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Lord Roberts of Llandudno: My Lords, I thank the right reverend Prelate for initiating this debate and I thank all noble Lords who have contributed to it in so many different ways.
For many people, their religious faith is the central factor in their lives. For many millions of people, their faith is far more important than their politics. For many people, in certain circumstances, that faith is the only thing that they have. I think of the Jewish people, who were turned out of Jerusalem in 72 AD, and who for 18 centuries were without a place to call their own. They suffered pogroms and the devastation of the Holocaust, which was the climax of everything. I
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believe that the only thing that held them together was their religious faith. So when we talk of faith, we are talking of something that is central to the lives of many people.
We might not agree with the convictions that people hold, but that faith must be respected every time. We might disagree on principles or attitudes, but we must say that we will get to a personal understanding of other people. An attempt at respect, understanding and tolerance are much more likely to win hearts and minds than suspicion and hostility. In the United Kingdom and many other countries, we have seen how people of different faiths are getting together. They are talking together and are beginning to understand one another. I well remember the first anniversary of September 11 in my own town of Llandudno. We are not a large multicultural community, but people came from the mosque, the synagogue and all the Christian Churches. Together we remembered and wept. Together we begin to understand one another and, in that understanding, we begin to overcome our differences.
Noble Lords can possibly tell that I am Welsh. There was a time when people would ask the denomination to which one belonged. If one said, "I am a Methodist", the next question would be whether one was a Wesleyan Methodist or a Calvinistic Methodist. It was vitally important. Over the years, attitudes have changed. As people get to know and respect each other, there will be much greater tolerance and understanding. That is the major direction in which I want to go this evening. It is that we should respect each other and learn so that when new, often frightened, people come to our country, we are able to give them a welcome and to embrace them at the heart of their faith, which is those things that are important for them.
I am a great believer in the United Nations. There I see more than 190 nations coming together and talking. There are massive disagreements between some of them, but they keep on talking. As they keep on talking, perhaps they begin to understand and tolerate. Instead of war and hostility, there is talking and a search for understanding. The world is a much safer place because there is a United Nations, although the UN has to be modernised and there are many changes to be made.
I sometimes wonder whether we could think of a united nations of the faiths of the world, a continuing, consistent gathering together of people of different faiths so that they could share their concerns and air their differences. They might not all agree. Perhaps not every faith would come. Is there not a possibility that, by talking together on a world level, we might be able to avoid so much of the horror of the past? I would like to see that happen but at least I am allowed to dream about it.
Lord Kilclooney: My Lords, I wish to contribute briefly to this debate and I thank the right reverend Prelate for initiating it. I am sorry I was not here for his introductory speech, and that I did not hear it on television.
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As someone with a Scottish background, and therefore Presbyterian, living in Ireland, I am very conversant with the problems we have in the island of Ireland. As I have said before, that island was called Scotia in Roman times, and then the Irish invaded it and drove the Scotis out. We were sent across to a place which we then called Scotland, taking its name from the Scotis who lived in Scotia. The Irish took over, and our island was renamed Hibernia. Then in the 17th century the Scots returned to Northern Ireland. My family returned from Scotland to Kilclooney, hence my title.
The Irish Presbyterian Church is the largest Protestant Church in Northern Ireland. The Roman Catholic Church in Northern Ireland is even larger. Our task in that divided society is for members of the Protestant and the Roman Catholic communities to live and work together for the good of Northern Ireland. I say that as a member of the Orange Institution; as one who believes that one renders unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's and unto God the things that are God's. I say that as one who believes in freedom of religion for everyone.
I wish to touch on one subject. The noble Baroness, Lady Neuberger, seemed to be giving her assent to the suggestion that state finance should be withdrawn from Church schools and that we should solely support integrated or mixed-religion schools. I disagree with that totally, as an Ulster Presbyterian. We have a wonderful education system in Northern Ireland, controlled by the Roman Catholic Church and financed 100 per cent by the state.
It is quite wrong that parents should not have the freedom of choice to send their children to a Roman Catholic, a Muslim, a Jewish or an integrated school. I would defend the right of the Churches in Englandwhere, surprisingly, I find from the recent census, 75 per cent of the people are Christian, although I have not experienced that in my visits to Englandto have the right to have their own schools. The state should not discriminate against religions and simply favour integrated education. I just wanted to make that brief comment, as an Ulster Protestant supporting Roman Catholic schools in Northern Ireland.
Lord Dholakia: My Lords, we come to the concluding part of this important debate. I add my thanks to the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Rochester for securing the debate.
When I first came to this country in the late 1950s, it was said that the Church of England was the Tory Party at prayer. I remember my very first meeting with the local vicar in Brighton, who asked me whether I was a Catholic or a Protestant. My reply was, "It's bad enough being an immigrant without being one of those things". Things have changed a lot since then.
I hope that the enlightened religious attitude that we are talking about will stretch to House of Lords reform, so that before long we can see on the Bishops' Benches people of other faiths.
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Next Saturday we celebrate Christmas; last month we celebrated the festivals of Eid and of Diwali, the festival of light. In September 1965, the Labour government proclaimed that Britain was a multi-racial society. We were not sure then, but we can now confirm that the United Kingdom is a multi-racial, multi-cultural and multi-religious society. The enlightened attitude of many people in our society who celebrated this event confirms that. But celebration seems to me to be the wrong word. In the aftermath of the Cold War, fundamentalism seems to have replaced communism.
Fundamentalism is always identified with strongly held religious beliefs. It exists in all religions, but Islam seems to have been singled out, and I suspect that the events of 9/11 are responsible for that.
I am a Hindu, but Islam is one of the great religions of the world. It is a peaceful religion, although it is not always interpreted as such by some of its followers. We need to explain events such as those in Afghanistan and Iraq. While the western media condemn Islamic fundamentalism, little is said about Christian fundamentalism and its grip on the White House. We no longer talk about war; we talk about crusades; we talk about international communities by saying, "Either you're with us or you're against us".
We can have all those arguments, but I shall cite just three examples, all of which lead us to the belief that an enlightened attitude is important. The first relates to Salman Rushdie, the author of The Satanic Verses. The book caused deep rumbling among faithful Muslims offended by its content, prompting protests, book burning and even riots, in which several people were killed. The second example, rightly mentioned by the noble Lords, Lord Ahmed and Lord Weatherill, happened last weekend. The loyal Sikh community laid siege to a theatre with the intention of cancelling a play depicting sex abuse and murder in a Sikh temple. They were not against the play as such, but against identifying such an incident in a gurdwara, which is sacrosanct to their beliefs.
The third relates to the evidence given to the Home Affairs Select Committee on 14 December. A statement was made by Mr Jagdeesh Singh against the Swaminarayan Hindu mission alleging that the Neasden temple had become a base for the terrorist activities of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad. It is the most majestic temple, visited by over a million people since its inauguration, whose principal belief is in non-violence. Its record on the reintegration of the inner-city area is second to none; its poverty alleviation programme abroad and its contribution to victims of earthquakes in Gujarat is also very much appreciated. Its spiritual leader, Pramukh Swami, prevented communal violence after one of the temples was attacked by terrorists.
What do all those incidents point to? They have all hurt the deepest feelings of those who practice those different religions. That should cause no surprise to anyone. I do not question our freedom of speech or liberal values, but we often fail to understand that free speech in a libertarian society also carries responsibilities with it. We cannot condemn Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs
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as being illiberal in a society in which racial and religious discrimination is rife and people often take shelter within their religious structure. We need enlightened attitudes to ensure that in a democracy we do not isolate communities and leave them to fend for themselves. These three incidents beg for a debate to be opened up with our minorities.
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