Christians: Persecution - Question for Short Debate

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords am 7:33 pm ar 25 Mawrth 2024.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Photo of Lord Moylan Lord Moylan Chair, Built Environment Committee, Chair, Built Environment Committee 7:33, 25 Mawrth 2024

My Lords, it is a privilege to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Foster of Aghadrumsee. I will offer a few reflections of my own.

When I was growing up in the 1960s and 1970s, I felt that we had reached a point where religious persecution had come to an end. On the whole, there was no persecution of Christian belief, certainly in the West, so I and a lot of others were rather surprised that, when John Paul II was elected Pope in 1978, he quite quickly expressed the worldview that he saw the Church as still being subject to persecution. It took some time to think that through. If you grew up in Poland, I suppose you would see things rather differently from how I saw things growing up somewhat later than John Paul II. If you saw the persecution of the Church by Nazis and later under communism, you would have a very different view. Famously, he created an astonishingly prodigious number of saints during his time as Pope, many of them martyrs of the 20th century. I think that spoke very strongly to him. One needs to see this in a broader sense.

While the noble Baroness spoke largely of persecution in the third world—if one is still correct in referring to it as the third world—I will speak about the persecution of Christianity in the West. The persecution that John Paul II was familiar with growing up abated considerably as a result of the fall of the Iron Curtain, but that does not mean it has gone away. In fact, it is present in Europe in a new and virulent form and has spread west. We now see a very large number of attacks on churches in western Europe, prodigiously in France but also in Germany and Spain. We have even seen priests murdered in their churches in France and Spain in the last few years. In Europe, 852 hate crimes were identified in 2022 by the Vienna-based Observatory on Intolerance and Discrimination Against Christians, with attacks on places of worship, symbols and institutions. That represented a 44% increase. Arson attacks against churches in Europe were up by 75% in 2022.

It is salutary to turn briefly to Canada, where in the last few years 100 churches, I believe all of them Catholic, have been torched and burned to the ground. That arose from a story that the Catholic Church had been involved in the past in some form of creating mass graves of native children. That led to a considerable level of hostility, which expressed itself in these church burnings. On closer examination, the evidence to support those claims seems to have been greatly exaggerated at the very least. This was in Canada—a western, liberal country.

According to the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, there have been 341 incidents across 43 US states since May 2021. These are just against Catholic churches; there are also incidents of attacks against African American churches and Protestant churches. You can find at least a dozen such attacks on Catholic churches on Wikipedia. The way we think about these things is quite curious; when, in looking for this evidence, I typed into Google “Church attacks USA”, I got back something that said, “Did you mean ‘Church attacks us’?”—it assumed that the Church was attacking us, rather than churches being attacked in the USA. That shows a certain form of bias.

It is important to think about where these attacks are coming from. In France and possibly other parts of Europe, they appear to be associated with Muslims, often illegal immigrants or people in a state of uncertainty who are not settled in that local society. In Canada, they appear to be associated with stories about mass graves of native children. In the United States—I may be touching on a sensitive point here—they appear to be correlated with arguments about abortion and seem to be coming from what might be called a certain strand of liberalism attacking the churches.

That is one of the things that concerns me very greatly, because it is something relatively new and is a matter of considerable concern. We have been free of that, but what starts in America ends up here. Indeed, as an aside, apart from Brexit, I can hardly think of a single original idea that we have produced in Britain that we have not imported from the United States in the last 30 years. I hope it will not happen here, but we need to be wary, because these culture war issues have clearly generated attacks in the United States, and that could come in this direction.

Finally, we badge our international efforts on this subject under the term “freedom of religion or belief”. That is what we advocate and that is what we fight for, to a degree, at least—and my noble friend the Minister is, I am sure, going to answer the question posed by the noble Baroness, as to the extent to which the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office does that. However, that is what we do when we do it: we badge it as freedom of religion or belief. That is a legal and philosophical principle. It is, in its own terms, wholly admirable, but it is also universal and it does not reflect or recognise the particular cultural heritage of this country, which is indeed a Christian heritage, as evidenced by the presence of Bishops on the Benches over here.

It is possibly the wrong question, but I ask only this: is it too much that we might see ourselves not only as international advocates of that universal principle but as particular defenders of Christianity in the rest of the world?