Motion to Take Note
That this House takes note of the situation of Christians in the Middle East.
My Lords, many people these days have a short and skewed historical memory. It is all too easy to go along with the assumption that Christianity is an import to the Middle East rather than an export from it. Because the truth is that for two millennia the Christian presence in the Middle East has been an integral part of successive civilisations— a dominant presence in the Byzantine era, a culturally very active partner in the early Muslim centuries, a patient and long-suffering element, like the historic Jewish communities of the Maghreb and the Middle East, in the complex mosaic of ethnic jurisdictions within the Ottoman Empire and, more recently, a political catalyst and nursery of radical thinking in the dawn of Arab nationalism. To be ignorant of this is to risk misunderstanding a whole world of political and religious interaction and interdependence and to yield to the damaging myth that, on the far side of the Mediterranean or the Bosphorus, there is a homogeneous Arab and Muslim world, a parallel universe. I do not need to elaborate for your Lordships the dangers we invite in accepting any such assumption. The Middle East is not a homogeneous region, and the presence of Christians there is a deep-rooted reality. We are not talking about a foreign body, but about people who would see their history and their destiny alike bound up with the countries where they live, and bound up in local conversations with a dominant Muslim culture, which they are likely to see in terms very different from those that might be used by western observers.
Yet at the present moment, the position of Christians in the region is more vulnerable than it has been for centuries. The flow of Christian refugees from Iraq in the wake of constant threat and attack has left a dramatically depleted Christian population there, and perhaps I can say in passing how very glad and grateful I was to have stood alongside the Grand Mufti of the al-Azhar mosque in Cairo at a press conference here in London some three years ago joining in condemnation of attacks on Christians in Iraq. Similar senior voices from al-Azhar have been heard more recently in condemnation of anti-Christian outrages in Egypt itself.
Issues in Egypt are inevitably among the most immediate in the minds of many of us just now. Of late, the Coptic community has seen levels of emigration rise to unprecedented heights, and in a way that would have been unthinkable even a very few years ago, it is anxious about sharing the fate of other Christian communities that once seemed securely embedded in their setting. Perhaps the most troubling example, as your Lordships will be well aware, is the case of the Palestinians, one of the most sophisticated and professional Christian populations in the region, but now a fast-shrinking presence as a result of the tragic situation in the West Bank. Whether in Egypt, Israel and Palestine or Syria, what were once relatively secure communities are now increasingly seen as vulnerable. In Egypt, this involves a notably significant percentage of the population, with a deeply distinguished history, and it is not surprising if the current situation is causing apprehension, despite the many excellent examples of Christian-Muslim co-operation on the ground there.
The phenomenon of the Arab spring has brought some new considerations into play, and that is why I am particularly grateful that it has been possible to have this debate in your Lordships' House today. Even as we speak, the future of the Arab spring is still deeply unclear. It has not been in any obvious sense a religious movement: the energy for change has originated with those who want to see accountable government, participatory politics, a robust definition and defence of equal citizenship for all, an end to repression of opinion, an end to rule by security agencies that are free to bully and torture, and an end to the culture of impunity. Perhaps it is worth noting in the light of all that that 9 December happens to be international Anti-Corruption Day. We need to remember too that so much of this is simply a demand that Governments in the region act on the commitments to human rights and dignities to which they have already signed up in a variety of international agreements.
The means by which this revolutionary energy has spread across the region have been the social networking media of our age and the accessibility of good reporting from many sources, not least Al-Jazeera. Yet the challenges to dictatorship have, just as in the Balkans, brought their own dangers and instabilities. What began as a distinctively non-sectarian set of movements has inevitably opened the door to some of those Islamic political activists who suffered repression under the old regimes. We wait to see exactly what agenda such groups will now want to advance as they win high levels of popular electoral support—whether this will mean new kinds of repression in which non-Muslim and, importantly, non-orthodox Muslim communities will become targets for discrimination or whether something more like the Turkish model will emerge: an openly and strongly Islamic Government with, equally, a strong commitment to practical pluralism and political transparency. This seems to be the direction in which Tunisia is moving, and we hope and pray that this may still be possible in Egypt. It is certainly not the case that we can assume that “extremists” are poised to take over the region tomorrow, but we still need to take with utmost seriousness the anxieties that are felt by communities already feeling exposed and uncertain.
The Arab spring has meant dramatically different things in different countries and, as these last remarks underline, there are a number of different political possibilities for governance grounded in Islamic principles. But against such a background we may get a clearer sense of how and why the Christian presence matters, and why its future is surrounded by so many anxieties. No one is seeking a privileged position for Christians in the Middle East, nor should they be. But what we can say—I firmly believe that most Muslims here and in many other places would agree entirely—is that the continued presence of Christians in the region is essential to the political and social health of the countries of the Middle East. Their presence challenges the assumption that the Arab world and the Muslim world are just one and the same thing, which is arguably good for Arabs and Muslims alike. They demonstrate that a predominantly Muslim polity can accommodate, positively and gratefully, non-Muslims as fellow citizens, partners in an enterprise that is not exclusively determined by religious loyalties even when rooted in specific religious principles.
Christians in the Middle East are very sensitive to being described as “minorities”. For them, never mind the statistics, this can imply that they are somehow necessarily alien or marginal, rather than being both indigenous to their countries and historically bound up in the fabric of their societies. One of their real grievances is what they experience as the twofold undermining of their identity that comes from a new generation of Muslim enthusiasts treating them as pawns of the West and, on the other hand, from a western political rhetoric that either ignores them totally or thoughtlessly puts them at risk by casting military conflict in religious terms. Talk of crusading comes to mind. They are looking at the prospect of centuries of coexistence being jeopardised in a new, polarised global politics. They have no illusions about the problems that have characterised their history and the record of Arab and Turkish rule is not an entirely rosy picture. Memories are still vivid of segregation in various kinds under the Ottomans. Yet, the Christians of the region will obstinately insist that this is a history in which they have been agents, not simply anonymous extras. Their absence from the region would entail a massive and damaging collective amnesia.
Many of the Christian communities face a painful dilemma at the moment. Under some of the discredited regimes of recent years, they have enjoyed a certain degree of freedom from aggression or discrimination. The first tremors of political change were felt by some Christians as a bit of a threat to a status quo that, while anything but ideal, was a bit more bearable than some alternatives. Yet many of them felt equally that the popular pressure for accountable government and clear principles of civil liberty for all was a welcome development—indeed, a development of exactly the kind that so many Arab Christian intellectuals of the early and mid-20th century had eloquently argued for. The role of Arab Christian intellectuals in helping to galvanise several important movements across the region is still a story too little known in the West. At the moment, most of these communities urgently want to know whether the Arab spring will be good or bad news for them, and for other non-Muslim or non-majority presences. Once again, it is worth insisting that concern for Christian communities in the region is inseparable from a concern for the overall good of the societies of which they are part.
Are there steps that can be taken or at least priorities to be identified for us in this very varied and complex situation? I trust that today’s debate will bring to light some of the specifics on which people wish to concentrate. One obvious overall point is that solutions can come only from within the societies of the region. The task of those outside is not to impose their own agenda and certainly not to do anything that adds colouring to the false and pernicious idea that indigenous Christians are somehow natural allies of a foreign government or an alien culture. But, that being said, it is important that we affirm as strongly as we can the importance of a political settlement in the region that will genuinely secure the good of all and be properly accountable to the peoples of the countries involved. Whether or not such a settlement involves a government conducted on Islamic principles matters less for these purposes than whether such a government are prepared to recognise an authentic status of citizenship for non-Muslims.
