In Selected Opinion

By Lord David Alton

Address by David Alton (Lord Alton of Liverpool) at the Danube Institute Conference on Religious Freedom, April 9th 2019, The Reform Club, London.

In 1896, at the age of 87, William Ewart Gladstone made his last public speech.

At Liverpool’s Hengler’s Circus, before an audience of 6000, he described what he called the “monstrous crime” of the massacre of 2000 Armenians.

TheHamburger Nachrichten, responded: “For us [Germans] the sound bones of a single Pomeranian [German] grenadier are worth more than the lives of 10,000 Armenians.”

Nineteen years later 1.5 million Armenians were murdered in a genocide still unrecognized as such by the UK, let alone by Turkey.

In 1933, the Jewish writer,Franz Werfel published, The Forty Days of Musa Dagh, a novel about  the Armenian genocide.

Werfel’s books were burnt by the Nazis, no doubt to give substance to Hitler having famous remark:

Who now remembers the Armenians?

From the Armenian genocide to Hitler’s concentration camps and the depredations of Stalin’s gulags; from the pestilential nature of persecution, demonisation, scapegoating, and hateful prejudice – in 1948 the international community created a Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR).

It emerged from warped ideologies that elevated nation and race, insisting on 30 foundational freedoms.  Article 18 proclaimed the right to believe, not to believe,to manifest beliefor to change belief:

Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.”

Understanding how these prized rights have been won; understanding the interaction of religions with one another and with the contemporary secular world; understanding authentic religion, and the forces that threaten it, is more of a foreign affairs imperative than ever before, and, as I shall argue, the resources and determination we put into promoting Article 18 – often described asan orphaned right” – should reflect that reality.

It is the reality of the surveillance, persecution and incarceration of Christians in North Korea, the demolition of churches in Sudan and China;  the unfolding Jihad in Nigeria to outright persecution in Pakistan; and, from historic attempts to annihilate Christian Armenians, to the contemporary genocide of Christians in Iraq and Syria.

The aim is to stamp out the Christian faith wherever it is found.

The 1948 Declaration’s stated objective was to realise:

a common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations…without distinction to race, sex, language or religion”.

Eleanor Roosevelt, the formidable chairman of the drafting committee, argued that freedom of religion was one of the four essential freedoms of mankind, asserting that freedom of religion was an

international Magna Carta for all mankind.”

The Hebrew Scriptures are the foundation of such Declarations of our belief in universal justice and the rule of law today: both are under renewed threat.

Recall the violence last year in the US that led to the deaths of 11 worshippers in a synagogue in Pittsburgh. Reflect that on March 15th nearly 50 Muslims were massacred as they gathered for Friday prayers in Christchurch, New Zealand; remember the 75 Christians murdered in Lahore as they celebrated Easter; mourn the deaths, day after day in Northern Nigeria, following the genocide of Christians and Yazidis and other minorities in Iraq and Syria: all tragedies to which hatred of difference can lead.

I have just read Stefan Zweig’s magnificent“The World of Yesterday – Memoirs of a European” published in 1942.

Read Zweig if you doubt how quickly a relatively civilised and humane society, and a seemingly permanent golden age, can be ruthlessly and swiftly destroyed.

His masterful autobiography charts the rise of visceral hatred; how scapegoating and xenophobia, cultivated by populist leaders, can rapidly morph into the hecatombs of the concentration camps.

And consider that, beyond the ugly spectre of Anti-Semitism, appearing in mainstream British politics, in 2019, for the first time since 1945, there are Nazis in the Reichstag; Austria has a coalition government which includes a party whose first leader was as an officer in the SS; Italy has a governing party which is home to fascist throwbacks; while some“yellow vests” in France mighty more appropriately wear black shirts after recently being involved in anti-Semitic abuse of the French philosopher, Alain Finkielkraut; while the far right is capturing seats from Sweden to Spain. And watch with anxiety the coming elections to the European Parliament.

