Motion to Take Note
My Lords, I cannot possibly do justice to this vast subject; I doubt that anybody could. However, together we may arrive at useful conclusions and certainly spread useful information. The Motion draws attention to the scale of what is going on. To dispose of an outline of that straightaway, I quote the United Nations special rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, who said that,
“a large share of the world’s population in 2016—83%—lived in countries with high or very high religious restrictions (up from 79% in 2015)”.
He immediately qualified that by saying that,
“these restrictions … do not necessarily affect the religious groups and citizens of these countries equally, as certain groups or individuals … may be targeted more frequently by these policies and actions than others. Thus, the actual proportion of the world’s population that is affected by high levels of religious restrictions may be considerably lower than 85%”.
That is not in itself reassuring, because we are still left with a very large number, so I looked for something more exact.
Before I go further, I should declare an interest, as all noble Lords are supposed to do at the beginning of their speeches. My principal interest in this is that I am a Christian believer. I undertake to try not to make this an occasion to plead a special cause for my faith. The important aspect of this is that it relates to all faiths. We are all in the same rather small and leaky boat.
When he commissioned the Bishop of Truro, the Foreign Secretary said:
“I was deeply disturbed to learn that 215 million Christians faced persecution in 2018, according to a study by the campaign group Open Doors. Christians faced harassment in 144 countries in 2016, according to the Pew Research Centre, compared with 128 in 2015”.
The numbers are enormous, and going up. Open Doors, a respectable organisation which specifically monitors Christian persecution around the world, has put this more dramatically and estimates that, on average, 345 Christians are killed every month for faith-related issues.
The Truro report is an impressive piece of work. It convincingly estimates that 80% of all religious-based persecution affects Christians. I repeat that I do not wish to bias what is said. This does not mean that their plight should monopolise our attention, because the other 20% is still a vast number. Persecution is a shared burden, so I turned to a supposedly neutral source: the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. Every year it publishes its Human Relations and Democracy Report: the latest was in 2018. Chapter 5 contains a priority list of 27 countries for human rights, up from 19 in 2015. Most of these have FoRB; I should explain that the shorthand for what we are discussing is “freedom of religion or belief”. That term is not mentioned in the Motion but it is definitely what one has to have, as we shall see later.
I remind noble Lords of something that is not often enough brought to our notice but which is a hidden driver of this sort of atrocity. We all know about flight or fight as an instinctive human reaction but, to decide between flight and fight, you have to decide between “us” and “them”. The awkward thing about that is that it is instinctive: we tend to feel safe among people like us, preferably people we know. When we are among others, the “them”, we are not safe; when we are with “us”, we are. That powerful instinct is very handy for dictators, unscrupulous politicians and scurrilous criminals, as it is very easy to whip up a feeling of “they are other” about anyone who has an obvious marker.
One obvious marker is the faith of the quarry, if I may call them that. Too often they are people of faith but when they are persecuted they are almost always in a minority. That gives them two sorts of difference: first, to the others, “they are not us”; and secondly, “They are not so important. There are less of them, but they are a threat”. That is the background and it seems to me that “them or us” is a cry that has gone up over centuries—thus Margaret Thatcher’s cry in her urgent response to a suggested promotion of a particular person to an important post, “Yes, but is he one of us?” That same question has been asked in thousands of languages over tens of thousands of years within the human race.
As I say, persecuted faiths are almost always in a minority and easily identified, but there are often other dimensions of difference. Those few Rohingya who still exist in Myanmar, for instance, are not only Muslims among the Buddhist majority, they are also Indo-Aryans among a Bamar majority: they are an ethnic as well as a religious minority. Another dimension, crucial in the rare examples of persecution where the majority/minority nexus is contingent to but not part of the problem, is at the interface between the predominantly Muslim north and the predominantly Christian south of what used to be simply Sudan—the area that divides them. The Christians are settled there and are arable farmers and horticulturalists. Their persecutors are nomadic, and are graziers and drovers. Hence we get the awful pillaging that goes on along that corridor, and it can be argued that it is entirely religiously motivated—if we are told that it is not, then why are the churches always burned down?—or one can say that it is entirely due to the pressing needs of feeding families. The fact is that it is never simple. What we need to make sense of this, and possibly to cast a little faint light by which to proceed further, is a core definition in a meaningful political and historical context.
I cannot believe that I have been going for nine minutes, but if it is true I have not got much longer—noble Lords probably think I have been going on much longer already.
We are looking at a truly global phenomenon, affecting the quality and even the continuation of the lives of millions of people. The definitive statement of human rights was made by the United Nations in 1948 in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and it is the nearest thing we have to an agreed statement by the human race about what it wants its future to be. To resile from it would be a huge betrayal of hope, and of generations of effort. That is a fitting context, and the directly relevant part is Article 18, which 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”.
One of the most poignant and least often cited examples of persecution is what has happened to the Ahmadiyya people in Pakistan. This is not on the horrifying scale of the Rohingya but there are 5 million of them in a population of 197 million—a significant minority. The founder of Pakistan, Muhammed Ali Jinnah, issuing his call to the faithful of his persuasion, gave the strongest reassurance possible to those of other faith:
“You are free; you are free to go to your temples. You are free to go to your mosques or to any other places of worship in this State of Pakistan. You may belong to any religion, caste or creed—that has nothing to do with the business of the state”.
That was in 1947. In 1974, Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto amended the constitution with the effect that Ahmadis were from that point non-Muslim for all legal purposes. In 1984 the President, General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq, issued Ordinance XX, by which an Ahmadi could get three years in prison, a fine or the death penalty for calling himself Muslim, for calling his faith Muslim, for calling his place of worship a mosque, for uttering the call to prayer which we hear coming from minarets in thousands of cities, for preaching, or even for using the greeting “Peace be on you” in Arabic or “posing as a Muslim”. The closure of mosques, defacement of graves and memorials, and charges of blasphemy and killings followed.
Other faiths are caught up in this—
I know the whole House will be extremely grateful to the noble Lord for raising the important matter of religious persecution. Has it occurred to him that very frequently religious persecution happens when one religion opposes another, and consequently that religious faith can be one of the principal causes of religious persecution?
I am absolutely with the noble Lord; he has just got there quicker than me—another sign of impatience in the audience. It is more complicated than that because a lot of persecution, as I have just demonstrated, is between people of the same faith. That is a challenge to us all. However, there is something we can do in our own community, first of all, because the atrocities that affect the Ahmadis also affect, on a far greater scale, the Christians in Pakistan. It is a mystery to me why we continue to pour in huge sums of money in aid without raising any concern about something which is part of the Foreign Office brief. I look to the noble Lord, Lord Alton, to speak on this: he is well practised but not all noble Lords may have heard him do so.
I welcome the submission of the Truro report, which burst amazingly on to the scene just a couple of days ago. It is admirable, but its terms of reference are too narrow. It is concerned with only the Christian faith. We are here to try to redress that balance—to show that, as Christians, we believe and see that we are all involved in this together, and that the death of someone of another faith is as much a violation of God’s peace as the death of one of ours. That was the substance of the submissions of the Cardinal Archbishop and the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury to the Bishop of Truro on his call for evidence.
Maybe the World Council of Churches can do something on this but, however much we are strengthened by recognising and acting on community and seeking to change those already caught up in this vile problem, that is simply to clip the growth at the top of the tree. We need to tackle the roots. If only we had some central non-religious body that could instigate and foster programmes to address young people in all countries and of all creeds and draw them away from traditions of discrimination that are buoyed up by the “us and them” instinct, whether they are exploited by politicians, clerics or simply criminals. If only. Well, we have one: the Commonwealth. It has already started working to make community, the shared good of the nations, a reality and not a dream. I am being looked at.
Yes. Do not forget that the Commonwealth comprises 2.4 billion people, which is one-third of the world’s population. Somewhere I will try to get an opportunity to say the rest of my praise for what it is doing; I commend it to my friend the right reverend Prelate and to your Lordships, in pursuit of true peace.
My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord on his initiative and his timing, coinciding as this debate does with the publication of the final report of the Bishop of Truro.
Your Lordships’ House is blessed with the presence of a number of champions of persecuted minorities. Some I see here: the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, the noble Lord, Lord Alton, and the noble Baroness, Lady Berridge, who chairs the all-party group which produced that valuable report last year. In addition, my noble friend Lord Collins has been a persistent voice for persecuted minorities, just as the Ministers—the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay, and the noble Lord, Lord Ahmad—have shown real zeal for the subject. We in the UK are fortunate to have the benefit of a large number of NGOs active in this field: CSW, Open Doors, Barnabas Fund, Aid to the Church in Need and Release International. All are ever ready to brief parliamentarians.
Appropriately, the bishop called the Government’s performance, like the curate’s egg, good in part. Last week’s debate on the human rights record of Pakistan and possible conditionality of our aid revealed that the Government, by failing to provide refuge in the UK for Mrs Bibi, acted in a cowardly way, probably because of fear of extremists in this country. Another negative example is the Government’s record on resettling Christian refugees from Syria. The figures for the first quarter of last year were released last July, only in response to an FoI request from the Barnabas Fund and an order from the Information Commissioner’s Office threatening the Government with contempt of court proceedings.
Of the 1,112 Syrian refugees resettled in that first quarter, there were no Christians and no Yazidis. All were Muslims. This appears to be evidence of government discrimination. Christians are specifically targeted by jihadists. The Home Office has refused to publish further figures in response to Parliamentary Questions, allegedly to protect the privacy of those being resettled and to support their recovery—surely weasel words designed to mask the reality of a failure of policy.
The Government rely on the UNHCR to select candidates, but Christians and other vulnerable groups such as the Yazidis fear taking shelter in UNHCR camps because of religiously motivated violence. Other countries, including Australia and Belgium, have no such problems and rely in part on charitable institutions and churches for candidates.
The Government’s response is surely shameful, as if they are uncomfortable about assisting Christians because of political correctness or colonial guilt. This should also be seen in the context of the refusal of visas for three bishops from the region and the Government’s failure to accept visa applications from the Nineveh Plains, where Christians are increasingly subject to ethnic cleansing. Can we expect a change of policy? Figures show that Christians are the most persecuted minority in the world; Muslims are the second, but much of their discrimination is Muslim on Muslim.
I offer a few random reflections. First, there are many relevant international conventions, including the universal declaration. The problem is not declaration, but implementation. As Pope Benedict XVI told members of the diplomatic corps in 2011,
“it seems unnecessary to point out that an abstract proclamation of religious freedom is insufficient”.
The Commonwealth is hardly a shining exemplar, in spite of brave declarations from Harare onwards. The Open Doors 2019 world watch list has 50 countries where it is most difficult to be a Christian: nine are Commonwealth members, including Brunei, with its record on the gays, and the Maldives, which is reapplying for membership. We hear little of this in parliamentary debates on the Commonwealth and should be more honest about Commonwealth failures in this field. Five of the seven focus countries in the bishop’s report are in the Commonwealth.
Secondly, tolerance should begin at home. If our representations abroad are to be taken seriously, we should be strong on Islamophobia; otherwise, this will blunt our pressure on cases such as that of Mrs Bibi and the blasphemy laws. Equally, if we turn a blind eye to anti-Semitism at home, including in our student unions, we will be less credible abroad. I hope our political leaders will heed this. We should listen carefully to the Jewish community and publicise more of its massive contribution to our national life.