This is not about the creation—let me repeat once again—of a special status for Christians or others but about a general commitment to civic equality and the rule of law. This is why, incidentally, there is deep reluctance in Iraq to accept the idea of Christian enclaves as a solution to the situation there. Many recognise, with heavy hearts, that things may come to such a pass that there are few, if any, other options that will guarantee the safety of Christians. But they still feel, surely rightly, that the creation of enclaves would be the yielding of an important principle.
It is possible to argue, on the basis of Christian and Islamic thought alike, in favour of transparent government and a proper notion of civic equality. This is not a matter of any narrowly “western” idea of good governance but is about basic political ethics. That is the sort of argument about good governance as such that needs to be pursued if Christian communities are going to be secure in the future; not any sort of case for special treatment but a strong argument for justice, honesty and respectful diversity in the societies of the region.
There is one other point worth making that brings the argument closer to home. Our long-term hope, as I have insisted in these remarks, must be that the communities of which I have spoken will have a guaranteed place in their historic homelands and in the political life and discourse of their societies. Meanwhile, though, many are still forced from their homes and many end up on our own shores. One thing that often deeply intensifies the sense of being ignored and misunderstood is an attitude here towards Christian migrants or refugees from the region which assumes that they must be Muslim because they are Arab. I am sorry to say this, but in the past I have heard such sentiments even from some in government. It is an attitude that can sometimes also assume that they are converts whose faith depends on western missions and therefore in some way they are responsible, by their own choice, for their situation. A Palestinian Christian friend of mine was wont to say when asked by westerners, “When did your family become Christians?” “About 2,000 years ago”. We need some crystal clear guidance and education on these things if we are to avoid what is both a ludicrous and an insulting outcome. Syrian Orthodox children, for example—this is a real instance —were told by teachers in a British school that they should not attend a Christian assembly because they must be Muslims if they are Syrians. We can do something about this in short order, and I trust that government and public bodies will do it.
In conclusion, let me say how very grateful I am for the opportunity to raise these issues today in your Lordships’ House at a time when they could hardly be more pressing. The potential for a radical political renewal throughout the Middle East and north Africa is immense, as are the risks. My contention has been that the security and well-being of the historic Christian communities in the region are something of a litmus test in relation to these wider issues of the political health of the region. I hope that our discussion today will constantly keep those broad political and ethical hopes in focus. I expect some distinguished contributions to the debate. Perhaps I may take this opportunity in particular of acknowledging with gratitude the presence of the noble Lord, Lord Sacks, in the Chamber and look forward to his contribution to our deliberations. I am particularly aware that the observance of Shabbat will oblige him to leave the Chamber early so I am all the more appreciative of his support. I beg to move.
My Lords, I would like very warmly to thank the most reverend Primate for the opportunity of having this debate in your Lordships’ House, and for the scholarly and profound speech with which the debate has been opened. I regret to say that the standard, so far as this particular contribution is concerned, will now fall. I am particularly grateful for the opportunity that those of us who profess the Christian faith now have in this debate of standing alongside and showing support for our communities in the region to which the most reverend Primate has referred. It is very important that we show our fellow feeling with those of our fellow Christians who are under stress. I often wonder if my faith would be strong enough to respond adequately to such stress.
What can we do? One of the things we can do, as we are invited by Paul in his first letter to Timothy, is pray for the Governments of the region to which we are referring. We have to remember that Paul was thinking of the Roman imperial point of view when he said that we should pray for,
“kings, and for all that are in authority; that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and honesty”.
It is incumbent on those of us who profess the Christian faith and others who feel the same way to pray for the Governments of the region as the new political institutions emerge. A prayer of this kind for the region might not be altogether inappropriate for our own Government at this time.
It is also extremely important to show in our attitudes a sympathy with all people who are under stress—not just Christians, but all those who are under stress in the region, and there are many of them. The most reverend Primate has expressed this better than I can by a wide margin, but we should remember the people who are struggling to get rid of repression and all sorts of problems that have beset them in the past, and we have to hope that their expectations will not be disappointed. That is because sometimes getting rid of one repression leads to some other form of repression, so we have to hope that these emerging situations are in fact beneficial to those who have suffered so much in the past.
I also wish briefly to mention the situation of the Christian missions, based on Christian principles but serving local communities in the region. I believe that the example of practical service, not just preaching, in helping to meet the needs of the communities is great and important work. Some years ago I wrote to a representative in this country of one of the Governments in the region to express regret that restrictions had been put on the right of Christians to worship in their own way in his country. The reply I received said that his country did not wish to follow the example of the West with binge drinking, unwanted pregnancies and the prevalence of sexually transmitted diseases. He wanted to stick to the regime that they had, and I think that this illustrates the importance of good example.
In relation to Christian missions and Christian stations in the region, today I want particularly to mention the position of Canon Andrew White as the vicar of Baghdad. He has played a very important part in maintaining Christian witness in Iraq under extremely difficult circumstances. Some years ago my wife and I were privileged to form part of a group that Andrew White led in Israel. I have to say that the relationships he had with people from right across the community were very remarkable. During that visit we met people representing every strand of opinion in Israel, and your Lordships will know that that is a very considerable variety. He has shown in more recent times a fine example of Christian fortitude in the troubles that now beset Iraq. On that occasion he brought our group to the house of John Mark in Jerusalem, where a Syrian Orthodox pastor was officiating. While the Syrian pastor’s mastery of English was a great deal better than my mastery of Syrian Arabic, it was still rather poor, so he had difficulty in expressing himself to us, but the warmth of his welcome was absolutely extraordinary. It is an impression that I have retained ever since. I wish particularly to pay tribute to Andrew White’s work and I hope that he will be able to continue for a long time in his office.
My Lords, I congratulate the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury on securing this debate and on introducing it with the great wisdom and compassion that we have come to expect of him.
There are 14 million Christians in the Middle East, which is roughly equal to the number of Muslims in the European Union. In recent years, they have been subjected to discrimination, harassment and violent attacks. We know all this. There is insufficient emphasis on the fact that many Muslim converts to Christianity have also been suffering very quietly because they are not recognised as Christians. In fact, conversion to Christianity is frowned upon, with the result that Muslim converts to Christianity continue to be treated as Muslims and subjected to Sharia law.
Rather than rehearse what has been said about violent attacks on Christians, I shall address two questions. First, why is this happening and, secondly, what should be the nature of our response to it? By and large, Islam has been tolerant, even respectful, of Christianity. For hundreds of years, its record in the Middle East has been fairly good and in some respects even better than the record of Europe with respect to Muslims. Why, then, have these things begun to happen during the past 30 or 40 years?
There are four or five factors which are largely responsible for it. First, in many Middle Eastern countries, there is a deep concern to unite the country and secure its stability by adopting a particular view of national identity. That view is that the country belongs to its majority. Therefore, the national identity is defined in ethno-nationalist terms. It is argued, for example, that only an Arab can be a true Egyptian or Syrian and, further, that only a Muslim Arab can be a true Arab. As a result of that, minorities—Christians and others—get excluded and come to be seen as an alien wedge because they are not part of the national identity.
