It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship today, Sir David. I am grateful to Jim Shannon for securing time for this important debate. I pay tribute to his work as the chair of the all-party parliamentary group for international freedom of religion or belief, and the effort that he has put into it over the years.
We have had a consensual debate. I do not think I have disagreed with any point made by any Member. That speaks for the strength of feeling across the House. We live in a world where about 80% of people identify with a religion, so freedom of thought and religious belief is an essential human right. No one should be persecuted for practising their religion. Yet religious persecution is growing across the world. It is therefore more important than ever that we should stand up to protect that freedom of religion and belief. That freedom includes the right to hold no faith. The issue truly affects everyone.
Earlier this week I had the pleasure of meeting Cecil Chaudhry, of the Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace, who I see is with us today. We discussed the work of the commission in Pakistan and the growth in the incidence of blasphemy cases against religious minorities in the past 30 years. An area of concern that Cecil brought to my attention was bias against religious minorities within the curriculum taught in schools in Pakistan. He furnished me with a book, “Education: the Sole Hope for Change”. I briefly read it over last night, and would be more than happy to pass it to the Minister if he has not seen it already. A number of colleagues have pointed out the influence that the UK can have through its aid policy. Stephen Kerr and my hon. Friend David Linden made similar points, and I echo that view. Hopefully we may get action in this case.
When we last debated freedom of religion and belief, for International Freedom of Religion or Belief Day in October, I listed a huge range of issues that constituents had raised with me. I will not repeat a similar list today, but the House can rest assured that there has been no let-up in the interest in the issue from people in my area. Those issues echo the points hon. Members have made today, and I shall not rehearse the same arguments, but there is an important observation to be made: my constituents do not show simply tribal interest. It is not a case of Christians complaining about Christian persecution and Muslims complaining about Muslim persecution, but instead it is decent citizens complaining about worldwide oppression. I think that there is something we can take from that. They may be influenced by their own belief, as is the case for many of those who have spoken in the debate.
In a similar vein, I am pleased to note the positive steps being taken in Scotland, and particularly the work of local ecumenical groups in my constituency, whose very existence fosters an attitude of openness and discussion. At a time when churchgoing has been in steep and steady decline throughout these islands, it may seem that, at least in the case of Christian belief and practice, its days are numbered here. However, a closer look at the situation on the ground in Scotland reveals that there are still signs of proactive attempts by faith-based communities and organisations to stem the secular tide and exercise the important human right of religious freedom that we are debating today.
As an example of that, large-scale preparations are currently under way by churches in and around central Scotland to host an ambitious three-day series of stadium events this summer at the grounds of Falkirk football club, on the border of my constituency and that of my hon. Friend John Mc Nally. It is billed as the Central Scotland Celebration of Hope, and there is an inclusive invitation to everyone who wishes to come. The family-friendly concerts are free of charge and are scheduled to take place on 15, 16 and
Will Graham is the grandson of the late Dr Billy Graham, who, of course, passed away last Wednesday, at the age of 99. When Dr Graham first came to Scotland in March and April 1955 to hold Christian rallies in Glasgow’s Kelvin Hall as part of the “Tell Scotland” movement, people from far and wide came to hear him speak, and many others around the country attended corresponding events in churches, and watched live broadcasts relayed by the BBC. The Rev. Tom Allan, chair of the All Scotland Crusade, which co-ordinated the Billy Graham mission activities in 1955, estimated that over a two-month period
“a total of 1,185,360 people in Scotland attended meetings of one kind or another”.
The Church of Scotland’s peak national membership of 1.2 million in 1962 has been attributed, in substantial part, to the religious revival that followed Billy Graham’s visit. Congregations from across the denominational spectrum also benefited from a boom in church attendance during that period.
Rev. Will Graham’s upcoming Central Scotland Celebration of Hope is expected to draw large crowds to Falkirk stadium from across the nation and beyond. My colleague John Swinney MSP, the Deputy First Minister of Scotland, and I are among the civic representatives looking forward to attending that positive local event. As happened at the numerous, high-profile rallies in Scotland for Will’s well-known grandfather, the last of which were held in the stadiums of Pittodrie, Murrayfield and Celtic Park in 1991, there will be live-streaming of the Falkirk stadium event in churches and at other venues around the country and, of course, on the internet for everyone. Perhaps that is an indicator that, far from this being a twilight era for Christianity, there may be another resurgence of spiritual interest just on the horizon.
Often the language we use is important, and we must be careful about inadvertently creating a religiously intolerant society. In this regard, I particularly welcome the term “Celebration of Hope”, which is far more inclusive language than the old expression “crusade” or even “mission”. Sadly, not everyone is as thoughtful, as is highlighted by another local matter I have been dealing with. This time the culprit is the press, and I want to single out the Mail Online in particular. The excellent local family-based group in my area, Al Massar, aims to tackle Islamophobia through a range of community activities such as its local football team, which gives free training, and Eid in the Park, a massive community event in the Falkirk area. It works well with local schools, the council and the NHS on various projects. The group is all about community cohesion, and unfortunately felt compelled to complain about reporting of an event it held at the Scottish Parliament to mark World Hijab Day. I shall not go into the full details of the article, but it contained factual errors, and the phrase “antiquated, oppressive, religious tool”—very negative language, which could very easily fuel Islamophobic rhetoric. I have of course supported the group’s complaint to the Independent Press Standards Organisation.
I am sure that the Minister and other Members will be aware that only one complaint out of over 8,000 about discrimination made to the IPSO has been upheld in the past year. The problem appears to be that the editors’ code of practice relates to “prejudicial or pejorative reference” to an individual, not a group. Surely that needs to be changed. The UK Government’s commitment to religious freedom, here and abroad, has been stated many times in this place. I am broadly in agreement with it, and I hope that the Minister can perhaps help with that point too.
On a positive note, sometimes those in the press are on side of the angels, and are on the receiving side of abuse and intolerance. I want to flag up the case of the journalist David Clegg, of the Daily Record, who gave a statement to the police the other day about threats received following his reporting of neo-Nazis targeting the Muslim Labour politician Anas Sarwar. I am sure that hon. Members will wish to join me in saluting his championing of the contribution made by Scots of all ethnic and religious backgrounds.
Thankfully, I live in, and am proud to represent, a very open and welcoming constituency. There is a clear message from the communities that I serve, and from Scotland as a whole, that we welcome people from diverse cultures and backgrounds, and that Scotland is a truly welcoming and diverse nation. We must seek to develop a religious literacy—a point made by Fiona Bruce—that will enable us to engage in constructive intercultural dialogue, and so better understand and live alongside one another. Together we must do all that we can to ensure that the basic human right of freedom of religion and belief is promoted. Today’s consensual debate has been a welcome step in that direction.