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8.05 pm

Lord Macdonald of Tradeston: My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, for allowing us this opportunity to debate this important issue, and for her informative if sombre introduction.

The continual violence committed in the name of religion is indeed tragic. So too are the conflicts between communities of different faiths, or between different sects of the same faith. Most recently, Shia and Sunni Muslims have clashed in Iraq and Pakistan, Buddhists and Muslims in Thailand, Hindus and Buddhists in Sri Lanka, Muslims and Christians in Africa—as the noble Baroness described in such dreadful detail—and, of course, in Gaza, Jews and Muslims are at war yet again.

However, behind the headlines of battles and terror bombings, there are countless individual stories of oppression, fear and misery as a result of religious intolerance. It is to some of these less dramatic issues that I wish to draw your Lordships’ attention, particularly the intolerance suffered in many societies by those with no religious belief.

I speak as a humanist, with no hostility to those with beliefs in higher powers, a spiritual longing seemingly as old as humanity itself. Indeed, in a previous life as a broadcaster, my experience included responsibility for religious programming, on which I worked amicably with religious advisers over many years. At present, I am chairman of the Humanist All-Party Parliamentary Group, which has a membership among MPs and Peers of over 100—including, incidentally, a few Christian and Hindu humanists, as well as many apostates from other faiths.

As noble Lords will know, the non-religious now make up a significant proportion of the UK population. Most of these non-believers lead good and responsible lives with commitments to human rights and democracy. We humanists have a long history of work for a more open, inclusive, just and tolerant society. Progressive people of all faiths and none are, of course, natural allies in campaigns for social justice, freedom of speech and tolerance of diversity. Given the Minister’s distinguished service in his previous role with the United Nations, he may be pleased to hear that British

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humanists are impressed by the work done by the UN’s special rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief.

Note the rapporteur’s remit: religion or belief. That clearly encompasses the belief that there are no gods. The UN rapporteur notes that, in many cases, societal pressures mean that the non-religious cannot openly express their beliefs. There is also concern about official intolerance expressed through policies on education and equality, and on blasphemy. While the UK finally abolished blasphemy laws last year, sadly, in Pakistan, it is punishable by death. Those who reject religion face particular dangers. These so-called apostates can have marriages annulled and their children taken away. In many Islamic countries, apostasy is indeed still punishable by death.

The UN rapporteur, Asma Jehangir, has been diligent and impartial in the annual reports to the General Assembly, entitled Elimination of all forms of religious intolerance. Like the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, British humanists have been particularly concerned about the decisions being taken by the UN’s Human Rights Council, which seems increasingly to be dominated by undemocratic political and religious interests. The HRC recently amended the mandate of the UN’s rapporteur on freedom of expression to impose serious restrictions on “freedom of expression and belief”. This amendment was imposed by an alliance of Islamic Governments backed, significantly, by China, Russia and Cuba. Can the Minister confirm whether our concern is shared by the UK Government, and whether they are taking any concerted action with other democratic states to ensure that no state guilty of systematic violations of human rights should serve on the Human Rights Council?

Still on the Minister’s patch, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office has a Freedom of Religion Panel, with a membership of more than 60 non-governmental organisations, including representatives of Jewish, Muslim, Sikh, Hindu, Buddhist and Christian groups. This panel advises the FCO on matters such as commemorating the 25th anniversary of the UN’s Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and Discrimination Based on Religion or Belief. “Religion or belief” is the phrase deliberately crafted to include the non-religious. I am told that there is still no place on this FCO panel for humanist organisations that would certainly command much wider support among British citizens than many minority religions. We come in peace. Will the Minister encourage the FCO to bring the British Humanist Association on board?

Tragically, in recent years, violence perpetrated for supposedly religious reasons has become a major concern for many countries. Here in the UK we had our own sectarian tragedy for 30 years in Northern Ireland. I readily recognise that many of the conflicts that the men of violence attempt to validate by calling upon their religion are actually based on deeper social, ethnic or economic tensions. That may also be true of some problems here in Britain. But in attempting to resolve these social problems I suggest to the Minister, and to your Lordships of all faiths and none, that British humanists will be your tolerant allies in the struggle against intolerance of all kinds.



