Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

The Lord Bishop of Coventry: My Lords, I begin by commiserating with the noble Baroness, Lady Uddin, who cannot read her own handwriting. I suspect that I speak for many in your Lordships' House when I say that I cannot read mine either, with or without glasses.

It takes a certain temerity for a white Anglo-Saxon who has never visited Bangladesh to take part in a debate such as this. I justify it, perhaps, by reminding your Lordships that the City of Coventry, where I live and where I am privileged to serve, has a significant
23 Jun 2005 : Column 1768
Bangladesh community. This community has given rise to a number of restaurants, which are generically referred to as "Indian" restaurants, where they serve what is generically referred to as "curry". This is one of the huge advantages that we have in Coventry. In passing, I would point out that the curry in Coventry is just as good as that in Birmingham or Leicester, and second only perhaps to that in Bradford.

When I welcomed two new colleagues to my staff team last week I decided that we would take them out to a meal in a local curry house. Halfway through the meal the manager of the restaurant came up to me and began to tell me the story of his family in Bangladesh. It appears that they are part of the Ahmadi community. As he told the story his eyes filled with tears and he asked me, an Anglican bishop, to pray for him and his family. What I wish to say today is to some extent focused on that community.

The Ahmadiyya community in Bangladesh is small. Its numbers are estimated at around 100,000 out of a population of some 140 million. As we have already heard, many respected international monitors point to increasing evidence of an orchestrated campaign on the part of Islamist extremists against this small minority. We are hearing stories of mob violence, including attempts to occupy Ahmadi places of worship. Several homes have been destroyed and Ahmadi converts, it is said, are being detained against their will and pressured to recant. The reason for this seems, at one level, quite simple. These people are held to be at best unorthodox in their beliefs and at worst heretical.

What concerns us today is not merely the attacks on a heterodox Muslim sect in Bangladesh. These are a presenting issue for something profoundly more worrying. We are speaking about attacks on one of the foundations of justice and peace in our world; namely, the right to religious freedom. These attacks are all the more sinister because they appear to be tolerated or even encouraged by the state. Last week the Human Rights Watch accused the supposedly secular government of Bangladesh of being complicit in religious violence. I quote from its report:

All this may sound remote and perhaps of little interest to most of us in the West—that is, until we remember that one of the major pilgrimage centres for this community is in rural Surrey, where 30,000 people gather each summer. So the geographical links to this persecuted minority are not so distant as we might at first think. By all accounts, the largest mosque in western Europe belongs to this community, and is to be found in Morden.

What should concern us more than geographical proximity is the issue of the state-sponsored oppression of a religious minority. If the violence and intimidation against one small community in Bangladesh is tolerated, whose place of worship or home will next be burned; who will next be beaten? There are already signs that other minority religious groups such as Hindus are beginning to suffer the same kind of violence.
23 Jun 2005 : Column 1769

Precisely because we may be tempted to think of this as an obscure persecution in a far away place, we must redouble our efforts to be intolerant of intolerance. For some, the persecutions of the marsh Arabs in Iraq, or of Christians in Pakistan, or the spiral of violence unleashed in the Great Lakes region, were once similarly obscure and far away.

I speak as a Christian, but most emphatically not with any sense of moral superiority. I am only too conscious that the Church in this land has in the past engaged in heresy trials which, in their turn, led to institutional violence. Those burnt at the stake or disembowelled for their faith are now generally held by both sides to have been honourable martyrs. We have, thank God, learnt that there is far more that unites us than divides us; but, even more significantly, that our common humanity is a God-given privilege that we despise at our peril.

Equally, I am not insensitive to issues of doctrinal soundness or orthodoxy. I accept that the Muslim community world wide, both Sunni and Shia, finds abhorrent the idea that a late-19th century prophet should be thought to have superseded the prophet Mohammed as the ultimate messenger of divine truth. For Christians, a parallel might be the arrival of the Mormons, at about the same time, claiming that their holy book somehow trumps the Hebrew and Christian scriptures. Such claims to authority can all too easily divide communities, setting erstwhile friends and neighbours against each other in vicious and violent ways.

