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Human Rights: Religious Belief

Volume 708: debated on Tuesday 24 February 2009

Question for Short Debate

Tabled By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what is their response to the persecution of religious believers in contravention of Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

My Lords, 60 years after the signing of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, millions of people around the world still suffer because of their beliefs and the expression of those beliefs. Article 18 is often half-heartedly supported by national Governments, and, at the United Nations, it is one of the least-developed freedoms in terms of international human rights mechanisms, and is currently being contested through anti-defamation resolutions.

The subject is so vast that I cannot do justice to it. I am therefore extremely grateful to all noble Lords speaking in the debate, who will address issues that I cannot include.

Paul Marshall, in the definitive book Religious Freedom in the World highlights the extent of violations of this freedom. He says:

“Some—the Baha’is in Iran, Ahmadis in Pakistan, Buddhists in China-Tibet, Falun Gong in China, Christians in Saudi Arabia—are now among the most intensely persecuted, but there is no group in the world that does not suffer to some degree because of its beliefs.

Atheists and agnostics can also suffer from religious persecution… violations of religious freedom are massive, widespread and, in many parts of the world, intensifying”.

I briefly highlight a few examples.

I refer, first, to Nigeria, because of the urgency of the situation there. In Bauchi state the Christian community were attacked last weekend. At least 12 people were killed, more than 1,500 were displaced, and 14 churches, eight vicarages, one mosque and numerous Christian homes were destroyed. At least one person was killed yesterday, and, with disturbing reports of,

“armed men gathering in the bush”,

further attacks are feared. There have been many such outbreaks of orchestrated violence since the introduction of Sharia law in 12 northern and central states, causing an estimated 60,000 deaths and much destruction.

Last July I visited a town in Bauchi state where eight churches had recently been destroyed. In Kano city, the authorities bulldozed a Roman Catholic Church the week we were there. Last November, Jos suffered a series of well-planned and co-ordinated attacks by Islamist extremists. Will Her Majesty’s Government urge the Government of Nigeria to fulfil their constitutional responsibility to protect all their citizens?

In Burma, the SPDC military regime is notorious for its brutal suppression of Buddhist monks and systematic oppression of non-Buddhists. Rohingya Muslims are denied citizenship and suffer systematic discrimination; mosques and madrassas have been demolished and, to quote a Rohingya leader,

“We are a people at the brink of extermination”.

Christians also suffer. Last month more than 100 house churches were forced to close, and pastors were threatened with imprisonment, while in the Chin state, Christians have been forced to destroy crosses and churches and to build Buddhist pagodas in their place. Will Her Majesty’s Government make strong representations to the SPDC concerning religious persecution in Burma today?

In Sudan, the Government's attempt in 1983 to introduce Sharia law throughout this religiously diverse country led to the outbreak of civil war. Subsequently, the Islamist National Islamic Front regime, the NIF, seized power in 1989 and explicitly declared jihad against the predominantly Christian and animist African tribes of southern Sudan and the religiously diverse people of the Nuba Mountains and southern Blue Nile. I visited these war-torn areas 30 times. I witnessed the use by the NIF of aerial bombardment of civilian targets, massacres, torture, rape and scorched earth policies, resulting in 2 million dead, 4 million displaced and thousands taken into slavery.

In 2005, a comprehensive peace agreement, CPA, was signed, but the National Congress Party's policies in Darfur still include forcible Arabisation of African peoples and lands, and the imposition of its extremist form of Islam. Will Her Majesty’s Government do more to impress upon the Government of northern Sudan their responsibility to ensure the safety of all their citizens?

In India, the recent terrorist attack in Mumbai, which caused such massive suffering, is widely believed to have been Islamist-inspired. Previous outbreaks of violence include massacres in Gujarat in 2002 when up to 2,000 people, mostly Muslims, perished and, subsequently, in 2008, attacks on Christians in Orissa state by Hindu fundamentalists with more than 50,000 people displaced, 70 confirmed dead—some burnt alive—252 Christian places of worship and some 4,000 Christians’ homes destroyed. Christians continue to be threatened with forced conversion to Hinduism if they return to their villages. During a visit in October, we met many of the thousands of Christians still living in appalling conditions in overcrowded camps. Will Her Majesty’s Government urge the Indian Government to ensure that the state Government bring to justice those responsible for the violence, provide all help needed to enable people to return to their homes and, in the mean time, ensure adequate health care and food in the camps?

In North Korea, given the obligatory personality cult of the political leadership, there has been harsh repression of religion. Buddhist temples and other places of worship have been eliminated and defectors testify to public executions of Christians and their harsh treatment in prison camps, where many perish. Three weeks ago, my noble friend Lord Alton and I visited North Korea. We concluded that it is better to build bridges than walls and recommended, inter alia, that the time has come for the United States to normalise relations with North Korea. We welcomed educational exchanges with Britain. However, we also emphasised concerns over human rights violations, including religious persecution.

We visited the Roman Catholic church in Pyongyang and expressed our concern that there is still no Catholic priest in North Korea. We were slightly more encouraged by the beautiful new Russian Orthodox cathedral, with two priests who had studied in Moscow. We were pleased to see that the Protestant church at Bongsu has been enlarged since I worshipped there five years ago and that there is now a seminary with 10 students, which has academic links to Kim Il-sung University and the Academy of Social Sciences, allowing academic exchange between secular and theological institutions.

In Egypt, there are serious concerns over human rights violations of non-Muslims. Muslim converts to Christianity are regularly detained without charges and tortured. The Egyptian state continues to prohibit changes in the religion section of national ID cards, with dire consequences for the Baha’is and Muslim-background Christians with regard to marriage, education and even the custody rights of their own children. Throughout 2007 to 2009, incidents of violence against the 10 million-strong Coptic community increased, often resulting in serious injury and material damage. The historical Abu Fana monastery has been attacked 15 times since 2004, and those responsible were not brought to justice. The Copts are still treated as second-class, or “dhimmi”, citizens, with limited access to their civic and political rights. Even here, in Britain, there is concern over pressures in some communities to inhibit freedom to choose and change religion—in particular, over reported cases of intimidation of British Muslims who wish to leave Islam and/or convert to another faith.

