Tackling the rise in religious conflicts and violence

Tackling the rise in religious conflicts and violence, in the light of the recent visit by Pope Francis to the Central African Republic

Thursday 10 December 2015 House of Lords short debate

Baroness Berridge (Con):

My Lords, I am extremely grateful to all noble Lords who will speak in this afternoon’s debate, as the Central African Republic is not a well-known country and does not get the attention its people deserve. Also, I accept that the global trend referred to in the title of the debate reads rather like a question for a PhD thesis, or at the very least the title of a book by the noble Lord, Lord Sacks, Not in God’s Name, which I commend for your Christmas present list.

Only 12 years ago the Prime Minister’s communications director said, “We don’t do God”, which was taken to mean nowhere at all, domestically or abroad—rather unfairly taking it out of context. The context was an interview about the Iraq war: sadly, events have shown that talking God should have been left in the script. If we were to track today the frequency with which the words “theology” or “religion” are being used by UK politicians and media outlets, we would see that this is the time of renaissance. “Renaissance” is the right word—lest we forget that we did do a lot of this kind of violence in this country’s past. I am sure that media commentators in Tudor times would not have found this topic at all out of the ordinary—although they would not have used “religion” or “secular” in this context, those being post-Enlightenment terms.

The secularisation thesis propounded by the likes of Peter Berger in the 1960s was, by his own humble admission in 1999, “essentially mistaken”. The world at the end of the 20th century got seriously more religious, and religious people are not huddled in a corner, oddly out of step with the modern world. Today 84% of the world’s population profess a religious faith—and not just a “tick-box on the census” type faith. The world has got more religious, more devout, and that is the predicted future trend. In 2010, 16% of the population was unaffiliated to a religion, and Pew research predicts that by 2050 this will fall to 13%. We here reside in what is now termed “western European exceptionalism”, which requires from us a degree of caution when we look out from this window at today’s complex world. Another relevant, potentially infamous, theory—Huntington’s clash of civilisations—has been robustly critiqued, but I think we are left with the awareness that it is not only land, political power and scarce resources that can lead to conflict, but values, ideas and identities, some of which are of course religious.

As co-chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on International Freedom of Religion or Belief, I have read of rising violence against atheists in Bangladesh, Shia and Ahmadiyya Muslims in Pakistan, Yazidis in Iraq, Muslims who speak out against Boko Haram in Nigeria, Baha’is in Iran, and Christians in all those countries, save potentially Bangladesh. That violence is often mob violence with the state turning a blind eye, but most cases are at the very least identified as religious, and it is hard to deny the religious motivation behind much of that persecution.

In addition to mob violence, religion is documented as a factor in many civil wars. The empirical analysis in God’s Century by Toft, Philpott and Shah—another book for the Christmas list—is that, between 1940 and 2010, of 135 civil wars 44 were religious. As of 2010, 50% of the 16 ongoing civil wars had a religious basis—up from 22% of civil wars in the 1960s. They assert that religious civil wars tend to last longer and kill more people, and make it harder to achieve a sustained peace. However, perhaps the most dangerous element is that religion is a transnational phenomenon, so these wars are more susceptible to spreading from their home territory or attracting foreign fighters.

There is also a rise in global religious-based terrorism: it existed in about 20% of countries in 2012—up from 9% of countries in 2007. This can be found in every major religious tradition. Mark Juergensmeyer’s analysis of the motivations behind Timothy McVeigh, the Oklahoma City federal building bomber, is sobering reading for any Christian thinking that our involvement is a thing of the past.

The danger in this debate, as outlined by the UN special rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, Heiner Bielerfeldt, is to go to the extremes. One extreme is to ignore religion completely as a motivating factor in violence and always to explain violence in terms of land, scarce resources or political power—causes we are much more comfortable talking about. For instance, race alone seems more amenable for us to talk about in relation to the violence against the Rohingyas in Burma. It is a complex matter, but their Muslim faith in that Buddhist-majority country should not be discounted.

The other extreme is blaming religion too quickly, and excusing the human agency and responsibility that is the ultimate cause of all violence: ideas and theology cannot kill, people do. But if religion is a factor in conflict, terrorism and persecution, it may also be a factor in establishing the peace. This seems to be the season of requests for increased religious literacy training for journalists, politicians and civil servants. I note the report by the commission recently chaired by the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss.

The issues that I have outlined are some of the most complex and context-specific issues that we have to consider; there are few soundbites but much nuance. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office led the way in the last Government with seminars on world religions, but can the Minister outline what training in the complexities of ethno-religious violence and conflicts is being run either in the FCO or through the conflict stabilisation unit?

