This page highlights debates from May 2014 onwards focused on issues of freedom of religion or belief. The most recent is at the top.
PERSECUTION OF THE AHMADIYYA MUSLIM COMMUNITY Siobhain McDonagh House of Commons 24 May
PERSECUTION OF CHRISTIANS OVERSEAS Chris Philp Westminster Hall 22 May
The Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting 2018 House of Lords22 March
MALDIVES Jim Shannon 6 March
FREEDOM OF RELIGION OR BELIEF Westminster Hall 1st March
BANGLADESH AND BURMA: ROHINGYA CRISIS International Development Select Committee Statement 18 January
IRAQ: RELIGIOUS AND ETHNIC MINORITIES Bishop of Coventry 11 January
ROHINGYA CRISIS Westminster Hall 28 November
COMMONWEALTH SUMMIT 2018 Baroness Berridge 2 November
CALAIS REFUGEES House of Lords 2 November
THE BALFOUR DECLARATION House of Commons 30 October
INTERNATIONAL FREEDOM OF RELIGION OR BELIEF DAY Westminster Hall Jim Shannon 26 October
BURMA: ROHINGYA Baroness Helic 26 October
CENTENARY OF THE BALFOUR DECLARATION Westminster Hall 25 October
UK RELATIONS WITH TAIWAN Jim Shannon 24 October
THE ROHINGYA AND THE MYANMAR GOVERNMENT Rushanara Ali 17 October
WESTMINSTER HALL DEBATE ON HUMAN RIGHTS IN IRAN Theresa Villiers 11 October
PERSECUTION OF CHRISTIANS: ROLE OF UK EMBASSIES Jim Shannon 4 July
INTERNATIONAL HUMAN RIGHTS DAY Ann Clwyd and others 13 December
HOUSE OF LORDS DEBATE ON HUMAN RIGHTS IN IRAN Lord Alton and others 8 December
SOUTH SUDAN WESTMINSTER HALL DEBATE Jim Shannon 7 December
WESTMINSTER HALL DEBATE ON LIBYA Jim Shannon 26 October
HOUSE OF LORDS DEBATE ON CYPRUS Baroness Berridge 27 October
HOUSE OF LORDS DEBATE ON ANTI-SEMITISM Lord Alton 27 October
PERSECUTION OF RELIGIOUS MINORITIES IN THE MIDDLE EAST AND ITS EFFECT ON THE UK Jim Shannon 19 July
QUEEN’S SPEECH Baroness Berridge 23 May
20 April 2016 More
23 March 2016 Westminster Hall debate More
DAESH: PERSECUTION OF CHRISTIANS
22 March 2016 More
GENOCIDE AMENDMENT TO IMMIGRATION BILL
21 March 2016 More
INDIA: FREEDOM OF RELIGION
17 March 2016 House of Lords short debate More
PAKISTAN – PERSECUTION OF RELIGIOUS MINORITIES
11 February 2016 Westminster Hall debate More
TACKLING THE RISE IN RELIGIOUS CONFLICTS AND VIOLENCE
10 December 2015 House of Lords short debate More
INTERNATIONAL HUMAN RIGHTS DAY
That this House has Considered the Protection and Promotion of Human Rights Across the World on International Human Rights Day
10 December 2015 House of Commons backbench debate More
ARTICLE 18 OF THE UNIVERSAL DECLARATION OF HUMAN RIGHTS
22 October 2015 House of Lords short debate More
SUSTAINABLE DEVELOPMENT GOALS
10 September 2015 House of Commons – Fiona Bruce
FREEDOM OF RELIGION OR BELIEF
16 July 2015 House of Lords More
Lord Alton of Liverpool (CB):
To move that this House takes note of worldwide violations of Article 18 of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the case for greater priority to be given by the United Kingdom and the international community to upholding freedom of religion and belief.
Lord Alton of Liverpool (CB): Article 18 emerged from the infamies of the 20th century—from the Armenian genocide to the defining depredations of Stalin’s gulags and Hitler’s concentration camps; from the pestilential nature of persecution, demonisation, scapegoating and hateful prejudice; and, notwithstanding violence associated with religion, it emerged from ideology, nation and race. It was the bloodiest century in human history with the loss of 100 million lives.
The four great murderers of the 20th century—Mao, Stalin, Hitler and Pol Pot—were united by their hatred of religious faith. Seventy years later, all over the world, from North Korea to Syria, Article 18 is honoured daily in its breach, evident in new concentration camps, abductions, rape, imprisonment, persecution, public flogging, mass murder, beheadings and the mass displacement of millions of people. Not surprisingly, the All-Party Group on International Freedom of Religion or Belief, in the title of its influential report, described Article 18 as “an orphaned right”. A Pew Research Center study begun a decade ago found that of the 185 nations studied, religious repression was recorded in 151 of them.
Today’s debate, then, is a moment to encourage Governments to reclaim their patrimony of Article 18; to argue that it be given greater political and diplomatic priority; to insist on the importance of religious literacy as a competence; to discuss the crossover between freedom of religion and belief and a nation’s prosperity and stability; and to reflect on the suffering of those denied this foundational freedom.
Although Christians are persecuted in every country where there are violations of Article 18—from Syria and Iraq, to Sudan, Pakistan, Eritrea, Nigeria, Egypt, Iran, North Korea and many other countries—Muslims, and others, suffer too, especially in the religious wars raging between Sunnis and Shias, so reminiscent of 17th-century Europe. But it does not end there. In a village in Burma, I saw first-hand a mosque that had been set on fire the night before. Muslim villagers had been driven from a village where for generations they had lived alongside their Buddhist neighbours. Now Burma proposes to restrict interfaith marriage and religious conversions. It is, however, a region in which Christian Solidarity Worldwide and the Foreign and Commonwealth are doing some excellent work with lawyers and other civil society actors, promoting Article 18.
Think, too, of those who have no religious belief, such as Raif Badawi, the Saudi Arabian atheist and blogger sentenced to 1,000 public lashes for publicly expressing his atheism. That has been condemned by the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights as,
“a form of cruel and inhuman punishment”.
Alexander Aan was imprisoned in Indonesia for two years after saying he did not believe in God. Noble Lords should recall that Article 18 is also about the right not to believe.
Later, we will hear from the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury, who recently said that the “most common feature” of Anglicanism worldwide is that of being persecuted. Twenty-four of the 37 Anglican provinces are in conflict or post-conflict areas. Referring to the 150 Kenyan Christians who were killed on Maundy Thursday, the most reverend Primate said:
“There have been so many martyrs in the last year … They are witnesses, unwilling, unjustly, wickedly, and they are martyrs in both senses of the word”.
We will also hear from my noble friend Lord Sacks, who offered his prayer on Hanukkah last year for,
“people of all faiths working together for the freedom of all faiths”.
My noble friend’s brilliant critique, Not in God’s Name: Confronting Religious Violence, is required reading for anyone trying to comprehend what motivates people to kill Christian students in Kenya, Shia Muslims praying in a mosque in Kuwait, Pakistani Anglicans celebrating the Eucharist in Peshawar or British tourists simply holidaying in Tunisia and for anyone trying to understand the dramatic rise in Christian persecution, the vilification of Islam in some parts of the world and, in Europe, the troubling reawakening of anti-Semitism.
My noble friend’s insights into the shared stories of the Abrahamic faiths—not least the displacement stories of Isaac and Ishmael, Jacob and Esau, Leah and Rachel, and Joseph and his brothers—and how they can be used to promote mutual respect, coexistence, reconciliation and the healing of history underline the urgent need for scholars from those faiths to combat the evil being committed in God’s name and to give emphasis to the ancient texts in a way which upholds the dignity of difference—the title of another of my noble friend’s books. If Jews, Muslims and Christians are no longer to see one another as an existential threat, we urgently need a persuasive new narrative, which is capable of forestalling the unceasing incitements to hatred which pour forth from the internet and which capture unformed minds.
It is not just scholars but the media and policymakers who need greater religious literacy and different priorities. How right the BBC’s courageous chief international correspondent, Lyse Doucet, is when she says:
“If you don’t understand religion—including the abuse of religion—it’s becoming ever harder to understand our world”.
