Bishop of St Albans: My role is to speak up for other faiths as well as Christianity
This week, which marks the annual Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca, the Bishop of St Albans writes on the importance of interfaith dialogue, saying there is little doubt that religious persecution is increasing around the globe.
I am sometimes asked why I use my role in the House of Lords to speak up for other faiths as well as Christianity.
In response, I usually describe the nature of the Established Church and explain that bishops are not just concerned with the interests of Anglicans, but seek to serve and care for all people and especially those whose voices are suppressed or marginalised, whether in England or elsewhere.
The Bench of Bishops in the House of Lords is the only group which can claim something akin to a ‘constituency’. Each one of us serves in a diocese and as such we are out and about on a daily basis. We have a presence on the ground in virtually every community; many of our churches run food banks, lunch clubs, toddler groups, have bereavement visitors and even debt advice centres.
Within the Diocese of St Albans, which covers Bedfordshire and Hertfordshire, I am in regular contact with the Muslim, Hindu, Sikh, Jewish and Buddhist communities which live here. This week, which sees the beginning of the annual Hajj in Mecca and Eid al-Adha, I will send greetings to my Muslim friends during their religious observances and I will keep them and their concerns in mind as I engage with matters in the House of Lords.
An additional element is the fact that the Church of England is part of the Anglican Communion, comprising nearly 90 million people in more than 160 countries.
Through visits to dioceses in other parts of the Communion and meeting the many Anglican bishops who pass through London, I regularly receive first-hand briefings about the conflicts, famines and epidemics which are devastating various parts of the world. Inevitably, we talk about other world faiths, religious persecution and the importance of good interfaith relations.
There is little doubt that religious persecution is increasing around the globe, as was documented by the recently published Bishop of Truro’s Independent Review for the Foreign Secretary of FCO Support for Persecuted Christians. The movement of Christians, for example, from the Middle East makes sobering reading as the historic communities, many dating back to the early centuries of the Christian era, are in rapid decline.
However, as well as highlighting the persecution of Christians, I have also tabled questions about the genocide of tribal groups in Myanmar, especially the Rohingyas, who are mainly Muslims. I have not only heard of their plight through the media, but also through friends in my diocese who visit Myanmar regularly and have hosted a number of Burmese people here in the UK, including a Christian doctor from the north of the country. His accounts reveal the extent to which the persecution is affecting not only the Rakhine state (with its significant Muslim minority) but also the Kachin State in the north (which comprises one-third Christian).
I have also raised the plight of the Uighur people in the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region. It is widely reported that over one million Uighurs are being held in what the Chinese authorities call ‘vocational training facilities’ but which the Uighurs refer to as ‘detainment camps’. It is thought that these people are undergoing forced re-education programmes in order to counter extremism, an explanation which Uighurs vigorously refute.
Another aspect of my work in the House of Lords is to ensure that the religious dimension of legislation and other issues is taken fully into account. As an increasing number of people in Britain self-identify as non-religious, it is sometimes argued that religion is not as important as it was in the past. However, in the wider world, 84% of the global population self-identifies as religious and it is arguable that the world is getting more religious rather than less.
Religious issues impinge directly upon many of the debates in Parliament and sometimes affect legislative proposals. Back in 2014, during the Russian annexation of Crimea, I was surprised that the House of Lords’ debate focused almost exclusively on the military and economic factors. Yet anyone who knew the history and the peoples of that part of the world would have been aware that you could not understand what was happening without taking religion into account, especially the expansionist intentions of the Russian Orthodox Church.
Respect for all
With rising levels of antisemitism and Islamophobia here in the United Kingdom and other flashpoints abroad, such as the events unfolding this week in Jammu and Kashmir, it is crucial that an informed House of Lords explores events and issues from every perspective, including the religious dimension. Working with other peers, the bishops are keen to play our part in helping Parliament engage with all citizens as we seek to build a flourishing and inclusive society.
Rt Rev Bishop of St Albans is a non-affiliated member of the House of Lords.