My third reflection is about UK performance. It is clear that there has been some improvement in the Foreign Office since I joined it in 1960. The bishop’s welcome survey actually shows huge discrepancies in the performance of missions abroad, some simply because of the zeal or otherwise of individuals. What plans do the Government have to follow up the recommendations? There should be a more serious effort at mainstreaming, training and improving liaison with NGOs. The bishop’s survey showed the FCO’s response to be “patchy and inconsistent”.
The US provides the gold standard and we should be ready to learn from it. For example, the US is bolder on Saudi Arabia, where citizens are not entitled to hold Christian meetings even in the privacy of their own homes. I recall that in the past our embassy there did not even hold Christmas services. Has that changed? The Emiratis, to be fair, are more enlightened. The temptation is always to be strong on the weak and weak on the strong. We should not hold back from criticising the treatment of Uighurs in China, but quiet diplomacy may produce more of an effect there, as I found when I was a member of the human rights mission to China initiated in 1992 by John Major and wonderfully led by the late Geoffrey Howe.
I have two final, speedy observations. There is a danger of being picked off for sanctions if one works alone, as happened to Denmark with The Satanic Verses. It is far better to work with allies to cover one’s back. Our weight is likely to be diminished if we do not remain part of the European Union but become a mere lobbyist of it.
Finally, if we feel the need to refresh our commitment to religious freedom, we need go no further than room 52 at the British Museum and gaze in wonder at the Cyrus Cylinder, created in 539 BC—a true symbol of tolerance and freedom, which some view as the first charter of human rights in liberating the Jewish minority from its Babylonian captivity. This is an example for today’s Iran and for the growing anti-Semitic movements in our Europe today.
My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Elton, has provided the House with this perfectly timed debate, coming as it does in the week in which the independent report to the Foreign Secretary concluded that the persecution of 250 million Christians comprises the,
“most shocking abuses of human rights in the modern era”.
Many others, believers and non-believers, suffer too. Jeremy Hunt is to be congratulated for commissioning the report, and Bishop Mounstephen, Bishop of Truro, and his admirable team on producing such robust, evidence-based findings. I was particularly struck that the Truro report highlights the failure to declare as a genocide the murder of Christians and Yazidis in Iraq and Syria, and it goes on to forensically analyse, country by country, the UK’s response.
Departmental institutional weaknesses notwith-standing, like the noble Lord, Lord Anderson, I place on record my admiration for the work of the noble Lord, Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon, in tirelessly championing Article 18 commitments to freedom of religion or belief and the new United Nations day on religious freedom, which is being commemorated in your Lordships’ House on 23 July.
In recommendations 15 to 19 and 21, the report spells out why all government departments need to collaborate in prioritising this issue, and they should note that both Jeremy Hunt and Boris Johnson have said that they will act on the report’s recommendations. However, the report has sent half an unfinished message on one fundamental issue: genocide.
Over the last 19 years, on 300 separate occasions I have referred to genocide prevention and prosecution, beginning in 2000, after seeing first hand what the Burmese military had done in Karen state. In 2000, it was the Christian Karen. Today it is the Muslim Rohingya and Christian Kachin. From Burma to North Korea and Darfur, from China’s Uighur Muslims to Nigeria’s beleaguered Christians, from Pakistan’s Hindu, Christian, Ahmadi and Kalash minorities to Syria and Iraq’s Yazidis and Christians, the story is the same. Ignore discrimination and tolerate persecution and crimes against humanity, and genocide is never very far behind.
In 1915 a slow-burn genocide, still unrecognised by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office for political reasons, took the lives of 1.5 million Armenian Christians. Hitler took the world’s indifference to the slaughter of the Armenians as a signal that he could butcher Jews, disabled people, gypsies, homosexuals, Roma and non- compliant religious minorities, famously saying,
“Who now remembers the Armenians?”.
As the Truro report notes, just over a century ago, Christians constituted 20% of the Middle East’s population. Today it is below 5%. It began with the Armenians but it did not end there. A student of those events, the Jewish lawyer Raphael Lemkin, 49 of whose relatives were murdered in the Holocaust, coined the word genocide, and the United Kingdom signed up to the genocide convention which he helped develop, and which requires us to prevent, protect and punish.
As the Truro report reminds us, the killing begins when we ignore the “canary in the mine”; it emboldens the perpetrators into believing that we are too weak or too disinterested to ever hold them to account. It is a green light to the world’s tyrants, lawless militias, totalitarian regimes and hate-filled ideologues, who despise difference and believe that minorities are a curse, not a blessing.
The beginning of 2014 saw the commencement of a new wave of mass beheadings of “infidels”. People were thrown from high buildings, prisoners burned in metal cages, women raped and homes looted. These atrocities then intensified in their number and scope. On 3 August 2014, ISIS attacked Sinjar, killing thousands of Yazidis, abducting thousands of women and girls, and forcing the rest to flee. This attack on the Yazidis was followed by subsequent mass atrocities in the Nineveh Plains, where Christians were forced to flee or die. ISIS was responsible for murder, enslavement, deportation, the forcible transfer of populations, exploitation, abuse, abductions of women and children, forced marriage and enforced disappearances. Christian homes and shops were looted after being daubed in Arabic with the letter N, for Nazarene. Churches were destroyed.
In every sense, these atrocities perpetrated against religious minorities are crimes against humanity and genocide, but to date, the UK Government have still failed to name these crimes for what they are. The Truro report notes that although the House of Commons, the United States Administration, the European Parliament and many other parliaments have said that these events,
“constitute a genocide according to the established UN criteria, this has not been recognized by the UK Government”.
None the less, says the Truro report,
“the evidence from Syria certainly suggests that the UK government should examine its historic unwillingness to deal with the issue of genocide determination and be prepared to make a prima facie assessment as to whether genocide has been committed, whilst still safeguarding its long-held principle that the ultimate determination must be legal not political”.
This is a fundamental question. It is why I have argued that there needs to be a judicial mechanism free of political interference. The FCO should act at least on the recommendation to examine this “historic unwillingness”. I hope that the Minister, whom I questioned about this during Oral Questions yesterday, will give us some assurance that that will happen. After all, this is the crime above all crimes, and the FCO should separate itself from genocide determination and put in place independent legal mechanisms that work.
In 2017, through Resolution 2379, the UK successfully persuaded the Security Council to collect evidence of these appalling crimes and of the mass graves. The FCO deserves credit for that. But the Security Council has failed to establish a mechanism to create ad hoc tribunals to try those responsible. We should now work with our allies—if necessary outside the Security Council—to create such a mechanism. What is the point of collecting evidence if we do not do anything about it? The alternative is to allow mass murderers to grow old, unpunished.
I will give one other example from the Truro report. I co-chair the All-Party Parliamentary Group for North Korea. The report says that the DPRK,
“has consistently registered for the past 18 years as the most dangerous country in the world for Christians”.
This echoes the 2014 United Nations Commission of Inquiry, which concluded that Christians have been singled out for especially brutal treatment and that this is,
“a State that does not have any parallel in the contemporary world”.
It says that the regime,
“considers the spread of Christianity a particularly severe threat”,
and that what is happening resembles,
“the horrors of camps that totalitarian States established during the twentieth century”.
It concludes that no official or institution is held accountable, because “impunity reigns”.
That UN report said that there should be a referral to the International Criminal Court. Five years later, through fear of vetoes, nothing has happened. Those North Koreans are among the suffering people highlighted in the Truro report. If the persecution of 250 million people can be truly described as,
“the most shocking abuses of human rights in the modern era”,
the test for us will now be: what are we going to do about it?
My Lords, I too thank my noble friend Lord Elton for the timing of this debate, a few days after the review into the persecution of Christians. I appreciate that this debate is about the persecution of all on the basis of their faith or belief, but I will focus on the review. I declare my interests as a practising Anglican and as the co-chair of the all-party parliamentary group.
It is most welcome that the majority of the 22 recommendations in the report focus on freedom of religion or belief. Only six specifically mention Christians, and the majority of the recommendations have been raised repeatedly in your Lordships’ House and in the other place. I am pleased that the Foreign Secretary initiated this review, as it has raised awareness of the scale of the persecution of Christians. I too put on record my thanks to numerous individual Ministers who have sought to raise FoRB over many years: my noble friends Lord Bates and Lady Warsi, Alistair Burt, and of course my noble friend Lord Ahmad. I also thank the right reverend Bishop of Truro for his industry and good intentions, having worked to such a tight timescale.
I welcome the new research in the review on what diplomatic posts know about FoRB, their use of the toolkit and whether they are taking action on behalf of Christians who are persecuted. There is also a good recommendation on the need for research and accurate data, as well as religious literacy training, which has been raised by numerous parliamentary colleagues.
However, the priority for any report or work in this area is to review the effects it will have on those who are already being persecuted and are at risk. What might seem like a good idea in London might have very different outcomes for vulnerable communities in, say, Pakistan, especially when messages travel globally in a nanosecond on a smart phone.
I have read all 136 pages of the report, but I cannot find the evidence or analysis to support recommendation 3:
“Name the phenomenon of Christian discrimination and persecution and undertake work to identify its particular character alongside similar definitions for other religions, to better inform and develop tailored FCO policies to address these”.
There is a recommendation at page 137 to,
“commission further research into the particular features of this phenomenon. This should specifically, include the naming of the phenomenon”.
Despite 40 pages of footnotes, there is no indication of where that recommendation came from.
I have never heard anyone in your Lordships’ House suggest that this is a role for the UK Government—and I have heard many suggestions. One must be very careful of the perception that could be created by a Church of England bishop recommending to a Foreign Secretary that they take charge of coming up with a definition of Christian persecution. The Foreign Secretary used a word that has been introduced to the vocabulary, Christianophobia. Even if that is possible to define, is it wise for the UK Government to do it? The danger is that this word may refer to the religion, not the people—a criticism similarly made of the word “Islamophobia”. In this situation, where the religion and the overwhelming majority of adherents share the same root word, we need to be very careful.
As I said in your Lordships’ House when talking about anti-Semitism, we need to be very clear about the distinction between hating or criticising a faith’s tenets and hating people. The latter is the issue we are dealing with, and the report itself makes the mistake in recommendation 3 by referring to the,
“particular character alongside similar definitions for other religions”.
Article 18 protects people, not religions. Anti-Semitism is defined by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance and, of course, means Semite people. It is worth noting that both Islamophobia and anti-Semitism are being defined by the communities. Who authors a definition does matter. For instance, if anti-Semitism were to be defined by the Israeli Government, it would muddy the issue and potentially put Jews at greater risk.
It is an incontrovertible fact that one risk factor to Christian communities in the MENA region, south Asia and other areas is that they are seen as following a Western religion, are foreigners, are not loyal subjects or are a leftover from Empire times. Where is the evidence in the review that this recommendation will benefit persecuted Christians? Where is the risk analysis to ensure that we do not make the situation worse? Which Church leaders in persecuted communities did the review speak to? Which leaders in India, Pakistan or Iraq said, “I tell you what is a good idea and will help us here”? Were they asked? Did the review speak to the UN special rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, Dr Ahmed Shaheed, a UK academic?
While we should not ignore Christian persecution due to leftover guilt, we still need to be aware of the risk factor to vulnerable communities of association of Christianity with the West and its foreign policy. Given the lack of any evidence or analysis in the review, will Her Majesty’s Government consider removing, or asking the bishop to remove, this recommendation before it gains more energy? Will they at least risk-check it with the UN special rapporteur? Will my noble friend please do that urgently, because the United States of America is holding a freedom of religion or belief ministerial symposium next week, and one danger currently for FoRB is the alignment with American priorities, which are perceived to be more about persecution of Christians than freedom of religion or belief?
