on the grounds of a whole range of things, including religion or belief. However, as the noble Lord, Lord Farmer, pointed out, and as evidence we took in the Christians in Parliament APPG inquiry showed, there are Christians in this country who feel that their jobs are very difficult to fulfil because their faith puts them at odds with the norms of this country. If we are a liberal country and a liberal democracy, we need to find ways to ensure that people can live out their faith or absence of faith equally. At times, that is difficult.

Of course, Christians in this country are not persecuted. I hope that Jews and Muslims are not persecuted in this country either, but anti-Semitism and Islamophobia are clearly on the rise. As the noble Baroness, Lady Berridge, said, getting into definitions is not helpful but if, even in this country, there is a rise in opposition to people of faith, that is something about which we should not be complacent.

The Bishop of Truro’s report was commissioned by the current Foreign Secretary. I hope that the Minister can assure us in her response that whoever is Foreign Secretary or Prime Minister after 24 July will feel equally inspired to say, “We need to ensure that the UK is willing to stand up and be counted against persecution on the grounds of faith”.

Before noble Lords start looking at the clock, I should say that the Government Whip told me that there had been a mistake and that I am allowed 10 minutes—like the Government Front Bench—so I have another two minutes left.

I want to touch on an underlying concept in discussions about persecution in so many parts of the world, and that is genocide. In Myanmar, in Nigeria and in other parts of the world, particularly in the Middle East, there are activities that look like genocide, where an ordinary person looking at the definition of genocide would say, “We think that this is a genocide”. Yet Her Majesty’s Government, like many western Governments, have been reluctant to call things genocide and take them to the UN Security Council, perhaps on the grounds that there may be disagreement or that countries such as China might say that we should not interfere in other countries. Clearly, we should not interfere in other countries, but there are also international laws that say that, when something is a genocide, it is appropriate to act. Are Her Majesty’s Government willing to raise some of these issues with the UN Security Council?

Finally, there has been a lot of discussion about DfID and whether it could look more at the contracts that it lets. If the Government and the Foreign Office believe that genocide is happening and that people are being persecuted for their faith in various countries, will the Minister undertake to talk to the Home Office to make sure that there is adequate religious literacy there when asylum cases are brought forward? It is vital that all parts of Her Majesty’s Government speak with one voice on this issue.