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8.11 pm

Lord Bates: My Lords, I also pay tribute to the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, for securing this important debate. She is one of the best examples of a parliamentarian who takes these matters very seriously and, in the best traditions of Proverbs, speaks up for the voiceless around the world. Unlike some who articulate on these issues, she bases her assessments on personal experience, having visited many of these very dangerous, repressed places and having heard from people first hand. That adds great credibility to what she does in this area. The noble Lord, Lord Alton, is also active in this area.

Faced with such distinguished experience, I considered how I could contribute to the debate. I decided to go back to first principles and look again at the UN declaration that we are discussing. Given that it is just over 60 years old, it might be worth reconsidering some of its articles. We are specifically concerned in this debate with Article 18. It 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”.

Its meaning is pretty explicit. However, Article 18 is just one measure in the declaration, which has many supporting clauses. Article 1 states:

“All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood”.

Those are wonderful, exciting aspirations. Anyone who has the privilege of visiting the United Nations headquarters in New York—the Minister obviously has far more experience of this than I—will, like me, be very moved by the wonderful mosaic of Norman Rockwell’s painting “The Golden Rule”, which shows all the nations coming together and the golden rule of “Do unto others as you would have done unto yourselves”. That kind of mutuality was at the core of the Founding Fathers’ philosophy.

Article 2 reads:

“Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion”.

Article 7 says:

“All are equal before the law and are entitled without any discrimination to equal protection of the law”.

Article 16 says:

“Men and women of full age, without any limitation due to race, nationality or religion, have the right to marry and to found a family”.

Article 19 says:

“Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference”.

Article 26 says:

“Education shall be directed to the full development of the human personality and to the strengthening of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms. It shall promote understanding, tolerance and friendship among all nations, racial or religious groups, and shall further the activities of the United Nations for the maintenance of peace”.

In going through that long list I do not seek to test the patience of the House but to indicate that religious freedom is not an add-on that a bureaucrat has gold-plated into the declaration in the irritating way that we sometimes see in other worthy declarations and

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documents. The right to religious conscience is fundamental to the whole concept of human rights. It is the most sensitive flower in the field of human freedom. When it is trampled, all other freedoms and all other equalities automatically and consequentially go by the board too. We draw so much of what we call human rights from our belief in religious freedom. It is critical to underline the importance of that concept. That is implicit in the preamble to the declaration. It states:

“Whereas disregard and contempt for human rights have resulted in barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind, and the advent of a world in which human beings shall enjoy freedom of speech and belief and freedom from fear and want has been proclaimed as the highest aspiration of the common people,

“Whereas it is essential, if man is not to be compelled to have recourse, as a last resort, to rebellion against tyranny and oppression, that human rights should be protected by the rule of law”.

That preamble is very important because it reminds us that religious freedom is part of the process of preventing conflict. Indeed, much civil conflict has at its root a conflict about religious freedom. Therefore, if one tackles and upholds that, one also improves the possibility of reducing conflict. Conflict is a major cause of poverty and other forms of oppression. Here we can be positive about that aspect of human rights.

As if that were not clear enough, in 1981 the international community came back to the issue with the Declaration on the Elimination of all Forms of Intolerance and Discrimination based on Religion or Belief, which states:

“Considering that religion or belief, for anyone who professes either, is one of the fundamental elements in his conception of life and that freedom of religion or belief should be fully respected and guaranteed”.

According to the Guinness Book of Records—I did not research it but saw this information on a website, so it needs to be corroborated—the UN declaration is the most translated document in humanity. Wycliffe Bible translators may argue with that, but the UDHR has been translated into 300 different languages. The original signatories to that fine declaration included Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Burma and Pakistan. They willingly signed up to it as a core principle that they seek to uphold.

The Government need to take that a bit more seriously than they are doing at the moment. That is not meant personally as I know that the Minister has a distinguished track record and I would not want to take away from that. But the Foreign Office sometimes appears a little embarrassed about religion, especially the Christian faith. The 2007 annual human rights report is 216 pages long, but only three pages refer to religion. Compare that to the declaration. Using the great search engine now available on pdf’s latest package, if one searches for the word “religion” the first mention in the report is on page 51. The whole front section is about policy goals. The Government could do a lot more to promote religious freedom. The idea about the Council on Religious Freedom, which already exists, is clearly a good one, but it meets “irregularly”—I think that was the term used in another place. I am not sure what irregularly means. Perhaps the Minister can tell us how often it meets, what its agenda is and how its work is being pushed forward. I also like the idea of

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introducing a special envoy to give a real focus to the efforts of this country in upholding religious freedom around the world. Without embarrassing anybody in particular, I would say that there are some worthy candidates in this Chamber who have proved their eligibility for such a position over many years.