It is increasingly obvious that liberal democracy simply does not understand the power of the forces that oppose it or how best to counter them. At best, the upholding of Article 18 seems to have Cinderella status. During the Queen’s Speech debate, I cited a reply to Tim Farron MP—for whom this has been quite a notable day—in which Ministers said that the Foreign Office,
“has one full time Desk Officer wholly dedicated to Freedom of Religion or Belief”.
The Answer also stated that,
“the Head and the Deputy Head of HRDD spend approximately 5% and 20% respectively of their time on FoRB issues”.
To rectify this, will we prioritise Article 18 in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office business plan and across government departments? Has the FCO considered convening an international conference on Article 18—something I have raised with her? Is it an issue we will raise at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Malta in November?
In May, the Labour Party gave a welcome manifesto commitment to appoint a Canadian-style special envoy to promote Article 18. The Foreign Office resists this, insisting that all our diplomats promote freedom of religion and belief. But that has not been my experience. On returning to Istanbul from a visit to a 1,900 year-old Syrian Orthodox community in Tur Abdin, which was literally under siege, I was told by our UK representative that his role was to represent Britain’s commercial and security interests and that religious freedom was a domestic matter in which he did not want to become involved. Self-evidently, there is a direct connection with our security interests, not least with millions of displaced refugees and migrants now fleeing religious persecution.
Paradoxically, if he had studied the empirical research on the crossover between freedom of religion and belief, and a nation’s stability and prosperity, he might have come to a very different conclusion. Where Article 18 is trampled on, the reverse is also true, as a cursory examination of the hobbled economies of countries such as North Korea and Eritrea immediately reveals. This is not a marginal concern, as the outstanding briefing material for our debate from many human rights organisations makes clear.
Last month, the noble Baroness, Lady Berridge, and I chaired the launch of a report by Human Rights Without Frontiers. Among its catalogue of egregious and serious violations, it says that North Korea, China and Iran had the highest number of people imprisoned, in their thousands, for their religion or belief. It highlights Pakistan, where in 2011 two politicians who questioned the blasphemy laws were shot dead; where Asia Bibi remains imprisoned with four other Christians and nine non-Christians, facing the death sentence for alleged blasphemy; and where Shias and Ahmadis have faced ferocious deadly attacks.
When did we last raise these cases and other abuses of Article 18 with Pakistan, or the use of blasphemy laws in Sudan, where two pastors are currently on trial, facing charges that carry the death sentence? Have we urged Sudan to drop the charges against 10 young female Christian students who face up to 40 lashes because of the clothes they were wearing? What of the Chinese Christian lawyers arrested this week as part of a major crackdown? Will Article 18 be on the agenda for discussion with China’s President when he visits the United Kingdom?
I am a trustee of the charity Aid to the Church in Need, and the noble Baroness the Minister kindly launched its report, Religious Freedom in the World 2014, which found that religious freedom had deteriorated in almost half the countries of the world, with sectarian violence at a six-year high, nowhere more so than in the Middle East, where last week Pope Francis said that Christians are subject to genocide. In a recorded message for that launch, His Royal Highness the Princes of Wales condemned “horrendous and heart-breaking” persecution, and spoke of his anguish at the plight of Christianity in the Middle East, in the region of its birth, describing events in Syria and Iraq as an “indescribable tragedy”.
In 1914, Christians made up a quarter of that region’s population. Now they are less than 5%. Archbishop Bashar Warda of Irbil, during a meeting that I chaired here in the House, underlined their traumatic, degrading and inhuman treatment, pleading with the international community to provide protection. Two weeks ago the same plea was made by a remarkable Yazidi woman who gave evidence at a meeting organised by the noble Baroness, Lady Nicholson. The Yazidi, a former Iraqi Member of Parliament, told us:
“The Yazidi people are going through mass murder. The objective is their annihilation. 3000 Yazidi girls are still in D’aesh hands, suffering rape and abuse. 500 young children have been captured, being trained as killing machines, to fight their own people. This is a genocide and the international community should say so”.
This view has been reinforced this week by reports on “Newsnight” and “Dispatches”. How will we answer that woman? Do we intend to use our voice in the Security Council on behalf of the Yazidis and Assyrian Christians? Do we intend to have the perpetrators brought to justice in the ICC? Are we collating and documenting every instance, from genocide and rape to the abduction of bishops and priests, to the burning of churches and mosques, to the beheading of Eritrean Christians and Egyptian Copts by ISIS in Libya? What are we doing to create safe havens where these minorities might be protected?
In 1933, Franz Werfel published a novel, The Forty Days of Musa Dagh, based on a true story about the Armenian genocide. His books were burnt by the Nazis, no doubt to try to erase humanity’s memory, Hitler having famously asked, “Who now remembers the Armenians?”. The Armenian deportations and genocide claimed the lives of an estimated 1.5 million Armenian Christians. Werfel tells the story of several thousand Christians who took refuge on the mountain of Musa Dagh. The intervention of the French navy led to their dramatic rescue.
A hundred years later, the Yazidis besieged on Mount Sinjar were saved, but their lives are still in the balance. Last week the Belgians made it to Aleppo and brought 200 Yazdis and Christians to safety. For fragile communities facing a perilous future, such as these, could we not do the same? Are we re-examining our asylum rules to reflect the lethal threats faced by families and individuals fleeing their native homelands?
In the longer term, should not the international community have a more consistent approach to Article 18? We denounce some countries while appeasing others who directly enable jihad through financial support or the sale of arms. Western powers are seen as hypocrites when our business interests determine how offended we are by gross human rights abuses. Take Saudi Arabia as one example.
The challenge is vigorously to promote Article 18 through our interventions and our aid programmes, unceasingly countering a fundamentalism that promotes hatred of difference and persecutes those who hold different beliefs. For the future, the three Abrahamic religions and Governments need to recapture the idealism of Eleanor Roosevelt, who described the 1948 declaration as,
“the international Magna Carta for all mankind”.
She said that Article 18 freedoms were to be one of the four essential freedoms of mankind. Who can doubt that this essential freedom needs to be given far greater emphasis and priority in these troubled times? I beg to move.
The Archbishop of Canterbury: Religious freedom is threatened on a global scale, as we have heard, but also in a very complex way. Attacks on religious freedom are often linked to economic circumstances, to sociology, to history and to many other factors. Practically, if we are to defend religious liberty, we have to draw in these other factors. For example, if we want to defend religious freedom around the world—and again I say, the freedom to have no religion—do not sell guns to people who oppress religious freedom; do not launder their money; restrict trade with them; confine the way in which we deal with them; and, above, all, speak frankly and openly, naming them for what they are.
Where a state claims the ultimate right to oppress religious freedom, it stops the last and the strongest barrier against tyranny. From the beginning of time—from the beginning of the Christian era, when the apostles said that they would obey God rather than the Sanhedrin, through the Reformation to the martyrs of communism, to Bonhoeffer and to Archbishop Tutu—up to our own day around the world, we have needed religious freedom as a global defence of freedom.
Baroness Berridge (Con): Freedom of religion or belief, as set out in Article 18, is another deeply constitutional statement. As the UN special rapporteur illustrated in his comment to me, “There is lots of religion in Vietnam but not a lot of it is free”. The declaration is founded on individuals enjoying human rights when the state knows how to behave, knows its own limits and understands its role as protector of its citizens’ human rights from violation by third parties. In old communist states such as Vietnam, religion is controlled by the state, but another common backdrop to many Article 18 violations is an inappropriate connection between a religious institution or a faith or a stream of one faith, and the state. Often, that institution or faith has such preference that pluralism is suffocated, and, in the extreme, a religion becomes identified with nationality. Is Myanmar’s identity becoming synonymous with being Buddhist? The Rohingya Muslims are denied citizenship and an outcry by Buddhist extremists led the Government to capitulate and confiscate their only identity document.
I am intrigued that Her Majesty’s Government can exhibit the FCO priority of freedom of religion and belief in our newly opened visa office in Rangoon. I expect my noble friend will have to write to me on this, but how is the United Kingdom able to offer UK visas, regardless of religion, when Rohingya Muslims have no documentation? Is it only wealthy Buddhist tourists or business men—not Muslims or Christians—who can come to the UK? The Rohingyans were disenfranchised in this year’s election. It is also proposed that half a million refugees from the Central African Republic, 90% of whom are Muslim, be denied their voting rights. What representations have Her Majesty’s Government made to the CAR’s interim Government? Will this not increase the risk of refugees who are languishing in Chad being recruited to IS, which is already recruiting from neighbouring Sudan?
