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Freedom of Religion or Belief — [Ms Karen Buck in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 2:18 pm on 12th March 2020.

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Photo of Peter Grant Peter Grant Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Europe), Shadow SNP Deputy Spokesperson (Treasury - Chief Secretary) 2:18 pm, 12th March 2020

I really do not know how to follow that speech. Bob Stewart may think that it was a ramble, but I think we have just had difficult privilege of hearing one of the great speeches in this place, for which I thank him. I am a practising Roman Catholic, so it was not easy to listen to, because sadly my religion, like many others—as Jim Shannon will know only too well—is used by people who claim to be of the same faith to justify deeds that would never have been condoned by the one we call our saviour. I thank the hon. Gentleman for securing this debate and thank both previous speakers for their speeches.

It saddens me greatly that this debate is necessary, but the sad fact is that persecution based on what people believe or do not believe is probably as big a problem now as it has ever been. How can that be? The world in so many ways is getting smaller, and it is much easier for us to understand what other people are about and to get to know the basis of so many beliefs and cultures. When that is happening, how can it be that almost every religious or faith group in the world is, somewhere, being persecuted, with people losing their lives because of what they believe, and that almost every faith group in the world participates in that persecution? I cannot begin to understand it.

We can look at the horror of Daesh murdering Muslims, Christians and other religious minorities with complete impunity; at the terror attacks such as the one on Easter Sunday last year in Sri Lanka, when people were murdered simply for celebrating the most important day of their religious year; at 1 million people in China being supposedly “re-educated”, as the hon. Member for Strangford mentioned, to strip them of their cultural, religious and ethnic identity, just because they are Muslims; or at the genocide of the Rohingya Muslims. We can look at countless other atrocities. Individually, they might often not be important enough to get a mention on the UK news or in the newspapers but, collectively, they add up to an estimated 2 billion people possibly daily risking persecution and even their lives simply because of what they believe.

The hon. Member for Beckenham rightly said that freedom of religion and belief is a fundamental human right. International organisations have said for years that everyone has the right to believe or not believe what they believe to be right for them. There can be no let-up in international efforts to safeguard freedom of religion and to prevent the persecution of religious minorities anywhere. This principle was adopted in 1966:

“Any advocacy of national, racial or religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence shall be prohibited by law”—

I was five when the world agreed to that, and I turn 60 later this year. But the world, having agreed to that, far too often seems to turn away, or decides to act far too late.

The Rabat plan of action launched by the United Nations in 2013 sets out the kinds of comprehensive anti-discrimination legislation that all nations should adopt, but as the hon. Member for Strangford so rightly said, having legislation in place is one thing; making it happen in reality is a very different thing. The international community has the tools it needs to tackle religious persecution. It is up to Governments everywhere, working together, to use all the diplomatic, political and economic means at their disposal to ensure that no Government feel that they can ignore, condone or actively participate in religious persecution.

I fully support much of the hon. Gentleman said when he asked the Foreign and Commonwealth Office what it will do in trade deals and diplomatic relations to ensure that human rights and rights of religious freedom are always at the top of any agenda. Personally, I believe that there are some countries with which the United Kingdom has strong diplomatic and economic ties that we should simply isolate ourselves from, because their persecution of people has got to the stage where they are no longer the kind of country that we should be proud to have as a friend anymore.

The large-scale persecution of religious or racial minorities does not happen overnight. As with racism—a very close cousin of religious sectarianism, as the hon. Gentleman said—such persecution needs to be fostered over a longer period. It starts with verbal insults and racist or sectarian language, which is first ignored and tolerated, then actively promoted and celebrated by those in positions of power in the media or in politics. It grows through deliberate attempts to isolate a targeted group and to vilify anyone who speaks in their defence, denouncing them all—those being targeted and those who would stand alongside them—as somehow disloyal to the country of residence, a threat to national security, or even terrorists, simply because of the peaceful practice of their religion.

Once a country has allowed that attitude to become embedded, the next step forward is easy: the violence, the abductions and the wholescale sexual abuse of women and children become much easier. At the moment, we would all say that we in the United Kingdom are among the 17% of the population of the world who do not suffer from religious persecution—it is a shocking statistic that almost 85% of the world’s population live in countries where one religious minority or another is actively persecuted—but if we took a hard, honest look at where the United Kingdom is now, we would see some worrying signs that the first steps in that process are happening. That does not mean we will see wholescale violence in the next week or so, but we have to be aware of what is happening on our streets and in our communities, and we have to be prepared to stop it.

For example—I am not taking sides on this one—did political processes come out with much credibility after the accusations and counter-accusations of antisemitism and Islamophobia over the past year or so? They have been such a feature of our political debate, but does anyone think that the political establishment came out well when a response to an accusation of antisemitism was a counter-accusation of Islamophobia? Instead, everyone should have said, “You know what? All of us have a problem with some kind of racial or religious bigotry within our organisations or our culture. Let’s sit down to talk about how we can tackle it all together.” We have to recognise that a large percentage of the world’s refugee population are only refugees because of religious persecution. The less we are able to prevent religious persecution, the greater the moral responsibility we have to take our share of the responsibility for looking after the refugees who inevitably come here.

This is a difficult topic to talk about—I seem to be pinching an awful lot of the hon. Gentleman’s speech, because he said much of what I wanted to say, more eloquently—but I feel that it is important when we talk about freedom of religious belief to acknowledge as an equal right the right to not believe. I have real concerns about what is happening in Vladimir Putin’s Russia. He is trying to change the constitution so that believing in God becomes compulsory. As someone who believes in God, that worries me greatly, because a fundamental part of my faith is that that is my decision, and that I will answer for it when my time comes.

Sometimes, I have taken decisions that have surprised some of my close friends and family who thought that as a practising Catholic I might take a different decision on same-sex marriage, for example,. However, following a faith that has a particular set of teachings on human sexuality gives me no right to pass laws to prevent someone else from, first, following a different faith or, secondly, having a different view of what is acceptable or not, or right or wrong, for them in their private or family life.