Thursday 30th June 2022

(1 year, 11 months ago)

Lords Chamber
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Lord Bishop of Guildford Portrait The Lord Bishop of Guildford
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My Lords, this summer sees the coming together of three significant international gatherings, following the restrictions of the pandemic years. One of them was the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Rwanda last week—some of the background to this debate. Another is the International Ministerial Conference on Freedom of Religion or Belief next week in London. A third is the Lambeth Conference, bringing together bishops from all but three of the 38 provinces of the Anglican Communion, which starts in late July. In each case, the leadership of these significant meetings is being provided from within these shores.

There are many parallels between the Commonwealth and the Anglican Communion, which is unsurprising, given our shared history. Both draw together autonomous units of nations and provinces. Both are held together by what the Prime Minister described last week as the

“invisible thread of shared values, history and friendship”

and what the Anglican Communion describes as our “bonds of affection”. Both have inevitable stresses and strains. Both need to work hard at developing a sense of mutual interdependence, not least because of the complexities of this nation’s imperialistic past—so graphically portrayed by the noble Lord, Lord Parekh—and the huge financial disparities between the members of each body. In particular, we in the UK need to recognise that although western secular values have a great deal to commend them, other nations can look on in horror on occasions at our individualism, materialism and religious indifference, and the breakdown of our family and community life.

One of those western secular values to which I am sure everyone in this House is committed is the theme of the meeting next week and will play a major part in the Lambeth Conference too. That is the human right not to be discriminated against, let alone persecuted, on the grounds of religion or belief. I have a particular interest in this subject, both historically and in the present, not least because we in the diocese of Guildford are twinned with Anglican dioceses in Pakistan and Nigeria—Commonwealth countries that come seventh and eighth respectively in an annual register of the nations in which it is most dangerous to be a Christian.

The other Commonwealth nation that appears in the top 10 is India, which reminds us that even functioning democracies can move in a sharply negative direction over a short period if religious intolerance, combined with a strongly nationalistic agenda, is really given its head. In India especially, that intolerance extends to Muslims and those of other faith traditions, although statistically it is Christians who bear considerably the greatest weight of religious intolerance around the globe.

The three regimes, of course, are very different. In Pakistan, a beautiful country I was privileged to visit in 2019, there is systemic discrimination against Christians and other minorities when it comes to further education and the availability of quality jobs, as well as a periodic misuse of the blasphemy laws and the all-too-regular shooting or lynching of Christians and others, especially those accused of converting from Islam. In Nigeria, where I am travelling in November, there are almost daily attacks by Fulani tribesmen on Christians in the middle belt—which sometimes, it should be acknowledged, provoke a measure of retaliation—along with the continuing problems with Boko Haram in the north, which are clearly religiously motivated, despite protestations to the contrary. The president of the Nigerian national humanist society has also just been given a 24-year prison sentence, off the back of alleged slurs against Islam.

In India, which I visited in 2017, both Christians and Muslims are suffering from incendiary rhetoric from some members of the ruling BJP, resulting in often violent and well-targeted attacks on Christians and other minorities and a plethora of anti-conversion laws, which ostensibly prohibit forced conversions but can all too easily be abused.

Here is where the Prime Minister and the British Government possibly missed a trick when it came to the first of those conferences. They rightly highlighted shared concerns, such as global warming and educational discrimination against women and girls—as we will also do at the Lambeth Conference—and addressed issues of food security in the wake of the war in Ukraine, but the issue of freedom of religion and belief seems hardly to have featured in those conversations, despite its terrifying and growing prevalence in the three Commonwealth nations with the largest populations of them all.

Persecution is persecution, whatever its cause, but with the sheer numbers involved there is no question but that persecution on the grounds of religion or belief is uniquely widespread and deadly. While I am delighted that we will be hosting the global conference on that theme next week, and I applaud the seriousness with which this is treated in this House and the other place, I also believe we need a joined-up approach that brings this to the fore in all our discussions with our Commonwealth and trading partners, so as to create a better and fairer world for all.