The review has set a hare running, and I hope I do not see a tweet next week about the United States joining the efforts of the United Kingdom Government to define Christian persecution. We just do not know what impact that would have for persecuted Christians. My view is that if the term needs defining, it is for the World Council of Churches and the Vatican to do so.
I am troubled to see in the review such a recommendation without evidence or analysis, which could pose further risk to Christians. I should be grateful if my noble friend ensured that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Cabinet Office review what support and training should be given to the chair of any inquiry who has never conducted an inquiry before, has not had the opportunity to learn about Whitehall from being in your Lordships’ House and is new to the subject area, to ensure that the taxpayer-funded secretariat has the necessary expertise to assist. In particular, when time pressures mean that taxpayer-funded appointments are made without advertising, how are departments ensuring that equality and diversity requirements are still adhered to?
Reviews and inquiries come in all shapes and sizes and are an important part of how our government works. The response to the judge-led-only inquiry into the Grenfell tragedy means that the world of who the public have confidence in is changing. I note that Lord Justice Leveson was wise enough to have six panel members to assist him. I regret that this report was conducted only by Christians; I hope your Lordships agree that to believe in freedom of religion or belief, you do not need to have a particular faith tradition. I hope that the religious literacy training in the Foreign Office and in DfID will mean that the speed-dial will carry them first, for global issues, to the Catholics, rather than anywhere else.
My Lords, that was a most interesting speech, and it certainly makes me want to look again at some of the recommendations. I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Elton, on tabling this debate, because an extremely important issue is involved. To declare an interest, I speak as a humanist and, as such, I care as passionately about the persecution of religious minorities as of non-faith groups. I care equally passionately about the right of freedom of religion or belief to be realised by all. Therefore, I welcome the general tendency of the review, which shines a light on the persecution faced by humanists and the non-religious as well as faith groups.
I mention in passing that Ahmed Shaheed, the United Nations special rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, said at a humanist conference:
“Humanists are attacked as viciously and brutally as any other groups. In many countries around the world, it is illegal to be non-religious or humanist. There are places where leaving the state religion is punishable by a prison sentence or death and also where those who express their non-religious or humanist beliefs can be deemed to have committed a crime of blasphemy and again face the death penalty”.
I therefore trust that the Minister will reassure us that the Government will implement the review’s recommendations as inclusively for the non-religious as for the religious. Further, given the persecution faced by the non-religious around the world, I ask the Minister to commit to establish a similar review into the persecution faced by the non-religious.
The crucial principle is tolerance and the issue is democracy. Both are relevant to this debate. The turning point in the history of civilisation was the Enlightenment, when the authority of the Church was dethroned as the arbiter of truth, evidence was installed instead, and science taught us that in our search for truth we should have due regard to uncertainty. It was memorably summed up by John Locke—not himself a humanist but a man of faith—who argued that the rights of the individual and of minorities and the rule of law were central principles of democracy. Let me quote one of my favourite passages in political philosophy from one of his books. The print is very small, so I shall have to read it carefully. He said that,
“it would, methinks, become all men to maintain peace, and the common offices of humanity, and friendship, in the diversity of opinions; since we cannot reasonably … embrace ours, with a blind resignation to an authority which the understanding of man acknowledges not … For where is the man”—
this is key—
“that has incontestable evidence of the truth of all that he holds, or of the falsehood of all he condemns; or can say that he has examined to the bottom all his own or other men’s opinions?”
The Enlightenment promoted tolerance, which is absolutely essential to democracy. Locke was a founding father of parliamentary democracy. I am sorry to say that today’s Parliament has almost uncritically abandoned the philosophy of Locke and Burke in favour of the pernicious doctrine of Rousseau: the will of the people must always prevail. MPs have become delegates, not representatives, and now feel that they must vote as instructed by their party or, above all, as instructed by the will of the people in the referendum held more than three years ago. They no longer believe, as Burke argued so eloquently, that they should use their own judgment after hearing the evidence and argument. Many also clearly believe that party unity matters more than the welfare of the country.
As I said, that is not irrelevant to the debate. Our likely next Prime Minister is prepared to consider proroguing Parliament and denying MPs a vote to ensure that the will of the people prevails. Papers such as the Daily Mail denounce judges who dare to ignore the referendum verdict as “enemies of the people”. Please note: in Pakistan, for not dissimilar local reasons, a mob claiming to represent the true religion denounced a court ruling that Asia Bibi should not be condemned to death, forcing her to flee for her life to Canada. The will of the people and the dictatorship of the majority can be just as big a threat to individual and minority rights and faith as those who preach religious intolerance or populist autocrats such as Hitler, Mussolini or Erdoğan—all disciples of Rousseau. We in Britain should not be careless about how we treat democracy.
My Lords, I also congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Elton, on securing the debate. I declare an interest as a former trustee of Christian Solidarity Worldwide, which for 30 years has been doing sterling work advocating on behalf of persecuted Christians.
This is a huge and important subject. We certainly need to raise awareness of the suffering of Christians and those of other faiths throughout the world for doing nothing more than belonging to a faith community and expressing that faith in words and actions. Indeed, it is frequently humbling to read of the courage that so many of them display in such difficult circumstances.
I will focus on Christians because, according to the Pew Research Center, which has been mentioned, they face more religious restrictions than any other religious group. According to the International Society for Human Rights, they are the victims of 80% of acts of religious discrimination, despite accounting for only 30% of the global population. What can be done? Like other noble Lords, I start by commending the Foreign Secretary’s firm and courageous speech in launching the independent review led by the Bishop of Truro. Of course, I accept that the persecution of people of other faiths is no less important.
I will stick to two aspects of which I have direct personal experience: the Foreign Office and Syria. I looked through the bishop’s very thorough report, published just a few days ago. It was certainly tactfully written but it confirmed my suspicions that, all too often, Foreign Office officials have simply been going through the motions when dealing with religious persecution, including the persecution of Christians. I agree with the recommendation that religious literacy should be an integral part of induction training. Religion is enormously important in understanding the many foreign societies on which such officials will have to report in the future; they should start by understanding the ins and outs, and the massive importance of religion for so many people.
Many of the report’s recommendations provide a helpful framework. However, I make a plea for some realism. That would include the recognition that no Government welcome what they regard as interference in their internal affairs. Some depend on religious supporters to retain their power and some have only limited capability to deal with low-level harassment, yet others have judicial systems based in religion, such as in the Islamic world. Realism would also have to accept that our diplomatic posts are there to promote and defend British interests and that, especially nowadays, they have very few UK-based staff. That said, you can make the argument that religious persecution is contrary to our interests, but you must have a hierarchy in the work that you ask your posts to do.
This serious and thorough investigation deserves to be commended and, so far as is possible, put into practice. I endorse the remark of the noble Baroness, Lady Berridge, that Church and religious leaders in foreign countries should be consulted; they know how to find their way around the many difficulties that they and their people face. Before we leap into action in some distant country, we should know that we have consulted them and understand what they are dealing with.
Lastly, I turn to the report’s chapter on Syria. I declare another interest as a board member of the British Syrian Society. The report makes incredibly dismal reading for someone who has a great deal of respect and affection for the Syrian people, whatever their religion or sect. It rightly focuses on Islamic extremists as the perpetrators of what amounts to genocide against Christians, as the noble Lord, Lord Alton, mentioned. Fortunately, the report does not fall into the absurd error of accusing the regime of discriminating against Christians. Quite the contrary—the Alawites, themselves a minority of only about 10%, have long looked to the Christian community for support, or at least acquiescence. That continues to be the case. None the less, as we know, hundreds of thousands of Christians have been forced to leave Syria as a result of the conflict. The British Government are to be warmly commended for the massive amounts of aid that they provided to the UNHCR to provide for the basic needs of these refugees. The Government do not receive the credit they deserve for this considerable expenditure, not even in this House.
I have one criticism of the Government; here I strongly support the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Anderson of Swansea. Taking only refugees recommended by the UNHCR has the effect of discriminating against Christians, for whom it is unsafe to live in refugee camps, including those in south-east Europe. Indeed, the report acknowledges that. Let us be frank: this policy smacks of political correctness. It is high time that it changed and I hope we will hear an appropriate response from the Minister.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Elton, for initiating this timely debate on the persecution of people of faith in this century.
There are a number of national and international treaties on this subject; I will not repeat them because the noble Lord has already referred to them. Despite that, these treaties continue to be violated.
When I was introduced to the House of Lords, I took my oath with a Holy Koran and quietly started with the word “Bismillah”, meaning, “In the name of Allah, most beneficent and most merciful”. I have never differentiated between faiths. As a Muslim, my closest friends have been Hindus, Sikhs, Christians, Buddhists, Jews and those of no faith. The Holy Koran, in surah 2, says: “The Apostle believeth in what hath been revealed to him from the Lord, as do the men of faith. Each one of them believeth in God, His angels, His books and His apostles. ‘We make no distinction (they say) between one or another of His apostles’”.
As an ex-trustee of Oxfam, I met another trustee, Ansel Harris, and we became very good friends; our children and spouses became good friend as well. We travelled together to Israel, India and the Middle East. We learnt about the practice of each other’s faiths and shared each other’s jokes and stories. Ansel and his wife Lea were to attend my introduction to the House of Lords—but Ansel had another appointment, with his maker.
I attended the funeral and saw very little difference between Muslim and Jewish rituals. A few weeks later, there was a memorial service in Hampstead Town Hall. I was asked to speak and made my speech. Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks was present, and after a few days he wrote an article in the Times. I have deposited the full article in the Library, but will quote a few sentences:
“At the memorial service recently, one of the speakers was Lord Bhatia, whom he had come to know through his work for Oxfam. It was clear from the tone of his tribute that the two men shared a moral vision and had been close friends …
What held them together, one a passionate Jew, the other a no less committed Muslim? The short answer is that they cared for something larger than their respective faith communities … When they saw disease, poverty and despair, they didn’t stop to ask who was suffering; they acted.
They knew that tears are a universal language, and help a universal command. They saw faith not as a secluded castle but as a window onto a wider world. They saw God’s image in the face of a stranger, and heard His call in the cry of a starving child.
Does faith make us great or does it make us small? On this question, much of the future of our world depends. Jews, Christians and Muslims can live together in friendship, so long as we never forget those things that transcend religious differences – of which human suffering is one.
When we focus, not on ourselves, but on those who need help, our separate journeys converge and we become joint builders of a more gracious world”.
To conclude, whenever someone attacks Christians, I feel that they have attacked my faith. This is my contribution to this important debate. The world will be a better place if attacks on any faith are dealt with by the full force of the law. These attacks on faith are made by a small number of people who, in the name of their faiths or for political or personal gain, attack other faiths.
My Lords, I too join in congratulating my noble friend Lord Elton on securing this important debate. We have not focused on persecution on the grounds of faith in this House for several years, although obviously it has often arisen when discussing other business.
I also welcome the Foreign Secretary’s perspicacity in commissioning the Bishop of Truro to review his department’s work on persecuted Christians. My remarks employ the Bishop’s working definition of persecution: namely,
“discriminatory treatment where that treatment is accompanied by actual or perceived threats of violence or other forced coercion”.
I agree with him that establishing a standard definition will help several different departments of government.
While the Foreign Office is self-evidently not the responsible department for domestic policy, the implication is that other government departments—which are—need to have regard to equalities protection enshrined in legislation when considering how British Christians and their beliefs are treated. Can my noble friend the Minister report if and how other departments plan to respond to the Bishop’s findings?