The words of the title of this debate were carefully chosen, because the history of the Central African Republic is not one of religiously motivated or identified conflict; it is only in the last three years that this has become an accurate description. The Central African Republic’s population has now divided along religious lines, with Seleka rebels seen as the Muslim protection force and anti-balaka their Christian equivalent. Most of the Muslims have fled to southern Chad and Cameroon, and there is now a full peacekeeping operation with 10,000 troops, along with 900 French soldiers.

Britain is in a leadership role. Britain is a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council and in this financial year will contribute £33 million to the UN peacekeeping operation, in addition to anything from our aid budget. The key input for the United Kingdom to support our contribution must be the focus on disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration of the armed militia, especially the child soldiers, who number somewhere in the region of 8,000 to 10,000.

Since 50% of DfID’s budget is now to be aimed at fragile states, CAR’s DDR programme must be a priority for funding. There will not be a lasting peace there without it. I was told in answer to a Written Question I posed that just under £18.5 million is budgeted for DDR in MINUSCA’s budget—that is the UN peacekeeping operation. But “budgeted” does not necessarily mean the same as “funded”. If the UK were to put in, say, £5 million, many countries would follow suit, as it seems would the World Bank. Will my noble friend the Minister please outline how much of the DDR budget is funded and specifically request DfID to look at additional funds?

As vital as the UN peacekeepers are—some have died in the Central African Republic, and the French have lost four troops as well—I have learned that this operation is different in capacity and expertise from a NATO-led operation or a British troop-led operation. The five military staff officers that the UK puts into the UN peacekeeping force in the Congo are making a huge difference in providing specific skills, mentoring others, sharing skills and imparting knowledge. The UK could make a vital contribution to MINUSCA in CAR in that respect. I ask my noble friend to make that specific request to the Ministry of Defence.

The Pope’s bravery in going to a war zone cannot be overestimated. Seeing him in his open jeep while the media were in armed convoy was inspiring. This beautiful country, the size of France and Belgium put together, with some of the most fertile land in the world and a population of only 4.5 million to sustain, is—as I have mentioned before in your Lordships’ House—in the category of “doable” in international terms. Only the Pope’s profile made CAR topical for the criteria to obtain today’s debate. My fear is that it will return to being topical when young, unoccupied, angry men, currently refugees in southern Chad, turn up in IS. I will welcome being proved wrong by a little more support from the UK.

Baroness Kinnock of Holyhead (Lab):

My Lords, at the outset I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Berridge, for her excellent introduction to the issues that we are discussing, and for her constant support and interest in her concerns.

After a referendum on 13 December on a new constitution, a general election is scheduled in the Central African Republic for later in the month. It is a country which has endured political instability and, as we have just heard, episodes of extreme violence since its independence in 1960. The most recent turmoil erupted in March 2013 when the Seleka Muslim rebels overthrew the president. Sectarian warfare took place between Seleka Muslims and the Christian anti-balaka groups. That has generated the most violent instability that we have seen and it has lasted ever since. In these conditions, the hope is that constitutional change and elections can at last produce a Government who can restore peace and order and pave the way for the exit of the UN and French peacekeepers.

The deeply sad reality, however, is that the legacy and current prevalence of severe and savage instability in the CAR means that the prospect of such progress is just not feasible. More than 5,000 people have died in fighting between Muslims and Christians. This assessment is based on a count of bodies and of numbers gathered from survivors, priests, imams and aid workers in more than 50 of the most affected communities. The miserable suffering of the people of the CAR goes on and some 20% of the population are now internally displaced or forced to flee to neighbouring countries. In the north and the east there are no hospitals, schools or roads. In the capital, criminals continue to stoke the tension and insecurity, which plainly serves to exacerbate the already desperate situation.

The Central African Republic has one of the worst economic and human development records in the world. Life expectancy there is 50. Only 30% of people have access to drinkable water. Some 10% have electricity; 5% have sanitation. Against that background, and in an effort to deal with the crisis, a constitutional referendum is now planned and a two-stage presidential election is scheduled for late December and January.

Is it not of some concern, despite warnings by the Electoral Commission and civil society that more time is really needed, that the decision to hold an election before the end of the year has still been taken? Surely the international community should now be working to avoid holding a hurried election, which at this stage would serve only to fuel the already difficult prevailing instability in that country. Is it not relevant that an independent and respected African think tank has said that the CAR will not be able to manage anything approaching a free and fair election because there simply is not the ability to provide security, or to guarantee that all eligible voters will actually be on the electoral roll at all?

With such dependable evidence available, does the Minister agree that there is a strong case for a delay until later in 2016 so that elections can be held in a more peaceful climate and with greater possibilities of coherent electoral organisation? Is that case for delay not made even more emphatic when it is painfully clear that the disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration process agreed in May is now very seriously off track; when there is a patent lack of political will and commitment among armed groups and the CAR political elites; and when continuing criminality and intercommunal violence mean that the electoral process could not be effectively managed? If the Minister does not agree with this assessment of the situation, could we please be told why?