We should also keep a close eye on what is happening under the new Government of India. We do not want to add into this space a rise of Hindu militancy which is semi-connected to identity, and to see the persecution of a large number of Muslims and Christians.
Who knows what the future holds? Many Governments, parliamentarians, religious leaders and royalty have, however, grasped the Article 18 issue, and the Pope’s celebrity status at the UN General Assembly in September is incredibly timely. The missing players—consumers and businesses—need to enter the stage, and it looks as if Brazil, at the Olympics, will be introducing the Global Business & Interfaith Understanding Awards, which they hope to become part of the Games. However, if by 2020 violations have flat-lined, that will indeed be an achievement.
Lord Singh of Wimbledon (CB): Article 18 of the 1948 UN declaration is unambiguous in its guarantee of freedom of religion and belief. Yet we live in a world where those rights are all too frequently ignored.
Where have we gone wrong? In commerce or industry, if a clearly desirable idea or initiative fails again and again, it goes back to the drawing board. Today we need to ask ourselves: why is there widespread abuse of the right to freedom of belief? This important right, like all others embedded in the UN declaration, needs the total commitment of countries with political clout to make it a reality. Unfortunately, even permanent members of the Security Council frequently put trade and political alliances with countries with appalling human rights records above a commitment to human rights. There are many examples, but time permits me to mention only a couple relating to our own country.
During the visit of a Chinese trade delegation in June last year, a government Minister said that we should not allow human rights abuses to “get in the way” of trade. His statement, undermining the UN declaration, went virtually unchallenged. At about the same time, we had a Statement in your Lordships’ House that the Government were pressing for a UN-led inquiry into human rights abuse in Sri Lanka. Fine, but when I asked whether the Government would also support a similar inquiry into the mass killing of Sikhs in India—yes, I know it is a much bigger trading partner—I received a brusque reply that that was a matter for the Indian Government.
I have asked on five occasions the question why the UK Government regard the systematic killing of Sikhs in India as being of no concern to the United Kingdom, only to get the same dismissive non-response. I ask it again today, and hope that noble Lords and Britain’s 500,000 Sikhs will get the courtesy of a proper, considered reply. The great human rights activist, Andrei Sakharov, said that we must be even-handed in looking at human rights abuse. If our country—one of the most enlightened in the world—puts trade above human rights, it is easy to understand why other countries turn a blind eye to rights such as freedom of belief. It is a right so central in Sikhism that our ninth guru, Guru Tegh Bahadur, gave his life defending the right of Hindus—a different religion from his own—against forced conversion by the then Mughal rulers.
We can list human rights abuse for ever and a day without making a jot of difference if we and other great powers continue to put trade and power bloc politics above human rights. We start each day in this House with Prayers to remind us to act in accord with Christ’s teachings. He, like Guru Nanak, reminded us never to put material gain before concern for our fellow beings. We need to act on such far-sighted advice.
The Lord Bishop of Leicester (Valedictory Speech): The spread of global religious revival in the 21st century is described by Mickelthwait and Wooldridge in their book God is Back. They argue that it is fuelled by market competition and a customer-driven approach to salvation. In the five years since its publication, they could not have imagined how those principles would mutate into the present appalling world crisis, so vividly described by so many speakers. The challenge to religious freedoms derives in part from treating faith as a consumer preference rather than the most profound definition of what it is to be human.
In my 16 years as Bishop of Leicester, we have learned much about the principles and practice of religious freedom and the way it shapes the deepest contours of the human psyche. As well as having local applications, that also has international implications. The first principle is that it is not enough simply to defend religious freedom; it has to be positively exercised in ways that encourage others to embrace it. It involves drawing on the spiritual resources of faith to unlock the best in others, to speak on behalf of the voiceless and to create community. When a young Nigerian Christian was murdered in Highfields in Leicester two years ago, there was an immediate retaliatory attack on an entirely innocent Muslim family, killed by a fire bomb on the same day. The tensions were palpable, but were eventually calmed by systematic, careful conversations and the public ritualising of grief and reconciliation on both sides.
Secondly, the principle that religious freedom is an inalienable right means that we interpret an attack on one faith as an attack on all peoples of faith. Treasuring the dignity of every human being includes treasuring the rights of others to their beliefs, especially when we disagree. That is why the Muslim leadership turned out in strength the other day at Leicester Cathedral to respect the victims of the Sousse massacre two weeks ago.
Lord Carey of Clifton (CB): The freedom to think, change one’s mind, change religion, become an atheist, become a believer, and belong to tolerant and open societies is among the blessings of being a human person. Thus enshrined as Article 18 of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, this great moral principle emerged from the last world war, in which millions of people were murdered because they were different. Now, 67 years later, this great article of freedom is under attack in many parts of the world.
It is not just Christians that Article 18 seeks to protect. It sets forth the humanist vision of thought: freedom for the Yazidis in Iraq, for Shia Muslims in Sunni territories and for Sunnis in Shia lands, and the freedom to embrace atheism or agnosticism, should one wish to do so.
The fact that we have to face honestly is that so much of the trouble is in countries dominated by Islam; let us get to the heart of this. Yet, in the past, Islam has flourished as a beacon of civilisation and tolerance. Indeed, one of the finest texts in the Koran states:
“There is no compulsion in religion”.
The verse is often used in interfaith contexts to show the broadmindedness of Islam. But we have to recognise that the plain meaning of that text is questioned by many Muslim scholars today. In my view—dare I say it as a non-Muslim?—this verse contains all that is necessary for Muslims to start the journey towards free, tolerant and pluralist societies. However, the rhetoric is fine but the reality is very different. It grieves me to say that there are not many Muslim-majority countries in which the freedom set out in Article 18 exists. Of course, there are Muslim countries where other faiths are tolerated but, even in those more tolerant nations, Christians cannot share their faith openly and advertise it; and Muslims cannot, with any ease, choose another faith, should they so desire.
Intolerance seems to be spreading. There has recently been a spate of church and mosque burnings in Israel, which is very disappointing as Israel has every justification for claiming to be the only democratic nation in the Middle East. Among the buildings burnt was the famous Tabgha church, which commemorates the multiplication of loaves and fishes in the gospel story.
During my time as Archbishop of Canterbury, I challenged Muslim leaders worldwide to embrace the principle of reciprocity; it remains a dream and an ideal. Here in the United Kingdom there is no barrier to belief and no restriction on believers, as long as we all behave within the breadth of British law. The ideal of reciprocity demands that people of all nations should work together to ensure that freedom to change and grow is granted to all of us, men and women alike.
Lord Sheikh (Con):
My Lords, I speak today as a Muslim. For many people, their religion is very precious to them. I agree wholeheartedly with the Motion: a greater priority should be given by the United Kingdom and the international community to upholding freedom of religion and belief.
It is right that everybody in the world should be entitled to this freedom. However, it is being violated by some misguided people. This debate is very topical because of events taking place across the Middle East and north Africa. My glorious religion of Islam is being hijacked by a tiny minority who have misrepresented it and wholly, totally wrongly portrayed the true message of Islam. I emphasise that Islam is indeed a religion of peace.
What is happening in these countries is strongly against the principles of Islam. What Daesh is doing and saying in Syria, Iraq and other places is totally wrong and un-Islamic. I remind them that it is written in the Holy Koran that there should be no compulsion in religion and that no one should be forced to become a Muslim. The Holy Koran celebrates different beliefs as a means of connecting with people. It is written in the Holy Koran:
“O mankind, indeed We have created you from male and female and made you peoples and tribes that you may know one another”.
My religion teaches us to know and be friendly to people of other faiths. It should also be noted that allowing freedom of religion often brings stability and prosperity to a country. As a businessman, I have found it to be beneficial for economic and social development, as well as for the religious communities themselves.
We must use this debate to commend and celebrate what is happening in the United Kingdom. Although the Church of England is the official church, people of all religions are allowed to practise their respective faiths. We are a tolerant and respectful people. This country should be viewed as a model for others to follow. We cannot overstate the importance attached to upholding Article 18, yet so many abuses and violations of it continue to take place. We must lead the world in ensuring that people feel free to practise their religion, both in private and in public. May God help us to achieve this.