Religious freedom is fundamental to many other human rights. We have to take it seriously; we should not be embarrassed about it but should uphold it along with others and build the infrastructure necessary to make it possible.

8.22 pm

Lord Roberts of Llandudno: My Lords, I appreciate the opportunity given to us by the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, to discuss this subject again. I also, as the noble Lord, Lord Macdonald said, come in peace, but I declare an interest as a Methodist minister so I am not entirely unbiased.

History is scarred with instances of persecution and intolerance. Every generation has looked at others and said, “They are different from us, so they are people to be afeared and oppressed”. In New Testament times—we can go back even further if need be—there was new teaching in Galilee. That of course met with opposition. It was a threat to traditional religion and the stability of Roman rule. The Crucifixion can be regarded as much as a political act as a religious one. It stoked up the hostility of both sections of the community. It is when there is a mingling of politics and religion that we sometimes get the greatest measure of intolerance and it is often difficult to find who is responsible. Was it political or religious first? You have to try to fathom where the real truth lies.

Some cruelties such as the Inquisition, pograms suffered by Jewish people, direct persecution and the crusades to a large extent were aimed at conversion from one faith to another or even just to eliminate people of another faith, as we know happened in Hitler’s Germany. We look at that and sometimes have to admit that the church has been unhelpful and the cause in many ways of wars, disputes and suffering. For that, we all share a great feeling of sadness and a conviction that this should not have happened. However, we cannot say that all wars start with the church. The two major dictators of our time were Stalin and Hitler. One was anti-Semitic and caused the massive Holocaust in Europe. The other was an atheist, and we saw the terrible consequences of his atheism in Russia and other parts of Europe. So here we face not religious causes, but political, territorial and tribal ones. People are trampled and destroyed regardless of any faith they might or might not hold. Pastor Niemoller—I will not repeat his whole quotation—instances the destruction of trade unionists, Gypsies and homosexuals as well as Jewish people. Whatever their faith and status, they were to be trampled upon and destroyed.

I remember hearing, some years ago, about the Christian Falange invading Lebanon. I felt so ashamed until I realised that it was not really a church or a Christian body at all, but merely a tribal label. Labels are so often given in an indiscriminate way. I have written here, “Politics can give religion a bad name”. Personal ambition—the hunger of certain individuals

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for power—and the urge for tribal revenge can also have disastrous results. Some people say that God is the problem, but I say that it is the people who think that they are God who are the problem.

There are many things that cause these persecutions. In The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Gibbon states that religions are,

The label can disguise so much else.

We are talking not only about the situation as it is, but how we can be an instrument of healing. What can we do? Three years ago, I suggested in this Chamber that we should encourage a global federation of faiths, similar to the United Nations in the political sphere. We would establish an institution to bring together the faiths of the world, so that they could discuss their problems and disputes on a permanent basis. I still think that that might be worth considering: it might not be the answer, but it might be a direction in which to go.

We in the UK are a multicultural society. In such a society, we have to come to terms with people who are different from us. Often we misunderstand and are suspicious; sometimes we are ignorant. I know that a forum of faiths in the UK would be something that we in this Parliament could instigate: people of various faiths being welcomed together on a regular basis. I look around this Chamber and remember that there was a youth parliament here a year or so ago. The Chamber was occupied not by Peers, but by young people. To establish a forum of faiths in the UK, it would need to be prestigious; something that people could have confidence in and say, “This is held in high regard”. I do not know what the answer would be to the suggestion that occasionally this Chamber might be filled with people of different denominations and faiths, to give them a boost, and a conviction that this is something critical that we are all deeply concerned about.

By adopting those suggestions, this Parliament and country could give a hands-on lead to global understanding. I am certain that other countries would welcome our initiative. It could be part of Britain’s enhanced role in the 21st century.