Surely there has to be local ownership of the electoral process. The people affected must be respected and their views must, of course, be listened to. More has to be done to achieve those basics before rushing into an ill prepared election. The electoral budget needs to be finalised and the process for selection of candidates in legislative and presidential elections agreed. As we in this Chamber know, these are huge tasks that will take a great deal of time. In addition, there are other substantial obstacles, including insecure voting facilities and the very large number of displaced people. All those issues need to be addressed and resolved in what is a very short timescale. Does not the call now have to be for efforts to encourage reconciliation between communities and for international attention to the tragically chaotic situation in the Central African Republic?

The situation is indeed appalling. The international community must obviously remain engaged to offer support to those enduring a cycle of the most terrible conflict. In doing that, it is essential that a shambolic election is not inflicted on a country already bearing the economic and political burdens of deep poverty and unceasing violence.

Lord Patten (Con):

My Lords, if only we had the capacity in this country to do all the things that my noble friend Lady Berridge wishes to see done in the Central African Republic. If we had the capacity, the capability and the money we could do an awful lot, but we have not got it there or in much of the rest of the world where we all wish to see her words spun into action on the ground. That should not stop us saying exactly what she has said. She has shown formidable leadership in the whole of her speech.

It is good that she has mentioned Popes. Popes sometimes put themselves in the line of fire. Pope John Paul II led a very open papacy and was out and about for his pains. In fact, he received pains; he was shot in May 1981 by a Turkish citizen, for reasons that are still unclear. Of course, Pope Francis has been exceptionally brave and shown considerable leadership worldwide in what he has done in the Central African Republic. In the past, Popes have often been pretty martial themselves: they have got on horseback and led papal armies up and down the peninsula of Italy, chopping off the heads of other Roman Catholics on the other side of the argument.

That is what is so interesting and so challenging about the words in my noble friend’s question: “religiously identified conflicts”. It is sometimes very difficult to identify exactly which strand of religion or which manifestation is causing the conflict. If we look at what is going on in the Near East and the Middle East now with ISIL or Daesh—or whatever the politically correct term this week is for those bodies and what they are doing to each other—they have killed far more followers of Islam than they have killed Christians or anybody else. The one thing that unites the Sunnis with the Shias, whom they despise, is their joint dislike of the Alawites, the Ismailis and others on the outer reaches of Islam. In that way they are no different from medieval Christianity in the west of the Mediterranean going across to medieval Christianity in the east of the Mediterranean during the sacking of Constantinople. There are considerable difficulties, however sophisticated the analyses are, of exactly which brand of religion is going to attack which other brand of religion, because they are very often so busy attacking each other.

We see this today in Syria. I will not go over all the excellent speeches that have been made in recent weeks, but there are minority communities in Syria which deserve our protection: the Alawites, the Druze, and various brands of Catholicism, whether western or eastern. If Daesh or ISIL takes over that part of Syria, there will be genocide among those peoples. If, on the other hand, President Assad is still there, whether we like it or not they are protected. We are in a very difficult position and I do not apologise to my noble friend for asking this most difficult of questions. We are now deeply involved in the fate of the Druze, the Alawites and the Catholics because our Typhoons and our Tornados are now going in and bombing in Syria at the same time as we say we no longer wish to see President Assad in power. So I wish to ask the Minister this afternoon: what strategy do we have to protect those minority groups, whichever way this plays out?

The last point that I wish to make is that just as you begin to try to solve a problem in one place, as may happen in the Central African Republic if we do what the noble Baroness, Lady Kinnock of Holyhead, has just said, then something else pops up. Take a Commonwealth country like the Maldives where we have an extremely radicalised Wahhabi Government. More than a couple of hundred young militants have recently left the Maldives, of all places, to fight in Syria at exactly the same time as on the edges of the Maldives we have alcohol-full rather than alcohol-free international hotels staffed by immigrant labour which may in the not-too-distant future be the centre of unwelcome attention from people in other parts of the Maldives. I do not know what advice is given by Her Majesty’s Government on the safety of Christians wishing, for example, to worship in the Maldives. I suspect it is pretty constrained, to put it mildly, in a society where to be a citizen of the Maldives now, you have to adhere to and recognise Islam. You cannot be a Christian if you want to be a citizen of the Maldives. It is full-on Wahhabism there. Recently marine archaeologists found the head of a Buddha which was promptly broken up. So we can see where the next well-scary—as we say in my part of Somerset—threats may be coming around the globe.

