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Interfaith Dialogue

Volume 799: debated on Wednesday 17 July 2019


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what plans they have to work with European leaders and the leaders of the Christian, Jewish and Muslim faiths to develop a comprehensive plan for inter-faith dialogue for areas of religious conflict which includes methods for mediation in order to facilitate improved ways of working between communities.

My Lords, we welcome the United Nations Plan of Action for Religious Leaders and Actors to Prevent Incitement to Violence that Could Lead to Atrocity Crimes. However, we have concerns over how the plan will be implemented. In the UK, following the publication of the final report of the independent review of FCO support for persecuted Christians, we are working across government to see what else we can do to support members of faith and belief communities around the world.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that constructive response. The tensions between adherents of different faiths, and subsets within them, are of course an inescapable part of the story of humanity, including between Judaism, Christianity and Islamism. That trio have common roots in the area that centres on Jerusalem, but they are now present in all the continents alongside other faiths. I draw attention to the crucial innovation in Africa of a hotline between the bishop and the imam in the proselytising borderland of Kaduna in northern Nigeria, which has already saved thousands of lives. Do Her Majesty’s Government agree that, in line with the global UN principles that the Minister mentioned, we Europeans have a vested interest in providing wherewithal? I do not mean just in rapid response; I mean helping to engender permanent co-operative arrangements on the ground in critical areas based, inter alia, on the competences from European agencies such as providing help to train mediators and experts in logistics and communications.

I thank the noble Lord for the practical and interesting example he has shared with the House. I am pleased that the Government are committed to preventive diplomacy such as mediation, and are working closely with the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury to enhance the UK’s work in this area. The UK believes that mediation requires a concerted approach from a range of actors. These include regional and sub-regional organisations, civil society, religious leaders and the meaningful participation of women. The Government are happy to facilitate a telephone conversation between the most reverend Primate and the leader of Nigeria’s Muslims, should he require such assistance.

My Lords, I am the president of the Institute for Jewish Policy Research. We have conducted a survey about anti-Semitism among young Jewish people in every EU state. Sadly, we have discovered that nearly half of all those young people have suffered from some form of anti-Semitism activity over the past 12 months. The UK has the second-largest Jewish population in the EU and it is clear that the leadership required to combat anti-Semitism has to start at the top. I therefore salute those members of the Labour Party in this House who signed the letter published in this morning’s Guardian to try to deal with anti-Semitism in the party. The Government of the United States have appointed a special envoy to deal with global anti-Semitism, Mr Elan Carr. Will the United Kingdom Government consider doing the same?

The noble Lord depicts a troubling scenario in the result of the survey to which he referred. I assure 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. Where we are aware of or witness it, it behoves us all to stand up, call it out and condemn it without equivocation.

My Lords, I widen the question: have the Government developed a social cohesion framework or action plan for post Brexit, or post a decision to remain, that ensures that individuals and groups who seek to divide and to promote extremism cannot play to fears within some communities? For example, have the Government any views on Canada’s intention to introduce a new digital charter to combat hate speech and misinformation?

The Government have strict laws to deal with such matters, as the noble Lord will be aware. As he will also be aware, my noble friend Lord Ahmad is special envoy on freedom of religion or belief, and I think the Chamber will want to acknowledge his tremendous work. Indeed, the reason he is not here this afternoon is that he is in Washington representing the UK at the US Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom. That is one example of what the United Kingdom is doing both domestically and globally to address the issues that rightly concern the noble Lord.

My Lords, in April my colleague the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury and His Holiness Pope Francis together hosted a spiritual retreat at the Vatican for civil and religious leaders of war-torn South Sudan. This was a clear demonstration of the kind of ecumenical joint initiative between religious leaders that can promote reflection and reconciliation in troubled parts of the world. Does the Minister agree that such initiatives benefit all communities, not only those of faith, and that the global Anglican Communion would be a valuable partner in any scheme such as that proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Lea?

I thank the right reverend Prelate and pay tribute to the work to which she referred. It is to be commended and is an interesting example of what can be done with both determination and imagination. She is correct that such initiatives can produce broader benefits beyond the immediate arenas of the parties involved.

Does the Minister agree that British universities, with their diverse student and staff bodies, are particularly hopeful and unexploited places in which to do precisely what the noble Lord proposes? Is she aware of the work done, for example, by the London School of Economics interfaith centre, especially its oversubscribed faith and leadership programme? Could this be commended more generally?

I thank the noble and right reverend Lord for raising an extremely important point. The FCO has extended training 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 certainly invite other government departments, including DfID, to join this training.

My Lords, I admit to knowing a bit about anti-Semitism and not a little about Islamophobia. Both those pernicious doctrines are on the march across Europe and now, unfortunately, in our tolerant Britain. Will the Minister encourage our religious leaders—the rabbis, imams and bishops—to produce several joint statements in which they show their abhorrence for these doctrines to their followers?

We all listened to what the right reverend Prelate said. It is perhaps not for me to tell communities of faith what to do but everyone will have listened with great sympathy to what the noble Lord said, and I imagine that our communities of faith will want to respond positively.