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Volume 718: debated on Monday 22 March 2010


Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether they will make representations to the Government of Egypt regarding recent attacks on Christian communities and reports of discrimination against religious minorities.

My Lords, the United Kingdom Government condemn all instances of discrimination and persecution against individuals and groups because of their religion or belief. In January, my honourable friend Ivan Lewis, Foreign Office Minister for North Africa and the Middle East, raised the subject of the fatal shooting in Nag Hammadi with the Egyptian Minister of the Interior. In February, during the United Nations Human Rights Council universal periodic review of Egypt, we encouraged further Egyptian efforts to reduce and prevent discrimination in society on the grounds of an individual’s religion or belief. The protection of human rights is a central component of Egypt’s ongoing dialogue with the European Union.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that encouraging reply, but is he aware that, while welcome concessions have recently been made with regard to the Baha’i community, great concern remains among the Coptic Christians, who have recently, on 12 March, suffered more violent attacks? Is he also aware that the recent report of the US Commission on International Religious Freedom claims that the Egyptian Government’s,

“respect for freedoms of … religion remained poor”?

Will Her Majesty’s Government therefore urge the Egyptian Government to do much more to protect the security and fundamental religious freedoms of all their citizens, as they are obliged to do under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights?

My Lords, in 2008 we welcomed the decision of the Egyptian courts to allow the Baha’i to have identification documents that give no indication of their religious affiliation. We are encouraging further efforts and we welcome the pursuit and subsequent arrests in respect of the fatal shootings at Nag Hammadi. While the Egyptian Government have accepted some 111 of the 165 recommendations made in the universal periodic review, we continue to press our concerns and stand ready to support Egypt and its Government in taking forward any of the UPR recommendations.

My Lords, will my noble friend confirm that Muslims in Egypt who convert to another religion are routinely subjected to arrest and torture and are prevented from taking refuge in any other country? While I recognise the work that the Government have done on this matter, would they consider inviting our colleagues in Europe to discuss joint action?

My Lords, I cannot confirm the detail on my noble and learned friend’s question, but I know that there is an issue. The European Union has an ongoing dialogue with the Government of Egypt on human rights; the European Neighbourhood Policy discusses human rights and there was a meeting on 10 and 11 March. I will certainly take up his points and respond to him.

My Lords, the Minister mentioned the EU’s dialogue with Egypt on democracy and human rights, but what is Britain doing to promote democracy and human rights in that country? Egypt is clearly stuck—in many ways, it has gone backwards in the past 10 years—on these issues. Are we working actively with the EU? Are we providing aid and technical assistance ourselves to help to strengthen civil institutions in Egypt?

My Lords, as I said, the European Union has an ongoing dialogue with the Government of Egypt, as do the United Kingdom Government. The European Neighbourhood Policy action plan creates a political sub-committee to take forward and provide a framework for dialogue on human rights. We were active in the universal periodic review of Egypt in February. We called for the Egyptian Government to review and amend legislation on freedom of association, freedom of expression, freedom of assembly, and religion, and to ensure full compatibility with Egypt’s international obligations—which we share—as a member of the United Nations Human Rights Council.

My Lords, the Minister will be aware of reports that, since 1981, no fewer than 400 Christians have been assassinated in Egypt, at an average of 13 a year. How many convictions have there been of those committing such atrocities? He will have seen the report that, as recently as 22 February in Dayrut, a Christian was shot 30 times and his head was paraded around the village. Four Muslims were in court about that incident. The result is in—acquittal. What comments does the Minister make on those facts?

My Lords, my first comment is that I am not aware of the detail of the case that the noble Lord raises, but I shall certainly look into it. It is true that in the Coptic Christian community there is a sense of being under greater and greater threat. I am told that this has come about in the past few years and that some years ago relations were much better between the Sunni Muslim majority and the Coptic Christian minority. The situation has been exacerbated by some of the issues raised by noble Lords. We continue to press the Government of Egypt on all occasions, both through the European Union and individually, to recognise human rights and the need to promote democracy. That is in the interests of that country and it is the acknowledged wish of that country. We must help Egypt to achieve it in a way that saves rather than squanders lives.

Will my noble friend confirm that the Westminster Foundation for Democracy has been active over the past few years in working with the Egyptian Parliament on programmes to promote democracy? Will he discuss with his colleagues in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Department for International Development ways in which the work of the WFD can be expanded and developed?

My noble friend makes an important point. It is at the level of parliamentary exchanges that we have had an influence. One of the great problems in dealing with any country is that many problems are not at parliamentary level but at rural or village level, where understanding and tolerance are in shorter rather than greater supply. However, I take on board the suggestion that my noble friend makes and will raise it with my colleagues in the Foreign Office.

Will the Minister accept that we on our side associate ourselves strongly with the concerns raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Cox? He will know that there are more than 10 million Christians with Coptic connections in Egypt, so we are dealing with a major problem. Will he comment on the report that one reason why the tensions rose so rapidly in Nag Hammadi was incitement by a sheikh in a nearby mosque? If so, that is a serious matter. Could he comment on it?

Alas, I feel somewhat naked in your Lordships’ Chamber, inasmuch as I have no particular knowledge of that incident either. I shall investigate and respond. In general, what we wish to see is a greater willingness on all sides not to inflame situations that already have enough tension in them. I am not aware of the case that the noble Lord raises, but I shall investigate and respond as soon as possible.

My Lords, could Her Majesty’s Government encourage the Egyptian Government to be both proactive and positive in affirming the citizenship of all citizens, by which the security of minorities can be assured?

My Lords, I would love to be able to give the right reverend Prelate the assurance that he seeks. We do press the Egyptian Government, who have taken the matter seriously and offered assurances as recently as January, in a meeting with my honourable friend Ivan Lewis, about protection of the Christian community. We have to translate those commitments into action on the ground and we continue to make that endeavour on all occasions.