Lord McFall of Alcluith (Lab):

My Lords, I am delighted to participate in this debate and I commend the noble Baroness for her consistent advocacy in tackling the rise in religiously identified conflicts and violence. There is no doubt that Pope Francis is the most influential global leader we have presently. His simplicity, his spontaneity of language and his attention to the weakest attracts the admiration of many people, believers and non-believers. His visit to the Central African Republic was highly significant. In fact, his visit was in keeping with his namesake, Saint Francis of Assisi, who, during the Fifth Crusade, crossed enemy lines to meet Sultan Malik al-Kamil of Egypt to plead for peace. Francis is mirroring this precisely by visiting this destitute and war-torn land. In fact, he is the first pontiff in living memory to visit a war zone. That comes from his philosophy which was apparent when he was appointed Pope in the Sistine Chapel and he said: “I see the Church as a field hospital after battle. You have to heal the wounds and start from the ground up”. And he did that by breaking with tradition. On the first Holy Thursday he did not wash feet in the Basilica of San Giovanni but he went to a juvenile prison and actually washed women’s feet, which broke with tradition again. One of those women was a Muslim and in his visit to the Central African Republic a central part of it was visiting the mosque because he was emphasising that religious dialogue in the public square is important.

There are lessons for us at home. Here we have a tendency to articulate the notion that anything regarding religion that is disturbing is not religion at all; that real religion takes place in private. I think we have to disabuse ourselves from that notion, because there is a Muslim problem in terms of the misinterpretation of the theology of Islam by some people; there is a Christian problem in the misinterpretation of the theology of the Crusades; and there is a Jewish problem in the denunciations for lack of orthodoxy. Things happen as a result of religion and if meeting together can lead to us acknowledging that there is a religious problem, then participants can explore and attempt a contemporary understanding of the role of religion. We can do no better than continue the tradition of Assisi whereby Popes John Paul II, Benedict and Francis held interreligious summits at which we now have non-believers present.

In 2011 French semiologist and psychoanalyst Julia Kristeva spoke and invited the audience to discern what she described as a complicity between secular humanism, with its origins in the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, and Christian humanism. She reassessed the great moral codes of our tradition: the Bible, the Gospels, the Koran, the Rigveda and the Tao. The most important thing, she stressed, was the criterion of liberty. That is walking with believers and unbelievers, and that is essential. I wish that for our own country and I have a suggestion. Coming out of this House the other evening I bumped into my dear friend the Archbishop of Canterbury and I said to him that I was going to mention him today because I think the Archbishop could call such a meeting. Why do I say that? Because I think that the Church of England above all the churches is under the skin of society. It has a social message which has been loud and consistent over the years. The Archbishop himself, when he took office, set down three criteria. One of the criteria was the concept of good disagreement. That is very important in the political and the social field. We can see in America that Donald Trump is generating a bigoted discourse and we must prevent that, so we need good disagreement now more than ever. I spoke to the Archbishop the other evening about it, I told him I was speaking in the House, and no doubt his fellow clerics will take that back and join me in saying, “Justin, you are the appropriate man to do this. Let us get on with it”.

Lord Alton of Liverpool (CB):

My Lords, I, too, welcome this debate and I am grateful to the noble Baroness for giving us the opportunity to discuss the suffering being experienced in the Central African Republic, one of the five poorest countries in Africa and a country of which she has first-hand knowledge. Undoubtedly, Pope Francis has shone a light into one of the darkest corners of the world, explaining that the purpose of his visit to that maimed and disfigured country was to bring its mutilated people consolation and hope.

Since 2013, CAR has been the scene of chronic violence and unending upheaval, as the noble Baroness, Lady Kinnock, has reminded us. Although religious leaders in CAR have insisted that the conflict is ethnic and political, the fighting has divided the country on religious lines, with mostly Muslim rebel forces fighting mainly Christian militias. In the context of intensified violence this autumn, perhaps the Minister can give his own assessment of the effectiveness of the UN peacekeeping force, to which reference has been made, and how its work can be made more effective.

Given CAR’s divisions, how fitting it was that the Pontiff went to both the cathedral and the mosque in Bangui and urged both sides to put down the weapons of war and to work for justice. At the cathedral, he symbolically opened the first door of mercy in what he has proclaimed this week to be a year of mercy. Without this combination of justice and mercy, we will see no progress in the fiefdoms dominated by war lords and their militias. During his visit, Pope Francis trenchantly admonished those who “seek revenge” and warned of “the spiral of endless retaliation”.

In April 2014, the interreligious platform of Catholics, Evangelicals and Muslims committed itself to promote co-existence and mutual respect in CAR. Its leaders were presented with a basket of eggs, symbolising the fragility of the peace process. Welcome local initiatives and a project giving women the opportunity to take part in conflict resolution have subsequently been initiated. Social cohesion, dialogue and mediation will be key if ever CAR is to move beyond conflict. Without it, there can be no stability, no development and no prosperity. Perhaps the Minister can tell us what more we can do to support conflict resolution.

