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Egypt: Religious Minorities

Volume 724: debated on Tuesday 18 January 2011

Question

Asked By

To ask Her Majesty's Government whether they will make representations to the Government of Egypt to ensure adequate protection of all religious minorities, following the recent killings of Christians in Alexandria

My Lords, as my fellow Minister, Alistair Burt said on 1 January, we were deeply saddened by the attack, which was clearly designed to provoke further violence and division between the Egyptian Christian and Muslim communities. We welcome President Mubarak's appeals for national unity and send our sincere condolences to all those involved. We regularly make clear to the Egyptian Government the importance that we place on religious tolerance and eliminating all legal provisions and policies that discriminate against different religious communities.

My Lords, in thanking the Minister for his sympathetic reply, I take this opportunity to congratulate him on his birthday today.

Is the noble Lord aware that the attack on Coptic Christians, in which at least 21 people were killed and 79 injured, was but the latest in a series of attacks that seem to be intensifying? There is also great dismay in Egypt that the perpetrators have not been called to account. Will Her Majesty's Government therefore make representations to the Egyptian Government, which is a member of the UN Human Rights Council, to do more to fulfil their obligations to protect all their citizens from violence and to ensure religious freedom for all religious minorities in Egypt today?

I thank the noble Baroness for her kind congratulations. Of course, if the Monday Sitting continues, my birthday will have to wait.

To answer the noble Baroness’s Question, we are always concerned by any violence that is religiously motivated and affects religious communities. As the statement on 1 January made clear, the act of violence in Alexandria, which was clearly designed to provoke further violence and division between the Christian and Muslim communities, was an attack on all. We strongly believe that the importance of human rights should be constantly emphasised, as should good governance and the rule of law, in our relations with friendly and great countries such as Egypt. I assure the noble Baroness that we are doing everything that we can to promote the values that she constantly fights for and that we all fight for, since they are an essential part of our foreign policy.

My Lords, I declare an interest as chairman of the British Egyptian Society and I associate these Benches with the condolences expressed by the Minister in his opening Answer. Is the Minister able to confirm an article that appeared in the Spectator on 15 January, which reported that on the Copt Christmas Day, on 7 January, hundreds of Egyptian Muslims turned out to be human shields to protect Christian worshippers going to church that day? Also, there was a big gathering in the Cairo district of Omraneya where the front pew of the Copt church was filled with Muslims taking a stand against terror and offering themselves as protection. If the Minister is able to confirm that from independent reporting and from the embassy in Cairo, will he join me in praising these brave Muslims who were prepared to risk their lives in order to demonstrate exactly the sort of fellowship that we would like to see between Christian and Muslim in Egypt?

My Lords, I cannot confirm those precise details, but if the noble Baroness's reports are broadly correct, and I am sure they certainly are, that is a reassuring aspect of an otherwise very grim situation—that members of different religions are prepared to risk their lives and protect each other in the ways that one would like to see more widely throughout the whole region and throughout the whole world. I cannot confirm the details, but the investigation is ongoing about how this whole matter developed in the first place. We are in close touch with the Egyptian authorities about it, but what the noble Baroness described is a good and lighter aspect of a very dark episode.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that the recent violence against Coptic Christians in Alexandria indicates that, without political and economic reform, extremists and other radical elements in Egypt will continue to exploit the desperation of poverty there, thus appealing for allegiance and competing for influence? The US Secretary of State made that point last Thursday in Qatar.

It is always difficult to bring all these trends together. Egypt is a major nation. It is emerging fast and developing its economy. It is a young nation with many very young people and clearly there are social and economic pressures that the Government are seeking to overcome and which we seek from outside to support them in overcoming. Whether those were the precise causes of this particular horror I would not like to speculate, but certainly there are all kinds of tensions in these great societies. We must try to understand them and help those countries overcome the otherwise dangerous consequences that can erupt.

My Lords, does my noble friend agree with claims in some quarters that discrimination against the Copts by the Egyptian Government is only serving to fuel the unrest created by the outcome of the recent elections where the ruling party apparently gained 80 per cent of the seats? Does he share my concerns that the breakdown of the electoral process, never mind its credibility, can only serve to fuel the activities of extremists who are attacking the institutions of democracy in Egypt?

Yes, aspects of the elections last November and December were worrying. We wanted to see free and fair elections, but it is quite clear from reports of widespread fraud, media restrictions and other interference that things did not go very well. Those are matters that we are asking the Egyptian Government to address urgently since it is in their interests, our interests and global interests that fair, open and transparent democracy prevails.

My Lords, have the Government studied the joint declaration by the religious leaders of Iraq of last Friday, which concerns co-existence and respect for all faiths? Will they commend that declaration to the forthcoming Arab summit meeting in Baghdad?

Well, I have not seen that precise declaration, but the spirit behind what the noble Lord describes, with which he is very well acquainted, must be the right one. The co-operation that the noble Baroness just described, the syncretic worship that one wants to see and the tolerance of all religious minorities, which is a must for civilised advance, should all be commended. If that is what the statement embraces, I certainly agree that it should be commended.