Lord Sacks (CB): Three things have happened to change the religious landscape of the world. First, the secular nationalist regimes that appeared in many parts of the world in the 20th century have given rise to powerful religious counter-revolutions. Secondly, these counter-revolutions are led by religion in its most extreme, adversarial and anti-Western form. Thirdly, the revolution in information technology has allowed these groups to form, organise and communicate to actual and potential followers throughout the world with astonishing speed. The internet is to radical political religions what printing was to Martin Luther. It allows them to circumvent and outflank all existing structures of power. The result has been the politicisation of religion and the religionising of politics, which, throughout history, has been a deadly combination. In the long run, it will threaten us all, because in a global age no country or culture is an island.
We must do, minimally, three things. First, given that religious freedom is enshrined as Article 18 in the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, there should be, under the auspices of the United Nations, a global gathering of religious leaders and thinkers to formulate an agreed set of principles that are sustainable theologically within their respective faiths and on which member nations can be called to account. Otherwise, Article 18 will continue to be a utopian ideal.
Secondly, we must do the theological work. That is fundamental. After the wars of religion of the 16th and 17th centuries, a group of thinkers, among them John Milton, Thomas Hobbes, John Locke and Benedict Spinoza, sat down, reread the Bible and formulated some of the most important ideas ever formulated about state and society: the social contract, the moral limits of power, the liberty of conscience, the doctrine of toleration and the very concept of human rights. These were religious ideals based on the Bible, which is what John F Kennedy meant when he said in his inaugural address that,
“the same revolutionary beliefs for which our forebears fought are still at issue around the globe—the belief that the rights of man come not from the generosity of the state but from the hand of God”.
We have not yet done the theological work for a global society in the information age, and not all religions in the world are yet fully part of that conversation. But if we neglect the theology, all else will fail.
Thirdly, we must stand together—the people of all faiths and of none—for we are all at risk. Christians are being persecuted throughout the Middle East and elsewhere. Jews are facing a new and resurgent anti-Semitism. Muslims who stand on the wrong side of the Sunni-Shia divide are being killed in great numbers. Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Baha’i and others face persecution in some parts of the world. There must be some set of principles that we can appeal to, and be held accountable to, if our common humanity is to survive our religious differences. Religious freedom is about our common humanity, and we must fight for it if we are not to lose it. This, I believe, is the issue of our time.
Lord Harrison (Lab): My Lords, I speak in today’s debate as a loyal member of God’s Opposition. We atheists must show solidarity with our religious colleagues over religious persecution, especially at a time when atheists and secularists are increasingly joining the growing list of people persecuted worldwide for the beliefs they uphold, whether religious or otherwise. The horror of machete-wielding Islamists slaying humanist bloggers in Bangladesh recently was admirably highlighted by the brave Bonya Ahmed in her recent address to the British Humanist Association at the annual Voltaire lecture.
The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Baroness Anelay of St Johns) (Con): My Lords, freedom of religion or belief and the right to hold no belief is a key human right. It is under attack in almost every corner of the globe. We see Muslims sentenced to death for blasphemy; Christians burned in brick ovens or forced to give birth in chains; Yazidis trapped on mountains, their women abused as sex slaves; innocents attacked in their churches, synagogues and mosques, the very places they should feel most safe; and sledgehammers taken to religious and cultural artefacts in an attempt to obliterate centuries of faith and civilisation. The ongoing assault on freedom of religion or belief is absolutely unacceptable, and noble Lords have made that clear in their views today.
The noble Lord, Lord Harrison, referred to the blasphemy laws in Malta. We oppose blasphemy laws wherever they still exist.
This Government understand the scope and scale of the challenge—we, too, are horrified. The brutal terrorist group known as ISIL, or Daesh, is making the headlines every day with images of Christians executed on beaches or civilians being thrown off buildings for refusing to abandon their beliefs. I know that it is not just a matter of the cases that make the headlines. It is the steady and systematic bias against people on the basis of their faith, denying them a fair trial, proper investigation of complaints to the police and even adequate education for their children, all of which is potentially more far-reaching. Where there is a culture of impunity, which we condemn, people are taught to believe that followers of other religions are fair game, and then mob violence can so easily follow—and does. Where children are taught to hate those with different beliefs, this provides fertile soil for extremism to take root.
Freedom of religion or belief is not just an optional extra, or nice to have; it is the key human right. It allows each citizen to follow their conscience in the way they see fit. As this Government made clear in our manifesto:
“We will stand up for the freedom of people of all religions—and non-religious people—to practise their beliefs in peace and safety”.
We are committed to defending the full right exactly as set out in Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights—that is,
“the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion”.
Quite apart from any legal or moral obligation, we promote religious freedom as essential to our social, cultural and economic development. That is why this Government have made freedom of religion and belief a priority, not just in the FCO but across government. It is enshrined in international law, it makes social sense and it is morally right.
So what are we doing? We have been working on this issue through a comprehensive multilateral, bilateral and projects-based approach. The UN Human Rights Council Resolution 16/18 of March 2011 calls on all UN member states to take action against intolerance on the basis of religion or belief, and to promote the free and equal participation in society of all—both the religious and the non-religious. It has given us that important starting point. I vividly remember a meeting in Morocco earlier this year, in the immediate aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo attacks, during which ambassadors from all points of the religious compass spoke to me of this resolution as something to hold onto in a time of crisis. We will continue to use our influence and diplomatic networks as effectively as possible. We are playing an active part in a new international contact group on FoRB, convened by Canada. Last month, I met the US Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom, David Saperstein, and we discussed areas where the international community might work more closely together. We will continue to encourage the EU to ensure that its guidelines on FoRB are put into practice in individual countries.
The noble Lord, Lord Bach, asked whether we would reconsider having a global ambassador. We have our global ambassadors. They have their reach in every country on the globe and know how important it is that they promote freedom of religion and belief. It is not contradictory to say that we can trade with certain countries, provided that they do not contravene international humanitarian law. Our trade with them does not undermine our right to stand up for not only freedom of religion and belief but other human rights; we make that clear.
We are just as active on bilateral channels. Every Minister at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office acts as an ambassador for this fundamental right. Each one of us, as a Minister, raises and promotes these issues in the countries or organisations for which we have responsibility. My noble friend Lady Berridge and others referred to Burma. We have raised our concern about the situation of the Rohingya community in all our recent ministerial contacts with the Burmese Government. Most recently, my honourable friend Mr Swire called the Burmese ambassador to the FCO on 18 May to express our concern about the Rohingya situation and the related migrant crisis in the Bay of Bengal. We urged Burma to act swiftly to deal with the humanitarian implications, but also to address the underlying causes.
We also seek to protect religious freedom through our project work. We support projects to tackle discriminatory legislation and attitudes, and we are working with human rights and faith-based organisations across the world to promote dialogue, build capacity, foster links and strengthen understanding. I had hoped to give a few examples but I will have to leave that for another occasion or I will not be able to allow the noble Lord, Lord Alton, a moment or two to respond; I know that we are pressing up against the deadline.
We are already addressing the question of how to make sure that freedom of religion and belief is addressed throughout the world. We use our full range of diplomatic response. However, I recognise—and I agree with noble Lords—that there remains so much more to do. I want to see us step up our engagement with individual Governments. Countries around the world need to know that Britain will stand up for this fundamental right. We must not be shy about coming forward.
In reply to the questions raised by the noble Lord, Lord Alton, and others, I can say that we are deeply concerned at the imposition of the death penalty for blasphemy in the case of Asia Bibi and we hope that the verdict will be overturned on appeal.
The Prime Minister has raised our concern about the blasphemy law with Nawaz Sharif, and the UK supports the EU-led action to continue to raise this case with the Pakistan authorities.
Turning to the case of the Sudanese pastors, which was raised by the noble Lord, our ambassador has raised it at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Khartoum and with representatives of the ruling National Congress Party. As recently as 9 July, the UK special representative to Sudan and South Sudan raised our concerns about these specific cases with the Sudanese ambassador. The noble Lord, Lord Alton, also referred to charges against Christian students. We will continue to call on the Government of Sudan to bring all their legislation in line with their constitutional and international human rights commitments. Noble Lords can be assured that these matters are part of the everyday work of our ambassadors around the world where FoRB is under threat.