The final issue that I wish to raise is the worrying resolution, adopted by the UN General Assembly for a fourth consecutive year, entitled “Combating defamation of religions”. This calls on national Governments to legislate for the protection of religion from defamation. It is sponsored by the Organisation of the Islamic Conference, and seeks to criminalise any criticism of Islam, with specific reference to human rights abuses and terrorism. It is widely seen as a device to protect Islamic states from any criticisms of violations of human rights. In an interim report, the United Nations special rapporteur on freedom of religion and belief highlights concerns that:

“The lack of an objective definition of the term ‘defamation of religions’ makes the whole concept open to abuse”,

and that,

“attempts to protect religions from ‘defamation’ are really seeking to protect religion from critical evaluation and aim to stifle religious dissent”.

I ask the Minister whether Her Majesty’s Government will continue to resist these proposals.

In conclusion, many people argue that freedom of religion and belief should be given greater weight in British foreign policy. Unlike the US State Department, which has an entire department dedicated to freedom of religion and belief, the Foreign Office has only one person in its human rights team responsible for this issue, along with other human rights concerns. I therefore ask the Minister whether Her Majesty’s Government will give serious consideration to responding positively to this proposal, perhaps by the appointment of a special envoy for freedom of religion and belief.

We who have freedom surely have an obligation to use our freedom on behalf of those who are denied it. It is my hope that this debate may make some contribution, however small, to highlighting these issues and the need to respond more effectively to those suffering for their beliefs, whatever those beliefs may be. William Wilberforce’s words when introducing legislation to end the slave trade apply to violations of religious freedom today:

“We can no longer plead ignorance. We cannot turn aside”.

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, for allowing us this opportunity to debate this important issue, and for her informative if sombre introduction.

The continual violence committed in the name of religion is indeed tragic. So too are the conflicts between communities of different faiths, or between different sects of the same faith. Most recently, Shia and Sunni Muslims have clashed in Iraq and Pakistan, Buddhists and Muslims in Thailand, Hindus and Buddhists in Sri Lanka, Muslims and Christians in Africa—as the noble Baroness described in such dreadful detail—and, of course, in Gaza, Jews and Muslims are at war yet again.

However, behind the headlines of battles and terror bombings, there are countless individual stories of oppression, fear and misery as a result of religious intolerance. It is to some of these less dramatic issues that I wish to draw your Lordships’ attention, particularly the intolerance suffered in many societies by those with no religious belief.

I speak as a humanist, with no hostility to those with beliefs in higher powers, a spiritual longing seemingly as old as humanity itself. Indeed, in a previous life as a broadcaster, my experience included responsibility for religious programming, on which I worked amicably with religious advisers over many years. At present, I am chairman of the Humanist All-Party Parliamentary Group, which has a membership among MPs and Peers of over 100—including, incidentally, a few Christian and Hindu humanists, as well as many apostates from other faiths.

As noble Lords will know, the non-religious now make up a significant proportion of the UK population. Most of these non-believers lead good and responsible lives with commitments to human rights and democracy. We humanists have a long history of work for a more open, inclusive, just and tolerant society. Progressive people of all faiths and none are, of course, natural allies in campaigns for social justice, freedom of speech and tolerance of diversity. Given the Minister’s distinguished service in his previous role with the United Nations, he may be pleased to hear that British humanists are impressed by the work done by the UN’s special rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief.

Note the rapporteur’s remit: religion or belief. That clearly encompasses the belief that there are no gods. The UN rapporteur notes that, in many cases, societal pressures mean that the non-religious cannot openly express their beliefs. There is also concern about official intolerance expressed through policies on education and equality, and on blasphemy. While the UK finally abolished blasphemy laws last year, sadly, in Pakistan, it is punishable by death. Those who reject religion face particular dangers. These so-called apostates can have marriages annulled and their children taken away. In many Islamic countries, apostasy is indeed still punishable by death.

The UN rapporteur, Asma Jehangir, has been diligent and impartial in the annual reports to the General Assembly, entitled Elimination of all forms of religious intolerance. Like the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, British humanists have been particularly concerned about the decisions being taken by the UN’s Human Rights Council, which seems increasingly to be dominated by undemocratic political and religious interests. The HRC recently amended the mandate of the UN’s rapporteur on freedom of expression to impose serious restrictions on “freedom of expression and belief”. This amendment was imposed by an alliance of Islamic Governments backed, significantly, by China, Russia and Cuba. Can the Minister confirm whether our concern is shared by the UK Government, and whether they are taking any concerted action with other democratic states to ensure that no state guilty of systematic violations of human rights should serve on the Human Rights Council?

Still on the Minister’s patch, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office has a Freedom of Religion Panel, with a membership of more than 60 non-governmental organisations, including representatives of Jewish, Muslim, Sikh, Hindu, Buddhist and Christian groups. This panel advises the FCO on matters such as commemorating the 25th anniversary of the UN’s Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and Discrimination Based on Religion or Belief. “Religion or belief” is the phrase deliberately crafted to include the non-religious. I am told that there is still no place on this FCO panel for humanist organisations that would certainly command much wider support among British citizens than many minority religions. We come in peace. Will the Minister encourage the FCO to bring the British Humanist Association on board?

Tragically, in recent years, violence perpetrated for supposedly religious reasons has become a major concern for many countries. Here in the UK we had our own sectarian tragedy for 30 years in Northern Ireland. I readily recognise that many of the conflicts that the men of violence attempt to validate by calling upon their religion are actually based on deeper social, ethnic or economic tensions. That may also be true of some problems here in Britain. But in attempting to resolve these social problems I suggest to the Minister, and to your Lordships of all faiths and none, that British humanists will be your tolerant allies in the struggle against intolerance of all kinds.

