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Egypt: Religious Minorities

Volume 728: debated on Thursday 23 June 2011

Question

Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether they will make representations to the Government of Egypt concerning the killing of Christians and the attacks on Christian churches in that country, and on the promotion of the safety of all citizens of religious minority faiths in Egypt.

My Lords, my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary raised his concerns about the dangers of extremism and sectarianism in Egypt with the head of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, Field Marshal Tantawi, and with the Egyptian Prime Minister when he visited the country on 1 and 2 May. We will continue to urge the Egyptian Government to create the conditions for pluralist and non-sectarian politics and to establish policies that prevent discrimination against anyone on the basis of their religion.

I thank the Minister for his reply. Is he aware that since the January revolution there have been at least 20 documented attacks against religious minorities, including not only the Coptic Christians but the Sufi community, and that in many cases the security forces refrain from intervening effectively, giving rise to concerns that they might actually be condoning the violence? Will Her Majesty’s Government raise with the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces the importance of ensuring that the emerging constitution, legal framework and social structures are guided by the principles of equality of citizenship and equality before the law, consistent with the human rights conventions to which Egypt is a signatory?

I can tell the noble Baroness that we are indeed aware of the ugly situation that she describes. Tensions between Christians and Muslims in Egypt had initially eased during the revolution back in February, but regrettably she is right: there has been an upsurge in sectarian violence, including the worst violent clashes between the two communities in early May, when some 15 people died and over 330 were injured. This is obviously a deplorable situation. As for assisting with the emerging constitution, this country has already committed £1.2 million through the Arab Partnership scheme to support the immediate political transition process. That includes projects to build the capacity of government and civil society in developing anti-discrimination legislation, supporting constitutional reform and establishing links between the UK and the Egyptian judiciaries. In addition, the Supreme Council—the transitional Government—has announced that it will draft a new unified law on the construction of places of worship, which is to be equal for both Copts and Muslims, and a new anti-discrimination law to prevent religious discrimination. We are moving in the right direction, but clearly much more is needed.

I thank the noble Baroness for her very important Question. Does the noble Lord agree that, sadly, this is a serious problem throughout most of the Arab world?

If the noble Lord is talking about a rising intolerance against people for their religious beliefs, he is absolutely right. This is an extremely worrying trend, which we should not only resist but work against most actively wherever it occurs.

Will my noble friend confirm that Article 46 of the previous Egyptian constitution guaranteed freedom of belief and freedom of worship and that the penal code provided for up to five years in jail for exploiting,

“religion in order to promote extremist ideologies”?

Will the Government call on the new Egyptian Administration for these constitutional safeguards to be retained, respected and enforced in their new legislation?

That is certainly the theme of our exchanges and dialogues, and those of my right honourable friend, with the leaders of the Supreme Council. As I said to the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, the Government are drafting a new law on the construction of places of worship, which is to be equal for both Copts and Muslims, and a new anti-discrimination law. That will, in a sense, reinforce what went before. As my noble friend appreciates, Egypt is in the process of moving out of the constitutional pattern of the past and, therefore, all the positive laws that come from the past will need to be reinforced and redrafted.

My Lords, in light of the comments of my noble friend the Minister that there is an increase of religious intolerance, would not now be the time for the Government to adopt the recommendation from the Conservative Party’s human rights group’s report The Freedom to Believe that the Foreign Office should appoint a special envoy for international freedom, religion and belief?

That was an extremely interesting report, which my honourable and right honourable friends are certainly studying closely. I cannot make precise promises on exactly how the recommendations will be implemented or whether they will reflect the pattern of our policy evolution, but I fully recognise that my noble friend’s support for this document is right and that it is a valuable study.

Can the Minister tell us what advice the 8 June meeting of the FCO human rights panel offered the Foreign Secretary on how the Government might best respond to these recent attacks on religious minorities in Egypt? Will he also say how the Government have responded to any such advice?

My Lords, the answer to the right reverend Prelate’s question is positively and continuously. I know that he appreciates, because he follows these things closely, that we are dealing with a constantly changing situation. We are in constant dialogue through our posts, and indeed through Ministers and officials, with the Supreme Council in Cairo and with Governments in other countries where there are clear discrimination and attacks against religious minorities, including Christian minorities. I think that I have to tell him that the work of the panel and the continuing work of the Foreign Office are moving in the same direction, which is a positive one.

My Lords, in declaring an interest as president of the UK Coptic Association, may I ask the Minister whether he recalls the letter that I sent him on 1 January this year, copied to the Foreign Secretary, detailing the attacks made on services at the Church of the Two Saints in Alexandria, in which some 21 people were killed and 79 injured, even predating the Arab spring? Is it not the case that the campaign of asphyxiation against the ancient churches throughout the whole of the Middle East is something that we need to give much more focus to? We should never miss the opportunity, when pointing the finger at organisations such as the Salafis for fomenting this hatred and violence, to enunciate our support for the creation of a plural society where minorities such as the Copts, who constitute an eighth of Egypt’s population, are properly respected.

I would not disagree with a word of that. I remind your Lordships that the noble Lord, Lord Alton, is second to none in keeping us up to speed with what is happening on this whole front. When he asked me whether I could recall a letter that he wrote on 1 January, I have to be quite frank and say that I recall a mass of letters that have arrived from him almost every day of the week since then. I ask him please to go on writing and reminding us all that this is a very frightening and terrible situation to which we must, both at the governmental and the individual level, give our full attention.