It is a truism in our value system that persecution on the basis of anyone’s faith or religion should always be unreservedly decried, not least because, however nonsensical or even potentially offensive these may appear to non-believers, they provide meaning and belonging—deemed by social scientists to be two of their most important functions. Deeply held religious views are essential to a believer’s identity, their sense of who they really are. Australian sociologist Professor Hans Mol made identity the key concept in his definition of religion as the “sacralization of identity”. By way of example, those who have accepted Jesus Christ have, through him, been adopted as sons of God. This bestows a weighty, indeed sacred, sense of identity. So an attack that goes beyond mere criticism—part and parcel of freedom of speech—and threatens or delivers real harm is actually a profound attack on the inner core of each adherent, not just on their livelihood or safety.
Leafing through the Bishop of Truro’s accounts of atrocities and judicial oppression is a sobering, chilling process, and he provides a much-needed wake-up call. I could have concentrated on any one of his focus countries today. However, I feel compelled instead to talk about how Christian brothers and sisters are treated in our own country. Indeed, I would gently challenge his justification for the focus on Christianity, which emphasises that,
“today the Christian faith is primarily a phenomenon of the global south - and … therefore … of the global poor”,
“primarily an expression of white western privilege. If it were we could afford to ignore it - perhaps”.
This “perhaps” is an important caveat because, if the persecution of Christians in the West, and more specifically in our own country, could be ignored on the basis that they live in a relatively privileged society, this is distinctly at odds with how we treat other minorities. As Jeremy Hunt said this week, this country,
“has always been a beacon for freedom and tolerance”.
We cannot call out intolerance abroad if we continue to tolerate intolerance towards Christians on our own shores.
Mr Hunt also pledged to develop a term for anti-Christian hatred equivalent to “Islamophobia” and “anti-Semitism”, as we heard from my noble friend Lady Berridge. The term “Christophobia”, suggested by various religious leaders, is popularly considered to have been coined in 2003 by law professor JHH Weiler, himself an Orthodox Jew. Weiler challenged wider Europe’s fixation with what Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor refers to as “exclusive humanism”—humanism determined to exclude transcendent reference points from cultural, social and political life.
A striking example of how this played out was in 2004 when the Catholic convictions of Professor Rocco Buttiglione were deemed by European parliamentarians to disqualify him from high office in the European Commission. Despite his sworn commitment, backed by a lifetime of work, to uphold and defend the legitimate civil rights of all, his convictions—not any actions—were held to be in direct contradiction of European law. Yet the deepest roots of European law and culture do not rest in the soil of the Enlightenment but further back in Europe’s Christian history.
Perhaps this is an inconvenient truth, but a civilisation cannot selectively jettison aspects of its developmental trajectory. I could give many examples but have only time to mention a couple. The Christian doctrines of incarnation and redemption taught European man his own dignity and a proper respect for individuality. The Christian idea of vocation—each person’s unique role —is an important precursor to the western idea of individualism. Democratic notions of tolerance, dialogue and persuasion are foundational to the free-will relationship Christianity offers with a creator God. Of course, this has not always been perfectly followed, but historical coercive practices have been rightly disavowed as offences against true doctrine.
A similar day of realisation also needs to come for the adherents of intolerant and coercive liberalism, who judge politicians such as Tim Farron unfit to lead political parties unless they renounce their beliefs on various aspects of morality. Pope Francis has described how Christians in the West face a form of polite persecution that,
“takes away … their freedom, as well as their right to conscientious objection”.
There are many politicians, academics and others who have been stalled in their careers because they vocally, yet politely, resisted the dictatorship of orthodoxy and have been crushed under the weight of confected opprobrium. Even the established Church has to restrain itself from attempting to coerce conformity to liberal societal values on believers who disagree with these on grounds of conscience, not contrariness or cruelty.
All Christians are called to represent faithfully the image of God. The self-giving “imago Dei” was, lest we forget, the inspiration behind the societally transforming movements to end slavery, establish probation and other professions to further human flourishing and drive much philanthropic endeavour in the 19th century. The overthrow of Communism in the 20th century owed much to many eastern bloc Christians, such as the Lutheran pastor in Timisoara, Romania—a clear example. If we airbrush out these aspects of our recent history, disavow the very roots of our social order and, more brutally, bind and gag contemporary Christians who dare not conform with current orthodoxies, we shall have no moral authority when challenging other countries and we shall all be the poorer for it.
My Lords, I too am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Elton, for introducing the debate and doing it so well. I also thank the noble Lord, Lord Farmer, and the noble Baroness, Lady Berridge, for their excellent addresses.
I want to take a broader approach. It is often claimed that war between the religions is the cause of so much unrest and violence in the world. That is certainly not my experience. Six weeks ago I attended a conference in Tokyo, where I had the privilege of sharing in the G20 Interfaith Forum which met just before the G20 summit. Some 200 delegates were there with 4,000 participants. There were faith leaders from many organisations, including the World Faiths Development Dialogue, which I co-founded and chair, the United Nations Interagency Task Force and Faith Council, the Joint Learning Initiative, the King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Centre for Interreligious and Intercultural Dialogue, the Parliament of World Religions, and Religions for Peace.
The aim of the conference was not to settle scores between the religions but to share and participate in a common commitment to the world and to the securing of the sustainable development goals set by the United Nations. My experience over many years, starting when I was an 18 year-old in the Royal Air Force doing my national service in Iraq in the 1950s, is that there is compelling evidence that people of faith and good will have much in common and have lived in harmony for hundreds of years. I echo what my noble friend Lord Bhatia said about Muslims, Christians and Jews in the Middle East. Just two days ago a Christian man, who was having lunch with me here, told me of a mosque in Madaba, Jordan, which is called “Christ Jesus, Son of God, Mary”. What a remarkable statement of some shared belief.
It is a fact that mainstream religions recognise religious diversity and differences and have co-operated in fostering intrafaith and interfaith religious harmony and dialogue. There is increasing recognition that all religions should enhance mutual understanding and empathy through dialogue. “Harmony without uniformity” is a phrase often used in religious discussions as we learn to respect each other and jointly serve our communities. There is agreement that the use of religion for political purposes should be opposed and that religious extremism should be vehemently rejected. This is not to say that ideological differences do not exist between, say, Islam and the West, Islam and Christianity. They do exist, but on the whole mainstream faiths are not at war.
However, let me lay before your Lordships three destabilising facts that we must face. The first is that part of the picture is the worrying rise of authoritarianism and totalitarianism. Those of us of an older generation will remember the repression of religion behind the Iron Curtain, but just as notable is the persecution of the Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar, or indeed the Karen Christians in the same country, the widespread crackdown on house churches by President Xi’s regime and the campaign against Muslims, who have reportedly been forced to eat pork and whose families have been separated. Such is the degree of internment and re-education in the province of Xinjiang that it is estimated that some 1.5 million ethnic Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities are being held. Some have called this,
“the largest attempt at cultural annihilation of the 21st Century”.
It is horrifying and yet, according to Jonah Goldberg in the National Review, the United States Government, so vociferous about trade wars with China, are completely silent about human rights. We are grateful that the United Kingdom Government have been less reticent.
A second aspect of this century’s renewed persecution of people of faith is nationalism. It is the way in which political movements often co-opt faith as a marker of national identity, and in turn they exclude or scapegoat minorities. Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam and even atheism have all been wrongly used in this way. There are worrying signs, for example, that even in the world’s largest and most successful south Asian democracy, India, Muslim and Christian minorities are living in anxiety as Hindu nationalism creates an atmosphere of hostility and leads to many increasing incidents of persecution. In Pakistan, Christians making up less than 2% of the population are regularly persecuted and live in fear for their lives. If we think that all this has to do with “them over there”, we have only to think of anti-Semitism lurking in every aspect of western life and infiltrating our political parties. We should not be complacent.
The third aspect is the failure of the West. Other speakers have already drawn attention to this. On one level there is a failure of the West, until very recently, to notice that there is a problem. This is partly due to increasing religious illiteracy in western democracies. The contribution of Bishop Mounstephen’s recent report on freedom of religion and belief is an important aspect of the awareness raising that is needed. I hope that the House will eventually debate that report.
To take one region, the Middle East and North Africa, I regret to say that our foreign policy mistakes have contributed greatly to the near extinction of Christianity in some countries. In places where sizeable Christian communities have flourished for centuries, including Syria and Iraq—I echo what the noble Lord, Lord Green, said—Christians have been subjected to a savage genocide. They have had either to flee or be killed, and a tiny minority live in fear for their lives.
My time is up, and I regret that I cannot add to what I have said. In conclusion, the strength, resilience and significant presence of religious communities on the ground throughout the world indicate that they have huge potential in fighting prejudice and extremism. It would be a grave mistake to ignore a potential ally in our war against extremism.
My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lord Elton for securing this important debate. It is particularly timely, given the publication of the Bishop of Truro’s independent review. We are privileged to be able to stand here today and say that religious freedom is a fundamental building block for the prosperity of this nation, having been fought for throughout our history. Contrary to what some may believe, religious freedom is not a minor issue, and religion plays a significant part in our world today.
Around the world, almost 85% of people identify with a religious faith. Demographically, over the next century the world is likely to become more religious, not less. Between 2015 and 2060, the world’s inhabitants are expected to increase by 32%, but the Muslim population is forecast to grow by 70% and the number of Christians is also forecast to outstrip overall population growth rates. Having the freedom to express faith does, and will, continue to matter to the majority of people.
However, it is estimated that around a third of the world’s population suffers from some form of religious persecution, with Christians, as we have heard, the most persecuted group of all. It is easy to think of the persecution of Christians as something from the medieval age, relegated to history, but the reality of religious persecution is that it is a very modern phenomenon. As we have heard, Open Doors UK has estimated that, on average, each month 345 Christians are killed for faith-related reasons. Research from earlier this year shows that approximately 245 million Christians living across 50 countries face the most extreme persecution and are at severe risk just for following their faith.
This persecution is increasing in severity and has spread at a significant rate. According to the Pew Research Center, Christians were targeted in 144 countries in 2016, an increase from 125 countries the previous year. According to Open Doors UK, in the past five years the number of countries classified as having “extreme” persecution has risen from one—North Korea—to 11. Yemen, Iran, India and Syria, among others, are now included in the most dangerous places to be a Christian. This has not just happened as a social phenomenon; it is accompanied generally by an increase in government restrictions on religious freedom.
The Legatum Prosperity Index, in which I declare an interest, shows a reduction over the past decade in the number of people reporting freedom of religion and belief being effectively guaranteed in 65 countries. Even then, this does not fully capture the deterioration of rights for many groups targeted in countries such as China and Myanmar, as we have heard. Generally, in the past decade personal freedoms have marginally improved around the world—for example, tolerance of immigrants or the LGBT community has risen globally—which makes the concurrent significant decline in religious freedom particularly concerning.
Even in the UK, although we generally think of ourselves as a tolerant society, perceived freedoms, as we heard from my noble friend Lord Farmer, have been reducing in the past decade. According to the Pew Research Center’s social hostilities index, which captures the degree to which social hostilities with religious motivation are present, the UK has seen a significant increase in hostilities over the past 10 years. The UK now ranks just below Algeria and Turkey for social hostilities towards religion. This is not to say that those of faith in the UK are persecuted, but that we should be careful that we are not undermining personal freedoms at home and that we continue to be vigilant as we create a genuinely tolerant society.
Generally, in the UK today there is a high level of religious illiteracy, as we have heard in this debate. This has led to many situations where religious belief is misunderstood and a move towards the assumption that religious belief should be a private activity, whereas our unique history as a nation clearly demonstrates the weaving of faith through the public square. Will my noble friend the Minister say how the UK Government will work to reverse this rise in religiously motivated social hostilities in the UK?