My Lords, I also pay tribute to the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, for securing this important debate. She is one of the best examples of a parliamentarian who takes these matters very seriously and, in the best traditions of Proverbs, speaks up for the voiceless around the world. Unlike some who articulate on these issues, she bases her assessments on personal experience, having visited many of these very dangerous, repressed places and having heard from people first hand. That adds great credibility to what she does in this area. The noble Lord, Lord Alton, is also active in this area.

Faced with such distinguished experience, I considered how I could contribute to the debate. I decided to go back to first principles and look again at the UN declaration that we are discussing. Given that it is just over 60 years old, it might be worth reconsidering some of its articles. We are specifically concerned in this debate with Article 18. It states:

“Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance”.

Its meaning is pretty explicit. However, Article 18 is just one measure in the declaration, which has many supporting clauses. Article 1 states:

“All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood”.

Those are wonderful, exciting aspirations. Anyone who has the privilege of visiting the United Nations headquarters in New York—the Minister obviously has far more experience of this than I—will, like me, be very moved by the wonderful mosaic of Norman Rockwell’s painting “The Golden Rule”, which shows all the nations coming together and the golden rule of “Do unto others as you would have done unto yourselves”. That kind of mutuality was at the core of the Founding Fathers’ philosophy.

Article 2 reads:

“Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion”.

Article 7 says:

“All are equal before the law and are entitled without any discrimination to equal protection of the law”.

Article 16 says:

“Men and women of full age, without any limitation due to race, nationality or religion, have the right to marry and to found a family”.

Article 19 says:

“Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference”.

Article 26 says:

“Education shall be directed to the full development of the human personality and to the strengthening of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms. It shall promote understanding, tolerance and friendship among all nations, racial or religious groups, and shall further the activities of the United Nations for the maintenance of peace”.

In going through that long list I do not seek to test the patience of the House but to indicate that religious freedom is not an add-on that a bureaucrat has gold-plated into the declaration in the irritating way that we sometimes see in other worthy declarations and documents. The right to religious conscience is fundamental to the whole concept of human rights. It is the most sensitive flower in the field of human freedom. When it is trampled, all other freedoms and all other equalities automatically and consequentially go by the board too. We draw so much of what we call human rights from our belief in religious freedom. It is critical to underline the importance of that concept. That is implicit in the preamble to the declaration. It states:

“Whereas disregard and contempt for human rights have resulted in barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind, and the advent of a world in which human beings shall enjoy freedom of speech and belief and freedom from fear and want has been proclaimed as the highest aspiration of the common people,

“Whereas it is essential, if man is not to be compelled to have recourse, as a last resort, to rebellion against tyranny and oppression, that human rights should be protected by the rule of law”.

That preamble is very important because it reminds us that religious freedom is part of the process of preventing conflict. Indeed, much civil conflict has at its root a conflict about religious freedom. Therefore, if one tackles and upholds that, one also improves the possibility of reducing conflict. Conflict is a major cause of poverty and other forms of oppression. Here we can be positive about that aspect of human rights.

As if that were not clear enough, in 1981 the international community came back to the issue with the Declaration on the Elimination of all Forms of Intolerance and Discrimination based on Religion or Belief, which states:

“Considering that religion or belief, for anyone who professes either, is one of the fundamental elements in his conception of life and that freedom of religion or belief should be fully respected and guaranteed”.

According to the Guinness Book of Records—I did not research it but saw this information on a website, so it needs to be corroborated—the UN declaration is the most translated document in humanity. Wycliffe Bible translators may argue with that, but the UDHR has been translated into 300 different languages. The original signatories to that fine declaration included Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Burma and Pakistan. They willingly signed up to it as a core principle that they seek to uphold.

The Government need to take that a bit more seriously than they are doing at the moment. That is not meant personally as I know that the Minister has a distinguished track record and I would not want to take away from that. But the Foreign Office sometimes appears a little embarrassed about religion, especially the Christian faith. The 2007 annual human rights report is 216 pages long, but only three pages refer to religion. Compare that to the declaration. Using the great search engine now available on pdf’s latest package, if one searches for the word “religion” the first mention in the report is on page 51. The whole front section is about policy goals. The Government could do a lot more to promote religious freedom. The idea about the Council on Religious Freedom, which already exists, is clearly a good one, but it meets “irregularly”—I think that was the term used in another place. I am not sure what irregularly means. Perhaps the Minister can tell us how often it meets, what its agenda is and how its work is being pushed forward. I also like the idea of introducing a special envoy to give a real focus to the efforts of this country in upholding religious freedom around the world. Without embarrassing anybody in particular, I would say that there are some worthy candidates in this Chamber who have proved their eligibility for such a position over many years.

Religious freedom is fundamental to many other human rights. We have to take it seriously; we should not be embarrassed about it but should uphold it along with others and build the infrastructure necessary to make it possible.

My Lords, I appreciate the opportunity given to us by the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, to discuss this subject again. I also, as the noble Lord, Lord Macdonald said, come in peace, but I declare an interest as a Methodist minister so I am not entirely unbiased.

History is scarred with instances of persecution and intolerance. Every generation has looked at others and said, “They are different from us, so they are people to be afeared and oppressed”. In New Testament times—we can go back even further if need be—there was new teaching in Galilee. That of course met with opposition. It was a threat to traditional religion and the stability of Roman rule. The Crucifixion can be regarded as much as a political act as a religious one. It stoked up the hostility of both sections of the community. It is when there is a mingling of politics and religion that we sometimes get the greatest measure of intolerance and it is often difficult to find who is responsible. Was it political or religious first? You have to try to fathom where the real truth lies.