Given the importance of harnessing religious communities, recognised at the 2014 Wilton Park conference on religion, foreign policy and development, perhaps the Minister can tell us what programmes the Government are supporting which engage with faith communities—but not just as a functional network of delivery agents for social projects— and how DfID will harness the faith communities in places like CAR. Will the Government closely examine what the Civil Society Partnership Review has to say about faith communities?

The voices of faith leaders should be amplified at all levels by giving them platforms, communications and travel support, so that they can hold national leaders to account, remonstrate with and lead local communities and engage in international debates about their countries.

Returning specifically to CAR, those courageous few working in this dangerous field say that there are no recognisable government or state structures, and that at this critical juncture there is a need for long-term, predictable funding for at least three years to begin to find sustainable solutions to the crisis, including building state infrastructure, establishing essential services and addressing underlying vulnerabilities. Restoring stability in CAR is not a nine-month programme.

We also need to do much more to stop the obscene flow of weapons from countries in the northern hemisphere into countries like CAR, where children are recruited and turned into killers. AK47s become the weapons of mass destruction.

When he replies, I hope the Minister will make reference to the provision of housing for returning refugees and meeting desperate humanitarian needs.

As the noble Lord, Lord McFall, has reminded us, Pope Francis has said that he sees the Church as “a field hospital after battle”. That metaphor could not have a more appropriate application than in the Central African Republic. He also said, when speaking to the United Nations General Assembly in September of this year, that “solemn commitments” which were not followed up on—often, sadly, a feature of United Nations initiatives—could ultimately do more harm than good. What a tragedy it would be if his own initiative in pushing open a door in CAR were not now followed through with determination by the international community.

Baroness Jenkin of Kennington (Con):

My Lords, I, too, thank my noble friend for initiating this debate so appropriately on Human Rights day, for introducing it so coherently and for her long-standing commitment to this troubled country. I thank her for shining a light on this crisis, in which religion has been used by leaders on all sides of the conflict as a means to divide people. Both Christians and Muslims have been targeted by different armed groups.

Although the conflict is portrayed as religious, the group that is most affected is children. The crisis in the Central African Republic is a children’s emergency and they are bearing the brunt of it. Children are being killed. More than 10,000 children under 18 are currently being used by, or are associated with, armed groups. Children are being subjected to sexual and gender-based violence. Many children are displaced and separated from their families, which exposes them to even greater risk of abuse and exploitation. This is not acceptable.

Let me share with your Lordships the story of a 13 year-old boy, named Francis, from the Yaloke district in CAR. World Vision, working in CAR, met with Francis in June and shared his story with me. At the age of 13, like many other young boys in his community, Francis joined a local armed group after his brother and uncle were killed by community members from a different religious group. He told World Vision that he joined an armed group because he,

“did not want the death of his brother and uncle to go unpunished”.

By the time Francis reached his 14th birthday he had killed five people—four children and one adult. He explained that he had killed these people because they were Fulani, which means that they were Muslim.

Francis is a victim of CAR’s entrenched culture of violence. He has not received any form of psycho-social support to help him deal with his experiences in the armed group. Most aid programmes in CAR are funded only for short periods at a time, often little more than nine months. Psycho-social support and reintegration programmes for former child soldiers like Francis are both desperately needed and desperately underfunded. Often, because they are not short-term programmes but would take at least two to three years to be run effectively, they are not run at all.

So Francis, like many other children in CAR and other fragile states, continues to carry deep scars from the violence. Yesterday at the UNICEF board meeting—I declare an interest as a trustee—we saw a picture of a child just like Francis, but in Southern Sudan, who, with UNICEF support, has given up his weapons and army uniform, has been released by the militia and is going back to his last opportunity of any kind of childhood.

There is an urgent need to support programmes which help to address the violence in CAR, such as trauma healing, a package of psycho-social support for those affected by the violence, and livelihood programmes to help local economies recover from the violence. This should fit in with the commitment in the recently published aid strategy. I am sure everyone in the Chamber will welcome the increased resource and expertise to tackle the drivers of violent conflict that threaten stability and development in countries such as CAR. I hope that some of this increased expenditure might be invested in programmes to support survivors of sexual and gender-based violence in CAR. I encourage the FCO to make CAR a PSVI priority country. I am sorry about all those acronyms.

Work in fragile states such as CAR has always been a key part of DfID’s overall portfolio. Since 2013, DfID has committed £58 million to address the needs of central Africans, central African children and refugees from CAR. This funding has enabled agencies to support children who have been separated from their families, to provide services for boys and girls who have suffered sexual and gender-based violence, to reduce malnutrition and to give children access to education and training. So, when DfID explores new options for programming in March next year, I encourage it to pursue a coherent and long-term approach to its engagement there, including long-term programmes to tackle religious conflict and violence.