The question we all need to ask, whatever our religious affiliation, is whether violence in the name of God can ever be justified. That very question has formed the basis of some very fruitful dialogue in recent years. It gave rise to the Alexandria Declaration in 2001. That was signed by top religious leaders from the Muslim, Jewish and Christian communities in Israel/Palestine, a process in which the diocese of Coventry was privileged to play a significant part. It led, in turn, to the Baghdad Religious Accord signed on 24 February 2004, in the preface of which the following statement is to be found:

this refers to Sunni and Shia Muslims, Christians and Kurds—

As ever, words alone are not enough, but I humbly suggest that such an approach is not without merit and might usefully be adapted to other situations, such as that under discussion today.

I realise, of course, that much so-called religious persecution also has economic, ethnic and political elements. Indeed, power struggles come in many different guises. That may well be the case in Bangladesh, and I would welcome any insights that other noble Lords might have to offer, since such territory is certainly beyond my competence to comment on.
23 Jun 2005 : Column 1770

In concluding, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, for initiating today's debate. I urge Her Majesty's Government to do all they can to bring pressure on the government of Bangladesh to ensure that basic human rights are observed and that freedom of religious thought and practice is not only tolerated but welcomed.

2.16 pm

The Earl of Sandwich: My Lords, the noble Baroness, Lady Uddin, mentioned cricket. The expression on Mohammad Ashraful's face after he had scored his century and Bangladesh had beaten Australia by five wickets in Cardiff last weekend spoke for itself. So did the slogan on his T-shirt, which said "Grameen Phones". A great country, which has always unfairly been seen as a poor relation, first of western Bengal, then of India, then of Pakistan, has now excelled at the highest level of sport and boasts one of the most famous and successful examples of rural development anywhere.

The Grameen Bank has become a symbol of micro-enterprise world wide, demonstrating how the very poorest communities can support themselves through their own efforts, and how a commercial bank can benefit from low rates of interest and exceptionally high rates of repayment. The poorest, in other words, are shown to be the most financially efficient.

I saw this over many years when I visited eastern India and Bangladesh several times for organisations such as Christian Aid and CARE. I met the leaders of local NGOs such as BRAC, GK, Nijera Kori and Gono Unnayan Prochesta, which all have an excellent reputation in the aid world. I know that the DfID is involved with BRAC today in a major rural education programme.

Apart from their business enterprise, I admired the vitality and skills of all the Bangladeshis I met. I saw health workers visiting the poorest families, craftsmen making artificial limbs and spare parts in an industrial workshop, labourers at night school, small farmers and their wives transplanting rice and fishing in ponds. I became nervous riding behind paramedics on their mopeds along slippery dykes, then impatient waiting for a delayed, crowded ferry to carry me across some of the widest rivers in the world.

The people have endured much, and the many stories of survival and tragedy in successive disastrous floods still haunt anyone who has worked in Bangladesh, let alone lived there. It can be a dangerous place to live, as we have heard.

Bengalis, east and west, are a highly intelligent, artistic and articulate people, and their strong opinions, while they often enliven democratic debate, sadly sometimes spill over into factional and sectarian violence. The noble Lord, Lord Avebury, has already spoken of the dangers to journalists, the threats to democracy, the human rights abuse and the fault lines between the many political parties and ethnic and religious groups.

I also learnt that political violence can be at its fiercest at a local level, where the more progressive reforming elements clash with vested interests and
23 Jun 2005 : Column 1771
local landlords. For example, I visited a clinic where a paramedic had been beheaded for asking too many questions about the causes of poverty.

But I also remember some remarkable individuals who have helped to build this nation, such as Dr Zafrullah Chowdhury—to mention just one. He was a young medic who, having fought in the independence war, started a people's health centre called the Gonoshasthaya Kendra in a rural area outside Dakar. This health centre was remarkable in itself, training young paramedics in the "where there is no doctor" techniques, but he soon became aware of the political background and the power of the multinational drug companies, which were pricing products way out of reach of the rural poor. With some help from German and British charities, he built a drugs factory alongside his health centre to manufacture only the basic medicines on the WHO list, thereby undercutting the big pharmaceutical companies. Deservedly, he went on to enter politics and became for a time health Minister. He was a man of extraordinary dedication and humanity.

I mention these things because this has always been a nation of great fascination to me and a country of tremendous potential, character and colour. Yet it is also a country of great vulnerability because of its geographical position and its political weaknesses. It is resilient in dealing with successive natural disasters and very far from the basket case that is sometimes portrayed in the media.