Some cruelties such as the Inquisition, pogroms suffered by Jewish people, direct persecution and the crusades to a large extent were aimed at conversion from one faith to another or even just to eliminate people of another faith, as we know happened in Hitler’s Germany. We look at that and sometimes have to admit that the church has been unhelpful and the cause in many ways of wars, disputes and suffering. For that, we all share a great feeling of sadness and a conviction that this should not have happened. However, we cannot say that all wars start with the church. The two major dictators of our time were Stalin and Hitler. One was anti-Semitic and caused the massive Holocaust in Europe. The other was an atheist, and we saw the terrible consequences of his atheism in Russia and other parts of Europe. So here we face not religious causes, but political, territorial and tribal ones. People are trampled and destroyed regardless of any faith they might or might not hold. Pastor Niemöller—I will not repeat his whole quotation—instances the destruction of trade unionists, Gypsies and homosexuals as well as Jewish people. Whatever their faith and status, they were to be trampled upon and destroyed.

I remember hearing, some years ago, about the Christian Falange invading Lebanon. I felt so ashamed until I realised that it was not really a church or a Christian body at all, but merely a tribal label. Labels are so often given in an indiscriminate way. I have written here, “Politics can give religion a bad name”. Personal ambition—the hunger of certain individuals for power—and the urge for tribal revenge can also have disastrous results. Some people say that God is the problem, but I say that it is the people who think that they are God who are the problem.

There are many things that cause these persecutions. In The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Gibbon states that religions are,

“all considered by the people equally true, by the philosophers equally false, and by the magistrates equally useful”.

The label can disguise so much else.

We are talking not only about the situation as it is, but how we can be an instrument of healing. What can we do? Three years ago, I suggested in this Chamber that we should encourage a global federation of faiths, similar to the United Nations in the political sphere. We would establish an institution to bring together the faiths of the world, so that they could discuss their problems and disputes on a permanent basis. I still think that that might be worth considering: it might not be the answer, but it might be a direction in which to go.

We in the UK are a multicultural society. In such a society, we have to come to terms with people who are different from us. Often we misunderstand and are suspicious; sometimes we are ignorant. I know that a forum of faiths in the UK would be something that we in this Parliament could instigate: people of various faiths being welcomed together on a regular basis. I look around this Chamber and remember that there was a youth parliament here a year or so ago. The Chamber was occupied not by Peers, but by young people. To establish a forum of faiths in the UK, it would need to be prestigious; something that people could have confidence in and say, “This is held in high regard”. I do not know what the answer would be to the suggestion that occasionally this Chamber might be filled with people of different denominations and faiths, to give them a boost, and a conviction that this is something critical that we are all deeply concerned about.

By adopting those suggestions, this Parliament and country could give a hands-on lead to global understanding. I am certain that other countries would welcome our initiative. It could be part of Britain’s enhanced role in the 21st century.

My Lords, I, too, thank the noble Baroness, not only for securing the debate, but also for her distinguished tenacity in this matter over many years.

One striking feature of Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is the indivisibility of this right to freedom. It follows that those who profess a particular faith may not claim a right that does not apply to others, and also that those whose beliefs are commonly described as “religious” may not claim a right that does not apply equally to those who disown religious faith—I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord MacDonald, for what he said about that—and vice versa.

Obviously, no freedoms can be unlimited, and it may be that one of the more interesting background questions to this debate is what happens when freedoms come into conflict. However, that appears not to be the main point of the debate. I want to draw attention to a few issues and suggest a warning.

Last year I had the privilege at the Lambeth Conference of sitting at the feet of Samson Das, the Bishop of Cuttack in Orissa state, who was able to testify at first hand to the sufferings of the individuals, congregations and institutions in his diocese. The noble Baroness has already said enough about the numbers of those involved and the details of their sufferings, so I do not need to repeat any of that now. However, it does of course concentrate the mind wonderfully to spend time with those directly involved.

Bishop Das’s description of an appalling situation could, tragically, be told of many parts of the world and in relation to an enormous number of conflicts, in many of which the borderline between religious differences and cultural or ethnic tensions is not always very easy to distinguish. The very fact of that difficulty suggests that, without in any way trying to minimise those wider issues, we need to identify and acknowledge the particularly religious elements involved in such aggression.

It would, I suppose, be unrealistic not to mention in this debate the situation of Christians in the Holy Land and elsewhere in the Middle East. In places where different faiths have coexisted for centuries we see the rapid attrition of the Christian church in its ancestral homelands. In Iraq, Christians have suffered extreme deprivation, sometimes due to sheer religious hatred, sometimes just caught in the cross-fire, sometimes because, amazingly and quite wrongly, they are regarded as representatives of a western faith. So we cannot disown our own particular responsibility and the pressure on Christians in some parts of the world.

Of course, persecution does not always take a violent form; there are sometimes perfectly legitimate attempts to persecute minorities or other people based on legitimate rule of law. Just across the border from Iraq, in south-east Turkey, a part of the world that I know particularly well, court cases are alleging the theft of land from local villages by monasteries in Tur Abdin which have stood there since the late fourth century. There is a certain degree of ridiculousness about some of this, but that does not actually affect the sufferings of those Syriac villagers and others who are suffering so greatly.

The last issue I want to draw attention to is closer to home and also reinforces the point that not all persecution is necessarily bloody. The suspension of Caroline Petrie, a community nurse, for offering to pray with a patient, not surprisingly led to incredulity. But as well as incredulity this was also an occasion for some interesting examples of social cohesion. A spokesman for a local Muslim forum in Sussex, in my own diocese, observed:

“This is crazy. These people need their heads testing. Someone from the goodness of their heart does a good deed and people punish her … We should make every effort to bring peace, calmness and above all hope to our patients. This is a christian country and a majority of the patients believe in God. This was a kind and charitable gesture and we should praise the nurse”.

End of Muslim quote. It is a welcome sign of how faith communities can hold together in the face of a growing hostility to faith. One might even say, if one wanted to be naughty, that it is a sign of diversity and equality in action. Of course I welcome Mrs Petrie’s reported return to work.

I finish by drawing attention to one particular aspect of the situation which is addressed directly by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and I am very grateful to the noble Lord who quoted Article 18 in its entirety. The right upheld in Article 18 is not only about freedom of faith and freedom to change one's faith, it is also about the right to hold and practise one's faith in public. This freedom is curtailed not just by communal hostility but, in many cases, by public authorities in many parts of the world today. I hope that Her Majesty's Government will take strenuous steps to make sure that that does not happen here.

