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The Lord Bishop of Leicester: My Lords, in line with many noble Lords today, I am grateful to the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Rochester for bringing one of the most fundamental and pressing issues in international relations today to the attention of this House.

Perhaps it would be appropriate to begin from these Benches by conceding to the noble Lord, Lord Taverne, that both Christianity and Islam—and, indeed, most of the world's great religions—have the potential to create immense danger for the world. All religions claim to mediate the absolute. It is easy to topple over the brink and identify that absolute with the finite and fallible human structures through which that absolute is disclosed to human beings. In short, our religions can reinforce countries, communities, organisations and individuals in being impervious to criticism.

However, I assert that both Christianity and Islam also have within their traditions the very roots of what the world needs to build peace. As the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, pointed out, they have within them the resources to address the greatest questions facing the human race today. The patient learning of how to do that is most easily found on the streets and neighbourhoods of our diverse cities.

If it is true to say that the local is becoming globalised, it is simultaneously the case that the global is becoming localised. That is why it was important for this debate to begin with reference to the demography that lies behind these questions. The impact of tensions around the world is felt on the streets of many of our cities, not least in my own city of Leicester. We are living at a time when the pushes and pulls that prompt migration are especially intense. Present conditions of global inequality, commercial expansion, environmental degradation, oppression, war and famine, together with new opportunities for mobility and communication, all drive uniquely large flows of people. Globalisation, with its reduction of the constraints of geography and its web of instant communication, might initially seem
 
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to suggest that localities would become increasingly homogenous. In fact, it is becoming increasingly clear that globalisation has not eradicated local cultural diversity. In cities around the world, people are encountering the challenges of living in distinctive places marked increasingly by many forms of diversity. That leads to a new significance for the local in a globalising world. Global events affect local politics and local collective actions. An obvious example from my own city is that control of Leicester City Council changed hands as a direct consequence of Muslim reaction to the invasion of Iraq three years ago.

International affairs everywhere affect feelings of identity and security, especially among urban dwellers who often already have high levels of fear, anxiety and uncertainty. What therefore needs to concentrate the mind of this House is how foreign policy and domestic policy interact in that area. It is not just security on the streets of Baghdad, Jerusalem or Kabul that are affected by the stance of Her Majesty's Government, but that on the streets of Leicester, Bradford, Birmingham and London.

It is the case that faith groups in any of our cities are likely to be touchstones of international opinion. Within their memberships, they have networks spreading across the world. That makes them especially sensitive to violence and accident wherever they hear of it. In my own city, that has caused us to work hard at creating a rapid response to emergency. Within 36 hours of the attacks in London on 7 July last year, faith and community leaders were able to meet, consider the implications for our own communities and commit ourselves to staying in close touch with each other and with the security services. It is that careful, often laborious, time-consuming yet patient building of trust and confidence in localities that has to be part of the way in which the building blocks of a new international order can be created.

Sometimes the response of faith groups to emergency can include the raising of relief funds and gifts in kind, which makes a considerable impact in bridging community divides. In Leicester, large sums of money were raised for the victims of the Gujarat earthquake from the Christian and the Muslim communities. In Birmingham, a similar effort was made for the relief of those suffering and dying in Bosnia several years ago.

Agreement on certain fixed principles is essential to the building of the kind of trust that is needed both locally and globally if the challenges of a new millennium are to be met. One decision we have made in Leicester is that an attack on one of our faiths should be seen as an attack on all of them, whether a building or a person is a victim. How we then act together depends on the circumstances, but that gives each faith the security that they can bring their concerns to the others when they have been hurt. That principle was elucidated after 9/11 when local Muslims were being insulted and Muslim women were often afraid to put their scarves on for fear of being singled out. Sikhs were also being victimised, since many people are ignorant of the difference between faiths, as
 
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we know. When Muslim graves have been repeatedly desecrated, support has been shown by Christians and Jews alike.

Various speakers in this debate have listed the world's conflicts: in Chechnya, Afghanistan, Iraq, Israel, Palestine, Gujarat, Kashmir, Sri Lanka, north-east India, Pakistan, Indonesia, Kosovo, Nigeria and Sudan. The list goes on. In many of those places, it is possible to find evidence that religions can react to events together and have the potential to act as a moderating and reconciling, rather than inflammatory, influence. In those areas, learning is often done in the crucible of diverse urban neighbourhoods. As other noble Lords have said, it is being done especially through dialogue at every level. We need to ensure that ideologies of isolation, competition or conflict give way to the ideology of dialogue, and that faiths see conversation about how their communities cohere as intrinsic to their very identity.