Twenty first century Project Hate can also be seen in the Anti-Semitic memes which accompany digital Nazism – even the live streaming of mass murders courtesy of multi-media outlets. Other shades of viral hatred – from anti-Semitism to homophobia and overt racism – readily and effortlessly morph from virtual reality into violence.

In his autobiography Zweig wrote that:

Man was separated by man on the grounds of absurd theories of blood, race and origins” – and so it is again today.

Zweig said:

The greatest curse brought down on us by technology is that it prevents us from escaping the present even for a brief time. Previous generations could retreat into solitude and seclusion when disaster struck; it was our fate to be aware of everything catastrophic happening anywhere in the world at the hour and the second when it happened.”

And that was the 1940s.

Now it is live streamed and in every living room and on every mobile device within seconds – including pre- arranged broadcast of mass shootings: St. Bartholomew’s Eve Massacres courtesy of Facebook and Google.

ISIS has used social media to express its genocidal intent and, in its recruitment, and propaganda newsletters and videos. 

The crucifixion and death of one young man – crucified for wearing a cross – was boastfully posted on the internet.

From the same town, local girls were taken as sex slaves. ISIS returned their body parts to the front door of their parents’ homes with a videotape of them being raped.

The internet is a new tool in the hands of dictatorships and non-state ideologues, intensifying the persecution of minorities.

In China the State uses digital technology to promote its atheistic opposition to religion but also to collect data against the observant religious adherent whom they see as a threat to their hegemony.

In Russia subversion of the internet is used to manipulate opinion and to traduce opposition.

And there is a direct correlation between freedom of religion or belief and censorship. Articles 18 and 19 of the UDHR.

There are 44 countries worldwide that control and censor the internet – and the five worst offenders are Saudi Arabia, China, Vietnam, Yemen and Qatar – while North Korea completely bans the internet.

But the Devil doesn’t have to have all the good tunes and just as the Gutenberg revolution of the printed word opened the pages of the Bible the web can also be a place where Faith is shared, and human dignity and rights promoted.

For good or bad it reaches every corner of the Globe and makes ever more urgent the challenge for religious leaders to use it to promote respect for difference and to better understand how Scriptures and teachings can be rapidly disseminated and distorted to sow division and hatred.

In 1942, in a presentiment of what lay ahead Zweig also remarked:

We are none of us very proud of our political blindness at that time and we are horrified to see where it has brought us.”

He saw how, in the face of indifference and the desire for a quiet life, the thin veneer that separates civilised values from mob rule very quickly cracked; describing how university professors were forced to scrub streets with their bare hands; devout Jews humiliated in their synagogues; apartments broken into and jewels torn out of the ears of trembling women – calling it Hitler’s most diabolical triumph.”

Today, persecuted faith-led communities should be natural allies of secularists in combatting neo-Nazis, but deeply intolerant “liberal” voices so despise religion that that they seek to eliminate it from political discourse and the public square. They both need to defend plurality and difference of religion and belief.

Dag Hammarskjold, a Christian, who served Secretary General of the United Nations from 1953-1961 said:

God does not die on the day when we cease to believe in a personal deity, but we die on the day when our lives cease to be illumined by the steady radiance, renewed daily, of a wonder, the source of which is beyond all reason,” 

and who said of the UN 

It wasn’t created to take mankind into paradise, but rather, to save humanity from hell.”

With the loss of 100 million lives, hellish ideologies made the twentieth century the bloodiest century in human history. It produced the four great murderers of the 20th century—Mao, Stalin, Hitler and Pol Pot— all united by their hatred of religious faith and liberal democracy.

Now, in the twenty-first century new forms of ideology – some claiming a religious legitimacy – have unleashed new forms of slaughter; and although the UDHR has acquired a normative character within general international law, there has never been universal approbation of Article 18 and the right of freedom of religion or belief remains a contested principle. Article 18 – a key human right and yet – is under attack in almost every corner of the world.