Secondly, religious minorities in the Middle East, as in every other part of the world, tend to align themselves pretty closely with the established regime for protection, for status and for other obvious advantages. When that regime is challenged, as it is challenged when democracy arrives, minorities become a target, even a scapegoat. That is why democracy sometimes takes an anti-minority orientation. This is not peculiar to the Middle East; it is also to be found in south Asia and, in some respects, is also a part of our own European history.
The third factor responsible for the rise of violence has to do with—let us be frank about it—our own foreign policy. Riah Abu el-Assal, a former Anglican Bishop of Jerusalem, recently said that he had warned Mr Tony Blair a month before the invasion of Iraq in 2003 that if he continued with what he was contemplating:
“You will be responsible for emptying Iraq, the homeland of Abraham, of Christians”.
The fourth factor has to do with the fact that some of these acts of violence have been provoked by Governments. We saw that in the role played by the Ministry of Interior in Egypt when Mubarak thought that he was under threat. By creating conflict and division of this kind, it becomes possible for a Government to pretend that they alone stand between stability and anarchy.
The final factor has to do with our old friend al-Qaeda carrying on its crusade from God-knows-where it was left off last and talking in terms of civilisational conflict. Its anti-Western and anti-Christian propaganda, although limited to a few, continues, sadly, to influence a large number of people. I could mention many other factors, but these are some of the important factors that have played a role in violent attacks on Christians.
How should we respond to this? Here, the most reverend Primate set absolutely the right tone. There is always a danger of thinking in terms of Christians versus Muslims—us identifying with Christians against them, Muslims. Once we begin to think along those lines, we are already storing up trouble for our future. I suggest that we need to bear four or five important things in mind as part of our normative strategy. First, we should speak for all minorities and not just Christians. There are three good reasons for this. First, if we speak only for Christians, we get identified with a particular religion and forfeit our claim to impartiality. Secondly, Christians in the Middle East for whom we speak come to be identified with a foreign power and their loyalty to their country of origin is questioned. Thirdly, if we say we speak only for Christians, we create tension in our own society because we give other religious minorities the impression that we are essentially a Christian country standing up for Christians abroad and not for others.
The second thing that we should bear in mind is that Christian leaders in the Middle East should not ask or expect their followers to think of themselves in exclusively religious terms or act as a homogeneous bloc. Christian leaders in the Middle East, for example, like to say, “We Christians should be standing up for this or that”. That is a language to avoid, because it has certain obvious dangers. It implies that they should not interact or work with their fellow citizens who happen to be non-Christians. It also reinforces religious consciousness, of thinking of Christians in the Middle East only as Christians, and does not allow them to transcend that consciousness by thinking of themselves as fellow citizens. This became particularly clear in Egypt. The Coptic Orthodox Church has been ambiguous in this respect. Pope Shenouda III urged Copts to vote for the best candidates during the run-up to the parliamentary elections irrespective of their religious affiliations. That was fine. Later, it transpired that the Alexandria churches were producing lists of recommended candidates based largely on religious considerations. This rightly provoked an outcry from Coptic activists, many of whom were secular liberals, and eventually a denial from the church’s ecclesiastical council.
The third thing that we should bear in mind is that we must trust democracy and not make the mistake that we made in Algeria several years ago, or were almost tempted to make in Egypt, of supporting the army as the only way to stem the tide of religious fundamentalism. Democracy has a paradoxical logic. It encourages populism, panders to religious passions and gives salience to religion, because that happens to be the fact that weighs with the majority. At the same time, it also works in the opposite direction. It exposes internal tensions within radical and moderate Islamists. When these parties come to power, they are not able to deliver and therefore get exposed. Democracy also gives minorities some political power and the opportunity to criticise the goings-on within the Government and various political parties. In other words, democracy is its own corrective. As long as it is conducted in a reasonably peaceful and non-threatening manner, it has a way of getting rid of its own toxicity. This is how Hindu fundamentalism was ultimately defeated in India. For several years, we thought that the BJP, the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Hindu fundamentalists, when they came to power, would refashion the country. Today, nobody is interested. How did this happen? In a country where 84 per cent of the people are Hindus and mostly illiterate, Hindu fundamentalism was defeated by the weapon of democracy. We need to bear in mind also that, in a democracy, people do not vote along religious lines nor should we expect them to; in fact, we should encourage them not to. The result is that class and other factors begin to play a part.
I say in support of what the most reverend Primate said that the struggle has to be conducted within the Middle Eastern countries themselves, and it has to be an intellectual struggle with two basic goals. The first is to get people to recognise that a society cannot be held together on ethno-nationalist lines—it must be multicultural and its identity must be defined in generous terms. Secondly and more importantly, people must read their own history sensibly. As the most reverend Primate said, Christians have played a fundamental role in the greatness of Arab civilisation. They plugged it into the Hellenic legacy; they were the custodians of the Arab heritage; and they played an important part in the Arab Awakening, not to mention the enormous role that they played when they chafed against the Byzantine yoke and even helped Saladin’s recapture of Jerusalem in 1187.
Reading history in this light helps Muslims to understand that Christians have been an integral part of their world for 2,000 years, that they continue to play an important role and that they are valued members of their community. When that happens, there is mutual respect, mutual appreciation, and the kind of violence that we saw becomes difficult to contemplate.
My Lords, in the Arab village of Ibillin in northern Israel, students of all religions gather daily in the classrooms of Mar Elias Educational Institutions. They receive a well rounded education, but importantly, they also work together to promote peace, justice and reconciliation. MEEI was the inspiration of Father Elias Chacour who realised that the future of all God's children in the Middle East would depend on the education of the young in the ways of peace, reconciliation, respect and justice. His life's work was devoted to building schools to educate children of all religious and ethnic backgrounds based on these principles.
Dialogue is essential for religious leaders in the Middle East—a land that is sacred to the traditions of all these religions. As Pope Benedict told religious leaders in Israel, the movement towards reconciliation requires courage and vision as well as trust that it is God Himself who will show us the way.
As we have heard, the Christian population is declining in the Middle East. That decline has two main reasons: emigration and declining birth rates. Emigration represents the end of a long process of exclusion and persecution. On the West Bank, a nearly permanent boycott of Christian businesses is the problem. In Egypt, fundamentalist Muslims constantly target Christians and the worst situation is in Sudan where civil war has raged since 1956 and led to wholesale atrocities. Declining birth rates can be seen throughout the whole of the region. At present, the Middle East has 14 million Christians but that is likely to drop in 2020 plus to 6 million. With time, Christians will effectively disappear in the region as a cultural and political force. There are more Christians living in Sydney, Australia, than in Jerusalem itself.
For many years, the plight of Middle East Christians attracted little or no attention in the outside world. Many Governments turned away from the current problems. Christians in the Middle East face continuous persecution and are often isolated. Suspicion of the West so prevalent in much of the Middle East shows itself as outright hatred because of perceptions of western colonialism and imperialism. Derogatory words and insults are often used against Christians and they face many difficulties in terms of housing and jobs.
As I said, for many years the plight of Middle East Christians attracted little interest in the outside world. Their interests seem to be ignored by the British, French, Russian and Greek Governments as well at the Vatican itself. But Christians are an important part of the fabric of the Middle East and a crucial part of the social, religious and moral well-being of the region. We must not only be aware of the problems facing Christians but work and pray for their continued important presence. Solutions must not be imposed from outside. We must ensure that the problems facing Christians are constantly in our thoughts, constantly in our minds and constantly in our deliberations. Like Father Chacour, we must realise that the way forward is to understand each other and respect each other and to work alongside each other.