My Lords, as my noble friend Lady Cox mentioned in her opening speech, three weeks ago we travelled together to North Korea. I declare a non-pecuniary interest as chairman of the All-Party British-North Korea Parliamentary Group. In supporting the many specific points that she has made today, especially the desirability of the appointment of a special envoy with a mandate to uphold the right to freedom of belief enshrined in Article 18 of the UN declaration of human rights, I want to use my time today to reinforce her observations about North Korea.

Five years ago, after our first visit, my noble friend and I established the all-party group. Since then we have held numerous witness sessions, where we have heard first-hand accounts from escapees. We initiated what we described as a process of constructive critical engagement, and argued that the six-party talks aimed at resolving security questions also needed simultaneously to engage North Korea on human rights and humanitarian issues. It is a country where, the UN special rapporteur, Professor Vitit Muntarbhorn, estimates, 400,000 people have been killed by the regime and 200,000 people are currently detained in prison camps, many because of their religious beliefs.

Critical engagement in confronting human rights abuses was the approach used in eastern Europe after the passing of the Helsinki Final Act in 1975. That led, in turn, to the creation of Andrei Sakharov’s Moscow Helsinki Group. Anatoly Dobrynin said:

“The Helsinki Accords gradually became a manifesto of the dissident and liberal movement … people who lived under these systems—at least the more courageous—could claim official permission to say what they thought”.

In the report of our most recent visit, Carpe Diem—Seizing the Moment for Change in North Korea, which will be published on Thursday and a copy of which I will place in the Library, my noble friend and I argue that we now need “Helsinki with a Korean face” and that there is an historic opportunity to end the technical state of war that still exists between North Korea and the United States. That, in turn, could usher in an era of more fundamental change, especially the promotion of religious and political freedom.

Our visit was timely because there has been a recent deterioration in relations between South Korea and North Korea. The north has been threatening to launch a new Taepodong-2 missile, which is said to have the ability to reach the coast of the United States. Some analysts believe that the north might do this to assess the resolve of President Barack Obama. There are, perhaps, echoes here of the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, which tested another new American president, John F. Kennedy.

Although Hillary Clinton did not go to North Korea last week, America’s new Secretary of State visited the region to assess the situation for herself. In advance of Mrs Clinton’s regional sweep, North Korea’s ceremonial head of state, Kim Yong Nam—whom my noble friend and I met when we first visited North Korea five years ago—said that North Korea is ready to,

“develop relations with countries that are friendly toward us”.

This view was confirmed to us throughout our visit by senior officials in the DPRK. The American State Department would do well to recognise the significance of these remarks. A decade ago Her Majesty’s Government established a diplomatic mission in Pyongyang. I pay particular tribute to our ambassador Peter Hughes and his admirable staff, who do a magnificent job. It is time for the Americans to do the same. William Perry, a former US Secretary of State for Defence, said in 2003:

“We should never negotiate from fear, but we should never fear to negotiate”.

I first became interested in North Korea after I met Yoo Sang-joon, a North Korean Christian who had escaped from the DPRK and whom I met here at Westminster. His story was harrowing and disturbing. He described how he had seen his wife and all but one of his children shot dead by Kim Jong-Il’s militia. He subsequently escaped across the border to China with his one remaining son. The boy died en route. Yoo Sang-joon became an Asian Raoul Wallenberg, the Swedish diplomat who saved thousands of Jewish lives during the Holocaust. Yoo Sang-joon bravely re-entered North Korea and helped many people to flee across the border. This led to his arrest in China in 2007. As a result of international pressure, the Chinese, I am glad to say, agreed to repatriate him to Seoul, rather than to the north where he would have been executed.

I would be interested to hear from the Minister whether we raised the continued repatriation of North Koreans in the recent UK-Chinese dialogue on human rights. If we continue to repatriate, we should be clear about the consequences for those who are returned to North Korea. Among the witnesses who have given evidence at our sessions in the Moses Room over the last few years was Jeon Young-Ok, who was aged 40. She said:

“I was put in a camp where I saw and experienced unimaginable things … The women were forced to strip. A group of us were thrown just one blanket and we were forced to pull it from one another as we tried to hide our shame … I didn’t want to live. They tortured the Christians the most. They were denied food and sleep. They were forced to stick out their tongues and iron was pushed into it”.

During our visit to North Korea, my noble friend and I continually raised the case of 26-year-old Shin Dong-Hyok, who spent the first 23 years of his life in North Korea’s political prison camp 14, where he was born. In his Moses Room evidence, he described how he saw his mother and brother executed, and was himself tortured. Twelve days ago, I felt privileged to share a platform with him at South Korea’s National Assembly. Cases such as these should be raised at every opportunity and should not be eclipsed by security issues.

Although, as my noble friend has said, we saw some glimmers of hope during our visit, there is still a long way to travel in permitting freedom of expression, belief and worship. What does North Korea lose as a consequence? By denying pastoral access to the Catholic Church—no priest has been allowed in for 55 years—the DPRK is preventing the Korean Church from providing help, development investment, and support for the poor and needy, which has led to phenomenal social provision in the South. Religious freedom leads to voluntary social endeavour on a huge scale. But, of course, dictatorships tend to be fearful of those institutions that they cannot control.

Last week, Korean Catholics were mourning the death of their first cardinal, Stephen Kim Sou-hwan. During the 1970s and 1980s, when South Korea was a military dictatorship, Cardinal Kim became known as an outspoken defender of human rights. He literally refused to allow troops to seize pro-democracy students sheltering in his Myeongdong Cathedral in Seoul. Former President Kim Dae-jung, a holder of the Nobel Peace Prize, said that Kim’s had been a voice in the wilderness,

“for our people groaning under dictatorship”.

United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon, who is a South Korean national, called him,

“the conscience of an era”.

The Korean Church has been steeped in suffering. Pope John Paul II described it as,

“a community unique in the history of the Church”.