I, too, welcome the courageous visit by Pope Francis, and his commitment to raise awareness of the situation in the Central African Republic and to highlight the need for forgiveness, tolerance and reconciliation in divided communities. This message was heard throughout the world, and my mother tasked me endlessly during his visit to find more coverage on the television. It really awoke an interest. These values are shared by the Christian and Muslim faiths. As the noble Lord, Lord Alton, said, the Pope’s visit to the mosque to deliver a message of peace and reconciliation was a tremendous show of solidarity.

It is important for all involved—Governments and other stakeholders—not to simplify the role of faith in conflict and to draw more on the social capital of faith to deliver stability and reconciliation. Without that, the story of Francis and other child soldiers will become more common, rather than a thing of the past.

Lord Wallace of Saltaire (LD):

My Lords, I am always conscious, when we are discussing the role of religion in politics, that as a small boy I knew that British values were Protestant values and that Catholics were in many ways disloyal and following an alien religion. I did not know any Catholics, but I knew that from reading Charles Kingsley, GA Henty and others. That, I have slowly learnt, was a tribal view, past which I have got except when meeting extremely right-wing American Roman Catholics.

We all know that religion is part of identity and values. It is a way of saying, “I am part of the main group and you are part of a heretical or dissident minority”. Passionately felt, it provides a sense of values but also a real way of distinguishing between those you accept and those you do not. The problem with central Africa is that there is a line between Muslims and Christians, between black populations and Arab populations, between pastoralists and farmers and between a whole host of different things. The rising population has made the competition between pastoralists, farmers and others far more acute, as we see in Darfur at least as much as in the Central African Republic, and as we see in northern Nigeria.

Yes, you know that someone is Muslim because he is a Fulani but you also know that the Fulani are pastoralists and you are much more settled. That is part of the problem that we all have. For people whose understanding of religion is often relatively shallow, we know that it provides a sense of, “I know who I am and I hate you, even though I haven’t met you before”. We have to get beyond that if we possibly can. The answer is clearly to do something about population growth and to help these societies going so rapidly through the transition from traditional society to contact with the modern world with all the reactions against that which lead to fundamentalism in their interpretation of religion. Fundamentalism, after all, was a term invented in the United States by Christians who wanted to insist on traditional Christianity against this dreadful urban, modern, moderate world. As we help them, there is great deal that our Government can do. I want to come back to that in a minute.

Leadership within religions is extremely important. The Pope’s visit was extraordinarily important. I only wish that we had clearly leadership within the Sunni Muslim world because the absence of leadership there is one of the big problems that we all face at the moment and which the Saudi Government and others need to think rather more about. The sense that different paths to God are possible, and that the different religions that have followed Abraham have something in common in their understanding of God, is the sort of thing that we absolutely have to say to each other, just as we have now learnt to say to each other that Protestants and Catholics actually worship the same God. We did not entirely understand that a couple of generations ago.

We also need to work on the rights of women. These are fundamental to any move away from traditional society. Patriarchy and abuse of religious values go very closely together and have done in a number of institutionalised churches that we had better not name. Population limitation—as far as possible—education, economic development and reduction of inequality all matter, as do open societies and open media. I ask the Government: how far is this an element in their foreign policy as well as in their domestic policy?

The noble Baroness, Lady Warsi, with whom I thoroughly enjoyed working in government, did some very useful work on this. She spoke in Istanbul, in the Grand Mosque in Muscat and elsewhere about the need for mutual understanding between different religions and different societies. I regret, in a sense, that we do not have as coherent a Muslim in government now as we had when she was there. To what extent do the Government think that this continuing dialogue between different communities, different ethnic groups and different religions—of course, these labels all overlap—is still a priority?

Lord Collins of Highbury (Lab):

My Lords, I, too, thank the noble Baroness, Lady Berridge, for initiating this debate and for her ongoing work on this very important subject. During the Pope’s recent visit, the religious leaders of the Central African Republic across all faiths conveyed the same message—that this is not a religious conflict but one about power and politics, which has created a false but very dangerous division.

In the debate last October in Grand Committee, initiated by the noble Lord, Lord Alton, on Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Coventry highlighted the danger of mixing religion and national identity. He argued that too often the abuse of religious freedom arises from a false collusion between religion and national loyalty. He also referred to the platform for Article 18—IRP18—which brought together religious leaders from various faiths to campaign for global religious freedom. Will the Minister report further on the steps the Government have taken to support such initiatives globally? One example given by the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay, was a project in eastern DRC that drew on the influence of the faith leaders in their communities to challenge some of the attitudes to victims of sexual violence and to address the stigma many survivors face.