When first adopted by the UN General Assembly, the eight abstentions included the Soviet Union and Saudi Arabia – which argued that there was a conflict with Sharia Law – given sharp focus in Brunei this week.

In 1948 Jinnah’s Pakistan believed that there was compatibility between Article 18 and Islam– although, as I saw during a visit to Pakistan last November it is often honoured only in its breach.

Note that Open Doors say 80% of the persecution of Christians is the work of people who claim to be religious and most certainly do not subscribe to the principle of religious freedom for all.”

Repeating history, initial indifference to prejudice and discrimination – made worse by religious illiteracy – rapidly morphs into violence and persecution and then to crimes against humanity and even genocide.

84% of the world population has faith; a third are Christian. But, according to Pew Research Centre 74% of the world’s population live in the countries where there are violations of Article 18 at the hands of Islamists or Marxists.

2.4 billion people live in the Commonwealth —roughly one-third of the world’s population, spanning all six continents—95% of people in the Commonwealth profess a religious belief. Around 70% live with high or very high government restrictions on the right to freedom of religion and belief.

Worldwide, in every country where there are violations, an estimated 250 million Christians are persecuted with 24 of the 37 Anglican provinces in conflict or post-conflict areas.

Although Christians are persecuted in every country where there are violations of Article 18—from Syria and Iraq, to Sudan, Pakistan, China, Eritrea, Nigeria, Egypt, Iran, North Korea, and many other countries—Muslims, and others, suffer too, not least in the Sunni-Shia religious wars so reminiscent of 17th-century Europe.

In a village in Burma, where Buddhists have turned on Muslims, I visited a mosque burnt down the night before, with Muslim villagers driven out of a place where, for generations, they had lived alongside their Buddhist neighbours. In Rakhine State the Rohingyas have been subjected to appalling brutality along with the Christian Kachin. Now Burma proposes to restrict interfaith marriage and religious conversions.

Think too of the more than 1 million Muslim Uighurs who are detained in re-education camps in President Xi Jinping’s China– so reminiscent of Stalin’s gulags.

Article 18 is also about the right not to believe – such as Raif Badawi, the Saudi Arabian atheist and blogger sentenced to 1,000 public lashes for publicly expressing his atheism, described by the UN asa form of cruel and inhuman punishment”; or Alexander Aan,imprisoned in Indonesia for two years after saying he did not believe in God.

And the situation is getting worse.

In 2018, in Parliament, I hosted the launch of the Aid to the Church in Need biannual report on Global Religious Freedom in 196 countries. In 38 it found evidence of significant religious freedom violations and in 18 -including Eritrea, North Korea and Saudi Arabia – it has worsened.

I also attended the launch of the Open Doors 2018 World Watch List. It reports that over 3,000 Christians were killed for their faith in the reporting period; identified the 50 countries where it is most dangerous to be a Christian; and listed the countries where over 200 million Christians experience ahigh” level of persecution or worse.

Of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s 30 priority countries, listed in its latest Human Rights and Democracy Report, 24 are ranked on the 2018 World Watch List.

In the face of all this ACN says there is a curtain of indifference.”

It calls to mind the words of that great Pole, St. Maximilian Kolbe, murdered by the Nazis at Auschwitz, who said: The deadliest poison of our times is indifference.”  

Jonathan (Lord) Sacks, our former Chief Rabbi, insists that “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” But in the face of “one of the crimes against humanity of our time” he is “appalled at the lack of protest it has evoked.” 

This indifference is fed by ignorance.

As the BBC’s courageous chief international correspondent, Lyse Doucet, says: 

If you don’t understand religion—including the abuse of religion—it’s becoming ever harder to understand our world.”

In a valiant attempt to understand the relationship between foreign policy and religion the Foreign Secretary has @established an Inquiry into persecution of Christians.