I also want us as a Government to focus even more strongly on making freedom of religion or belief part of the answer to extremism. Where freedom of religion is protected, extremist ideologies are much less likely to take root. I want us to continue our focus on supporting the right of persecuted Christians, as well as those of all religions and none, to be able to stay in the Middle East, the region of their birth. We are already playing a leading role on this issue. At a UN Security Council debate on religious minorities in March, Tobias Ellwood, Minister for the Middle East, called for bold leadership from Governments and communities in the region to work for tolerance and reconciliation.
Over the coming months, we will continue to deepen our already strong engagement with academics, think tanks, NGOs, faith representatives and parliamentarians on how we may best develop our policies to support religious minorities in the Middle East. I was delighted to meet members of the APPG on International Religious Freedom or Belief recently, and I look forward to continuing to work closely with them as we further develop our policies.
We work with regional allies, helping them to ensure that the right legal frameworks are in place and supporting training initiatives to ensure that state and religious bodies understand the rights held by people from minorities. We are also considering further programmes to address the climate of impunity and legal discrimination, through training for security and police forces and sharing of UK best practice on reporting and prosecution of crimes. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, about how important it is that we are able to provide support and training to the Iraqi Government to ensure people are protected, particularly in the north, to which he referred.
In parallel, I strongly believe that equipping our diplomats with a greater understanding of the key role faith plays in global politics helps us collectively to make better policy judgments and to understand when and where we can work with the grain of religious beliefs to further our human rights and other objectives. Therefore, we are increasing religious literacy training among FCO staff and across the whole of Whitehall. We are running regular training courses on religion and foreign policy, with a lively series of lunchtime seminars, and our new diplomatic academy contains an online foundation level module on religious literacy. FoRB is embedded in the work of all parts of the FCO both at home and abroad.
Just last month, I was pleased to host the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Grand Imam of al-Azhar in conversation about religion and foreign policy. It was a marvellous experience to see the place crowded with more than 200 diplomats and people from across all departments in Whitehall, with people around the world listening to that very important conversation. The noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, urged the Government that there should be cross-departmental thoughtfulness about investment in these matters. I agree with him, and we are addressing that.
The noble Lord, Lord Alton, raised particular questions about China. I will be brief and say that we are saddened by reports that Tenzin Delek Rinpoche has died in detention in China. We have raised his case with the Chinese authorities on a number of occasions, including during the UK-China human rights dialogue in April this year. We support and encourage the EU statement of 15 July which said that the EU expected the Chinese authorities to investigate and make public the circumstances surrounding Tenzin’s death.
The noble Lord, Lord Alton, also asked about the Chinese Christian lawyers who were arrested this week as part of a major crackdown. He asked what will happen with the Chinese state visit later this year and whether Article 18 will be on the agenda for discussions with China’s President when he visits the UK. The full programme for the visit is not yet fully fleshed out—and one would not expect it to be at this stage. However, we pay very close attention to the human rights situation in China. We are deeply concerned by reports of the number of human rights lawyers and activists who have been detained since 9 July and we fully support the EU statement of 15 July, which states that the detentions raise serious questions about China’s commitment to strengthening the rule of law, and called for the release of those detained for seeking to protect rights provided by the Chinese constitution.
We have regular discussions with the Chinese authorities, including on human rights and rule-of-law issues. They will hear what I have said in public today—my colleagues have also said it in private—and I am sure they will be aware that these matters will be raised, not only by politicians but by the public, when the Chinese state visit takes place. I am sure that discussions about that visit will be wide ranging and naturally the Chinese Government will have an input. But as a country we believe firmly in making clear our commitment to human rights and we have an expectation that the Chinese Government will listen to that. They will take their own view naturally, as they always do.
The noble Lord, Lord Singh, raised the question of the mistreatment of Sikhs in India. Our High Commission in India regularly discusses minority issues, including Sikh prisoners, with the Indian Government and state authorities. We will continue to monitor the situation and maintain our dialogue with Indian officials.
Around the House there has been, over many years, a determination that we should keep a regular dialogue on matters of human rights. The discussion on freedom of religion or belief has perhaps received a better and more considered approach in this Chamber than almost any other, around not only Westminster but the devolved communities. It is important that we are able to maintain that discussion.
Perhaps there was just one Peer who raised the question of why we still have, in this House, the presence of those who have a right, because of their place in the Church of England, to be here. I strongly support their position because I find that their presence is always challenging—refreshing, but most decidedly challenging. But it is important that we welcome on the Cross Benches representatives of other faiths. I think that that enriches the debate here.
This morning, we were able to read an article by the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury, in the Times. He made me reflect on the fact that Governments need to find ways to ensure that the transformational power of religious belief is able to play out in our societies. We must have countries where everyone is free to follow their own belief, to change their religion, or to choose to follow no religion at all. In those societies we find that life is fairer and more prosperous. His Grace made the point:
“Curtailing religious freedom in the name of other freedoms runs the risk of discarding one of the most important and creative forces in human beings”.
What he says, I could never improve upon.
Lord Alton of Liverpool: My Lords, characteristically, the Minister has given the House a considered, detailed, thoughtful and extremely helpful reply to this extremely well-informed debate—characteristic itself of the place that the House of Lords is. That point was made earlier by the noble Lord, Lord Alderdice. We have heard from people of all faiths and denominations and none, and all the speeches shed light on the nature of Article 18. The Minister just said that it is part of the answer to extremism and I entirely agree. I particularly welcome what she said about the importance of religious literacy and what she is doing to encourage people to understand more the forces that are driving on these malign forces in so many parts of the world today.
The noble Baroness, Lady Berridge, with whom I work on the All-Party Group on International Religious Freedom or Belief, where she does such a wonderful job, talked about my “uncanny knack” of coming up in the ballot—a point also referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Bach. Perhaps I should try my hand at the National Lottery. More seriously, it makes the point that we should have an annual debate on human rights and I hope that the Minister will think about providing for that in government time so that it will not be left to the vagaries of the ballot, helpful though it is that we have been able to have this debate today.
Fifty years later there are other role models. I was very struck by the remarks of Malala Yousafzai, whom the Taliban tried to murder in Pakistan because she insisted on a girl’s right to an education, rightly insisting:
“One child, one teacher, one book and one pen can change the world”.
Malala’s challenge and the fate of the abducted schoolgirls in Nigeria or those denied an education in Pakistan go to the heart of Article 18. It is at the heart of what we have been debating today and it is a theme to which we must persistently return.
It was the most reverend Primate who in his concluding remarks invoked Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the Christian theologian who was executed by the Nazis. Bonhoeffer said:
“We have been silent witnesses of evil deeds … we have learnt the arts of equivocation and pretence … intolerable conflicts have worn us down and even made us cynical … What we shall need is not geniuses, or cynics, or misanthropes, or clever tacticians”.
We should not become worn down either, whatever price has to be paid. We have enormous privileges, opportunities, liberties and freedoms in this place and we must use them to speak out on behalf of those to whom so much reference has been made today. The theme of conscience has come up again and again, whether in the domestic or international context. That, too, goes to the heart of Article 18. It is about the balance of rights that were referred to in the debate.
The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Leicester, in his valedictory address, enjoined and encouraged us to persist in what he called our defence of freedom of religion and belief. It is a message that we should all take to heart. We should never cease to use our privileges to speak up in the way that he has done for so long and so persistently.
21 July 2015 Westminster Hall Debate More
Stewart McDonald (SNP): While the Saudi Government value life so cheaply and lash their way to supreme authority over their people, our Government have no problem in doing serious amounts of commerce with them. Not only is Saudi Arabia our largest arms export market, bringing in billions of pounds to our Exchequer, but we co-operate on defence and on how it runs its prisons system. Is it any wonder that the Government suffer from such a lack of credibility on human rights in Saudi Arabia?…
We have seen no evidence whatever—none at all—that the Government are taking the case of Raif Badawi seriously or that they are raising the issue in the most vociferous and public fashion with the Saudi Government. Our Government are not doing anything that the public or I can see.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr Tobias Ellwood): It is worth placing in context where we stand. The UK and Saudi Arabia have a long history of friendship, understanding and co-operation. That relationship is rooted in defence, security, trade and investment.
