House debates

Monday, 2 May 2016

Grievance Debate

Religious Tolerance

5:37 pm

Photo of Kelvin ThomsonKelvin Thomson (Wills, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Australia has long exhibited an admirable level of religious tolerance and provided for freedom of religious expression. People of all faiths—and none—are free to express their views. Long may it remain so. Regrettably, this is not true for many countries around the world, and I believe that we need to do more to secure freedom of religious expression everywhere. Most certainly, we should not turn a blind eye to breaches of this fundamental human right and meekly accept that 'they do things differently there'.

The 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights contains 30 articles. Article 18 states:

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.

The great Eleanor Roosevelt, who chaired the drafting committee, argued that freedom of religion was one of the four essential freedoms. But Article 18 is frequently disregarded. A report by Aid to the Church in Need concluded that, of 196 countries around the world, 81 of them, or 41 per cent, are places where religious freedom is impaired or is in decline. Of the others, 18 per cent were 'of concern', while the remaining 41 per cent were not of concern.

I commend Prince Charles for speaking out, as he has done, against what he describes as the 'horrendous and heartbreaking' persecution of religious minorities around the world. He says:

We have learnt with mounting despair of the expulsion of Christians, Muslims and Yazidis from towns and cities that their ancestors have occupied for centuries.

Describing religion as central to our future as a free society, he says the events in Iraq and Syria have been horrendous, and he says:

Sadly, incidents of violence in Iraq and Syria are not isolated. They are found throughout some—though not all—of the Middle East, in some African nations and in many countries across Asia.

He has called on governments to do everything they can to promote the upholding of article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. He also said:

… rather than remaining silent, faith leaders have, it seems to me, a responsibility to ensure that people within their own tradition respect people from other faith traditions.

I also endorse the comments by Pope Francis on this topic:

Today we are dismayed to see how in the Middle East and elsewhere in the world many of our brothers and sisters are persecuted, tortured and killed for their faith in Jesus. In this third world war, waged piecemeal, which we are now experiencing, a form of genocide is taking place, and it must end.

The Archbishop of Canterbury has stated that the most common feature of Anglicanism worldwide is that of being persecuted. In Libya, ISIS has beheaded Eritrean Christians and Egyptian Copts. In 1914, Christians made up a quarter of the Middle East population. A century later, they are less than five per cent.

Prince Charles describes Christians as the most persecuted religious minority, but, as he recognises, there are many others. In Burma mosques have been set on fire and Muslim villagers driven from villages where they have lived for generations alongside Buddhist neighbours. Burma has been considering restrictions on interfaith marriage and religious conversions. The Baha'is are persecuted in Iran. In territory controlled by Islamic State the Yazidis have experienced mass murder. Three thousand Yazidi girls in Islamic State hands have suffered rape and abuse. Five hundred young children have been captured and are being trained as killing machines to fight their own people.

There is also persecution of people of no belief, again in flagrant breach of Article 18. The Saudi Arabian blogger Raif Badawi was sentenced to 1,000 public lashes for daring to publicly express his atheism. Alexander Aan was imprisoned in Indonesia for two years after saying he did not believe in God.

I am indebted to Middle East Concern for providing me with information about current cases of the persecution of Christians which I want to share with the House. Two cases relate to the detention of two Sudanese men by the Sudanese National Intelligence and Security Services. Mr Telahoon Nogosi Kassa Rata and the Reverend Hassan Abduraheem Kodi Taour have been detained solely for the peaceful exercise of their religious beliefs, which is their right under international law. Sudan should release these men, and it should put an end to the harassment and abuse of Christians in Sudan.

The other current cases I want to mention are in Turkey. In 2011 the Foundation of Protestant Churches in Istanbul made an official application to the Istanbul government for the use of an old church building in Pendik in Istanbul. But the Istanbul authorities have given them the run-around for the past five years, thereby stopping the Protestants from making use of a public place of worship.

Also in Turkey, in 2007, at Malatya, three employees of the Zirve Christian publishing house were attacked, tortured and murdered by five Muslim assailants armed with knives. The suspected perpetrators were caught at the scene and their trial commenced in 2007. But nine years later it continues to go around in circles and there is no justice for the victims' families. Even worse, the five have been released, making the small Christian community in Turkey feel highly vulnerable. If the Turkish administration were genuine about protecting religious minorities, this trial would have concluded long ago.

I also want to make particular mention of the situation in Pakistan. Pakistan's blasphemy law states that anyone found to have defiled the name of Mohammed in writing or speech, including by innuendo or insinuation, directly or indirectly, should be punished with death. It dates back to colonial times, but it was rarely used until about 20 years ago. According to a report in Fairfax Media in March, at least 65 people, including lawyers, defendants and judges, have been murdered over blasphemy allegations since 1990. These laws are often used to settle personal scores or to target minorities. Last year a Christian couple were beaten to death and burned in a brick kiln in Pakistan for allegedly desecrating the Koran. In 2011 two politicians who questioned the blasphemy laws were shot dead.

Successive governments of Pakistan have made an appalling job of protecting religious freedom and minorities and combating religious violence. Indeed, as Christina Lamb pointed out in The Australian on 4 April, they have promoted it, backing the Afghan Taliban for years. When Taliban gunmen stormed a school in Peshawar in December 2014 and massacred over 140 people, including 132 schoolchildren, the Pakistan authorities vowed they would put a stop to it. But did they tackle the root causes of extremism, like religiously bigoted school textbooks and Saudi funded madrasahs? No, they did not. So it is that a suicide bomber in Pakistan recently blew up dozens of children in a Pakistani park, most of them Muslim. What perverted teaching is this? What arrogance, what religious conceit, made this man think his life worth those of dozens of others? Christina Lamb says the percentage of Pakistan's population made up of religious minorities has fallen from 15 per cent to less than four per cent. There are now about 2.5 million Christians, about 1.6 per cent of the population.

In July last year, there was a first-class discussion of freedom of religion in Britain's House of Lords, on a motion moved by Lord Alton of Liverpool. He said the international community needs to have a more consistent approach to defending article 18. He said:

We denounce some countries while appeasing others who directly enable jihad through financial support or the sale of arms. Western powers are seen as hypocrites when our business interests determine how offended we are by gross human rights abuses.

He noted Saudi Arabia as an example of this. He also took to task a UK foreign office representative who had told him his role was to represent Britain's commercial and security interests and that religious freedom was a domestic matter in which he did not want to get involved. Lord Alton disagreed vehemently, saying there is a direct connection with Britain's security interests, not least with millions of displaced refugees and migrants now fleeing religious persecution. He said the empirical research on the crossover between freedom of religion and belief and a nation's stability and security is that, where article 18 is trampled on, economic performance is poor also. Just think about North Korea or Eritrea.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the Christian theologian who was executed by the Nazis, said:

We have been silent witnesses of evil deeds … We have learnt the arts of equivocation and pretence.

The world was able to get rid of the detested apartheid regime by imposing sanctions on South Africa. We should not continue on with 'business as usual' with countries which trample all over article 18 and turn a blind eye to, or actively engage in, the persecution of Christians and other religious minorities.