It is unique because the Korean Church was not founded by missionaries. In the eighteenth century, some young Korean intellectuals encountered Christianity in China and brought their faith back to Korea. As the church was planted, between 8,000 and 10,000 martyrs died, so Korean Christians are no strangers to suffering. This story is brilliantly documented by the former Anglican Bishop of Korea, Canon Richard Rutt, in his Catholic Truth Society pamphlet The Martyrs of Korea.

Cardinal Nicholas Cheong, who now leads the Korean Church, told me during talks in Seoul that he remains ready and willing to devote resources and personnel to help the north. I hope that, as a harbinger of the reunification of the Korean peninsula, which must surely come, we will see the silent dioceses of the north given voices once more. What better signal could the north give to the world that it wants peace, security and a prosperous future? It would also be a significant move in the direction of Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which guarantees freedom of belief for all.

As always, all of us in this House remain indebted to my noble friend for giving us the opportunity to debate these issues today.

My Lords, the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, in opening the debate, gave a long list of examples of religious persecution, discrimination and disadvantage, and the list could have been a great deal longer. I was talking to an Israeli diplomat this morning, who reminded me that part of the reason for the rise of Avigdor Lieberman’s party is that there is no such institution as civil marriage in Israel. You can have a Muslim marriage or a Jewish marriage, but if you want to have a civil marriage you must leave Israel and come back with a certificate from another country.

Many of us will remember the battle in Greece only a few years ago about whether you could not have an ID card which listed your religion. We ourselves have a history of discrimination that is not so ancient. Not so long ago, I attended the wedding, in northern Denmark, between a Dane and an Italian, one of whom was one of my former students. The fuss we had over the potential presence of a Roman Catholic priest in a Lutheran church at the beginning of the 21st century showed that there are still many shadows of the past, even in our supposedly tolerant European society. We recognise that we are not talking simply about discrimination by one religion against another, but discrimination by the orthodox against those whom they regard as heretics within each faith; against Ahmadiyya, Alevis and Shias within Islam and against particular forms of Protestantism or Catholicism in different countries.

The noble Baroness, Lady Cox, emphasised the importance of religious dissent. That is what we should be hanging on to. We support the principle of dissent, religious and political, and I hope we all accept that religious freedom does not exist alone in a society. British history shows that religious freedom is only possible in a political system and a society in which wider freedoms of thought and of expression, political expression in particular, are allowed. I declare an interest as an Anglican brought up in the middle of the Church of England, much influenced by Bishop John Robinson, John Habgood and others, with doubting Thomas as my favourite saint and that wonderful expression from the Epistles:

“For now we see as through a glass darkly”.

I assumed naively as a child that the Anglican principle was that we could none of us be entirely sure what God thought on anything so we had better not insist on laying down the rule too tightly towards others. I have since discovered that there are plenty of people in the Anglican Church who still want to lay down the law on others and who use quite ancient prejudices against women in the chancel, for example, to express their reactionary views through religion.

I was interested and slightly shocked to read William Dalrymple’s The Last Mughal two or three years ago and the extent to which it was an aggressive Anglican attempt to convert the Muslims of Delhi that did a great deal to provoke the Indian mutiny in reaction to Christian intolerant evangelism. What should our response be? As a Liberal Christian, I naturally emphasise tolerance and acceptance of dialogue within our shared condition of human uncertainty. We should preach tolerance, practise tolerance, expect tolerance from others and oppose fundamentalism in all religions including our own.

We should also recognise how often religion has been used and is still used as a cover for other aims—racial, tribal and political. The Chinese Communist Party has this desperate fear of any autonomous communities, of all forms of free thinking, which thus leads to the persecution, not just of Catholics, Baptists and Buddhists, but also of the Falun Gong—anything which sets up as an autonomous group within the state. Population pressures in Africa, Indonesia and elsewhere also foment what appears to be religious conflict. That is partly what is happening in Nigeria, where the doubling and trebling of populations leads to people choosing which out-group they fight against. Sadly, that has been true in central Africa and there is clearly also an element of it in Sudan. In Indonesia, where there has been Christian violence against Muslims, that has partly been local Christians against Muslim immigrants being settled in their islands.

The fundamentalism of the Vatican on the issue of population growth has not helped in this regard. I regard the coalition between the Vatican and fundamentalist Muslim countries at the last UN population conference as one of the more shameful aspects of organised Christian religion that we have seen in recent years and I worry that there is some tendency in the Vatican at present to a retreat towards what can only be described as Christian fundamentalism.

I agree with my noble friend Lord Roberts of Llandudno that political and religious persecution go together, but hatred of outsiders, the persecution of scapegoat minorities, the extent to which we choose to define how everyone else should believe—the “we” being those in power—is clearly something against which we all have to fight. I know this is an extremely sensitive issue at present but there are those such as Geert Wilders in the Netherlands who express as religious motivation what seems to many of us to be racial hatred.

If, for a couple of months, I were to pick bits out of the Bible—the Book of Revelations and the Old Testament together—to demonstrate that Christianity is an intolerant religion, I could probably make a 17-minute film which would be fairly persuasive. We can pick and choose but, if we are to promote tolerance, we have to behave responsibly within our own traditions of religion.

I oppose the singling out of religion from other forms of persecution of belief, whether political or secular, and I mistrust the motivation of the Bush Administration, which set up a separate department on religious discrimination within the State Department. I do not support such a proposal. Having spent some years in the United States as a young man, I am conscious of the anti-Catholic and anti-Semitic groups of Protestant fundamentalism in the United States and indeed of the anti-rationalist and the anti-modernist groups of Protestant fundamentalism. I rejoice that that sort of reactionary fundamentalism now appears to be on the decline again within much of the United States.

For similar reasons, I question the appointment of a British special envoy. It is, of course, a paradox in the United States, a state which is secular according to its constitution, that such a strongly religious dimension of its foreign policy should have been pursued by the last Republican Administration, whereas Britain, with the established Church, has recently been a good deal more secular. I celebrate our more mature acceptance in this country. We are a nation of religious diversity and of political tolerance. We talk now about Britain's churches and Britain’s faiths.