I am always reminded of my own city where, on Remembrance Sunday, the leaders of the six faiths not only take part in that act of remembrance but together say a common prayer. I am also reminded that my own city was once riven by sectarianism that was driven out by Christian leaders of different traditions such as the Archbishop Worlock and Bishop David Sheppard working together. The bigotry and hatred disappeared. Now we have Europe's only ecumenical university where not only Christians of different faiths work together but Muslims, Hindus and Jews. It is by working and learning together that we can change things, and it could be the same in the Middle East. Respect and understanding drive out fear and hatred.
My Lords, all speakers in this debate must deplore the long-standing and continuing decline of the indigenous Christian communities in the Middle East. Much of this has been due to what has been described as “creeping Islamisation”; some has also been due to economic causes. Some of the worst cases, such as the decimation of the Armenian, Syrian Orthodox and Nestorian communities in Anatolia, date back to the days of the Ottoman Empire and beyond.
I want to concentrate today on two current cases where the decline of the Christian population has been, at least indirectly, due to western policies or the failure of western policies. The first is Iraq, where the misjudged invasion eight years ago has led to the distressing reduction of some of the oldest Christian communities in the world—communities which, in many cases, long predate Islam. Statistics vary, but it seems to be agreed that a community that numbered some 1.5 million before 2003 has now fallen to less than 500,000 today, and a steady exodus continues.
The second case, to which I have drawn your Lordships’ attention several times over the past year, is the appalling treatment of Palestinian communities in East Jerusalem as a result of discriminatory Israeli housing and planning policies that affect Muslims and Christians alike. Israeli abuse of the Christian Palestinian community is not the only problem that they have to endure. In the area of Israeli-occupied Bethlehem, where Christians made up some 85 per percent of the population a generation ago, and where the Christian population is now said to be less than 15 per cent of the total, extreme Islamists have made life for the Christians even worse than it was already, with all the frustrations and indignities caused by the occupation.
But the failure of the quartet, and particularly of the United States, to bring any effective pressure to bear on Mr Netanyahu's Government is a shameful consequence of the failure of the United States Administration, and of Congress, to realise the damaging effect of their supine acceptance of the Israeli Government's blatant flouting of international law in both Jerusalem and the other occupied territories. It is tragic that even the President of the United States is unable to reverse the Judaisation of East Jerusalem or the illegal and continuing settlement policies of the Netanyahu Government.
In criticising the treatment by the Israeli authorities of their Christian communities, I pay tribute to the many brave Israelis who deplore and publicly demonstrate against the ill treatment of their Christian and Muslim neighbours. I would also like to mention my own recollection of Muslim Palestinian friends in Saudi Arabia who remembered fondly their experience of celebrating Christmas in the Holy Land with their Christian neighbours. One of the tragedies of the present situation in the Middle East is that radicalism and fundamentalism across all three Abrahamic faiths has made tolerance of that sort a rarity.
My Lords, a year ago I had the privilege of attending a synod of Catholic bishops in Rome called by the Pope to consider this very topic of Christians in the Middle East. One hundred and eighty-five bishops took part, 140 came from the Middle East. For the first time, Arabic was one of the working languages of the synod, although to hear languages such as Armenian, Syriac, Kurdish, Assyrian and Persian spoken in the corridors was to be reminded of the, at times, forgotten trans-ethnicity of Middle Eastern Christianity, and indeed of the region as a whole. It was a reminder of just how deeply embedded, and how widely spread, across the region the Christian church may be found—across Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Cyprus, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, Jordan, Iran, Iraq, Israel, Kuwait, Lebanon, Oman, Qatar, Syria, Turkey, the Palestinian Territories, and Yemen, there are to be found Christian churches that have been there for a very long time, many of them from long before Islam.
It was in the Middle East that the first Christian community was born. From there, the apostles after Pentecost evangelised the whole world. There the early Christian community formed the structures and liturgies that mark the worldwide church today. There the martyrs, with their blood, fortified the foundations of the growing Christian church. After them, the hermits filled the deserts with the perfume of their holiness and their faith. There the scholars of the eastern church lived and continued to nourish the church in both the east and west through their teachings. In the early centuries and later, missionaries from these ancient churches departed for the Far East and the West, taking with them the light of Christ. Today's Middle Eastern Christians are deeply conscious of being the heirs of that heritage, and they have every intention of continuing to be faithful to it.
The whole region, depending on how you define it, has around 356 million people, of whom about 20 million are Christian, around 6 percent of the whole. That may justify speaking numerically of a Christian minority, but not only is this a term that many Christians in the area would rather avoid, it is also somewhat unhelpful where history has left almost every community—Muslims, Christians, Jews; Arabs, Kurds, Copts, Israelis, Palestinians and Turks—seeing themselves, with some justification, as a minority, depending on the context in which they are being viewed.
In Rome, I was particularly struck by one of the great themes of the synod becoming immediately apparent on day one, as speaker after speaker, in their introductory remarks, spoke about the importance of religious freedom seen, not as the special pleading for the region's embattled Christians, but as the cornerstone of a healthy democratic society, and as a universal cause to be pursued for the good of all, Muslim, Christian and Jew alike. One of the first speakers was Patriarch Antonios Naguib of the Egyptian Coptic church, and interestingly, given that the events of the Arab spring, Tunisia and Tahrir Square, were not then even a stirring in the wind, he chose to underline the importance of freedom of conscience—not so much as a right to be claimed for Christians but, instead, a universal right, which Christians and Muslims defend together for the common good. He also called the rise of political Islam across the Middle East,
“a threat which we must face together”,
by which he meant not just the diverse Christians of the region, but also Muslims and Jews.
While radical Islam is sometimes styled as a special threat to the Christians of the Middle East, it is worth remembering that in terms of raw numbers, the primary victims of religious extremism in the Muslim world are other Muslims. In that context, the case for religious freedom as an essential component of human rights is a project that Christians and many Muslims and Jews can share. But it is very important that such religious freedom includes both freedom of worship and freedom of conscience. That is an important distinction in many majority Muslim states, where Christians are generally allowed to worship openly, but where conversion from Islam to Christianity or any other religion is often prohibited. Even when there is no legal impediment to conversion, social and cultural pressures generally make it a perilous choice. This then leads to a situation in which Christians have a sense of being considered non-citizens, despite the fact that they have called these countries home long before Islam.
It is important to stress that across the Middle East we find a wide variety of countries, and so a wide variety of churches and Christian communities too. They are not a monolithic entity, and it is very unhelpful when they are regarded as so. They have in most places been deeply embedded in the culture of the context of which they are a part, for much of history sharing as much, if not more, with their Muslim and Jewish neighbours, as they have with Christians elsewhere.
I take two towns in the vicinity of Bethlehem that I know well, Beit Jalal and Beit Sahour. Back in the early 1970s it would have been very difficult to tell Christians and Muslims apart, at least in terms of many social customs, intermingling of families, support for one another's festivals and styles of dress. Now all that has changed: the different communities have withdrawn into themselves; the differences are plain to see, and there is worrying polarisation when once there was a common life. Why has this come about? Partly it is in response to local political and security initiatives, but also partly as a response to western military intervention and political rhetoric referring to the region as a whole, together with unhelpful and caricatured portrayals of both communities by western academics as well as the popular media—and also, I have to admit, newer styles of western evangelism and Christian mission, all of which have assisted to push communities apart. Once polarised, reintegration is not so easily achieved.