It is important to remind ourselves that the people of Britain have strong bilateral links with Saudi Arabia. Millions of Muslims travel to Saudi Arabia every year to perform the Hajj and Umrah pilgrimages and to visit the holy sites of Mecca and Medina. I understand that 18,000 Britons completed the Hajj in 2014. The bilateral relationship is strong, which allows us to have frank conversations, often behind the scenes.
Saudi Arabia and Britain are essential partners and good friends. As a long-time friend of Saudi Arabia, we are able to have honest and meaningful conversations with the Saudi Arabian Government about all issues, including human rights. To be frank, sometimes those conversations are difficult. We remain deeply concerned about Saudi Arabia’s use of the death penalty, restricted access to justice, the women’s rights situation and continued restrictions on freedom of expression, freedom of assembly and religious freedom.
We can and do give tough messages, but we must recognise the crucial point that Saudi culture is deeply rooted in widely held conservative social values. We usually judge that our human rights concerns are best raised in private, and we will continue to work with the Saudi Arabian authorities and those in Saudi society advocating human rights reform, but we will continue to stand up for the full range of human rights. That is at the core of the strategy that we are discussing.
Many hon. Members, including the hon. Member for Glasgow South, spoke at length about the Raif Badawi case. I give the hon. Gentleman the same answer I gave in the main Chamber: the case is in the supreme court and is under review. We therefore cannot interfere with that process, in the same way that the Saudi authorities would not interfere with our process.
Raif Badawi has been found guilty of various charges. We strongly condemn the sentence passed, but we must honour the judicial process. Once that process has been completed, we can then take stock and comment on the process itself, but we must be careful not to interfere with it.
Religious tolerance and the situation of Christian and other minority religions have been raised in the debate. The British Government strongly support the right to freedom of religion or belief, which is restricted in Saudi Arabia. As the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) is aware, our views on the subject are well known. We must recognise that the restrictions on freedom of religion or belief in Saudi Arabia reflect widely held conservative social values in Saudi society. The key to increasing freedom is to focus on tolerance. We must work with Saudi Arabia to identify areas in which different faiths can work together, foster trust and build slowly in more challenging areas.
These are extracts; the full debate can be read here
24 June 2015 House of Lords short debate
Baroness Morris of Bolton (Con): The plight of the Druze in Syria is a worrying development for those of us who place a special significance on the religious diversity and harmony that was once a hallmark of the Levant and the Middle East. In so many of the Middle East’s holiest and most significant centres of religious devotion, the ability of all faiths to worship together in harmony and peaceful co-existence is much diminished. Many members of minority faiths have had to flee their homelands to survive and now live in refugee camps.
Lord Alton of Liverpool (CB): My Lords, Syria is the worst humanitarian catastrophe of our time, generating the largest movement of displaced people since World War II. We are all grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Falkner of Margravine, for giving us this brief opportunity to turn a spotlight on these events. In my brief remarks, I will say something about the plight of minorities in Syria.
All faith communities and minorities, such as the Yazidis, have suffered, but the fate of the country’s Christians, already referred to, is catastrophic. The Melkite Greek Catholic Archbishop of Aleppo, Jean-Clément Jeanbart, asks:
“What are the great nations waiting for before they put a halt to these monstrosities? Let me cry with my people, violated and murdered. Allow me to stand by numerous families in Aleppo who are in mourning. Because of this ugly and barbarous war, they have lost so many loved ones, fathers, mothers, brothers and sisters and cherished children”…
The overall goal must be to enable all Syrians who have left, including Christians, to return to their homes, to be safe when they return, and to participate in rebuilding the Syrian infrastructure and Government on the basis of social and political equality, with religious freedom and human rights being safeguarded. It is not perfect but the Kurdish-Assyrian coalition is the best example in this fractured region of hard-headed bridge-building and what the West should want to see in the Syria of the future.
These are extracts; the full debate can be read here
18 June 2015 Westminster Hall debate
ROHINGYA COMMUNITY (BURMA)
4 June 2015 adjournment debate (House of Commons)
Jonathan Ashworth (Leicester South) (Lab): “I want to bring to the House an opportunity to talk about the human rights situation in Burma/Myanmar and the migrant boat crisis that we have seen reported on in recent weeks in the media. We have seen heartbreaking coverage as thousands of Rohingya refugees and Bangladeshi migrants have remained stranded in squalor in smugglers’ boats at sea while initially Thailand, Indonesia and Malaysia refused to allow them to land.
Some estimates suggest that 88,000 Rohingya and Bangladeshi migrants have taken to the seas over the past 15 months. Indeed, between January and March this year 25,000 boarded smugglers’ boats, which is double the number for the same period in 2014. It was only after media reports and international pressure that the Thai, Malaysian and Indonesian authorities allowed migrants to arrive on their shores and, in recent weeks, between 3,500 and 4,000 have been allowed into Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia or have returned to Burma/Myanmar.”
The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Mr Hugo Swire): “That this debate comes so soon after the House’s return demonstrates the importance that Parliament rightly places on the situation of the Rohingya and on the recent humanitarian crisis in the Bay of Bengal and the Andaman sea. The crisis has been made even more alarming by the discovery of mass graves in Thailand and Malaysia, and by boats either avoiding landing or being prevented from doing so.With conditions at sea becoming increasingly desperate, we welcome the 20 May decision by the Foreign Ministers of Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia to provide vital humanitarian assistance. Clearly, tackling this issue requires a strong and co-ordinated regional response.
I am glad that Thailand called last Friday’s regional co-ordination meeting in Bangkok, at which our ambassador represented the United Kingdom. I welcome the agreement of the countries involved to meet again soon.Those discussions were a positive step, but much more remains to be done. South-east Asian countries must continue to work together to tackle the appalling trade in human lives and its root causes, and, in particular, to press Burma to address the situation of the Rohingya in Rakhine state.”
ROHINGYA COMMUNITY (BURMA)
14 January 2015 (House of Commons)
Jonathan Ashworth (Leicester South) (Lab): Back in September 2012, I said:
“This is an issue of human rights, justice and desperate humanitarian need, to which we must respond.”
In the two and a half years since that debate, I would have hoped to have seen significant progress. Sadly, I do not believe that we have seen such progress. However, today in Rakhine there are still 140,000 Rohingya living in squalid temporary camps, which are routinely described by agencies as being among the worst refugee camps in the world. Basic necessities such as food, clean water and health care are scarce; job opportunities for the Rohingya are virtually non-existent; and often the Rohingya are banned from leaving the camps by security services. Those Rohingya who leave those camps illegally often travel to Thailand and Malaysia, but they often end up as the victims of human traffickers. The Arakan Project found that in November alone, nearly 12,000 Rohingyas fled Rakhine state. Since 2012, a total of around 80,000 Rohingyas have fled Burma by boat.
Today, 70% of the Rohingya still have no access to safe water or sanitation services; in some Rohingya districts, there is just one doctor per 160,000 people; only 2% of Rohingya women give birth in a hospital; and 44% of the population of Rakhine state live below the poverty line, which is almost 20% higher than the average figure in most parts of Burma.
Ann Clwyd (Cynon Valley) (Lab): As one who campaigned for a long time when the Burmese elected politicians were in jail, does my hon. Friend agree with Aung San Suu Kyi when she suggests that the reforms in Burma have stalled during the last two years? It is extremely bad that the Rohingya in particular seem to be targeted. Life is being made as awful as possible for them, with 100,000 of them having gone, including 10,000 in the last two weeks.
Jonathan Ashworth: Benedict Rogers of the Christian Solidarity Worldwide network writes that
“the Rohingyas face restriction in almost every sphere of life. To travel from one village to another, they are required to obtain permission from at least three local authorities…such permission can be difficult to obtain and often takes up to five days.”
He goes on to say that the Rohingya even need
“permission to marry, and approval can take several years”.
He also says that
“Rohingya are not permitted to be employed as government servants, either as teachers, nurses or in other public services”.
In addition, those Rohingya who succeed in education are often refused entry to higher education. Of course, it is the citizenship law that is fuelling much of this anti-Rohingya sentiment in Burma. I accept that there is great debate about how long the Rohingya have been in this part of the world, but I think all of us can agree that they have been there for generations.