8.28 pm

The Lord Bishop of Chichester: My Lords, I, too, thank the noble Baroness, not only for securing the debate, but also for her distinguished tenacity in this matter over many years.

One striking feature of Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is the indivisibility of this right to freedom. It follows that those who profess a particular faith may not claim a right that does not apply to others, and also that those whose beliefs are commonly described as “religious” may not claim a right that does not apply equally to those who disown religious faith—I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord MacDonald, for what he said about that—and vice versa.

Obviously, no freedoms can be unlimited, and it may be that one of the more interesting background questions to this debate is what happens when freedoms

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come into conflict. However, that appears not to be the main point of the debate. I want to draw attention to a few issues and suggest a warning.

Last year I had the privilege at the Lambeth Conference of sitting at the feet of Samson Das, the Bishop of Cuttack in Orissa state, who was able to testify at first hand to the sufferings of the individuals, congregations and institutions in his diocese. The noble Baroness has already said enough about the numbers of those involved and the details of their sufferings, so I do not need to repeat any of that now. However, it does of course concentrate the mind wonderfully to spend time with those directly involved.

Bishop Das’s description of an appalling situation could, tragically, be told of many parts of the world and in relation to an enormous number of conflicts, in many of which the borderline between religious differences and cultural or ethnic tensions is not always very easy to distinguish. The very fact of that difficulty suggests that, without in any way trying to minimise those wider issues, we need to identify and acknowledge the particularly religious elements involved in such aggression.

It would, I suppose, be unrealistic not to mention in this debate the situation of Christians in the Holy Land and elsewhere in the Middle East. In places where different faiths have coexisted for centuries we see the rapid attrition of the Christian church in its ancestral homelands. In Iraq, Christians have suffered extreme deprivation, sometimes due to sheer religious hatred, sometimes just caught in the cross-fire, sometimes because, amazingly and quite wrongly, they are regarded as representatives of a western faith. So we cannot disown our own particular responsibility and the pressure on Christians in some parts of the world.

Of course, persecution does not always take a violent form; there are sometimes perfectly legitimate attempts to persecute minorities or other people based on legitimate rule of law. Just across the border from Iraq, in south-east Turkey, a part of the world that I know particularly well, court cases are alleging the theft of land from local villages by monasteries in Tur Abdin which have stood there since the late fourth century. There is a certain degree of ridiculousness about some of this, but that does actually affect the sufferings of those Syriac villagers and others who are suffering so greatly.

The last issue I want to draw attention to is closer to home and also reinforces the point that not all persecution is necessarily bloody. The suspension of Caroline Petrie, a community nurse, for offering to pray with a patient, not surprisingly led to incredulity. But as well as incredulity this was also an occasion for some interesting examples of social cohesion. A spokesman for a local Muslim forum in Sussex, in my own diocese, observed:

“This is crazy. These people need their heads testing. Someone from the goodness of their heart does a good deed and people punish her ... We should make every effort to bring peace, calmness and above all hope to our patients. This is a christian country and a majority of the patients believe in God. This was a kind and charitable gesture and we should praise the nurse”.

End of Muslim quote. It is a welcome sign of how faith communities can hold together in the face of a growing hostility to faith. One might even say, if one

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wanted to be naughty, that it is a sign of diversity and equality in action. Of course I welcome Mrs Petrie’s reported return to work.

I finish by drawing attention to one particular aspect of the situation which is addressed directly by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and I am very grateful to the noble Lord who quoted Article 18 in its entirety. The right upheld in Article 18 is not only about freedom of faith and freedom to change one's faith, it is also about the right to hold and practise one's faith in public. This freedom is curtailed not just by communal hostility but, in many cases, by public authorities in many parts of the world today. I hope that Her Majesty's Government will take strenuous steps to make sure that that does not happen here.

8.34 pm

Lord Alton of Liverpool: My Lords, as my noble friend Lady Cox mentioned in her opening speech, three weeks ago we travelled together to North Korea. I declare a non-pecuniary interest as chairman of the All-Party British-North Korea Parliamentary Group. In supporting the many specific points that she has made today, especially the desirability of the appointment of a special envoy with a mandate to uphold the right to freedom of belief enshrined in Article 18 of the UN declaration of human rights, I want to use my time today to reinforce her observations about North Korea.


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