It really would be helpful to people of all religions across the region if we in the West were a little more ready to recognise our responsibility for what is to be found across much of the Middle East today. It is very easy to forget, given the prominence of Islam in much of public life across much of the Middle East today, just how secular that region was even 30 years ago. In all but the most conservative Gulf states, western fashions were preferred over traditional dress; many people drank alcohol openly in disregard of official prohibition—whether that is a good thing or not—and men and women mixed freely in the workplace, as more and more women were entering higher education and professional life.
In the wake of the Arab spring, I hear much concern being expressed about Islamification and the role of the Muslim Brotherhood. Again I find it cautionary to remember that the Brotherhood had its roots partly in the response by European powers to earlier attempts across the former Ottoman empire to achieve a form of secular democracy immediately after the First World War. In Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Algeria and Lebanon a push, generally with strong support from the grass roots, including women, for a multiparty parliamentary democracy, was firmly crushed, particularly by Britain, France and Italy, while sectarian identity was cynically fostered as a means of sustaining colonial rule. All of this has left a bitter taste but also an aspiration for a more authentically Arab or Middle Eastern style of democracy and, with each new western intervention, there is an exacerbation of the problem facing many Middle Eastern Christians, which is a tendency in the Muslim street to identify them with the West and the policy choices of western Governments, even when such policies are not supported by the churches here or there. Yet, for the most part, in most places, the Christian churches remain deeply committed to playing their part in working for religious pluralism, dialogue and mutual respect. However, they cannot be expected to do this on their own.
One of the most significant addresses to that synod in Rome came from David Rosen, adviser to the Chief Rabbinate of Israel. Christians, he noted, play,
“a disproportionate role in promoting interreligious understanding”,
in the region, but it is,
“not fair to expect the small local Christian communities to be capable of bearing such responsibility alone”.
He is right. They need our understanding, free of stereotypes and simplistic assumptions, and for that understanding to be translated into so many of the policies that impact on that region's life.
My Lords, I am a bit gloomier than the most reverend Primate about things to come in the Middle East, which will be reflected in the three points that I have to make.
First, I stress my belief that we are facing religious cleansing in parts of the Middle East and may be entering what might be thought of as an Arab winter for Christians, Jews and other minority groups alike on a scale that we have not hitherto seen. We have heard about what is going on in Iraq, and I reflect that if some of the movements that are already happening were addressed not at faith groups but at ethnic groups, or those of this or that personal preference, the whole bang-shooting match of outrage in the United Nations—with Secretary of State Clinton flying in to try to deal with the issue—would have been released. Yet we do not seem to see that with religious freedoms. Secondly, in our religious comfort zone in the West we have to recognise that we have much to learn from those who are threatened in the Middle East. Thirdly, we must persuade our rulers to treat religious freedoms as being just as basic as other, much vaunted human rights. Religious freedoms belong in the premier league of human rights; in that context, I entirely agree with what the right reverend prelate the Bishop of Exeter has just said.
On my first point, to exemplify the Arab winter, it seems clear that all non-Islamic faith groups in the Middle East are in it together. It means facing up openly to the fact that some Islamic groups, however many good and moderate adherents there may be, are self-professed militants against Christians and Jews alike. We evidence this in their own words and actions. One sad manifestation of this in the western world today is not just to brush this issue under the carpet but to feel that it is not possible or polite even to talk about it in decent society. Yet the fate of Christians in the Middle East is indivisible from the fate of Jews there, for example, and indeed from other minority Muslim groups such as the Alevi adherents of Shia Islam who are so discriminated against, even in Turkey today with its increasingly authoritarian Government.
There can be no walking on the other side of the faith road in the Middle East in the face of a self-declared agenda by some of religious cleansing in some parts of the region. We must not do that any more than we can, even in the Palace of Westminster, ignore the manifestly Newspeak anti-Zionism, which concentrates as a surrogate on the Jew as a nation—I borrow from the noble Lord, Lord Sacks, on this—rather than on the Jew as a person, as it was in the old-style and now wholly non-PC anti-Semitism. At least in the Middle East, people are honest about it; we should be honest about it here.
However threatening this may be perceived to be in this country it is nothing like the threats facing the last Jews in Baghdad, nor the last few Jews in Iran. But then, it cannot be very nice for the last remaining 13,000 of my co-religionists left in Iran either. The pace of religious cleansing is gathering. Only this week, the organisation Minority Rights Group International introduced figures to show that while in 2003 there were between 800,000 and 1 million Christians of different brands and classifications in Iraq, the few years since have seen the numbers leach away to fewer than half a million. In his own words, not my suppositions, we heard it again earlier this week when Archbishop Sako, the leader of the highly threatened Chaldean Catholics in Kirkuk and the surrounding regions, despairingly said:
“It is a haemorrhage. Iraq could be emptied of Christians”.
They are caught in the middle of a terrible three-way squeeze between the majority Shiites, the Sunnis and the Kurds.
Secondly, we have very much to learn from those threatened in the Middle East in their reaction to secular unease. We must not fall foul of any patronising assumptions that we can give help from some position of spiritual strength in the West for, in much of the Middle East, religious leaderships have taken a hold on secular government in exact reverse step with the tendency in the West that sees many secularist leaderships encouraging the view that the state rather should take on the role of faith groups, by back-filling a void that they see as having been left vacant by faith groups—leaving the arbitration of moral matters to others. This is a view held by many, not necessarily always by me; none the less, those leading the threatened churches in, say, Egypt sometimes have an approach that is different from this spiritual/secular balance.
Take the leader of the majority Coptic Orthodox Church, his Holiness Pope Shenouda III. If he remains not an actual hermit while holding his high office, he is at least a part-time monk in his lifestyle, returning for some days each week to his monastery from the cares of running his church and dealing with state authorities, there to meditate and think. Meditating and thinking are not luxuries in this matter. This gives him strength at home which he will need for his people, as will be needed for the far fewer Coptic Catholics—only about 150,000 now remain in Egypt—in the face of a clear Islamist movement.
It seems certain that the Muslim Brotherhood, via its Freedom and Justice party, and the even tougher Salafis via their al-Nour party, will form a majority in the Egyptian Government after the general election results are fully declared. We have very much to learn from the deeply meditative Christianity of the Middle East, which gives them such clarity. Sadly, I think it highly likely that Pope Shenouda will one day wish that he was back in what will, bizarrely, seem a golden age of religious tolerance under the very unsatisfactory Mubarak regime, compared with things to come in his country in the next few years.
This will be rather like the views of the remaining Christians of contemporary Syria—I think they are about 5 per cent of the population as a whole—who were subject to a proper public opinion survey in the summer of this year. Much to my surprise, the survey revealed that they feared the success of the apparent Arab spring-like anti-Assad regime demonstrators, paradoxically, much more than they feared their present rulers, however dreadful and unpalatable they are, bizarre though that seems to us, for those rulers have at least allowed some freedoms to the Syrian Orthodox—the Syro-Malabar Catholics and others—in albeit registered churches in that country.
Thirdly and lastly I hope that, here in the UK, our secular rulers as a coalition—I see my coalition partners present—will clearly restate that it regards religious freedom as being as important as any other human right, then act when it can in difficult areas of diplomatic intervention. I would exemplify this by a worked example from Turkey, whose law on foundations of 2008 may have produced the occasional high-profile permission for a mass to be held at a Catholic shrine once a year, or kick-started back into life some Greek Orthodox seminary on an island, but it certainly has not spread religious freedoms across that country.