The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Mr Hugo Swire):
As I said in the House on 19 November, I, too, take a close personal interest, having visited Rakhine state in 2012, including some camps to which the hon. Gentleman alluded, and Kachin state last year. I was the first western Minister to travel to the former and the first British Minister to visit the latter since Burma’s independence. Since that time, my right hon. Friend the Minister of State, Department for International Development, visited Rakhine in August. During that visit, he announced an increase in our development funding to Burma up to £82 million in 2015-16. That underscores our commitment to Burma’s future.
As I have said, 2015 is a critical year for Burma. The elections in November will be followed closely by the international community. This will be a chance for the current Burmese Government to show their commitment to progress and transition. We remain in close touch with all those involved and continue to assist in any way we can. Of course, as we have said on many occasions, this path will be neither smooth, nor without challenges, nor indeed without setbacks. We have made our concerns extremely clear on numerous occasions. However, I cannot agree with those who are wholly negative about the progress that has been made, or indeed with those who argue that no progress has been made at all. I believe it is naive in the extreme to think that this would have been an easy transition. Praise is due where significant change for the better has taken place. I can only pray in aid what Yanghee Lee, the new UN special rapporteur on human rights in Burma, said:
“far-reaching reforms have dramatically transformed the political, economic, social and human rights landscape”.
That is not to say that we are in any way complacent. That is why we established, last year, the cross-Government Burma unit, to better co-ordinate our work there, and why we published, I believe for the first time ever, a public paper, “UK Activities in Burma”, which sets out all that the Government are doing.
Of course, I share the hon. Gentleman’s concerns for the Rohingya. I use that term now and I shall continue to use it as I always have done. Their plight remains one of the greatest challenges Burma faces. I have raised this issue during my visits to Burma and I raised it with the Burmese Deputy Foreign Minister in June, with the Minister for Electric Power in July, and when the Burmese Minister for Immigration and the new Rakhine Chief Minister came to London in October. I have also met Rakhine community and religious leaders, hearing from them directly about the many issues they are facing. Officials at the British embassy in Rangoon remain in close contact with Rohingya representatives and international organisations.
In addition to raising our concerns in private, we comment in public. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office annual report on human rights, and its quarterly updates, give a frank assessment of Burma’s human rights performance, including in Rakhine. We were instrumental in pushing for the resolutions at the UN—we definitely agree that the UN could take on a greater leadership role here—comprehensively setting out our concerns about the situation in Rakhine state, and calling on the Government of Burma to uphold international human rights standards.
HAZARAS (AFGHANISTAN AND PAKISTAN)
1 September 2014
Full debate (from column 123)
ARTICLE 18 OF THE UNIVERSAL DECLARATION OF HUMAN RIGHTS
24 July 2014 (House of Lords)
Lord Alton of Liverpool: Today we will hear from many distinguished Members of your Lordships’ House, including my noble friend Lord Sacks, who says in The Dignity of Difference: “The great faiths provide meaning and purpose for their adherents. The question is: can they make space for those who are not its adherents, who sing a different song, hear a different music, tell a different story? On that question, the fate of the 21st century may turn”.
The urgency of that challenge was reflected in a recent speech by the shadow Foreign Secretary, the right honourable Douglas Alexander. Among systematic violations of Article 18, he particularly drew attention to what he described as “anti-Christian persecution”, which he said, “must be named for the evil that it is, and challenged systematically by people of faith and of no faith”.
Thanks to major speeches by His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales and the Prime Minister, and the crucial work of the noble Baroness, Lady Warsi, the introduction of the European Union Guidelines on Freedom of Religion or Belief and the excellent work of the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief, this issue has been given greater prominence. I know that today’s important debate will contribute to that.
Yet compared with Canada’s Office of Religious Freedom and its ambassador-at-large, the excellent Andrew Bennett, or the US State Department and the US Commission of International Religious Freedom, the Foreign Office has just one official specifically focused on freedom of religion, and only for a third of her time. The FCO has said that it wants to develop a toolkit on freedom of religion or belief for diplomats, stating that, “every minister at the FCO is an ambassador for religious freedom, raising and promoting these issues in the countries with which they engage”. But how will they do that? How are our diplomats trained in religious literacy? Compare the £34 billion spent on military operations since the Cold War with the paltry resources deployed in promoting Article 18.”
Lord Patten: “Alas, in the Muslim world interfaith disharmony is spreading fast, not diminishing. That may take not just decades but centuries to play out until it reaches what Christians and Christians and Jews have managed to reach, if the lamentable history of interfaith warfare is any guide.
The noble Lord, Lord Alton, has already pointed to Indonesia. We have the danger of that country being next. It is a complex country that I have visited. So much depends on the actions about freedom of belief by the new President. He faces increasing harassment, discrimination and violence, which fly in the face of the Indonesia constitution, against not just Christians but Ahmadis and adherents of traditional indigenous faiths and beliefs. Only zero tolerance by President Yudhoyono towards religious intolerance will stop the rot spreading, to the great disadvantage of minority religions and the stability and peace of the many islands that make up Indonesia. In the short term, Christian churches face persecution, such as happened this Thursday at churches such as HKBP Philadelphia church in Bekasi or the Yasmin church in Bogor, to give just two examples.
These threats spread and we see them spreading now, today, into Brunei in a state-sponsored way. There, the new penal code introduced by the ruler brings full-on Sharia penalties for those of other beliefs or those wishing even to change their beliefs. I have been trying to tot up the number of international agreements this breaks under the new Brunei code, starting with the declaration of human rights, through to the Convention on the Rights of the Child and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, both ratified by Brunei, to the ASEAN charter on respect for fundamental freedoms, under Article 2. The list lengthens. Unless Brunei draws back from the introduction of severe penalties of the most violent physical sort for even the propagation of faiths other than Islam or for persuading people to change religion, it will unleash a moral, civil and religious tiger within Brunei, and that country will end up turning on itself.
View the debate (begins 11.40am)
After the debate Lord Alton received a letter from Lord Wallace of Saltaire, responding to a number of questions on behalf of the government.
HUMAN RIGHTS IN SUDAN
14 July 2014 (House of Lords)
Baroness Cox: “Another grave concern is the Government of Sudan’s denial of freedom of religion and belief. The notorious barbaric sentences and treatment meted out to Meriam Ibrahim, with the death penalty for alleged apostasy, 100 lashes for adultery and her treatment in prison, where she gave birth in shackles, may be heralding more widespread persecution of non-Muslims that does not hit the headlines and may be carried out with impunity.
For example, there are reports of another apostasy case in El Gadarif against another Christian woman, Faiza Abdalla, whose family had converted to Christianity from Islam before she was born but kept their former Muslim name. When she told authorities that she was a Christian, she was arrested and incarcerated under suspicion of having left Islam. A court has terminated her marriage to her husband, a lifelong Christian from South Sudan, on grounds of adultery. What representations have Her Majesty’s Government made to the Government of Sudan concerning this case and other gross contraventions of the right of freedom of religion and belief?”
Bishop of Carlisle: “Where foreign policy is concerned, that leads on to the way in which human rights, and religious freedoms in particular, are being flouted in Sudan. The recent case involving Meriam Ibrahim, which has already been mentioned, and the closure of the Salmmah Women’s Resource Centre, illustrate this all too graphically. In theory, Sudan has ratified the optional protocols of the UN human rights conventions but, in practice, increasingly Sharia interpretations of the 1991 criminal code are having a devastating effect on many lives.
For instance, Lubna Hussein was sentenced to a lashing for allegedly dressing indecently in public by wearing trousers. Intisar Sharif was sentenced to death by stoning for adultery. Indeed, offences such as adultery, apostasy and armed robbery all have fixed sentences that include death by hanging, stoning, crucifixion or whipping. These penalties are clearly at odds with the basic freedom from physical harm which the Human Rights Act entails.
I would therefore be most grateful for some indication from the Minister as to any pressure that is being or could be applied to the Government of Sudan to ensure that they begin to respect their religious and cultural minority groups. In particular, I wonder what we are doing at and through the United Nations to press the Sudanese Government to honour the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, including and especially Article 18, which relates to religious observance.”