Where freedom of religion or belief is under attack, other fundamental freedoms often face threat too. The Central African Republic, as my noble friend Lady Kinnock said, is a failed state in permanent crisis and has been unstable since its independence from France in 1960. This has undermined the economy and resulted in it being one of the least-developed countries in the world. Its natural resources such as diamonds not only provide a substantial part the nation’s income but drive the communal conflict and political rivalry. Illegal weapons proliferate across the country, with unrest displacing tens of thousands of Central Africans, many of whom cross the border into Chad. Some progress towards stabilising the country was made between 2008 and 2012, but with coups and counteroffensives the risk of genocide was heightened. Instability there affects people not only in CAR but in South Sudan, Cameroon, DRC and other countries in the region. In April 2014, the United Kingdom supported the establishment of MINUSCA, the expanded UN peacekeeping force, French troops returned and the African peacekeeping mission was expanded.

In this volatile situation, there clearly needs to be stability before progress can be made, as my noble friend Lady Kinnock highlighted. President Samba-Panza told the BBC:

“The objective of this transition is to take this country to elections because this is the only way out for us”.

However, with fresh clashes between Christians and Muslims in the capital, the elections scheduled for October were postponed and are now due later this month. The fragmentation and criminalisation of CAR’s armed groups makes negotiations much more difficult, with elections possibly exacerbating existing intercommunal tensions and undoing reconstruction efforts. What is the Government’s current view on the election timetable? Also, what assessment has been made of the threat by a Seleka splinter group to stop elections going ahead in areas under its control, including in the northern region?

There is a clear need for CAR’s transitional authorities and international partners to engage not only with militiamen but with communities. We should incentivise change and provide for effective sanctions if they do not. What is the Government’s current thinking on the maintenance of the UN peacekeeping force and what steps are being taken globally and under international law to reduce the income flow to the various armed groups?

Lord Ashton of Hyde (Con):

My Lords, I, too, am grateful to my noble friend Lady Berridge for initiating this interesting debate, and to all noble Lords who have spoken. I have learned much in preparing for this debate—not all of it, I have to say, encouraging.

As my noble friend reminded us, it can be tempting for us, living in Europe, to underestimate the influence of religion in causing and resolving conflict. Of course, we know that there are often multiple causes of conflicts: for example, high levels of inequality and the lack of opportunities, particularly where they divide people according to their ethnicity and religion, can lead to communal violence, especially in times of heightened tensions. Tackling religious conflict requires a fundamentally different approach—not based solely on economics or a political solution but focusing on ideology and winning hearts and minds.

Often, Governments are not best placed to engage in this area. Our contribution must be to create the conditions for others, particularly faith leaders, to preach messages of understanding and love, not violence. For this reason, we are firmly convinced that religious literacy is of key importance for the FCO. If our diplomats are to offer informed foreign policy advice, they must understand the key influencers in the countries in which they work, and in many places religion is perhaps the most significant of those. We hold regular training courses and seminars to further develop professionalism in this area.

My noble friend Lady Berridge asked what training is being run in the FCO. The Stabilisation Unit provides a range of training on conflict issues, much of which addresses the ethnic and religious dimensions. This year DfID is piloting a workshop on religion and conflict for officials working with fragile and conflict-afflicted states. DfID also funded a small research project by the British Academy to examine the role of religion in conflict and peacebuilding. The results were published in September. I hope this goes some way to assuring the noble Lord, Lord Wallace, that the Government think that mutual understanding is crucial and that dialogue is important.

My noble friend Lady Berridge, the noble Lord, Lord McFall, and others spoke about the Pope’s recent visit to the Central African Republic. His visit was hugely symbolic for CAR. It demonstrated that reconciliation is possible and raised the profile of the Central African Republic globally. He raised awareness of the role that faith leaders and faith groups have at a grass-roots level in bringing reconciliation. We welcome the work done by faith leaders in CAR through the religious platform, and we value the excellent work carried out by religious and non-governmental organisations to defuse religious tensions and promote social cohesion at community level. The Pope’s humble approach but firm stance against corruption and violence demonstrated the role that all faith leaders need to play, setting the tone for a response which values difference and promotes harmony and inclusiveness, not division.

By contrast, religious extremism attacks the fundamental values that we want to see binding us as a global community, which are enshrined in the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In CAR, tackling religious extremism is fraught with difficulties. There is little state presence outside Bangui, poor infrastructure and a number of armed groups without direction that have split away from the anti-balaka/Seleka groups, as the noble Baroness, Lady Kinnock, reminded us. As my noble friend Lady Jenkin told us, children often bear the brunt of these terrible events. We have no direct evidence of the presence of any terrorist group in the country, but we are very much alive to the fact that external extremist elements will seek to exploit the conflict should it continue.