Slightly to my surprise, I was approached out of the blue about this, via a letter, by a bunch of Anglicans on the Anatolian peninsula. They wrote about the issues facing them, where they find it difficult or impossible to worship in churches or church-like meeting places on that peninsula. It is not allowed by the local state rulers. I asked a series of Written Questions about this, starting in my characteristically fair-minded way by asking the Government what the rights of Turks were in this country to worship. Could they worship in an unfettered and untrammelled way? Back came the helpful answer: yes, Turks can worship any which way they want in this country. I then put down some Questions about whether my right honourable and honourable friends in the Government would help these Anglicans by intervening with the Turkish Government, to try and see whether they could get a bit more freedom.
I did this in the traditional way by tabling Questions for Written Answer from the middle of 2010 until about the middle of 2011. Then, exhausted, I gave up because I got an Answer that there was nothing that Her Majesty's Government would do—this is quite specific; you see it on the record in Hansard—to help those who minister to the considerable number of Anglican residents and holidaymakers in the Anatolian peninsula, who want to keep their heads below the religious parapet. Incidentally, they are residents who vote. At the moment, they are forced to rotate worship among different houses, rather like Christians in the old days. Would the Government do anything to help them? The answer was no; they would not approach the Turkish Government to ask, “Please can you ease up a bit? Please can they just worship in this hall and then go on quietly to worship in some other place?”.
Then, however—and I end on this point—a bombshell. My Anglican correspondent, a clergyman in orders who spends half the year helping this necessarily furtive community, said that the German Roman Catholic community had suffered the same problems but then a much more muscular German Government had intervened directly with the Turks to promote a full-on, properly recognised German RC priest to worship and to celebrate in at least semi-public places. Maybe having a German Pope has put a bit of vigour into German diplomats.
I was struck, by the way, a few weekends ago in the car park of our West Country church by seeing a silver people carrier with one of those animal-loving advertisements across the back window with the strapline, “I love my German shepherd”. I looked down at the illustration but rather than an Alsatian I saw instead His Holiness Pope Benedict represented in its place.
I hope that our Government can act with similar vigour to that of the Germans to help the Anglican community on the Anatolian peninsula, for I fear that conditions may get worse for non-Muslim faith groups in Turkey. Dialogue, whether secular or spiritual, is of course vital, but so is action. The simple act of toleration of these little injustices to this or that religious community in any part of supposedly civilised Turkey will only encourage the religious cleansing that is gathering pace in other parts of the region as a whole.
My Lords, I also appreciate the opportunity given to us by the most reverend Primate to have this debate, and I appreciate how his words were taken here.
Scarcely a week goes by when we do not hear of yet another outrageous attack on one or other Christian community in the Middle East. In Egypt we hear about the Copts, in Lebanon the Christians are leaving in their droves, in northern Iraq they are terrorised and in the Horn of Africa tales of persecution and worse are so commonplace that the media have more or less stopped reporting them. Even in Palestine, the numbers of Christian Arabs are falling rapidly. In Bethlehem, the epicentre of Christianity, they feel increasingly unwelcome and now they are a marginalised minority where once they were in the majority—all this despite the commonly held view that it is not only the result of the Arab-Israeli conflict.
There are now barely 50,000 Christians in the whole of the West Bank. Of course, Christians are not alone in being chased out. The Baha’i faith has been eliminated from Iran and other Middle East countries, and the Jews have a long history of persecution in the region. No fewer than 700,000 Jews have been driven out in the past 50 or so years; were it not for the existence of Israel, they would be refugees and dispersed around the world. It is also the case that I as a Jew would be very unwelcome in many of these countries; in fact, I would find it very hard to visit Saudi Arabia as I would not be given permission.
This is troubling indeed at a time when we in the UK and the largely Christian western societies are quite rightly leaning over backwards to accommodate people of every race, creed and religion. You have only to look around your Lordships’ House to see our tolerance of diversity. At the same time, fundamentalism is increasing in the Middle East along with a dangerous anti-Christian intolerance.
There are two exceptions—possibly more—to this general pattern: Jordan and Israel. It might be instructive to examine why that might be so. In Jordan the relatively benign rule of King Abdullah has allowed the Christian community to avoid the persecution seen elsewhere. In Israel, the Christian community is actually growing. Here, I must put a slightly different slant on the issue from that of the noble Lord, Lord Wright. The community has increased fourfold in the last 50 years. This largely Christian Arab community represents about 10 per cent of the total Arab population of 1.5 million within Israel proper and has tended to cluster in the mixed towns of Haifa, Nazareth and Jerusalem. They do relatively well there: there is a Christian Arab Supreme Court judge, for example, as well as a Member of the Knesset and a winner of the Israeli prize for literature. They are well represented in academe and the professions. It is also the case that they have a lower infant mortality rate, lower even than Israeli Jews, and a higher rate of entry into higher education, especially among women.
Of course, they have their problems as a minority group. They have concerns about job opportunities, for example, but that has to be kept in some sort of perspective. As Andrew White, the vicar of Baghdad mentioned by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay of Clashfern, said,
“the only place in the Middle East that Christians are really safe is Israel”.
That must be responsible for the fact that Sudanese are making the hazardous trek across Egypt at risk to life and limb to seek refuge in Israel. It can be no coincidence that the world centre for the Baha’i faith is to be found in Israel.
There are lessons in Jordan and Israel for the Middle East. Certainly a lack of benign rulers, democracy and the rule of law has not helped. Can we hope that the Arab spring will bring some improvements? The fall of ugly dictatorships must be a helpful first step but the rise of democracy alone, at least in the first instance, seems not to be enough, although I agree entirely with the noble Lord, Lord Parekh, that it is much to be preferred and something that we have to foster. In Egypt, the coming to power of the Muslim Brotherhood must be very worrying for the Christian population, and the grinding poverty so widespread there does not generally favour increasing feelings of tolerance towards minorities, who are often used as scapegoats.
So it would be wrong to feel much optimism for the immediate future there, although perhaps one can hope for better in the longer term. Perhaps in Tunisia there may be the possibility of better news, or perhaps in Syria or Lebanon there is some room for hope. If Assad falls—and that is a big if—there are signs that support for Hamas in Syria and for Hezbollah in Lebanon may also fall. In Lebanon, at least it is largely Hezbollah that is making life difficult for the Christian community. Perhaps there is a glimmer of hope there too.
When there are such major shifts as we are now seeing across the region, there are both threats and opportunities. Let us hope and pray that the opportunities can be built up. Meanwhile, we should offer all the support that we can for these unfortunate people.
My Lords, this is a very welcome debate. As a British Jew who enjoys religious freedom in this country, one appreciates the need for religious minorities to enjoy religious freedom in other countries, and obviously that includes Christians in the Middle East.
I pay tribute to the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury who has raised this matter not only in this debate in your Lordships’ House but at conferences in July, where he raised the position of Christians in the Middle East and said to the BBC at that time that Christians were becoming a marginalised minority in Bethlehem.
I was particularly touched by the most reverend Primate’s comments about Christianity being an export from the Middle East, not an import. That was brought home to me when I went with Christian friends to walk the stations of the cross through Jerusalem and realised that you can still do that over beautifully paved roads in the old tradition. My Christian friends were particularly impressed that St Peter’s fish can still be fished—not the same fish, though—in Lake Kinneret. The tradition is there. It is not an import into the Middle East, it is an export from it, and it should remain there.