Welcome though this is, it will be incapable of radically altering the appalling treatment of Christians unless it has within its mandate DFID’s aid policies and the asylum policies of the Home Office – both currently excluded from the Inquiry’s mandate.

Let me give some examples and describe how indifference to discrimination can lead to persecution and outright genocide.

Discrimination can range from last week’s news that Tajik authorities have implemented a new law barring children from attending religious services and the burning of thousands of calendars with Bible verses to the decision in Brunei to enforce strict Sharia law; to the report today that Iraq’s Parliament has introduced a Bill excluding Christian women from a new Bill recognising their depredations and suffering at the hands at ISIS.

Religious Discrimination in Eritrea leads to 5,000 people every month a – total of 350,000 people, 10% of the population, fleeing Eritrea. This directly plays into the migration crisis.

In Iran, it led to the arrest and detention of 114 Iranians in a single week for suspected proselytism.  It’s illegal to preach or to convert, and converts can spend a decade in prisons like Evin, known as the“black hole of evil”, where torture and abuse are commonplace.

The Iranian Constitution permits worship, but not for converts.

In November last, ITN News, reported on the handfuls of Iranians trying to make it to England in small boats, said that most they spoke to were Christian, some recently converted from Islam.

Ignorance can lead to absurd, unjust and discriminatory asylum decisions – like a recent Home Office refusal of an Iranian convert who was told by an official that Christianity was a religion of violence and if he was a true convert he shouldtrust God” and go back to Iran – and face the death penalty for apostasy.

Indifference and ignorance also turn a blind eye to aid policies which consolidate discrimination and worse.

Pakistan receives an average of £383,000 in British taxpayers’ money, each and every single day – £2.8 billion over 20 years. Yet freedom of religion and belief is systematically violated.

I have visited and written about the detention centres where thousands of fleeing Pakistani Christians have been incarcerated.

This exodus undermines the prospect of a diverse and respectful society and fails to harness the skills and commitment of ostracised people who are needed to drive down poverty, promote sustainability, and to create a good society.

Propping up a culture of impunity and degraded servility, leads to the murderers of the country’s Christian Minister for Minorities, Shahbaz Bhatti, never being brought to justice; and to an innocent woman, Asia Bibi, given the death sentence and wrongly jailed for nine years for so calledblasphemy.”

Despite the remarkably brave decision of the Supreme Court to affirm her innocence she has still been unable to leave the country, despite acquittal. This is a disgrace.

When I called for her to be offered asylum in the UK, Dr. Taj Hargey, a Muslim Imam based in Oxford, courageously wrote to The Telegraph, demanding that Asia Bibi be given asylum here and spoke of the deafening silence from British people of Pakistani origin and of“our collective shame in not preventing her cruel incarceration.

And this same cruelty leads to children being forced to watch their Christian parents being burnt alive in a kiln.

And if a country cannot bring to justice the killer of a Government Minister what chance do these children have of seeing their parents’ murderers brought to justice?

In Pakistan I heard testimonies of abduction, rape, the forced marriage of a nine-year-old, forced conversion, death sentences for so-called blasphemy.

In a left over from the caste system, menial jobs are reserved for Christians as street sweepers or latrine cleaners.

I recently raised the case of a 13-year-old, excluded from a classroom because he had touched the water supply in that classroom? He was beaten, and his mother was told he had no place in that school because he was only fit for menial and degrading jobs.

Such prejudice is reinforced by School text books funded by Saudi Arabia, and compulsory Quranic teachings in Punjab which demean and stigmatise minorities.

In November I visited some of the“colonies” – ghettos- on the periphery of cities like Islamabad. Here, Pakistan’s Christians live in festering and foul conditions without running water or basic amenities.

Think of South Africa’s apartheid shanty towns – but without the attendant mass movement protests by the Left.

Dirt floors in shacks without running water or electricity. Little education or health provision. Squalid and primitive conditions which are completely off the DFID radar.

