Bishop of Coventry speaks on religious freedom and conflict resolution during Queen’s Speech debate

On Thursday 28th May during the debate on the Queen’s Speech, the Bishop of Coventry, Rt Rev Christopher Cocksworth, spoke about our moral debt to other nations, conflict resolution and freedom of religion and belief worldwide. The text of his speech is below and can also be watched online here.

Bp Coventry May 2015The Lord Bishop of Coventry: My Lords, indebtedness is debilitating, and living beyond our means is irresponsible. We know that our Government have committed themselves afresh to a long-term strategic economic plan to deal with that on a financial level, but another sort of indebtedness is liberating and is fundamental to our proceedings today. It is a recognition of our moral debt to others and the fulfilment of our responsibilities to serve the common good, not only of our one nation but of the one world.

Her Majesty’s Government’s determination to play,

“a leading role in global affairs”,

will be served by honouring the moral obligations that belong to us as a P5 country with a long history of world influence, a network of relationships in Europe and with the Commonwealth and the United States, and still an impressive reach of soft power.

Financial debt prompts caution and stifles confidence. Our moral debt to our global neighbours demands a bold engagement with the world. It calls for confidence not only in our capacity to bring good to others but in the return which that investment in the needs of the world, especially where suffering abounds, brings to our own security and prosperity—a point well made by the noble Earl, Lord Howe, in his opening speech. It is the sort of role that the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay, noted in her impressive foreword to the Foreign Office’s most recent

Human Rights and Democracy

report, which said that,

“the wellbeing of others is an integral part of our national interest”.

I offer the congratulations of this Bench to the noble Earl and the noble Baroness on their appointments.

Tackling the international challenges identified in the gracious Speech demands determined campaigns to build peace and stability on many levels. I will mention only two. First, there is freedom of religion and belief—one of the most basic of rights, yet one of the least respected. Violence in the name of religion is at a six-year high, with three-quarters of the world’s population living with restrictions on the faith or belief that they can choose or practise openly. The previous Government’s commitment to religious freedom and human rights is worthy of respect, but the leading role in global affairs to which they aspired will require even greater efforts by the new Government. Is the Minister able to confirm whether matters of freedom of religion and belief will be included as a specific priority in the FCO business plan and the criteria used by DfID?

It will be vital in the coming months to ensure that domestic debates about the role of human rights in this country do not impinge in any way on our advocacy of religious freedom worldwide, so I would be glad of the Minister’s assurance that Her Majesty’s Government will continue to speak out promptly, clearly and loudly against any acts of violence committed in the name of religion, as well as related incitement to violence and discrimination in law and in practice.

My second theme is reconciliation after conflict. Attending the anniversary of the bombing of Dresden and Würzburg earlier this year and reflecting in your Lordships’ House on the destruction of German cities gave me opportunity to consider how far we have come with reconciliation in Europe. This point was made by the noble Lord, Lord Triesman, and others. More recently, the visit of His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales to the Republic of Ireland, as noted by the noble Viscount, Lord Bridgeman, was a profound and very moving sign of the progress made towards a sound peace built on lasting reconciliation. Nevertheless, even as we remember the work of reconciliation in Europe over the last 70 years, the conflict in Ukraine reminds us that—as we know—we cannot take peace in our continent for granted.

As we move towards a period of national debate on our place in Europe itself, we have an important opportunity to recognise and celebrate the progress that we have made with our European partners to heal the wounds of history and to reflect on what we might achieve together for peace in those places where the road to reconciliation is much less travelled. Those of course are places where the legacy left by European powers has not been wholly positive and our moral debt is the larger for it, and where peace will require a bold vision and confident action.

We need to invest in long-term solutions to conflict and to motivate other countries to do so. The noble Lord, Lord Ashdown, set out a panoramic vision with much greater learning than I possibly could, but perhaps I might focus by way of example on Iraq, and on one matter in particular. When, as we hope, the forces of ISIS are pushed back and collapse, a bold and confident international community will be needed to hold the Iraqi Government to their pledges of inclusivity.

This Government’s stated support for long-term political reform in Iraq is timely, but can the Minister set out what practical steps Her Majesty’s Government intend to take to assist the Government of Iraq in their efforts towards reconciliation in that country? Would the Minister agree with me that unless there is a strategic plan for reconciliation, the country’s future looks bleak?

I am always moved by Her Majesty’s prayer for God’s blessing to rest on our counsels. When I reflect on what sort of,

“leading role in global affairs”,

might meet with the blessing of God, the words of Christ, “Blessed are the peacemakers”, come to mind. Commitment to human rights, including the right to religious freedom, builds stable societies. Working for reconciliation following violence ensures that violence is not repeated. Meeting our moral debt to suffering peoples and struggling nations is investment in peace—and peacebuilding is the highest form of global leadership.

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Baroness Anelay of St Johns) (Con): [Extract]… As well as playing a leading role in the global anti-ISIL coalition, we are working hard to degrade ISIL’s flow of finance and foreign fighters, and to counter the twisted narrative that ISIL promulgates around the world. As I always do, I listened to every word of the noble Lord, Lord Alton, when he talked about the depravities of people who use the excuse of religion to carry out almost unbelievable atrocities. I would also say that our work includes the reconciliation work referred to by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Coventry. We will work tirelessly with partners and the United Nations for political solutions in Syria and Iraq. Over the past year we have contributed significant aid to Iraq and Syria, and we will continue to do so. That is vital not only to relieve the acute suffering of the Iraqi and Syrian peoples, but to protect British nationals at home and abroad from this grave threat….


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