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Commemoration: Victims of Religious Violence

Volume 798: debated on Wednesday 10 July 2019


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what plans they have to recognise the newly designated United Nations Day for commemorating the victims of acts of violence based on religion or belief on 22 August.

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper and declare my interests as outlined in the register.

My Lords, the Government are deeply concerned at both the scale and severity of acts of violence based on religion or belief. We very much welcome the newly established United Nations Day for commemorating the victims of acts of violence based on religion or belief. The United Kingdom was proud to co-sponsor the resolution establishing this day. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office will issue guidance to posts suggesting ways in which they may wish to mark 22 August, and my noble friend Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon will attend a parliamentary event later this month to mark the day.

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend for her Answer and recognise that, as the day has only recently been designated, it is quite tricky in relation to 22 August this year. However, next year is also the 400th anniversary of the embarkation of the “Mayflower” during the late summer of 1620, so would it not be appropriate for Her Majesty’s Government to use this anniversary of victims of religious intolerance fleeing England to devote resources to drawing attention to today’s victims of acts of violence against religion or belief on this newly designated day?

My Lords, my noble friend makes a most interesting suggestion that merits exploration. There is a symmetry in fact that nearly 400 years ago pilgrims left this country for the new world to practise their faith freely, and today we celebrate freedom of religion or belief proudly and with passion—not least because the newly designated United Nations Day of 22 August firmly places this issue on the global radar screen.

My Lords, it is a sad fact that tomorrow, 11 July, marks the day in 1995 when more than 8,500 men and young boys were massacred in Srebrenica. Will the Minister say what we are going to do tomorrow to commemorate those victims of such a terrible crime?

I thank the noble Lord, who refers to a tragic and deeply distressing incident from that past time. The United Nations designated day for commemorating the victims of acts of violence based on religion or belief on 22 August of this year is one way, along with others, of remembering where such atrocities occurred. It is the case that, as I said earlier, the United Kingdom was one of the co-sponsors of the resolution establishing that day, and certainly we look forward to working with our global partners as we commemorate and remember these terrible acts of violence.

My Lords, has the Minister noted that the independent inquiry report, commissioned by the Foreign Secretary and published on Monday, stated that the persecution of 250 million people was,

“the most shocking abuse of human rights in the modern era”.

Will the Minister tell us whether special attention will be paid to the inquiry’s recommendation that a Foreign and Commonwealth Office review should take place of the way in which people are held to account and brought to justice for persecution, crimes against humanity and genocide?

First of all, in relation to the independent review, we are very grateful to the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Truro for that hard-hitting report—and it is hard hitting—and for its ambitious recommendations. As the noble Lord will be aware, a number of the recommendations reach beyond the FCO and across government departments. I can reassure him that we are working across government to agree a formal, collective response as soon as possible.

My Lords, perhaps I may say that, on behalf of many of us, we welcome the Government’s support for this day, although we hugely grieve for the fact that such a day is necessary. One of the best ways that we will tackle continuing violence, based on religion or belief, in the long run will be through education. I wonder whether Her Majesty’s Government are planning or investing in the training of educators and religious leaders from countries where there are high levels of freedom of religion or belief violations, so that we can promote respect and peaceful coexistence. This would be a very profitable investment.

I thank the right reverend Prelate, who makes an extremely important point. To reassure him, the Government agree with his assessment. Indeed, education is key to our work on freedom of religion or belief. To illustrate: between 2016 and 2018, the FCO funded a programme run by Hardwired in which 56 teachers from Iraq, Lebanon and Morocco created and developed innovative educational curricula that promoted greater respect for the rights and freedoms of all people, especially those who think and believe differently from them. Over 1,000 schoolchildren took part in the programme. The right reverend Prelate is absolutely correct, and we will continue to look for further ways to promote respect through education.

My Lords, among the recommendations made specifically to the Foreign Office by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Truro in his report were that there should be a spreading of real understanding about the role of religion within the department—and indeed, in some other departments —and that overseas posts should not confine themselves to talking to the establishment religious leaders but should seek out those who are vulnerable because of their religious faith and make sure that they are communicating with them. Are those the sorts of things the Foreign Office will do?

That encapsulates the general concept of training, and the noble Lord is absolutely right that training is vital in how we address issues in these difficult and sensitive situations. The FCO has been extending training on the influence of faith in foreign policy, and we have commissioned the LSE Faith Centre to deliver a training course on religious literacy and we are introducing a series of regular seminars. We also invite other government departments, including DfID, to join this training.