I should also mention that we in London are fortunate to have such a thriving Bangladeshi community, not to mention the curry, referred to by the right reverend Prelate, which brings this lively culture into the midst of our own.

I was pleased to hear reference made to the Chittagong Hill Tracts. I would like to mention two minority groups in particular, the Biharis and the Rohingyas. The Biharis are in some ways the equivalent of Palestinians in south Asia. They are victims of racism, religious intolerance and a collapsed empire. Their story is long and complicated. Most of them are descendants of Urdu-speaking Muslim refugees who came to east Pakistan after partition in 1947. Before that, thousands of them were transported from Bihar by the British to build railways and support the administration in east Bengal. In the Bangladesh war of independence, the Biharis sided with Pakistan and have since been understandably resented. Few have been given citizenship, although a High Court ruling two years ago found in favour of one group. The Tripartite Agreement of 1974, which followed the independence war between India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, failed to resolve the problem of the Biharis. More than 30 years later, about 300,000 still live in about 70 camps, in wretched, crowded conditions with inadequate healthcare. They are unrecognised even by the UN as genuine refugees as laid down by the convention.

As noble Lords will know, the case of the Biharis has at various times been brought up in this Parliament, notably by the late Lord Ennals, who achieved the
23 Jun 2005 : Column 1772
only conference on the Biharis in Geneva, and by Ben Whitaker through the Minority Rights group and others. Repatriation to Pakistan was discussed, but, as so often, meeting humanitarian need through the UN was the only practical outcome.

However, Britain seems to have lost any sense of responsibility that it once had. In her reply to the noble Lord, Lord McNally, on 22 May last year, the Leader of the House said that while DfiD's third largest aid programme was in Bangladesh, there was no special support for the Biharis through it. This year's departmental report, which has just been published, makes no mention of them, although I understand that some funding may have become available through the human rights and governance fund. What assistance are Her Majesty's Government giving to the Biharis?

Some Members of this House have been involved with the Dakar Initiative, which aims to carry out a comprehensive needs assessment of the Biharis in the camps. Apparently, this project was offered to Her Majesty's Government, but nothing more has been heard of it. Will the Government undertake to make inquiries and, if possible, follow up this very worthwhile initiative as well?

I should also like to bring up the case of the Rohingya, who are a Muslim minority in northern Arakan State in Burma. Here I speak as a council member of Anti-Slavery International. The Rohingya people suffer discrimination in Burma on the basis of their ethnicity and religion and, in Bangladesh, they are unwanted refugees. In Burma, the Citizenship Law of 1982 renders them stateless and their freedom of movement is highly restricted. They are routinely subjected to forced labour, extortion and arbitrary arrest.

Human rights abuses in Burma, which are the subject of attention in the media today, have led to mass exoduses and a continuous influx of Rohingya refugees to Bangladesh. I understand that 20,000 refugees remain in two precarious refugee camps where the literacy rate is only 12 per cent and chronic malnutrition peaks sometimes at 65 per cent. Last September, the Bangladesh Government formally rejected a UNHCR proposal for self-reliance for these camps. Several incidents took place in Kutupalong camp, starting with a hunger strike in June 2004 and culminating in a violent police raid on 18 November, leaving three refugees dead and 42, including six women, imprisoned on what I understand were fabricated charges.

Rohingya refugees continue to face intimidation, pressure to sign voluntary repatriation forms and serious abuses in the camps. In addition, the two remaining international NGOs were compelled to withdraw from the camps in the past two years. This raises concerns about the protection of, as well as the quality of humanitarian assistance to, the refugees.

In Anti-Slavery International's submission to the UN Commission on Human Rights on 15 April, it urged Burma to end its policies of discrimination against the Rohingya and to repeal the 1982 Citizenship Law. It also urged Bangladesh to cease all coercion and harassment of Rohingya refugees, to conduct an independent
23 Jun 2005 : Column 1773
investigation into the November killings, and fully to implement the recommendations of the joint assessment mission that was carried out by the UNHCR and the World Food Programme last October.

The noble Lord, Lord Avebury, spoke of building solidarity. May I urge our Government to do their utmost to work with the international community to find durable solutions for both the Bihari community and the Rohingya refugees, instead of simply abandoning them?

2.28 pm

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page