No UK funds are targeted specially at these persecuted minorities.

When you question Ministers, they respond by saying, 

We do not collect disaggregated population data on minority groups.”   

Well, why not?

These are inevitably the most vulnerable of the vulnerable but, for DFID, ignorance is bliss.

When I asked about child labour from religious minorities in Pakistan I was told: “Child labour is widespread in Pakistan but there is a severe lack of data on the issue” – the data they don’t collect.

But, although they will now undertake a survey,“The information will not be broken down by religious status.”

Nor do they collect data on the girls from minorities who have been raped, forcefully converted and married against their will.

At least 1,000 women belonging to religious minorities, some of them minors, have been abducted, forcibly converted and often married to those very abductors.

From the very poorest sectors of society, they are easy targets for the perpetrators of sexual violence; while the law- enforcement agencies often show little or no interest in helping aggrieved parents to register a police case against the kidnappers.

Even if the case reaches the courts, the abducted are threatened and told that if they tell the court about their kidnappings, their parents and siblings will be killed, forcing them to admit in court that their conversion was voluntary.

In the past few weeks, there have been at least six such cases, which I have drawn to the Government’s attention.

These include a 13-year-old Christian girl, Sadaf Masih, who was kidnapped, forcibly converted and married on 6 February, in Punjab.

On 20 March, two teenaged Hindu girls, Reena, aged 15, and Raveena, aged 13, were similarly kidnapped, forcibly converted and married within a matter of hours, in Sindh.

The kidnappers were married already, with children, but that that did not prevent them from forcibly marrying those girls too. In the worst cases, after sexual and physical abuse, the kidnappers sell the girls into slavery and send them to brothels.

And then there is Pakistan’s corruption.

After government bureaucracy and poor infrastructure, the World Economic Forum identifies corruption as the third-greatest problem for companies doing business in Pakistan.

I recently raised the case of the £41 million Khyber Puktonkhua Education Sector programme, amidst allegations of ghost schools and phantom projects.

Corruption affects all Pakistanis, but it disproportionately affects vulnerable populations—the poor, women, and religious minorities and the Dalit Solidarity Network are right to recommend that DFID should prepare vulnerability mapping tools, inclusion monitoring tools and methods for inclusive response programming.

It is a disgrace that when Christian churches and NGOs seek funds, DFID says no because they say they are “religion blind.”

Paradoxically, Mohammed Ali Jinnah, Pakistan’s illustrious   Founder said the country’s minorities being given equal citizenship – and even insisted that the white in the nation’s flag should represent the country’s minorities.

In that same tradition, Salman Taseer, the Muslim Governor of Punjab, a friend of Shahbaz Bhatti, and also assassinated for speaking out on behalf of Asia Bibi, once said:

My observation on minorities: A man or nation is judged by how they support those weaker than them not how they lean on those stronger.”

In honouring the memory of Jinnah, Bhatti and Taseer Britain’s DFID needs to ensure that some of the £383,000 we pour in to Pakistan every day reaches the persecuted minorities while the Home Office needs to reassess its country classification and admit that discrimination is not a word that does justice to the systematic persecution of Christians in Pakistan.

DFID should reflect on the work of Professor Brian J. Grim into the link between religious freedom and diversity with prosperity.

The poorest basket case countries are those who discriminate or persecute while the most prosperous, happy and buoyant countries are those who learn to respect difference and uphold religious freedom.

In 2014 Professor Grim examined economic growth in 173 countries and considered 24 different factors that could impact economic growth. He found that,

religious freedom contributes to better economic and business outcomes and that advances in religious freedom”, contribute to,successful and sustainable enterprises that benefit societies and individuals.”

Where Article 18 is trampled on, the reverse is also true, as a cursory examination of the hobbled economies of countries such as Pakistan, North Korea and Eritrea immediately reveals.

Driving out talented committed minorities deprives a country of ingenuity and skills but also adds to the global migration crisis.

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