The noble Lords, Lord Wright—he has left us at the moment—and Lord Turnberg mentioned Bethlehem. Bethlehem is controlled not by Israel but by the Palestinian Authority, which bears the main responsibility for the situation faced by Christians living in Bethlehem and elsewhere on the West Bank, just as Hamas bears responsibility for the predicament of Christians living under its rule in Gaza. Of course, Israel still has control over aspects of life in the West Bank, not to mention East Jerusalem, and it is obviously involved in some ways in the affairs of Gaza. But it is not directly in control of either Gaza or the West Bank and the treatment, good or bad, of Christians in that area.
Taking issue again with the noble Lord, Lord Wright, in Israel itself—what might be called “Israel proper”—the Christian population is not falling but is stable, and there is religious freedom, including in Jerusalem itself. While the noble Lord, Lord Wright, was speaking, I looked up the population of Bethlehem. It is commonly said that there was Christian flight from there but, in fact, while the percentage of Christians in Bethlehem and Bethlehem district has decreased, the total number has increased. In Bethlehem city, the Christian population dropped under Jordanian rule but, since 1967, it has grown by 11 per cent in the city and 56 per cent in the district. Those are percentages; it must be remembered that, with an influx of a mainly Muslim population, percentages are one thing and numbers are another.
Israel's treatment of religious minorities may not be perfect, just as the UK's treatment of minorities is not always perfect, but there is religious freedom and there are full civil rights for Christians living in Israel. There are so many branches of Christianity in Israel. You find every branch of the faith there. It is almost like the Jew on a desert island who builds two synagogues because he wants to resign from one of them; there has to be more than one. The most reverend Primate mentioned politics; in Israeli politics, if you have three Jews, that is three political parties. There are masses of different branches of Christianity in the Middle East, and people forget that.
There is a UK task force on issues facing Arab citizens of Israel, which is doing a lot of good work in Israel, including with Christian Arabs over there, with a lot of practical support from Anglo-Jewish and Anglo-Christian charities. Anyone who cares about Israel must recognise that minority rights are important, and Christians have long had an important role to play in the area, including Israel and Palestine. It is therefore good news that, last year—the last year for which I have statistics—100,000 Christians were in the central square of Bethlehem for Christmas; that is twice as many as the year before and the highest number for a decade. One can only hope that that 100,000 is increased even further this year. This is testimony to the co-operation on West Bank security between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. Long may that continue.
The debate is about Christians in the Middle East, not only about Christians in Israel and Palestine, so one must, as some other noble Lords have done, consider the wider region. The so-called Arab spring has brought many issues involving Christians to the fore, but let us not forget long-established issues. For example, we take it for granted that it is simply not possible for Christians to live openly in a country like Saudi Arabia. Why should that be taken for granted? Why should it be acceptable to us? We must continue to put pressure on Saudi Arabia to reform.
In Syria, mentioned by other noble Lords, 1.5 million Christians have had some limited freedom of worship under the deeply unpleasant Assad regime. What future now awaits them, particularly if there might be a civil war, possibly fought on sectarian lines? In Iraq, where British troops fought and died to create the current regime, there have, since the 2003 invasion, been sectarian attacks on at least 54 Christian churches, with hundreds of deaths. As Minority Rights Group International said in a report on Tuesday, a mere 500,000 Christians remain in Iraq, down from the figure of between 800,000 and 1.4 million who were there in 2003.
The great work of Canon Andrew White has been mentioned by two noble Lords. He has and does work with the Jews living in Iraq. Baghdad had a vast Jewish population. The number of Jews living in Iraq, according to Canon Andrew White, is now only six or seven. The noble Lord, Lord Sacks, knows far more about it; the problem with speaking before him is that I have to get my statistics right.
Archbishop Louis Sako of Iraq's Chaldean Catholic Church has warned of a haemorrhage, and said that Iraq could be emptied of Christians. In Egypt, the situation remains deeply uncertain for Christians, as the results of elections continue to emerge. In October, a peaceful march protesting against the destruction of a church in upper Egypt was broken up by police and troops in central Cairo: 27 people were killed, some of them run over by military vehicles, and more than 300 people were injured. So it is hard to be optimistic about the future for Egypt’s ancient, Coptic Christian communities. This makes it even more important that we recognise, as the noble Lord, Lord Patten, said, that the UK coalition Government have committed £110 million over four years to the task of bolstering democracy, human rights and pluralism across the countries affected by the Arab spring, and this is vital for minorities, including Jews and Christians.
Protesters in Libya recently waved placards saying: “There is no place for the Jew in Libya”. It is equally deplorable to suggest that there might be no place for Christians in the Middle East, the region that gave birth to Christianity, and in which Christians have lived for more than 2,000 years.
This is a most welcome and urgent debate. The fate of Christians across the Middle East must, and I hope will, remain a priority for the UK Government.
My Lords, we are all in the debt of the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury for initiating this important debate. It is timely but it is also complex. I am grateful for the thorough way in which he outlined the issues.
For hundreds of years, Christianity has flourished in this region, which was central to its foundation and where it has made an important—indeed, a transformational—contribution to life. On the whole, in modern times, Christian communities have got on happily with their more numerous Muslim and Jewish neighbours. Sadly, it is in recent years that things have changed. The problems are manifold. There are, of course, the many attacks on Christian communities in Egypt, Iraq and elsewhere. However, I do not want to linger on the violence, as others have detailed it and, as I said, it is not as straightforward as many outside this Chamber believe. There are political reasons, as the noble Lord, Lord Wright of Richmond, has outlined, but we also know that violence against religious people is by no means only against Christians, though that is our immediate concern in this debate. We should remember that on Wednesday this week a Shia mosque in Afghanistan was blown up on a Shia holy day. The episode reflects the terrible and unnecessary war going on between violent people in both Sunni and Shia forms of Islam.
What all these terrible events have in common is that they all stem from the same lethal combination of fear and intolerance, fomented in most cases by inadequate understanding and education on the one hand, and inaudible authentic religious leaders on the other. It is the lack of true understanding that results in vulnerable minorities being exploited by those with political ends.
What contribution can our debate make? Wringing our hands may bring a little relief, but will not help those who have the courage to hold on to faith when all the worldly circumstances might suggest to young Christian families in the region that it would make sense to abandon it, especially for the sake of their children. The lack of a secure future is a major reason why many Christians are fleeing the Middle East for the West, and it is rumoured that already well over 100,000 have fled Egypt alone this year. We should remember too that 5 per cent of the population in Syria is Christian and, with a civil war now under way, what will happen to them? The landscape of the Middle East is at grave risk of losing a vibrant Christian presence that has been a vital part of its history and culture, and the region will be hugely the poorer for that loss.
There are many responses that we might offer to the problem, but one thing should be very clear. Everybody should enjoy equal treatment as citizens in the Middle East. Discrimination and legal impediments against Christians cannot be right, yet we know that there is much discrimination in practice, ranging from discrimination in employment through to the fact that in many places it is very difficult to get permission to build, or even to maintain, churches.
There is also a cogent argument that the long-term solution lies in improving and standardising the quality of education, and requiring that much of what is taught about other faiths is accurate and promotes mutual harmony. This will help to create future generations who respect diversity and seek harmony.