As a boy, I sang at the Coronation in 1953, which was an extensively and exclusively Protestant affair. The only non-Church of England priest to take part in the service was the Moderator of the Church of Scotland. Fifty years later, at the anniversary service, the Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster read the first lesson and I could see the Orthodox Archbishop standing beside him, alongside a representative of the Salvation Army. Under the lantern, listening to them, were representatives of what the service programme called “Britain’s other faiths”: Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Baha’i, Buddhist, Zoroastrian and Jain. If noble Lords ask me to define the main tenets of the Jain faith, I am not sure I could do that very well. The British task is to defend and to promote freedom of belief throughout the world, of political and religious belief and of dissent in all its forms.

My Lords, I too thank the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, for giving the House the opportunity to debate this important matter. I want to reiterate what my noble friend Lord Bates and the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chichester said about the important, sometimes dangerous work undertaken by the noble Baroness in this area. I include in that the noble Lord, Lord Alton, particularly for the incredible work he has done to try to improve matters for the poor, suffering people living in North Korea.

As the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, said, the range of religious freedom and freedom of belief is so vast that it is difficult to do justice to them all. Together with other noble Lords she has given some appalling examples which clearly show that the problem of religious persecution is very much in existence. The noble Lord, Lord MacDonald, as a distinguished humanist, gave the House examples of problems faced by those with no religious belief.

Religious persecution can be seen in many different walks of life; it is a long way from a nurse's offer to pray for a patient to the question of how to ensure the safety of the Jewish community in Britain, but both cases are rooted in questions of how faith and daily life should interact. Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights protects the individual's right to freedom of religion and religious practice. But there are other articles: protecting the freedom of expression, and the right to be protected from attacks on one's honour and reputation, for example.

Finding a path through the multitude of rights and responsibilities, some conflicting and all liable to a multiplicity of definitions, is not easy, but as hard as it is to lay out a clear set of limits as to how far each right can be taken, it is not hard to see when such limits have been drawn incorrectly. One of the great dangers of defining religious rights is inconsistency. It is unsurprising that the feeling that some faiths are more liable to persecution than others, whether justified or not, has grown when the Government have failed to apply their own legislation consistently.

Nowhere is this clearer than in the recent Geert Wilders case. Freedom of religion should not be used as a shield for those wishing to spread hatred and intolerance. We support the denial of entry to those who do so, but what credibility can this Government claim in this matter when a Dutch MP is banned, but those who publicly proclaim anti-Semitism, homophobia and suicide attacks continue to enter or remain in this country? Can the Minister inform the House whether the Government have learnt anything from recent events? It is clear that these decisions are made very much on a case-by-case basis with a great deal of confusion surrounding the criteria on which the final judgment rests.

Religious persecution, of course, goes beyond high-profile banning orders. It is sadly part of the day-to-day life of many and, according to the Home Secretary, is set to affect many more as the recession starts to bite. Certain communities are already suffering from disproportionate economic disadvantages, which can only get worse as unemployment figures rise. As economic isolation grows, so too does cultural isolation, further increasing the possibility of religiously motivated attacks as links between different communities break down. The isolation of many communities in this country is a problem that can and should be addressed but, instead, the Government's refusal to address long-running social and cultural problems for fear of causing offence has exacerbated it. To allow divisive and harmful cultural practices to continue because of claims that they are somehow fundamental to a religion is to misapply Article 18 in the most dangerous way. Religious freedoms should never be allowed to be used as an excuse to perpetuate the inequality of women or the practice of democracy; the Government should instead be seeking to encourage social cohesion and a broad acceptance of the civic values that underlie this country.

In the mean time, more must be done to protect those particularly at threat from religiously motivated attacks. Recent events in Israel and Gaza have led to a sharp increase in the number of anti-Semitic incidents. I look forward to hearing from the Minister the Government's response to the recommendations made in the report to the all-party inquiry into anti-Semitism.

Contributions to this debate have accepted that there is a problem with religious persecution that is not fading away. The Government must do more not only to ensure that their actions do not spark resentment of unfair treatment but to protect the public from those who encourage religious hatred.

My Lords, let me join those of your Lordships who have spoken this evening in thanking the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, not just for bringing this subject before us, but for her lifetime commitment as an advocate of these issues—and a frequent traveller of astonishing proportions in directly going to bear personal witness to issues of religious discrimination and the oppression of religious freedom around the world. In doing that, she is very much part of a British tradition with that great concern for religious freedom that has, for many centuries, preoccupied us as a country here and abroad.

During the Lambeth Conference organised last year by the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury, I recall being privileged to lunch with an extraordinary group of religious leaders—including the Archbishop of Sudan, the Bishop of Colombo, Sri Lanka, and bishops covering north and southern Africa—and to hear their extraordinary stories of maintaining the freedom of all their congregations against threats that were political, economic and social in character. They were convinced of the need not just to protect the freedoms of their own congregations but those of other religions, understanding that only when all religions are free is any religion free.

Like the noble Lord, Lord Wallace, I must identify myself as a liberal Anglican, and in that sense I, too, perhaps put the greatest value on that ultimate sense of Britain as a nation of dissenters. I suppose that that also allows me to identify with the Methodists and others here. In that sense, we cannot be entirely blind to problems in our own society. This, after all, is an old issue: I said to my 12 year-old son today that I would be debating religious freedom tonight. He is at the Oratory, a Catholic boys’ school in London where, he immediately told me, they were all signing a petition at present on why a Catholic could not marry a monarch.

We all still have traces in our societies of such issues to address. However, there has been a bipartisan commitment over many years that this Government seek to pursue the promotion of religious freedom and belief—or the right not to believe, as we heard earlier—with all the tools that we have. This includes both our bilateral activities and our efforts to ensure that religion and belief remain high on multilateral agendas. As Ministers, we raise the issue when we travel to countries of concern and with visitors from those countries when they see us here. That includes, for example, the many countries which still penalise blasphemy and use that offence to harass religious minorities; in some jurisdictions, the punishment for it still involves corporal punishment or even the death penalty. That can never be condoned. The Foreign Office is producing guidelines for our posts on how to promote freedom of religion or belief, and to combat violations of it. Those will be published in March.

