On 1 March, the House of Commons held a debate in Westminster Hall on freedom of religion or belief (FORB), introduced by Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP), Chair of the All-party Parliamentary Group for International Freedom of Religion or Belief, which – he pointed out, “speaks on behalf of those with Christian belief, those with other beliefs and those with no belief”. The purpose of the debate was to highlight FORB issues that the Government might raise at the UN Human Rights Council.
Shannon wished to raise issues such as the continued state-sponsored persecution of the Baha’is in Iran and forced conversion in Pakistan; however, issues of perceived religious discrimination in the United Kingdom were also raised – and the extracts from the debate in this brief summary concentrate on those.
Fiona Bruce (Congleton) (Con) expressed concern about the state of freedom of religion or belief in the UK. She noted that David Burrowes, the former MP for Enfield, Southgate, and Jeremy Corbyn had held a meeting with an Iranian parliamentary delegation in the last Parliament in which, when they challenged the Iranian record on human rights including the persecution of Christians, they were challenged in their turn on alleged abuses in the UK.
She claimed that freedom of religion:
“… is under attack in the UK today, whether unintentionally by those who lack religious literacy, more deliberately from aggressive secularists, through attacks by one faith on another, or simply by those who ridicule people of faith in the 21st century. Those people are ridiculing our Queen and our Prime Minister, both of whom have very publicly declared faith. We hear of British adults who were raised in other religions and converted to Christianity being subjected to extraordinary abuse, including physical violence…”
and cited the case of a convert in the north of England who said that he and his family had been forced out of their home after
“several years of suffering as converts…in the form of persecution which entailed assault, daily intimidation, criminal damage to property: smashing house windows and also three vehicles written off”.
She also raised the arrest and prosecution of street preachers, which she described as “seriously disturbing” and had a “chilling effect on the freedom that many Christians feel they have to speak about their faith in public in this country”. She mentioned the decision – later reversed – by the Charity Commission to remove the charitable status of the Exclusive Brethren (though it should be noted that she referred – slightly inaccurately – to “the Brethren”, which is not the same thing). She criticised the Government’s earlier proposal for inspection of education in out-of-school settings, and was unenthusiastic about “a suggestion that those wanting to hold public office should have to swear an oath supporting a currently undefined set of 21st-century British values”. In conclusion, she bemoaned the apparent lack of religious literacy across Government Departments and public officials and suggested that Government should consider requiring officials to include religious belief in equalities impact assessments, along with the current criteria of race, disability and gender, to ensure protection from discrimination: “After all, religious belief is also a protected characteristic”.
Martyn Day (Linlithgow and East Falkirk) (SNP) noted the positive steps being taken on FORB in Scotland, and particularly the work of local ecumenical groups in his constituency:
“At a time when churchgoing has been in steep and steady decline throughout these islands, it may seem that, at least in the case of Christian belief and practice, its days are numbered here. However, a closer look at the situation on the ground in Scotland reveals that there are still signs of proactive attempts by faith-based communities and organisations to stem the secular tide and exercise the important human right of religious freedom that we are debating today”.
He noted that the language that we used was important and that we had to be careful about inadvertently creating a religiously-intolerant society:
“Sadly, not everyone is as thoughtful … and I want to single out the Mail Online in particular. The excellent local family-based group in my area, Al Massar, aims to tackle Islamophobia through a range of community activities such as its local football team, which gives free training, and Eid in the Park, a massive community event in the Falkirk area. It works well with local schools, the council and the NHS on various projects. The group is all about community cohesion, and unfortunately felt compelled to complain about reporting of an event it held at the Scottish Parliament to mark World Hijab Day. I shall not go into the full details of the article, but it contained factual errors, and the phrase ‘antiquated, oppressive, religious tool’—very negative language, which could very easily fuel Islamophobic rhetoric. I have … supported the group’s complaint to the Independent Press Standards Organisation”.
However, he noted that only one complaint of discrimination out of over 8,000 made to the IPSO had been upheld in the past year. The problem appears to be that the editors’ code of practice related to “prejudicial or pejorative reference” to an individual, not to a group. He felt that that needed to be changed.
Winding up for the Opposition, Fabian Hamilton (Leeds North East) (Lab) noted that in the United Kingdom, according to data released by the Community Security Trust, the number of anti-Semitic incidents had risen by more than one-third to record levels in 2016. According to the Metropolitan police, the number of hate crimes against Muslims had increased from 343 incidents in 2013 to 1,260 in 2016. The review by Louise Casey highlighted that in 2015, polling showed that at least 55 per cent of the general public believed that there was a fundamental clash between Islam and the values of British society: “That is something that we in this House can change together, if we are so minded.”
Winding up for the Government, Mark Field (Minister for Asia and the Pacific) confirmed that the Government would remain committed to promoting and defending the right to freedom of religion or belief around the world, including the freedom to change religion and the right to have no religion at all.
He noted the speech of Fiona Bruce and said that she had rightly raised issues that were close to home; however:
“If I had one small point of disagreement with her, it would be this: we need to recognise that religious extremism is often the precursor to violence … Although the Government need to deal with that sensitively, I agree with her that all too often, our rather mealy-mouthed political correctness threatens long-standing freedoms of religion.”
“I have said this many times before, not least in this House, but it bears repeating. The Government promote freedom of religion not just because it is the right thing to do, or because religion matters to many around the world—some 80% of the world’s population are guided by their faith, according to the Pew Research Centre—but because where that freedom is absent or restricted, intolerance and mistrust can grow. In certain conditions, that mistrust can easily turn to violence and conflict…
Societies where people are free to practise their faith are almost always more prosperous and more stable. Evidence also suggests that tolerant societies are better equipped to deal with extremism. However, as we are all too aware, this fundamental freedom is being denied to countless millions across the world. Worse still, some face the most appalling persecution because of their faith or belief.”