We are coming to see that building and sustaining prior relationships are essential to finding our way through crises. Regular face-to-face meetings, kept in good repair and sustained routinely, are vital. Rapid response is of the essence if anxieties and speculations, fed by the media, are to be well managed. Collective statements which speak out of the deep roots of our different religious traditions can have a cumulative effect of showing that Christians and Muslims are determined not to be divided.

The Joseph Rowntree Foundation has recently produced a report, Faith as social capital: Connecting or dividing?, of which the noble Lord, Lord Parekh, spoke eloquently. It points to the capacity of communities of faith to build the very links, bridges and social capital which communities will require if they are to live in harmony. The same principle, that social capital arises at its best from the great world faith traditions, has been explored in the report of the Commission on Urban Life and Faith, soon to be published.

In a world where global forces and foreign policy are often driven by the narrow values of profit, power and status, there is often little scope for consideration of the common good to which the world's faiths can so richly contribute. We need to find ways of renewing social organisation and justice in the face of fierce and destructive global dynamics. I am therefore hopeful that this debate will make a significant contribution to that enterprise.

3.38 pm

Lord Roberts of Llandudno: My Lords, it is a privilege to take part in this debate and I am grateful to the right reverend Prelate for initiating it. As we hear about the work that is already being done, I am sure that we would like to express our appreciation to everybody, be it in a religious or secular capacity, who is trying to bring together people of different backgrounds, religions, faiths and cultures. They are doing a tremendous job, often in very difficult circumstances. I am sure that we wish them well.
 
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I am an emotional Welshman—I am not the only one to speak in this debate. I was standing outside the United Nations building in New York and looking at the flags. There was a flag for every nation—I think there were 192 in all—starting with Afghanistan and ending with Zimbabwe. Those two countries—the A and the Z—have had great problems, but many other countries in between have had serious political problems in the past. The UN, despite all its failings and its need for modernisation, has at least provided a forum for discussion. It has tried to overcome disputes before they become disasters. I am not sure that the world would have survived to see this 21st century without the United Nations' existence at the political level. Winston Churchill said that "Jaw jaw is better than war war", whereby you can get people to talk together and ease—and sometimes succeed in resolving—their problems.

Sometimes I dream. We all dream dreams. Would it not be possible for the world's faiths also to join together in some permanent organisations where they could discuss their problems and difficulties? Should we not work towards that? If you work and talk together you learn to understand, respect and tolerate each other. It is dialogue on a global scale. We also have many United Nations conventions. Is it not time for us to consider a UN convention on religious responsibilities and religious rights, so that people feel that whatever their faith, that faith is respected and upheld?

When we choose people for various international interfaith groups, or even a massive global forum, how do we get people who really represent their societies and communities to take part? We know that the Muslim community in the United Kingdom has various organisations and that the Christian community has a massive breadth of organisations. How do we choose people who can speak with authority and have the confidence of the people who are part of their communities?

We have made great advances in the Christian Church. There were the divisions of yesteryear—I am a Welshman. Would the Calvinistic Methodists share a platform with the Wesleyan Methodists? That is not a problem any longer. People of various strands of a faith come together. In Churches Together in England (CTE), the Evangelical Alliance and in other inter-Church organisations we come together and overcome many problems that existed years ago. If we are discussing this at a national or an international level, the faiths themselves—the Churches and the faith organisations—should choose their representatives. It should not be imposed by any government, because politicians can often use religion for their own ends.

I was reminded of that today. In Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Gibbon wrote that all religions were to the believer equally true, to the philosopher equally false, and to the politician equally useful. We may have found in people such as President Bush that readiness to use a Christian agenda for their own ends. So people from the religious communities themselves must choose those who lead them, and the door should
 
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always be open at every level to welcome new people who should feel that there is a growing respect and understanding.

I have spoken of Christianity, but we can speak of Islam in which there are many different strands. One of the problems is that there are so many different strands that they are warring against each other—you cannot obtain cohesion. The moderate voices in those strands are drowned by the loud and fierce minorities. We must work together and the dialogue must continue. It starts at our own feet at local level, which has been mentioned more than once. When that happens, we of different faiths can begin to show our respect and tolerance and get the confidence of those who do not believe as we believe, but are ready to talk together and be at peace together. Then, understanding can be very close. Within the body of our law, which is the final and only framework, there is a law of Parliament within which every faith group must act. Once we begin to be diverted from that we will be in the middle of anarchy.

So at many levels—in local communities and at national level—I can still dream of my global forum of faiths. We can work together and in the end we will overcome many of the problems that cause us such great difficulty at the present time.

3.45 pm


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