Multilaterally—and I stress that it is so often multilateral channels that offer us a much more forceful way to make our case—we, together with our EU partners, are making full use of the new universal periodic review mechanism at the Human Rights Council in Geneva to raise the issues of religious freedom. That is one of the few public fora where we can engage with countries that otherwise are reluctant to engage. So, when the DPRK is examined in December, we will raise those issues. In that case, we have concerning evidence about the persecution of believers in those Potemkin-like churches in Pyongyang. We also maintain regular dialogue with representatives of religious groups whose members frequently suffer violations of their rights, such as the Baha’is, the Ahmadiyyas, the Jehovah’s Witnesses and other Christian groups. We encourage NGOs and others to draw violations to our attention, and we have a stakeholder group on freedom of religion that meets FCO officials to enhance co-operation in this work.

I turn to the points that have been raised tonight. Apostasy is a difficult issue, especially when it concerns Islam, as several Islamic countries prohibit and punish apostasy. In some countries, it is even punishable by death. In others, apostates are charged with other offences such as blasphemy, defaming Islam or insulting their country. However, this does not deter us from making representations to promote the freedom of individuals to change their religion, nor from promoting Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which has been quoted tonight and is a formidable article of an extraordinary document. We strongly believe that people have the right to practise their beliefs as well as to change their religion if they so wish. Some of the countries in which we have made this case are Eritrea, China, Mauritania, Lebanon, Egypt, Syria, Jordan, Libya, Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Iran, Malaysia, Nigeria and Pakistan, among others.

The noble Baroness, Lady Cox, talked about Nigeria. In Nigeria’s recent universal periodic review, the UK raised the issue of economic, social and cultural rights. We also recommended that Nigeria should take further steps to address discrimination against minority and vulnerable groups. Last week, I met a remarkable Muslim leader from northern Nigeria, the Sultan of Sokoto, who agreed with me, and indeed volunteered the point, that those who are responsible for the intercommunal violence last year needed to be held to account and brought to justice, and that only if that sort of impunity was brought to an end would these problems be resolved.

The noble Baroness, Lady Cox, also raised the case of Burma. I reassure her that our ambassador in Rangoon frequently presses the Burmese authorities to end human rights abuses. We condemn the marginalisation or persecution of any community based on its religious beliefs. Although it makes the abuses no less serious, the persecution of religious minority groups by the Burmese authorities is often based in reality on their ethnicity and a perceived threat to security rather than solely on their faith.

Sudan was also mentioned. We have reminded the Government of Sudan of their responsibility to maintain order, to protect the deployment of UNAMID, which is so important in Darfur, and to allow full access for humanitarian assistance. More critically, we must ensure the effective implementation of the north-south agreement, the CPA, because it was from that agreement that the release of those in the south from the violent persecution of those in the north finally came. Ensuring that the steps laid out in that agreement are fully honoured and lead to elections and a referendum that allows the people of the south to choose whether they wish to remain in Sudan is the critical political track to solving this issue.

As to India, the noble Baroness will be aware that through the EU delegation, which visited Orissa state in December, and through the EU-India human rights dialogue, which will take place later this month, we will continue to press our concerns about what happened in Orissa. I have raised this issue directly with the high commissioner here and with officials in India.

Equally, in the case of Egypt, former Minister Kim Howells raised the issue of religious freedom directly with the Speaker of the Egyptian Parliament about a year ago. On 11 March last year, our embassy in Cairo met the Egyptian Deputy Minister for Human Rights, and again there was a discussion of the freedom of religion and Egypt’s wider commitment under these conventions.

As regards the DPRK, North Korea, there is no freedom of religion. While I am delighted to hear perhaps the first green shoot—a term that a politician uses carefully—of some freedom, when it comes to the orthodox church, our view remains that those churches are primarily limited showcases for outsiders and that nothing close to freedom of religion is operating across the country as a whole. We will work closely with NGOs, including Christian NGOs, in the run-up to the Human Rights Council review of the DPRK this year.

Let me say to the noble Lord, Lord Alton, that we perhaps do not lobby as specifically on religious persecution as we should. Our main concerns have been the use of labour camps, torture, the absence of any freedom of speech and certainly the absence of any right to organise or to come together as groups of any kind in North Korea. I acknowledge that the 2008 EU-sponsored UN General Assembly resolution on human rights specifically mentioned freedom of religion. Recently, we lobbied on human rights more generally when the director of our Asia-specific department met a delegation here of the Workers’ Party of Korea. We raised religious freedoms during the visit of that delegation. On China and returnees to North Korea, we are as concerned as the noble Lord about the status of North Korean border crossers to China. We raised that issue most recently at the UK-China human rights dialogue in January of this year.

We are all aware that the defamation of religions, which has come up in several forms, is difficult. We have to find our way, because, as we saw just recently with the visit of the Dutch MP, who has been referred to, we must protect a person’s right to criticise the religion of other people, but we have to take care when it crosses the barrier, not any more into freedom of speech, but to incitement of violence and a potential racial prejudice. Since July 2005, 270 people have been excluded from entering the UK on the suspicion of being a threat to national security or of fostering extremism. There is a clear test—the incitement test—which the Home Secretary uses in making that determination. It is notable that a Dutch court has recently ordered that Mr Wilders should be prosecuted for making statements about Muslims.

In closing, perhaps I may say that the duty of this Chamber and the role that this Chamber can play goes much broader than the UK alone. A debate like this is heard everywhere around the world by those religious minorities who feel oppressed and feel that their case has been forgotten. To everyone who has participated tonight, let us hope that we have lit one more candle in this long quest for religious freedom for all.

House adjourned at 9.14 pm.