I will deal with some of the issues raised by my noble friend Lady Berridge and the noble Lord, Lord Collins, particularly about MINUSCA and what can be done. The UK pays 6.7% of the costs of the UN peacekeeping force, MINUSCA. We contributed £23.2 million this financial year and are projecting a contribution of £33 million in the next financial year. MINUSCA’s mandate is up for renewal in April 2016. We will be working with other Security Council members to agree the new mandate. We are particularly keen to press for troop-contributing countries to rotate their troops regularly and for troops to be given training on sexual abuse prior to their deployment to CAR.

The UK has worked closely with EU partners and supported the deployment of the EU’s military advisory mission to CAR. Its purpose is to provide the Government of CAR with expert advice, with a view to reforming the military to make it into a professional army. The UK is supportive of the planning stage for a possible EU training mission to follow on from the military advisory mission, recognising that security sector reform is vital to build stability in CAR.

We are one of the largest humanitarian donors to CAR, providing £58 million since 2013 through NGOs and international organisations to support internally displaced people, including with housing, and refugees in neighbouring countries. The British Government have recently increased the UK’s commitment in 2015 by £7 million. More widely, the UK funds a wide range of conflict-prevention activity that contributes to the prevention of conflict and mass atrocities; for example, in 2015 we set up the Conflict, Stability and Security Fund, which this year provided £1 billion for conflict-prevention, stabilisation, security and peacekeeping activities. We will increase this funding from £1 billion to over £1.3 billion a year by 2019-20.

CSSF projects include work on reducing intergroup tensions; strengthening justice systems and the rule of law; security sector reform; and disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration, which I will come to in a minute. Africa was allocated £77 million from this year’s CSSF, the second largest regional allocation. Our priorities have been tackling instability in Nigeria, countering extremism in east Africa and a package of work in Somalia.

I will deal with as many questions as I can in the time available. My noble friend Lady Berridge and the noble Lord, Lord Alton, asked about MINUSCA’s effectiveness, particularly on DDR—demobilisation, disarmament and reintegration. MINUSCA is currently in the pre-DDR phase in CAR, preparing for the launch of DDR. This entails a sensitisation process and an education process for former combatants who will take part in DDR. That is essential to create the conditions for stability and security in CAR. MINUSCA is the lead on the DDR work in CAR, and it has budgeted $28 million for a DDR programme aimed at what it expects will amount to 3,500 ex-Seleka fighters in total and 1,500 to 3,500 dependants. Through the UK’s contribution to MINUSCA, we will support this vital work on pushing DDR forward in CAR. After the elections—I will come to the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Kinnock, in a minute—the DDR programme will move forward, working with the newly elected Government.

The noble Baroness, Lady Kinnock, and the noble Lord, Lord Collins, mentioned the elections. The noble Baroness asked whether we should delay the elections. Our position at the moment is that free, fair and inclusive elections are crucial for CAR’s future stability and to enable the country to move forward. Through the international community, we will work to ensure that an elected president appoints an inclusive government representative of CAR’s population. Some 300 extra UN troops have been provided to ensure security during the election period. I accept that there are risks and difficulties in that process. While, as a Government Whip, I am not going to make policy from the Dispatch Box, I will take those concerns back to the Foreign Office.

The noble Lord, Lord Alton, asked about local initiatives for reconciliation, especially interfaith work. The religious platform, made up of Catholic, Protestant and Muslim leaders in CAR, has been at the forefront of peace building and reconciliation efforts, engaging directly with communities that have been affected by sectarian violence. The UK welcomes the work carried out by those organisations.

My noble friend Lady Jenkin asked about preventing sexual violence. In CAR, specifically, DfID is committed to addressing the needs of vulnerable women and children and has supported several agencies to provide specialised services to victims of gender-based violence. These include the ICRC, the Common Humanitarian Fund, United Nations HCR and three NGO consortia which provide psycho-social care to survivors and endeavour to reduce the risk of gender-based violence in CAR and among CAR refugees. They also provide survivors with access to health care.

The noble Lord, Lord Alton, asked what programmes HMG are supporting to foster strong relationships among faith communities. We support a number of projects internationally, through our Human Rights and Democracy Programme Fund. For example, in Burma we have supported a number of projects. These include developing relationships between Burmese youth and different religious communities, and arranging exchanges between activists on religious freedoms in Burma and Indonesia. In Iraq we are funding a project to prevent intolerance and violence towards religious communities by strengthening the ability of youth and civil society to advocate the right to freedom of religion or belief.

My time is coming to an end and, unfortunately, that means I am not able to address my noble friend Lord Patten’s question on Syria. It is a pity but I will certainly write to him when I have taken that back to the Foreign Office.

In conclusion, this Government will be unrelenting in using the UK’s global role to tackle religious conflicts. We will employ a long-term, comprehensive approach, using our world-class diplomats, overseas aid and Armed Forces to ensure that all people are able to live free of religiously motivated and other forms of violence.