For a country to truly prosper, religious freedom is paramount. Societies that foster strong civil rights and freedoms tend to enjoy increased levels of satisfaction among their citizens. A study undertaken by researchers at Georgetown University and Brigham Young University in 2014 found that countries with low religious restrictions and hostilities are twice as likely to be strongly innovative. Generally, a country benefits from higher levels of national income when its citizens’ personal liberties are protected and when it welcomes the social diversity that stimulates innovation. According to the Human Freedom Index, countries in the top quartile of freedom enjoy a significantly higher average per capita income—more than three times higher than those in the bottom quartile. Religious hostilities and restrictions create a climate that can drive away local and foreign investment and hamper the development of a nation. According to data from the Pew Research Center, there is a clear correlation between government restrictions on religious freedom and education and health outcomes.
This would not be a debate on religious persecution were we not to raise the subject of Nigeria. We have to ask ourselves: are we being sufficiently vigilant? Systemic, targeted violence against Christians, perpetrated by Boko Haram, arguably meets the UN definition of genocide. In 2018, over 3,700 people were killed for reasons directly related to their faith—more than anywhere else in the world—and another 200,000 are at risk of being killed. Historically, given that the denotation of genocide is a judicial matter to be decided at an international level, the UK Government have opted not to term this situation thus. However, given the content of the Bishop of Truro’s report, and the growing body of evidence that Boko Haram’s activities in Nigeria meet the criteria for genocide, can the Minister say whether the UK Government believe this to be genocide and, if not, what would need to happen before they categorised it as such and took the appropriate action?
Given the importance of this issue, the focus that the Government have chosen to give to freedom of religion and belief under the leadership of the Secretary of State is to be applauded. I thank my noble friend for seeking this debate and look forward to hearing the Minister’s response.
My Lords, I too am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Elton, for this opportunity to examine the extent of persecution of people of faith. I will not repeat the heart-breaking stories of the terrible atrocities that besmirch our world, but they are of course the day-to-day reality for so many people of faith. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Alton, and others for telling those stories—they need to be heard.
The diocese I serve as Bishop of Chelmsford covers east London and Essex and contains some of the most diverse and rapidly changing communities in our land. Here, faith leaders and grassroots worshippers from all religions are engaged in some of the most humbling and encouraging initiatives to hold fast to that most irreducible of godly virtues: peace. Although east London is often a place where bridges are built, sadly, it is also too often an arena where the backwash from religious intolerance, persecution and strife from around the world is felt. We are a global village, but sadly we are also a global playground where much cruelty and intolerance go unchecked.
Your Lordships may be familiar with the work of Brian Grim and Roger Finke and their thesis The Price of Freedom Denied. They have analysed annual reports published by the United States State Department and observe that worldwide religious persecution, defined here as physical abuse or displacement from homes because of religion, is “pervasive and pernicious”. Of 143 countries analysed, 86% have documented cases of religious persecution, spanning every region of the globe and every faith community. Grim and Finke conclude that religious freedom is a key ingredient to peace, stability and prosperity. Therefore, when Her Majesty’s Government defend and promote freedom of religion and belief, they build peace.
I commend the recommendations of the report commissioned by the Foreign Secretary into the Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s support for persecuted Christians, published on Monday this week. We on this Bench welcome the report. We congratulate the Foreign Secretary on launching the review and the Bishop of Truro on producing such a comprehensive report in such a short timeframe.
It is encouraging that several of the recommendations in the final report mirror those set out in the joint submission by the Church of England and the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales. I am encouraged that the review has grounded its analysis and recommendations in a human rights framework, in a way that will benefit all those who suffer bias, discrimination, societal hostility or violence as a result of their religion or belief.
The Foreign and Commonwealth Office has made significant progress in recent years in the way that it addresses these matters, and should be congratulated on doing so, but this report and its recommendations set out areas where further steps can be taken to improve its focus and engagement and make the necessary step change. Bearing in mind the very helpful observations of the noble Baroness, Lady Berridge, I hope that subsequent steps will not get bogged down in endless debates on the definition of the phenomenon of Christian discrimination and persecution.
As the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster recognised in their letter to the review,
“our Christian sisters and brothers face persecution of an intensity and extent unprecedented in many centuries”.
We do not need a definition to know that this persecution is real and ongoing. Our focus now should be on how we arrive at interventions that can end this predicament. This will take time, but it also takes commitment.
In taking this forward, the Government should be assured that they will of course find a very willing partner not only in the Church of England and other Christian Churches but in other faith communities. I know from the work I do in east London with the leaders of those communities that we stand together in wanting to make progress on this, because these freedoms of religion and belief need cherishing and protecting. The societal benefits of this will be felt not just in those places where the terrible persecution of Christians and others is a daily reality but in east London, in this country and right across the world.
As some of your Lordships will know, this year is the 800th anniversary of one of the greatest events in Christian-Muslim dialogue. It happened during the Fifth Crusade, at the Siege of Damietta. St Francis of Assisi, with a single companion, crossed the battle-lines at terrible personal risk. He did this 800 years ago to seek out the godly and devout Sultan al-Malik al-Kamil, who was known for his tolerance of Christian minorities in Egypt. He did it for one purpose: to seek peace. He sought to build a different sort of world, one where we respect each other’s beliefs and work together for the greater good. I hope this debate and these reports will lead to the same determination. I nearly said “amen” at the end; that is how bishops end talks, so forgive me.
My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lord Elton for introducing this important and timely debate. Religious persecution has, unfortunately, been a recurring theme in societies throughout history. Historically, people of faith have been targets for persecution and discriminatory practices.
Although the title of this debate refers to the extent of persecution in this century, I will first touch on an event which occurred in the 20th century but which has had a lasting impact. When discussing religious persecution, I must draw upon the horrors of the Holocaust. This was the state-sponsored killing of 6 million people of the Jewish faith. We must not allow anything like this ever to happen again. I fully support the setting up of a Holocaust memorial and learning centre in Victoria Tower Gardens.
I have previously spoken in your Lordships’ House about the abhorrence of anti-Semitism. The fact that anti-Semitism is still prevalent in many societies is a great cause for concern. It suggests that there remains more work to be done in educating communities about historical injustices that must never be repeated. I was disturbed to learn that the Equality and Human Rights Commission felt it necessary to launch a formal investigation into reports of anti-Semitism in the Labour Party. Any such behaviour in a political party is totally unacceptable. Something is not quite right in the Labour Party if three Members of your Lordships’ House have recently resigned from it. The party must take remedial action immediately.
In December 2018, I led a debate in your Lordships’ house on Islamophobia in the UK. Shortage of time means that I cannot go into the details here. I simply ask the Minister whether the Government now accept the definition of Islamophobia proposed by the APPG on British Muslims, to ensure that we can make meaningful change for Muslims in the UK.
The Balkan wars of the 1990s were driven by nationalism and culminated in the enforced deportation and senseless bloodshed of civilians, and the destruction of religious sites such as the 16th century Ferhadija mosque in Bosnia. This week is the UK’s Srebrenica memorial week, and we should always remember the Srebrenica massacre. We can draw parallels between past events in the Balkans and the present situation in Myanmar. The Rohingya have been brutally persecuted in Myanmar and driven out of their homes in Rakhine State. The Burmese army has led a pogrom against the Rohingya, and has been accused of raping, torturing and killing citizens while systematically burning Rohingya villages. This has led to the displacement of more than 1 million citizens. The United Nations Human Rights Council has referred to the treatment of the Rohingya as genocide. I would be grateful if the Minister informed your Lordships’ House whether Her Majesty's Government would support efforts by the UN Security Council to refer Myanmar to the International Criminal Court.
I have spoken in your Lordships’ House and elsewhere against the persecution of minorities. Most recently, I spoke in a debate in the Moses Room regarding the rights of minorities, in particular of Christians in Pakistan. What are we doing to provide assistance to Pakistan to improve the position of minorities in that country?
Unfortunately, some people have hateful ideologies and discriminate against anyone who is different from them in any way. The plight of the Uighurs in China has worsened, with estimates of the number who have been detained without trial in so-called vocational and educational training camps varying from several hundred thousand to more than 1 million citizens. What representations have the Government made, alongside international partners, to the Chinese authorities in this regard? Christians in China have been subjected to harassment and intimidation by the authorities, and there has been interference with where and how they can worship.
The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Truro detailed in his recent report the extent of the increased discrimination against the Chinese Christian community, and commented on discrimination against Christians in several other countries. What steps are the Government proposing to take to implement the recommendations made by the right reverend Prelate?
I wholeheartedly support the efforts and investments made by the Government to defend the right to religious freedom. I also welcome the fact that the UN General Assembly has recently adopted a resolution for an international day commemorating the victims of acts of violence based on religion or belief. It is vital that we parliamentarians show leadership, stand in solidarity against all types of faith-based discrimination and adopt a societal philosophy that an attack on one group is an attack on us all.
I end with a famous poem by Pastor Martin Niemöller:
“First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a socialist.
Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a trade unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me”.
There is a powerful message in this poem.
My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Elton, on initiating this timely debate and on his comprehensive opening speech. As other noble Lords have highlighted the disturbing scale of persecution in our world today, I will focus on those suffering from persecution whom I have met, and seek to be a voice for them. Time allows me to highlight only three often neglected situations: the persecution of Muslims in parts of Sudan, Christians in northern and central Nigeria, and those in Thailand who have had to flee for their lives from the application of sharia law in Pakistan. It is with a heavy heart that I report the findings from my visits, especially because those who endure such suffering are largely unreached by the world’s major aid organisations and off the radar screen of international media.
I visited Sudan over 30 times during the war waged between 1989 and 2005 by President al-Bashir and witnessed the scale of brutality inflicted on the Sudanese people, while the United Kingdom Government allowed the regime to continue its genocidal policies with impunity. Despite al-Bashir’s removal, severe human rights violations continue across the country. The recent massacres in Khartoum received some publicity, but attacks on people elsewhere are largely unreported.
For example, in Blue Nile state the Government of Sudan’s army targets indigenous, courageous Muslims who oppose the Islamist regime in Khartoum. On a recent visit to Wadaka, in Blue Nile, we met 9,000 Muslims who had had to flee the fighting. They were scavenging grass and roots with no nutritional value. One lady told me: “We lost everything. On the journey, some people were injured”, while the regime, she said, “took all our cattle. We fled without anything. When we came here, there was nobody to help us”. It is a policy of my small NGO, the Humanitarian Aid Relief Trust, or HART, to reach such people who are trapped in these situations. As we were the only NGO in that region, we made an emergency appeal and obtained £50,000 for food aid. That may not sound much but £27 will feed a family of seven for three months until the rainy season comes, so we were able to save many lives and bring hope to people suffering severe persecution. I hope that the Minister will be able to offer some reassurance as to how the United Kingdom will contribute to the international community’s duty to provide for and protect civilians dying from persecution by their own Governments, such as the Muslims in Blue Nile.
In Nigeria, the 12 northern states and Plateau state have suffered for many years from religious persecution. Thousands of Christians and many Muslims who defy the ideologically motivated Boko Haram and Islamist Fulanis have been killed. Hundreds of churches and some mosques have been burnt. The motives behind the growing wave of attacks by Islamist Fulani militants have been widely debated, but the Bishop of Truro’s very good report devotes nine pages to analysing the Fulani insurgency and claims that,
“targeted violence against Christian communities in the context of worship suggests that religion plays a key part”.
