Freedom of Religion and Conscience

My Lords, we are extremely fortunate to live in a country where freedom of religion is not just accepted but respected and acknowledged as a key pillar of a free and healthy society. People from a whole range of faiths live alongside each other, as well as with those who do not consider themselves religious. I think it is fair to say that, in general, this has worked very well.

Since arriving here many years ago, I have always appreciated the freedom afforded to me to practise my own religion of Islam. In religious matters, I think that we have the right balance in our country. While the Church of England is our official state religion, others are able to flourish without fear of persecution. We should all be proud of what we have achieved. We are indeed a role model, although, of course, we are not a perfect society.

The main commonality between people of all religions is that they cherish the sense of unity provided to them by their faith, a sense of belonging and endearment that often carries over into a sense of comfort and stability on a regional or national level. I have always maintained that there are more similarities between people than differences and nowhere is this truer than in faith. Unfortunately, in some parts of the world, certain religious communities are undermined and persecuted for their beliefs. The United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights provides for freedom of religious expression, yet too often a growing number of individuals are denied this fundamental right. I am not naive to the fact that evil is sometimes conducted in the name of religion, but these minorities are merely using their manipulative interpretations of faith for their own gain. The message that we are calling for to be promoted here today will help to tackle this destructive behaviour, which is detrimental not just to religious communities but to their relationships with others who live alongside them.

In a number of countries, religious bodies undertake voluntary work in a range of sectors, helping to relieve pressure that would otherwise be placed on the state. Perhaps most notably, they provide high-quality educational institutions for children and healthcare facilities which have helped change the lives of many people in different parts of the world.

I am pleased that our Government continue to maintain a strong commitment to the promotion of freedom of religion, as outlined in Human Rights and Democracy: The 2011 Foreign & Commonwealth Office Report. Using our embassies and high commissions to engage with Governments around the world is undoubtedly the most effective way of making an impact on the ground. The United Kingdom has trade and historic ties with a number of countries overseas, particularly countries in the Commonwealth, and we can use our influence in a gentle and appropriate manner. Going through such channels will help us reach the leaders who can make a difference.

I was very pleased to see the Foreign Office join the Canadian High Commission in London last month to hold a conference on this very subject. A number of potential measures were discussed. There was a general consensus that we shall have to play a greater part in promoting harmony between people both within our own communities and across the world. I agree with this sentiment. Governments and political leaders will have to work alongside religious leaders, civil society groups and, in some cases, the media to help promote good relationships between people of different religions.