Bishop of Coventry focuses on sexual violence, religious persecution and Syria in Lords response to Queen’s Speech

“Notable cases have caught public attention, but they are the tip of a dark and deadly iceberg of often hidden harm to women, part and parcel of a wider picture of human rights abuse, societal vulnerability and underdevelopment that needs our persistent attention”- Bishop of Coventry, 11/6/14.

On 11th June 2014 in the ninth and final contribution to the debate on the Queen’s Speech from the Lords Spiritual, the Bishop of Coventry, Rt Rev Christopher Cocksworth, spoke on foreign affairs. He focused on n violence and those suffering persecution for their religious beliefs. The Bishop commended the Government for its efforts to combat sexual violence, but questioned the Government’s focus on the OIC-led defamation of religion initiative. He also pressed the Government to help resolve the problem of political factionalism within the Syrian opposition.

13.10 Bishop of Coventry

The Lord Bishop of Coventry: My Lords, I should like to comment on four themes of the Minister’s inspiring opening speech. First, on gender-based violence, I join the noble Lord, Lord Collins, and other noble Lords in commending the Government’s excellent work, in particular that of the Foreign Secretary. As we have heard, gender-based violence is pervasive, not only in the extreme evil of wartime rape but in other appalling examples of oppression that have been mentioned, including recent incidents in Nigeria, Pakistan, Sudan, Somalia and, if I may add, the recent gang rape and subsequent hanging of three young girls in India.

Notable cases have caught public attention, but they are the tip of a dark and deadly iceberg of often hidden harm to women, part and parcel of a wider picture of human rights abuse, societal vulnerability and underdevelopment that needs our persistent attention. It is therefore good that the International Development (Gender Equality) Act 2014 now means that no matter who is in government, the Department for International Development will have a legal duty to consider gender in its decisions. However, as noted by the International Development Committee in its report last year:

“Too few DFID programmes address the underlying social norms that drive violence”.

I know that these are matters of serious concern to the Secretary of State for International Development, so it would be good to hear from the Minister what steps are planned to intensify the department’s attention to socially sanctioned gender-based violence, including the measures that are being taken to involve grassroots organisations, religious communities among them, in its programming and funding.

Secondly, on freedom of religion and belief, I am grateful for the reference made by the noble Baroness, Lady Morgan, to the persecution of Christians, but of course there are other religious groupings—Baha’is in Iran and Muslims in Burma, to name just two—that also face severe violence and the threat of violence to adhere to majority religious norms. I am very grateful for both the renewed parliamentary attention to issues of religious freedom and the commitment that the Government have shown to protecting this most basic right. However, I am concerned that the Government may be investing too much energy and expectation in the OIC-led initiative on defamation of religions. I hope that the Government are alert to the danger that the concept of defamation of religion may provide a cloak under which a state acts to repress both religions and individuals who, in expressing their own faith and belief, with no intention of offending another faith or inciting hatred, may none the less be perceived to have contravened the tenets of the majority religion.

The third theme is Syria, a land once exemplary in its religious toleration but one where women now suffer the violence of war, including sexually. Three years on, the conflict is a deadly stalemate. The Government’s efforts to alleviate humanitarian needs are commendable but, as they recognise, a political solution remains the only way out of this conflict. I would welcome their view on whether Friends of Syria could do more to discourage the political factionalism that has crippled the Syrian National Council and caused a dangerous separation between the external political leadership, the armed insurgency fighting on their behalf and local communities traumatised by the ravages of war. For Syria to stand a chance of a better future, the international community needs to do more to develop a bottom-up and inclusive peace process. This must include all religious communities. Their voices need to be heard, not marginalised.

Fourthly, there is the 70th anniversary of the D-day landings. I agree entirely with the noble Baroness the Minister, who said that the anniversary struck the chords that define our national identity and should determine our foreign relations: liberty for the enslaved; justice for the oppressed; prosperity and peace for all; reconciliation between enemies; a common commitment to build a better, fairer future; and a determination never to return to the horrors of war between our nations.

These are themes that we have the opportunity to celebrate again with even more vigour in 2015, when we mark the 70th anniversary of the end of the war and acknowledge the trauma of its closing months for armed personnel on every side and for the inhabitants of German and Japanese cities. They are principles of peaceful living and practices for reconciliation that address the deep causes of the oppression of women, the persecution of religious minorities, and of war itself. They give a vision for our role in the world, for which the noble Lord, Lord Triesman, called.


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