Before most of the attacks in Plateau, Benue, Taraba, southern Kaduna and Bauchi states, the Fulani sent a warning signal via a note or phone call—in accordance with the rules of jihad—to tell the villagers that an attack is imminent. During many of these attacks, the Fulani are reported to have shouted “Allahu Akbar”, “Destroy the infidels”, and “Wipe out the infidels”. I have visited many of the worst affected areas and seen the tragedies of death and destruction. I have stood in the ruins of the house of a Christian pastor, where he was martyred.
One survivor told me: “The Fulani militants took my brother, his wife and all their six children. They tied and slaughtered them like animals. My sister was raped, and her wrists cut off before she was shot through the heart”. A lady from a neighbouring village shared a similar story. She said: “The Fulani were hacking and killing people, making sure that those that were shot were finished off. They wore red to conceal blood … on their clothes as they butchered their victims”. In every village, the message from local people is the same: “Please, please help us! The Fulani are coming. We are not safe in our own homes”. Yet time and again, our Government have ignored their cry for help.
As the noble Baroness, Lady Stroud, highlighted, our Government have shown a reluctance to acknowledge the scale of suffering endured by Christians there. Ministers refer to the Fulani attacks as a consequence of population growth, land and water disputes or tit-for-tat clashes between farmers and herders. This does not reflect the reality on the ground, which has been identified by leading people within Nigeria as genocide. Can I urge the Minister to revisit Her Majesty’s Government’s characterisation of this violence? There are many complex issues but blatant religious persecution cannot be explained by desertification or poverty. Fulani militants are engaged in a strategic land-grabbing policy, motivated by an extremist Islamist ideology and equipped with sophisticated weaponry, which has led to thousands of Christians being massacred and to the permanent displacement of hundreds of Christian communities in recent years. These are examples of situations where Her Majesty’s Government seem to be wilfully faith-blind. If they remain blind to ideological aspects of persecution, they will be ineffective—a point emphasised on pages 123 and 124 of the Bishop of Truro’s report.
Finally, in Pakistan, Christian and Hindu girls are frequently abducted, forced into marriage and to change their religion. Ahmadi Muslims are also targeted because of their beliefs. They suffer violence, murder and attacks on their mosques, businesses and properties. Some have been forced to seek asylum in Thailand. I met some of the families who had escaped to Bangkok. I wept with those who have endured horrendous suffering. One man was kidnapped by a mob in Pakistan for being an apostate. The mob shackled him with metal chains and attempted to amputate his leg. He eventually escaped with his wife to Thailand, but his relatives in Pakistan are still in danger. He told me, weeping: “Even last week my brother and my 16 month-old nephew were taken captive. They grabbed the baby, repeatedly smashed him into a wall and demanded to know my whereabouts”.
It is the privilege of my small NGO, HART, to be with our partners suffering from ignored persecutions. We always return humbled and inspired by their courage, resilience, faith and dignity. Across the world, many people are targeted because of their faith. We must no longer deny the reality of the cause of their suffering. I conclude with one of the conclusions from the Bishop of Truro’s report:
“The danger confronting policy makers is to begin to think that to prioritise FoRB”—
freedom of religion or belief—
“presents too great a risk and consequently to prioritise other areas. To do so, however, would be to renege on commitments to minority communities and to allow the continuation with impunity of the most shocking abuses of human rights in the modern era … To give Freedom of Religion or Belief the Priority it deserves within a broader human rights framework would simply be to enable the FCO to do its job better”.
My Lords, I add my thanks to my noble friend Lord Elton for initiating this interesting debate. Persecutions of Christians is a growing problem around the world, according to the Henry Jackson research fellow Dr Rakib Ehsan and Dr Matthew Rees of Open Doors UK. This is a worrying situation, also highlighted by the Bishop of Truro’s independent review, many others who have researched this area and the many noble Lords who have spoken on this subject.
Yet the persecution of Christian minorities has become a marginalised issue in much of the western world. An example of this is the underwhelming response to the persecution of Christians, juxtaposed with the reaction to attacks on Muslims by far-right terrorists. After the Christchurch attack, there was unequivocal condemnation, expressions of solidarity with the global Islamic community and clear identification of the perpetrator. After the Easter Sunday suicide bombings in Sri Lanka, there was a much more muted response, avoidance of clear identification of the ideology of the perpetrators and the rebranding of Christians as Easter worshippers.
Western metropolitan liberal politicians, who have adopted identity politics domestically, view Christians through this lens as white and privileged. This leaves western liberal elites, who seemingly celebrate the decline of Judeo-Christian norms, unsure how to approach cases of religious persecution affecting Christians across the world. Followers of Christianity across the world are becoming increasingly demoralised over the lack of urgency shown by western politicians over global persecution of Christian minorities.
There seems to be a view that government departments, such as the Home Office and Foreign Office, are uncomfortable with religion in general and Christianity specifically. This is probably best described as a lack of religious literacy, which has already been mentioned by others. Another big issue is that no one is aware that Christians exist in large parts of the world—for example, the Middle East and Egypt—which have low levels of persecution. There is a degree of political cynicism: politicians loudly condemn the persecution of Muslims in Myanmar, but not Islamist-led attacks on Christians in Myanmar.
Academic historian and Telegraph columnist Dr Tim Stanley speaks of the example of the Nineveh plains, where the persecuted Christian minority has lived since the first century. Iranian-supported Shia militia are persecuting the Christian community. Under Islamic State, these Christians had a choice of leaving, converting or dying, with churches being turned into torture chambers. The Shia militia are now making life incredibly difficult for these Christians, who want to rebuild their lives. The Christian community suffers from various types of persecution: economic, where people are encouraged not to trade with Christians; religious and cultural cleansing, where Shiite heroes’ portraits are displayed in front of Christian monuments and the Islamic call to prayer is blasted from megaphones directed at the Christian parts of the town; and ethnic cleansing, where Christians are encouraged to leave but unverified restrictions on British visas and changes to USA immigration systems make things difficult, according to local sources. According to the Open Doors world watch list, three major trends have shaped persecution against Christians this year. First, authoritarian states are clamping down and using legal regulations to control religion. Secondly, ultra-nationalists are depicting Christians as “alien” or “western” and trying to drive them out. Thirdly, radical Islam has moved from the Middle East to sub-Saharan Africa.
I am sure all noble Lords were delighted when, in July 2018, my noble friend Lord Ahmad was appointed the Prime Minister’s special envoy on freedom of religion or belief, and compliment him on the work he has been doing. This and the commissioning of the Bishop of Truro’s report show that Her Majesty’s Government are taking steps to address the worrying global increase in persecution. Governments cannot interfere in the governance of other nations, but can DfID be more specific about the terms on which aid is given to countries where persecution takes place? Does it know the ethnic breakdown of the populations that benefit from aid programmes? Can restrictions be put in place where it is known that Christian groups are discriminated against? Can Her Majesty’s Government identify Christianity in certain countries as a vulnerability that we should favourably factor in when considering visa applications? There are suggestions that the Home Office is not accepting Christian visa applications from Syria. Will my noble friend investigate this? DfID provides financial aid to countries such as Nigeria and Pakistan. Should we not couple aid with expecting better domestic behaviour? Red Wednesday is the day for commemorating the world’s persecuted Christians. Could we, collectively, do much more to raise awareness of that day?
The most important liberal democratic value is the right to practise religion, free from harassment, discrimination and persecution. The United Kingdom should protect and promote that principle relentlessly across the world, irrespective of religious background.
My Lords, it is a privilege to follow my noble friend Lady Cox. It is mind-boggling how much she has done, and is doing, and how much she knows. We should all listen to her with interest and see how we can help her.
I was born in Lahore, which is now in Pakistan but was then part of united India. I was born a Hindu but grew up close to a family of Muslims; it felt like one big family. We never thought about religion. We all did what we wanted to do. My mother, who was a very old-fashioned Hindu, did not mind when I went to the imambara—they were Shia—the place of worship where the lady went. So I went with her and there was no question of, “Why are you going there, what are you doing?”. It was a really amazing thing.
The other thing was that my great-grandfather was a very respected person in Lahore. Even now, people in Lahore call him the father of Lahore. So we had a wonderful life, but we became refugees after Pakistan happened, because Hindus really could not stay there, there was so much killing and so on, so we had to leave. It is awful to think that people just left their homes and went. As we have heard from other speakers, people just left everything. We also left everything: our home, our belongings, everything. But I cannot complain, because we were not in the same situation as many other people—we were better off—and things improved anyway.
That is enough about me, except that when I learned about the Holocaust I became a non-believer. I thought, if 6 million people, who prayed and were good people, had no response, I am not going to waste my time. I have never thought about changing, because when you rely on yourself you do better than relying on God. It is perhaps heretical to say that; I do not know if that still follows. I really believe that if you say to yourself, “I am responsible for myself”, it is quite strengthening and it makes you free as well. That is my personal story.
I have been thinking about all sorts of discrimination and the nasty things that happen to people. One of the worst things is faith to faith—the same faith and people being persecuted. We know about the Shia and the Sunnis, and countries that are Shia and Sunni and ready to fight one another. That is faith to faith, which is also appalling. Then there are also smaller groups of the faith who are treated like that. We have heard about the Ahmadiyyas, but noble Lords may not know—maybe I am not supposed to say—that the noble Lord, Lord Ahmad, is Ahmadiyya. Why is he here? Why is he sitting here as a Minister? Because he is of the Ahmadiyya tradition, which believes in education and participation. It would be good if everyone who came here, especially Muslims, believed in that. Ahmadiyyas believe in it, but everyone who comes to live in a country should believe in it. I believed in it. I was very lucky, I got a good education, but if you do not put yourself to do something in the country, why would you expect that everybody should fall over themselves to help you?
There is a real reluctance by the less educated Muslims to do anything to become any part of this country, and they never will. Some European countries have become much stricter; for example, Denmark says, “We will cut your benefits if you don’t learn Danish”. Everybody living in this country should be forced to learn English, because that is the only way they will participate in anything; otherwise, you are deaf and dumb. That is what is happening to so many people living in this country. We are just so soft, we never say to anybody, “You must do this”. Why should women cover their faces? It is not in the Koran, actually: the Koran does not say you have to cover your face. A headscarf is fine, but we ought to be able to see people’s faces. We ought to stop this sort of thing, because we are going the wrong way round—the other way round.
There is one last thing I want to bring up. My noble friend Lord Alton spoke very passionately. He is a very fine speaker; his voice rings through the Chamber. He has knowledge as well, but there is one thing he is not good on: he does not care about how women feel. I heard him yesterday—he cannot interrupt me now. They are not a minority but a huge number of people who are discriminated against by their own faiths. We should not forget that. Women have never been supported by their faith.
My noble friend Lord Singh said that the Sikh religion supports women. I agree with him; the Sikh religion is wonderful and supports women. But Sikhs do not. Somebody once asked me, “Does Hinduism discriminate against women?”, and I replied, “No, Hindus do”. You can have something in your faith and not follow it. Most people do not even properly know what is in their faith. Women have suffered, and, if you think about it, they are the great carriers of faith and religion; they are the ones who care; they are the ones who go to the temple; they really do believe, but they are treated appallingly by the men. While we are talking about discrimination, we also ought to keep in mind discrimination against women.
I mean, what did Asia Bibi do? She drank from a well, and was told that she was not allowed to. That is just amazing. She got five years in prison, and we did not take her. I want to make this a real point—I am ashamed that we did not take her. On that note, remember the women.
