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Arab Spring

Volume 733: debated on Tuesday 29 November 2011


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what is their assessment of the implications of the Arab spring for religious minorities in the countries concerned.

My Lords, it is hard to generalise, given the differing circumstances in each country, but, that said, religious minorities have clearly suffered grievous oppression, often predating the so-called Arab spring, in Egypt, Iran, Iraq and, indeed, elsewhere. Egypt, in particular, has witnessed an upsurge in vicious sectarian violence and we continue to urge the Egyptian authorities to establish conditions in which all discrimination on the basis of religion is prevented. We deplore all discrimination against religious minorities and all constraints on their freedom to practise their faiths.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. Does he agree that in these early days of the so-called Arab spring, the impact on religious minorities has so far been favourable for the Jewish and Christian communities in Tunisia, but, as he has already indicated, cause for deep concern in Egypt? Although the Baha’i community has so far been spared violence there, attacks against Coptic Christians have numbered more than 44 since 25 January, and a recent report by Amnesty International claims that discrimination and attacks against the Copts have actually increased since the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces took power. In addition to encouraging the Egyptian leadership to ensure religious freedom for all its religious minorities, will the Government call to account those who are perpetrating the violence?

The noble Baroness is absolutely right in pointing to the violence in Egypt, a matter that must concern all those who believe in freedom of religious worship. We continue to urge the Egyptian authorities on the prime importance of pluralist and non-sectarian policies. The Egyptians are moving towards bringing in a new unified law that will be even-handed between Copts and Muslims, or so we understand. They are also talking about an anti-discrimination law. Those who can be established as being guilty of some of these nastier events should certainly be brought before the courts, but that is a matter for the Egyptian legal authorities.

How does the Minister respond to critics such as Ann Widdecombe, who say that there are double standards on the part of the Prime Minister in that, quite properly, we withdraw aid from Uganda because it discriminates against homosexuals but do not use our aid policy against countries that manifestly discriminate against Christians and other religious minorities?

It is not quite correct that the withdrawal of aid is geared to particular attitudes on policies in the way that the noble Lord describes. Support for Governments through aid is brought into question where they are upholding policies that we clearly regard as highly undesirable and objectionable. It does not mean to say that aid does not continue through non-governmental agencies and, as directly as we can organise it, to good development causes and projects—indeed, even in support of private sector operations. These things can be done without having to uphold the views of Governments. The noble Lord says that that is double standards, but in the real world one has to talk about selectivity and to make selections and choices. Some Governments are clearly ones whom we want to support; some are ones whom we would have great reluctance to do anything to enhance or entrench.

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for his insistence on the importance of constitutional guarantees and anti-discrimination measures, but does he recognise the importance—I think he has begun to go there—of remedying some of the institutional shortcomings that limit human development and social cohesion? I am aware of the high levels of economic disfranchisement among some of the religious minorities throughout the Middle East that risk inflaming and adding to the fuel of a volatile social mix in some of the poorest areas, particularly where religious communities live in close proximity to one another. How are such considerations informing government policy towards the region?

The right reverend Prelate is correct that a whole nexus of undesirable social customs and pressures creates the bad conditions in which this kind of discrimination can occur. Our policies, such as our Arab partnership policy, contain specific modules or elements that are designed, for instance, to support the rights and position of women, to promote family law in every possible way and to challenge some of the highly coercive and illiberal practices of the past. There are difficulties, as the right reverend Prelate will appreciate, but we must not go around intruding heavily on the practices of other countries. Why should we do that? However, we must certainly support and encourage the kinds of practices that bring equality and decent values to countries where, in the past, darker customs have prevailed.

My Lords, have the Government had any consultations with these Middle East Governments about reforming personal status laws so that the 14 million Christians who live in the Middle East might have access to divorce in civil courts if they wish to do so, rather than having to convert to Islam or other religions?

Those issues come into our fairly constant dialogue and exchanges with the countries of the Middle East as they go through reform processes at varying speeds and to varying degrees. That is the content of our exchanges in seeking to support and encourage the peaceful, democratic, liberalised development and opening up of these countries, which is directly in our own interest as a great trading nation as well.

My Lords, I am grateful. Does the Minister agree that there are worrying parallels with the situation in Iraq and Palestine, where large numbers of Christian minorities from the ancient churches have had to flee? Has he seen the figures published by the Egyptian Union of Human Rights Organisations showing that over 100,000 Coptic Christians have left the country since March this year—I declare a non-financial interest as president of the UK Coptic Association—and in particular the quotation from its director that:

“Copts are not emigrating voluntarily, they are coerced into that by threats and intimidation of hard-line Salafists, and the lack of protection they are getting from the Egyptian regime”?

I have seen a range of figures, although whether I have seen the specific reports that the noble Lord refers to, I am not so sure. I am the first to agree that these are large and worrying figures. The noble Lord mentioned Iraq. Although I do not think the Arab spring has operated to the particular detriment of religious minorities there, there have been a number of targeted attacks on minority communities—Christian, Yazidi, Shabak and others. These are worrying matters and we are constantly raising them with the Baghdad Government. As for the Egyptian situation, I have already indicated our extreme concern and our continuing dialogue, and that will certainly continue.