Baroness Warsi: “The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Carlisle and other noble Lords raised the truly appalling case of Meriam Ibrahim, which has quite rightly inspired worldwide condemnation. I am proud that the UK led the way in calling for her release through statements by the Prime Minister and other senior Ministers. It is a great relief that Meriam Ibrahim has now been released, but we are concerned that she is still unable to travel. As the right reverend Prelate will know, the issue of freedom of religion or belief is one of the six key priorities in my human rights brief and is a personal priority for me. I have been at pains to detail what we mean by freedom of religion or belief, which includes the freedom to have a belief, to manifest that belief, to change that belief and not to have a belief. It is important that we make sure that that is detailed in that way when we have those discussions. The right reverend Prelate will also be aware that we now have a sub-group on freedom of religion or belief as an advisory group within the Foreign Office. The work of that group will also inform our responses to cases such as that of Meriam Ibrahim.
We are also aware of the case involving Faiza Abdalla and other apostasy cases before the Sudanese court. Although the full extent of those cases is not documented, it is clear that Meriam Ibrahim’s case is not an isolated occurrence and the broader issues of religious freedom still need to be addressed in detail. We are working with local Sudanese partners to investigate those cases and continue to call on the Sudanese Government to abide by their international obligations to uphold every citizen’s right to freedom of religion or belief. Of course, those obligations are enshrined in Sudan’s constitution and, indeed, in the very religion which Sudan purports to follow.”
THE SITUATION IN BURMA AND THE PERSECUTION OF THE ROHINGYA AND OTHER MINORITIES
25 June 2014 (House of Commons)
David Ward: “Let me explain why I continue to want to raise this issue. The little secret is that seven or eight years ago, I had to google “Rohingya” to find out what the group was and what its background and history was. That arose when I was approached as a Bradford councillor, which I was then, through a housing association that had been contracted to provide accommodation and support to a group of Rohingya who were coming or wanted to come to Bradford through the Gateway programme, and we did provide a lot of support. There are certainly no votes in this, but there is now an important group of people, whom I consider to be Bradfordians and constituents, who regularly raise with me appalling stories of what is happening.
The UN special rapporteur, Mr Quintana, produced a report back in April…The good news was about the release of many prisoners of conscience—more than 1,000—but some of his other comments make pretty worrying reading. In particular, he raised the ongoing issue in Burma of human rights. Despite the release of political prisoners and other reforms that are taking place, he had to conclude that he saw “no improvements in the human rights situation.” Indeed, he believed that the situation was getting worse, from what was “an already dire state.” He found that the practice of separating or segregating communities “continues to have a severe impact on the Muslim populations in Rakhine…and in particular the Rohingya community.”
So serious is the situation that the special rapporteur concluded that they amount to “systematic human rights violations”. They are so serious that they should be referred to the International Criminal Court as crimes against humanity. They are crimes against humanity as defined under the Rome statute and need to be elevated to that level in the public consciousness. We are talking about the worst of the worst.”
Jim Shannon: “Our background information mentions that a massacre of Rohingya Muslims took place in January this year. I am a Christian, but I believe strongly in freedom of religion for everyone. I believe strongly that those who want to practise other religions should be able to. The massacre of Rohingya Muslims occurred in the northern part of the Rakhine state in that month. Some 48 Rohingya men, women and children were brutally murdered and slain in the village of Du Chee Yar Tan, and they included the local police sergeant. The Government have flatly denied that there have been any killings. Thousands of people have been killed and injured, with between 120,000 and 140,000 displaced. There clearly is an issue, and we cannot close our eyes to what is happening around us.”
David Simpson: “Recently—I think on 27 or 28 May—a draft religious conversion Bill was introduced in Burma. Anyone who wants to marry in or convert to another faith, or marry inter-faith, would have to ask for permission through some specially set-up local authority. That is an absolute nonsense, but it is how people are being treated over there. Any violator of the legislation could, I understand, receive at least a two-year sentence in Burmese prisons.”
The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Hugh Robertson): “I do not have ministerial responsibility for Burma. The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, my right hon. Friend the Member for East Devon (Mr Swire), holds that responsibility, and he is travelling. I am merely standing in for him. I have had a crash course in Burmese politics overnight.
One of the things that has struck me in listening to this debate—there have been extremely good contributions on all sides—is that there is a classic Foreign Office dilemma here. I think everyone would agree that the country is in transition. There is therefore a very difficult judgment on whether to stand off it and criticise it or get involved in it and try to influence and affect that change. Doing that, however, can open one up to many of the criticisms that are levelled at the UK Government—that we take too rose-tinted a view of the situation or that we are not tough enough. These are complicated diplomatic matters, and I absolutely understand many of the concerns that have been expressed.
It is fair to say—I think everyone has acknowledged this—that the last three years in Burma have been a period of remarkable change… The country has come out of literally decades of conflict, and the good news is that there is peace in much of the country… I can sense that some will say that that is typical of the Foreign Office’s complacent approach, but it absolutely is not.
Let me recognise at the outset that serious challenges remain. There are political prisoners who are still in jail and more activists have been detained in 2014 as repressive laws have failed to be amended in line with international standards. Small-scale conflict continues in many ethnic areas and there are worrying reports of incidences of sexual violence, which all Members have highlighted. The UN and other agencies struggle to gain unhindered humanitarian access to Rakhine state, where the humanitarian and political situation remains deeply concerning. I would not for a moment pretend that everything is rosy in this garden, and I would not want people to think that we have a rose-tinted view of the matter. We really do not; we absolutely recognise many of the issues that have been highlighted this morning.
There is a view, which I understand, having spent last night looking into this in some depth, that the parliamentary elections in 2015 are the watershed moment for Burma’s transition. It is absolutely incumbent on us here to try to create the conditions for credible elections to take place that involve all the minorities in Burma. I hope that will enable the Burmese people to take part in a democratic process where all their views count. We will be doing everything we can to build and reinforce Burma’s electoral network.”
FREEDOM OF THOUGHT, CONSCIENCE AND RELIGION AROUND THE WORLD
1 May 2014 (House of Commons)
Naomi Long: “I am pleased to bring this debate to Parliament today. As someone who believes that equality and religious freedom are fundamental to democratic society, and that both must be promoted and protected, I have continued to work extremely hard in Parliament to promote religious freedom at home and abroad. I recognise that that freedom must extend not only to Christians and our beliefs, but to those of other faiths, and that it includes the right to freedom from religion for those who are not believers…
As the vice-chair of the all-party parliamentary group on international freedom of religion or belief, today I want to look at our report, “Article 18: an orphaned right”, which explores the restrictions on freedom of religion and belief throughout the world, including the particularly heavy price currently being paid by Christians. Article 18 of the United Nation’s declaration of human rights is a noble vision of religious freedom for all, but it is sadly not the reality for many, or even most.”
David Burrowes: “There are Members in this House of the Christian faith, of other faiths and of no faith, but we universally share the idea of the importance of religious liberty; that is the right thing to do, not just for those of all faiths and none, but socially, economically and politically.”
Siobhain McDonagh: “Persecution is an everyday reality for Ahmadis in Pakistan. According to Pakistan’s human rights commission, Ahmadis face the worst treatment of anyone in Pakistan. The media in Pakistan is often horribly anti-Ahmadi, broadcasting phrases like “Ahmadis deserve to die.” In particular, the Khatme Nabuwwat movement carries out regular activities to oppose Ahmadiyya Muslims, incites attacks against them in speeches and broadcasts, and coined the widely used phrase, “wajibul qatl”, which means, ‘those who deserve to be killed.’”
Lyn Brown: “For those of us living in the UK, it would be easy to think that international religious freedom is a distant concern and that the repression is happening way beyond our borders. That would be a mistake, because what happens abroad impacts on community cohesion here at home. International religious oppression can fuel tensions with and between communities in Britain. We must stand up for religious freedom and build more cohesive communities in this country, as well as supporting religious freedom abroad.”
Fiona Bruce: “Since I last spoke about atrocities in North Korea, the devastating 400-page report of the UN Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea has been published… The commission found a gravity and scale of violation of the freedoms of thought, conscience and religion that have no parallel in the contemporary world. Indeed, they are almost completely denied, as are the rights of freedom of opinion, expression, information and association. The North Korean state considers the spread of Christianity a particularly serious threat, since it challenges ideologically the official personality cult of the leadership. Christians are prohibited from practising their religion and persecuted in particularly severe ways. I wish to focus largely on the fact that the freedom of thought of every individual in the North Korean state is minimised. Indeed, there is an attempt to virtually eliminate it from childhood.”
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