My Lords, I too thank the noble Lord, Lord Elton, for tabling this important debate and allowing us to hear my noble friend Lady Flather’s robust common sense, much of which I agree with.
The Bishop of Truro’s report on the worldwide persecution of Christians makes for disturbing reading, as does the persecution of Muslim and Hindu minorities in Sri Lanka, Muslims in Myanmar and Yazidis in the Middle East. I could go on. The question arises: why are religions, which are all about justice and fairness in society, suffering so much persecution all over the world?
Mobs who kill and maim fellow citizens do not do so after a detailed study of the actual beliefs and teachings of those they wish to harm, but because of a latent ingrained fear of difference that is all too easily exploited by unscrupulous religious and political leaders. There seems to be a law of human behaviour which I will call Indarjit’s law: when two or more people find enough in common to call themselves “us”, they will immediately look around for a “them” to look down on to strengthen their sense of common identity. We see this in a less harmful form in the behaviour of football fans. In the 1930s, Hitler exploited latent fear and envy against the Jewish minority to blame it for all the country’s economic and social ills. It carried him to political power.
In India, at the start of 1984, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi saw her Congress Party trailing in the opinion polls and heading for defeat in the autumn elections. A child of the 1930s, she blamed India’s less than 2% minority for all of India’s social and political ills. This led to the brutal killing of thousands of Sikh men, women and children throughout the country. At the end of the year her Congress Party secured a record landslide victory. The rise to power of Narendra Modi, India’s current Prime Minister, was widely attributed to his association with majority bigotry, which led to the killing of thousands of Muslims. For several years he was persona non grata, in this country as well as in the United States. But political power all too easily leads to wider political acceptance.
Sadly, considerations of trade frequently override human rights. In 1984, I asked the then Home Secretary, who I knew well, “Why do the British Government not speak up against the persecution of Sikhs in India?”. He looked me straight in the eye and said, “Indarjit, it’s very difficult—we’re walking on a tightrope. We’ve already lost one important contract”. A Minister of Trade in David Cameron’s Government said, “When we talk trade with China, we should not talk about human rights”. In this House, we have had numerous questions on the abuse of political and religious power by countries in the Middle East, yet we are always softer on Saudi Arabia, perhaps the greater abuser, because, let us be frank, it is a major customer for our arms exports.
This brings me to the abuse of religious freedom in the name of religion. We are all aware of the conflict between Shias and Sunnis in the Middle East. Small theological differences are magnified by irreligious religious leaders, and used to appeal to majority bigotry, leading to the murder of thousands of innocents and a huge refugee crisis. Russia, Britain, America and other powers jump in to take one side or another, adding to the suffering and the flood of refugees.
Religions, which bear the brunt of the suffering, also have the key to reducing conflict, if, instead of focusing on supposed superiority and difference, they emphasise common aspirations and beliefs. This year is the 550th anniversary of the birth of Guru Nanak. In a message highly relevant to today’s times, he taught that the one God of us all was not in the least bit interested in our different religious labels but in what we do to work for a more harmonious and peaceful life. He taught that our different religions were simply different paths up a mountain towards an understanding of God. The paths are not mutually exclusive but frequently merge to highlight common imperatives that can defeat bigotry and fanaticism. That is the direction in which we have to move for greater peace and harmony.
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.
My Lords, for the record and for the benefit of my party’s leader, I am not sitting on the Government Benches; I am of course speaking from the Opposition Benches. I too thank the noble Lord, Lord Elton, for initiating this vital debate. Like the noble Baroness, Lady Berridge, I am a proud member of the APPG for International Freedom of Religion or Belief.
Why do I, as a humanist and a gay man who has been subjected to religious bigotry—and whose community is subjected to religious bigotry throughout the world—support freedom of religious belief? The harsh reality is that, in today’s world, countries that do not respect religious freedom or the right to no belief invariably do not respect other basic human rights. That is a vital point. As the noble Lord, Lord Singh, said, the persecution of Christians often goes hand in hand with the persecution of other religious groups. He mentioned India, for instance, where the rise of Hindu nationalism affects millions of Muslims, Sikhs and Christians.
I very much welcome the Government’s initiatives to put this issue centre stage globally. The 2016 FCO conference, convened to share ideas and to extend and defend the right to freedom of religion, was certainly a great success; we had participants from 38 countries.
I welcome the recognition given to the important role that freedom of religious belief can play in tackling extremism and promoting democracy. That is why we committed in our 2017 election manifesto to the appointment of a special envoy for freedom of religion or belief, an individual who would ensure that the defence of religious freedom was mainstreamed throughout the work of every government department. Of course, in June 2018 the Prime Minister appointed the noble Lord, Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon, as Special Envoy on Freedom of Religion or Belief. I think all noble Lords recognise his hard work in delivering this agenda.
I share the concerns expressed by many human rights groups and other groups about how the Government will ensure that they maintain the momentum on freedom of religion or belief. Of course, the Bishop of Truro’s report was commissioned by the Foreign Secretary last December to review whether the Government could do more to address the persecution of Christians worldwide. We have heard reference to the Open Doors 2019 report on the persecution of Christians, which found that it was both more widespread and more serious. As noble Lords have referred to, of the 50 countries listed in the report, 40 are places where Christians experience very high or extreme levels of persecution. In 2014 only 22 of the countries in the report were given that rating, so something is getting worse.
Earlier this week the bishop’s report was published. I certainly accept its conclusion that Christians are the “most persecuted” religious group in the world and that we must act to address this. But in doing so we must recognise what the bishop said about Christian persecution having,
“multiple drivers and as such it deserves special attention. More specifically it is certainly not limited to Islamic-majority contexts. So this review is not a stalking horse for the Islamophobic far-right”—
which we saw marching outside Parliament this afternoon —and does not,
“give the Islamophobic right a stick to beat Islam with”.
It is really important to make that point.
The noble Lord, Lord Sheikh, referred to the terrible events in Srebrenica. Today is the anniversary of that dreadful massacre, in which over 8,500 Bosnians—young men and boys—were murdered by people who professed to be of the Christian faith. After I asked a question of the Minister yesterday, the noble Lord, Lord Bourne, responded to me in writing this morning and updated me on his department’s support for Remembering Srebrenica, a charity that has been funded by the department since 2013. I mention that because of that charity’s work in organising 800 commemorative events across the UK to mark the 24th anniversary. It will both honour the victims and foster stronger community relations in Britain. It is through education about those horrendous events that we will really change opinions.
I very much welcome the bishop’s report, its important findings and most of its recommendations. However, like the noble Baroness, Lady Berridge, I too have concerns and I hope that the Government will look at it in depth. I read in the Guardian that Jeremy Hunt said at the press launch that he would enact all the recommendations if he became Prime Minister. In case that does not happen, I would be grateful if the Minister indicated when she expects the Government to give a formal response to the recommendations and how they will be adopted and implemented.
I too welcome the intervention of the noble Lord, Lord Taverne, and the excellent idea to conduct a review into the plight facing the non-religious. I hope the Minister will commit to conducting a similar review, given the scale of the plight faced by the non-religious and humanists around the world. It would go a long way towards guaranteeing the right to freedom of religion or belief for all. It would also ensure that the Government’s position as a global leader and champion of freedom of religion or belief around the world will be maintained.
One measure to hold different nations to account over their human rights and FoRB violations is to include human rights clauses in trade agreements that the UK will be required to renegotiate. Certainly, EU trade policy is increasingly incorporating human rights considerations into these matters, so can the Minister give an assurance today that the FCO’s important work on human rights and FoRB can be mainstreamed throughout the new trade agreements? Noble Lords have referred to China, which is often put up as the huge hope in terms of trade, but we have heard from the noble Lord, Lord Alton, and others about the appalling continued mass detention of Uighur Muslims in west China simply for practising their religion. It looks like they are in concentration camps—and we have seen those before. I hope the Minister will tell us more. We have also seen non-approved Christian churches being closed in China and their members arrested. Can the Minister tell the House exactly what we are doing to raise these issues with the Chinese authorities?
Freedom of religious belief is not simply a matter for Governments, as many noble Lords have alluded to during the debate. We need to hear all the voices advocating respect and tolerance, and that is why interfaith groups and interfaith work is so essential. I hope the Minister will be able to reassure us about the projects the Government have supported to promote that—including the use of the Magna Carta fund—detail what we are doing and ensure that it is ongoing.
My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lord Elton for tabling this debate and all noble Lords for their thoughtful, perceptive and passionate contributions. My noble friend Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon was keen to respond to this debate but he is currently chairing a session on this very issue as part of the first ever media freedom conference in London. I know you will all feel diminished by his absence but I shall do my best as his understudy to deal with the important points that have been raised.
Persecution of people on the basis of their faith or belief or because they have no faith at all is unfortunately a phenomenon, a malaise, as old as faith itself. Invariably, it is born of ignorance, fear and a failure to appreciate our common humanity. It is the practice of intolerance. The noble Lord, Lord Taverne, is right to point out that tolerance is at the heart of respect for common humanity, whether that comprises people who have a faith or who have none. My noble friend Lady Stroud rightly stressed the need for tolerance, including on our own doorstep here in the UK, a sentiment echoed by both the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, and the noble Lord, Lord Collins.
It is deeply concerning that in the 21st century, religious intolerance still blights the lives of millions of people around the world, affecting people of all faiths and beliefs on every continent. This year alone, we have seen attacks on individuals, religious symbols or places of worship in countries as varied as the United States, Burkina Faso, the Philippines, New Zealand, France and here in the UK. No one is immune. Indeed, the scale of the problem was eloquently referred to by my noble friends Lord Elton and Lady Stroud, the noble Lords, Lord Bhatia and Lord Sheikh, and the noble Baroness, Lady Cox. The noble Lord, Lord Singh, pertinently and helpfully pointed out that at the heart of all faiths should be love and mutual respect. That takes us back to the point about common humanity. The noble Lord was quite right to remind of us of that. It is certainly something worth reflecting on.
In the first two decades of this century, minority communities in the Middle East, including Christians, have visibly decreased in size, as people have been forced to flee their homeland for fear of persecution at the hands of Daesh. The noble Lord, Lord Alton, raised that issue and also the atrocities in Iraq. We support the investigation of alleged crimes and the preservation of evidence so that perpetrators can be brought to justice. Without first ascertaining the evidence and preserving it, there is no process which can follow, so it is an extremely important part of the sequence of events.
Some noble Lords mentioned that in China, Uighur Muslims are suffering extreme levels of harassment, discrimination and persecution by the state, while Baha’is are prosecuted for their faith in Yemen and Jehovah’s Witnesses are criminalised in Russia. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chelmsford spoke very powerfully about this aspect of global intolerance. Those are all shocking examples of the ways in which people of faith are singled out, marginalised and discriminated against.
It would be easy to extrapolate from these examples that persecution is on the rise in this century. Indeed, I think that might have been the apprehension of a number of your Lordships, but I urge a note of caution. While there is no doubt that millions around the world continue to suffer discrimination on grounds of their faith—I shall give some examples in a moment of the UK’s work to tackle the issue—our understanding of the extent of persecution of people of faith is limited by the lack of data on religious minorities globally. That is a material gap in our knowledge and a serious deficiency regarding the extent of what we are dealing with. The UK is trying to tackle this head-on, including through our support for the Coalition for Religious Equality and Inclusive Development and a pilot project to develop a methodology for tracking data on religious minorities.
Noble Lords will know that the Minister for Human Rights, my noble friend Lord Ahmad, as a person of faith and the Prime Minister’s Special Envoy on Freedom of Religion or Belief, believes passionately that the freedom to choose, change and practise your religion, or to have no religion at all, is a universal human right that should be enjoyed by everyone, everywhere. I particularly thank the noble Lords, Lord Anderson and Lord Alton, for their tributes to my noble friend, who has brought energy and focus to the debate. He has been involved in extensive advocacy of the rights of Christian communities and other persecuted minorities around the world. He has enjoyed success—in Pakistan, for example, on specific cases and issues—and he is building a constructive relationship with Pakistan’s Human Rights Minister. I think it was the noble Lord, Lord Sheikh, and my noble friend Lord Elton who raised the issue of Pakistan. I think the noble Lord, Lord Sheikh, wanted to know what we are doing about the treatment of minority communities. My noble friend Lord Ahmad discussed concerns about freedom of religion or belief and the protection of members of minority religious communities during his visit in February. My noble friend Lord Elton asked about aid. We endeavour to ensure that UK aid to Pakistan targets the poorest in Pakistan, and we have robust controls to ensure that it reaches the intended beneficiaries.
My right honourable friend the Prime Minister has also shown personal leadership on the issue of freedom of religion or belief, and a commitment not only to promote respect for diverse faiths and beliefs here in the UK but to take action to confront the worrying levels of persecution around the world. In the context of the UK, I say to the noble Baroness, Lady Smith: wear your ashes with pride as a badge of your faith and belief and your observance of that faith.
I am proud of the action that the UK has taken, and continues to take, to promote interfaith understanding, to combat intolerance and to support those who have suffered discrimination or persecution. Our approach recognises that religiously motivated attacks and atrocities often—although of course not exclusively—occur in and around conflict. The noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Carey of Clifton, also mentioned the influence of authoritarian and totalitarian regimes on religious persecution. That is an influence that we can all identify with.
That is why, in addition to our work specifically focused on promoting freedom of religion or belief, we dedicate significant resources to preventing conflict and securing accountability and justice for survivors, in areas as diverse as women, peace and security, girls’ education, children and armed conflict, and preventing sexual violence. We also provide significant funding to support communities. I suggest that a common theme of human rights runs through all those activities. The noble Lord, Lord Collins, correctly pointed out the importance of this debate in the context of human rights and the importance of human rights in the context of this debate.
In Iraq, as a number of noble Lords observed, we have spent over a quarter of a billion pounds supporting people who have fled their homes on account of Daesh’s persecution. We have also committed £1 million to support the investigative team that is now collecting evidence of Daesh crimes in Iraq—an important point noted by the noble Lord, Lord Alton.
In Nigeria, religion is one of many factors contributing to the ongoing intercommunal violence. We are exploring how we can work with the Nigerian Government to promote interfaith relationships and find enduring solutions to these disputes. The noble Baroness, Lady Cox, spoke movingly about the deeply troubling situation in that country.
The noble Lord, Lord Anderson of Swansea, raised the important issue of collaboration. We work at a multilateral level with like-minded partners and at international institutions to defend freedom of religion or belief. For example, following the appalling atrocities committed against the Muslim Rohingya community in Myanmar, the UK has led the international response, including through our role as penholder at the United Nations Security Council. We continue to press for accountability and justice, and for the safe return of the Rohingya to their homes in Myanmar. At the Human Rights Council earlier this year, we publicly called out countries that are failing to uphold the right to freedom of religion or belief for all their citizens.
I could give many more examples to illustrate UK action to champion freedom of religion or belief through our posts overseas—from private lobbying on individual cases to our community-level programme work—but we know that there is always more we can do. That is why my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary last year ordered an independent review into Foreign and Commonwealth Office support for persecuted Christians. As your Lordships know, that report has now been published, and I think that it was referred to by every contributor to the debate.
I noted in particular the comments made by my noble friend Lady Berridge. She clearly issued a caveat about the whole issue of definitions, and that was echoed by the noble Lords, Lord Green of Deddington and Lord Collins, the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chelmsford and the noble Baroness, Lady Smith. I hear those concerns and certainly undertake to relay them to the department.
Many of your Lordships wanted to know when there would be a response to the report. I can confirm that we are working across government to agree a formal collective response as soon as possible. Noble Lords will be aware that a number of the recommendations reach beyond the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and involve other departments. I am pleased to say that not only the Foreign Secretary welcomed the report very warmly; the other contender for the position of Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, also welcomed the review and said he would always prioritise protecting religious freedoms and standing up for those facing persecution.
We will consider this hard-hitting report in depth. We will look at its recommendations carefully and, in doing so, see how they can be applied to our work in support of all faiths and beliefs. This is not a task that government can achieve alone, which is why we will continue to work closely with faith organisations, NGOs, civil society and parliamentarians to break down barriers, build bridges between communities and promote respect for our common humanity. This was a sentiment eloquently expressed by the noble Lord, Lord Bhatia, and by the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Carey of Clifton, in a thoughtful and optimistic contribution.
I have a number of points to try to deal with. If I omit to cover anything raised, I undertake to write. My noble friends Lord Elton and Lord Farmer raised the issue of persecution and its definition. The Government define persecution as,
“an act that is sufficiently serious by its nature and repetition as to constitute a severe violation of basic human rights”.
That definition is set out in UK domestic law in the Refugee or Person in Need of International Protection (Qualification) Regulations 2006.
I thank the noble Lord, Lord Green of Deddington, for recognising the UK’s contribution in relation to Syria. This was also the subject of comment from a number of other contributors. In conjunction with the noble Lord, Lord Anderson of Swansea, the noble Lord, Lord Green raised the issue of the help that we provide through the United Nations Refugee Agency, which has undertaken particular efforts to encourage other religions to register; this may well be reflected in more evidence of persons of faith becoming part of the resettlement programme.
I must confess that that is not what I was about to deal with, but I have noted the point; I undertake to obtain more information and write to the noble Lord. He also raised the question of the training of Foreign and Commonwealth Office staff, as did my noble friend Lady Eaton. We have been extending training in the FCO on the influence of faith on foreign policy, commissioning the LSE Faith Centre to deliver a training course on religious literacy and introducing a series of regular seminars. We have also developed a toolkit on FoRB with top legal and academic FoRB experts, to support FCO human rights desk officers as they promote this human right in practice and combat violations of it.
The noble Lords, Lord Alton and Lord Sheikh, my noble friend Lady Stroud and the noble Baroness, Lady Smith of Newnham, raised the issue of genocide. I can say—there is nothing new about this—that it is a long-standing policy of the British Government that any judgment on whether war crimes, crimes against humanity or genocide have occurred is a matter for judicial decision after consideration of all the available evidence, rather than a decision for Governments or non-judicial bodies. The Government feel that this approach provides a clear, impartial, and independent measure of whether genocide has occurred.
My noble friend Lady Stroud asked how the Government are going to reverse levels of social hostility in the United Kingdom. I note my noble friend’s concerns; this is a domestic matter but I undertake to relay her concern to the relevant departments, which are probably the Home Office and the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government.
The noble Lord, Lord Sheikh, raised the issue of anti-Semitism in this country. I reassure him that the Government are committed to combating anti-Semitism both internationally and domestically. At an event at the United Nations General Assembly last September, my noble friend Lord Ahmad reaffirmed the UK’s commitment to education and dialogue to combat the scourge of anti-Semitism in all its forms. The UK also recently took part in an informal meeting of the General Assembly on combating anti-Semitism.
The noble Lord, Lord Sheikh, also raised the issue of a definition of Islamophobia. The Government agree that there needs to be a formal definition. It is vital that we get this right and that any definition reflects the experiences of those who have experienced anti-Muslim hatred. That is why the Government will be appointing two advisers to drive this process and make recommendations on a definition.
The noble Baroness, Lady Cox, raised the issue of what the UK Government have been doing in relation to the desperate situation in Nigeria. I reassure her that we have made clear to the Nigerian authorities at the highest levels the importance of protecting civilians, including ethnic and religious minorities, and human rights for all Nigerians.
I think it was my noble friend Lady Eaton who raised DfID and how we provide aid. We use partnership principles to ensure that where the UK provides budget support directly to Governments, it does so only when we are satisfied that they share our commitments including on respecting the full range of human rights. In fact, the majority of UK development assistance is provided through non-governmental organisations or multilateral agencies, rather than directly to Governments.
My noble friend Lady Eaton also raised the issue of asylum. Regrettably, that is somewhat outwith my responsibility, as it is a Home Office responsibility, but I will look at Hansard and if there is anything I can relay to the Home Office, I will do so. In that context, the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, raised the matter of training. It is an interesting point and I shall ensure that that is also relayed.
The noble Lords, Lord Sheikh and Lord Collins, raised the terrible events of Srebrenica. The noble Lord, Lord Collins, emphasised the importance of education. I totally agree with him. Education is a certain means of ensuring that what previous and current generations were and are aware of never escapes the knowledge and awareness of subsequent generations.
The noble Lord, Lord Collins, also asked what the UK is doing in relation to the Uighur Muslims. We have raised our concerns on a number of occasions and the Foreign Secretary specifically raised our concerns about the region with the Chinese State Councilor and Foreign Minister, Wang Yi, during his last visit to China. The UK also spoke about Xinjiang during our Item 4 national statement at the June 2019 United Nations Human Rights Council.
I am running out of time, but if noble Lords will indulge me, I think I can deal with one or two more points. I am sure your Lordships will be mightily relieved to hear that I am approaching a conclusion. When the United Nations Secretary-General, António Guterres, visited Al-Azhar in Egypt earlier this year, he said:
“When people are attacked, physically, verbally or on social media, because of their race, religion or ethnicity, all of society is diminished”.
“To live in a world of peace, we must nurture mutual understanding and invest in making diversity a success”.
As members of a successful, vibrant, multifaith, multi-ethnic society, we know that diversity makes us stronger, not weaker. We know that society as a whole can fulfil its potential only when every individual is truly free, including to practise their religion within the law. Armed with this knowledge, the UK will continue to champion the message of mutual understanding, respect and strength in diversity, at home and abroad. I thank your Lordships for a fascinating and very instructive debate.
My Lords, I add my thanks to everybody who has spoken, both those whom I pressed to join and those who volunteered. I am glad to see them all and to hear and learn so much. I am sorry only that my noble friend Lord Ahmad is not here to receive the credit he is due. I had wished to say, and will say, that the report that we have all been discussing is sprinkled with congratulatory and supportive comments about his role in the world.
One answer that I wish to hear followed through is to the question raised by the noble Lord, Lord Green of Deddington, about the filter between the refugees and their safety in this country. The rather disastrous conditions in the refugee camps leave them with a hurdle they cannot climb in order to get here.
I take on board my noble friend’s strictures about the dangers of definition. We need to listen very seriously. We must not be narrow or point at one slot. A definition is a good definition when it says what is wrong, not when it says who is wrong.
I do not want to go on, because I have been flashed at once already. I will just conclude by saying that I am delighted that the response will be cross-governmental; that is crucial. I recognise an elephant in the room—mentioned only once—which is the way a humanitarian approach to life is inhibited by our commercial interests. That is very serious. We in our faith recognise that our Lord taught us and showed that helping those who need it is expensive and can cost lives. We must be ready to accept some burdens in support of others who are infinitely worse off than we are.
Eventually, peace comes from compromise and conversation, and the example of St Francis of Assisi at the siege of Damietta, and his determination to get through to Sultan al-Malik al-Kamil, is an example to us all.
I thank all noble Lords from the bottom of my heart. I knew I was inadequate to this task, but you have ensured that the task has been done nevertheless. I beg to move.
House adjourned at 5.37 pm.