However, although the situation is alarming, the story is not all doom and gloom. I hope that a message might go from this Chamber to the vibrant Christian communities, be they Chaldean, Roman Catholic, Anglican, nonconformist, Coptic, Syrian Orthodox or from any of the other churches, that we salute their bravery and want to support them in the days ahead. I also want to salute organisations such as SAT-7, a Christian television broadcast service that is helping at the educational level. Other groups are involved as well.
We should also recognise the support of Muslim and Jewish leaders, who are as concerned as we are about the situation. I know from my relationships with the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar, the Chief Mufti and the Chief Rabbis of Israel how concerned they are, as are religious leaders in this country.
However, I have two practical suggestions that I should like to offer. First, I note that valuable work has been done under the mandate of the United States Congress for an annual freedom of religion report. I suggest that some formal process might be considered whereby our Foreign Office and embassies also present an annual assessment of the degree to which the right to freedom of religious belief and practice has been respected and enhanced in the Middle East. Indeed, some kind of assessment of the impact of religion in general on their work might be very helpful.
Could the noble and right reverend Lord comment on what has always concerned me—that is, the connection, if any, between high-level declarations and the realities on the ground? He had the experience of drawing up the Alexandria and Abuja interfaith declarations some time ago. Am I right in my recollection—which conforms to my experience of being in different countries, including going from Abuja to Kaduna in Nigeria—that, instead of thousands of people being killed, as predicted, after the publication of the Danish cartoon, only a score of people were killed? This was because a hotline arrangement had been drawn up. Is it not important that we look into how we can help that sort of thing so that realities on the ground can change and it is not just a case of “We love you and you love us” at the top level?
I recognise that contribution and thank the noble Lord, Lord Lea, for it. He has anticipated what I was going to say. On the point that he has made, I echo what the noble Lord, Lord Patten, said about religious freedom being a fundamental human right. Therefore, I suggest that a committee of this House be established to keep these matters under review. It might receive and occasionally lay before this House its findings in this vital area to emphasise our commitment to religious freedom and dignity.
On the point that the noble Lord, Lord Lea, touched on, secondly, I recall that in 2001, after 9/11, I was asked by Shimon Peres and the then Prime Minister Tony Blair to help take forward a dialogue between religious leaders in the Holy Land. I was pleased to lend my support. Jewish, Muslim and Christian leaders met in Alexandria under the co-chairmanship of Dr Tantawy, the then Grand Imam of Al-Azhar, and me. I recognise that the noble Lord, Lord Sacks, was involved in some of the early planning of that. The historic Alexandria declaration was the result.
Sadly, the lack of political progress sidelined the statement, but it not only helped to achieve a remarkable agreement between religious leaders but spawned initiatives in Nigeria and Iraq. Indeed, the Copenhagen summit, held in January this year, echoed it remarkably. I note, and a number of noble Lords have already mentioned, that Canon Andrew White, who has done remarkable work, happens to be in the Gallery. He was one of the key players in the Alexandria declaration and is currently making a powerful contribution to harmony in Iraq and the Middle East. That original Alexandria agreement was the result of religious leaders, politicians and diplomats working together. For example, we were helped in the drafting by Sir Robert John Sawers, who was then ambassador to Egypt but does a completely different job these days. If the Government are prepared, as I believe they are, to consider new initiatives, could they look at the possibility of something similar, and possibly wider, than the declaration?
If one thing is clear it is that religious dimensions, both good and bad, are powerfully at work across the new Middle East. This fact gives a fresh urgency to the promotion of steps that will engage religious leaders and politicians in taking concrete and public steps to show that they are united in the cause of peace and can act together to promote true harmony.
My Lords, I should like to thank the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury for bringing this debate on such an important and timely subject. Like many in the House, I was shocked and saddened to read about the recent attack on Coptic Christians in Egypt which killed 25 people. It was a shocking and barbaric act, which brought to the world’s attention a complex and worrying situation not just in Egypt but across the region. The attack reveals a dark edge to a movement that has great promise, not only for Egypt and across the Middle East but for global security. It is a reminder to us all that religious intolerance is still prevalent and needs to be addressed.
Speaking not just as a Hindu but as someone who has a deep affection for the Christian faith, I can put my hand on my heart and say that this is not just a Christian issue but an issue for humanity. It is about fighting for and protecting the rights of minorities. It is about the right to preserve freedom of worship. As my noble friend Lord Patten said, it is our human right. It is also about the right to protect equality. These are essential principles which hold the very meaning of democracy. Furthermore, these are values that we should seek to uphold as part of our foreign policy.
Unfortunately, this is an area in which I speak with some experience. I was forced out of my home in Uganda by a brutal dictator for no reason other than my ethnicity. I am proud to say from my personal experience that, be it on sexuality, ethnicity, gender, race or faith, tolerance is a cornerstone of British life and values.
In my Hindu faith, we are taught that it is a sin to be prejudiced against anyone, whether they are the majority or a minority, but it is an even greater sin to witness the persecution of anyone and sit back and do nothing to stop it. I fear that it may be tempting, for whatever reason, for nations and individuals to shy away from condemning the oppression of Christians in the Middle East. It would not be fitting of a country so well respected as Britain to do the wrong thing. I strongly encourage our Government and others around the world to speak out against any oppression of minorities on the grounds of religion.
The events of the past year have been heartening as countries across the Middle East have challenged brutal dictatorships or taken tentative steps towards democracy. However, amidst the protests, excitement and potential, it is vital that we focus on the specifics of what will rise out of the ashes. It would be a bitter twist of fate if we were to replace the systematic withholding of rights for entire populations with the victimisation of specific minorities. It is wrong and we must say so.
It is essential that what replaces dictatorships are democracies that prevent the persecution of minorities by upholding our finest constitutional principles—the rule of law; separation of religion and government; a clear separation of powers between the arms of the government, particularly the judiciary; freedom to worship and equality for all in the eyes of the law, including the protection of minorities. Without these principles being enshrined in the foundations of the new democracies, and without strong statements of disapproval from all faiths and all Governments, whenever anything this barbaric happens again, I fear that this debate may be repeated again and again.
The United Nations rightly condemned the attacks and called on Egypt not to waste the opportunities created by this year’s democratic revolution. This is exactly where faith comes in. My own guru, Morari Bapu, teaches us that religion should not be opposed to anything—if it is, it is not religion but irreligion. I add that those who do not respect those of other faiths are doing a disservice to their own faith, as we are all encouraged, in our own ways, to “love thy neighbour”.
It is a pleasure to see people of all faiths speaking on this issue today. As I said earlier, I do not believe that we should see this as purely a Christian issue. As I have said previously in the House, I do not believe that any religion has a monopoly on the truth. Through collaboration and tolerance and with one voice today we can encourage Governments across the world to uphold the rights of minorities. In the case of Egypt, we should ensure that all Egyptians, regardless of their faith, remain united in reaching the ultimate goal of establishing true democracy. My faith tells me to uphold the principles of truth, love and compassion. I encourage the authorities in the Middle East to do likewise.
My Lords, the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury has done us a great service in challenging us to look at the implications of faith for policy. That is something which our sometimes militantly secular society and its institutions find very hard to do. Faith and the implications of faith, particularly in areas of government and policy, are not things which our institutions readily embrace.
A few months ago I participated in a panel initiated by the British Council, which I believe remains one of our best organs of public diplomacy. The purpose of the panel was to reflect on the concept “God is back”. As someone who spends a good part of my time on the African continent, I thought that this was a strange concept because in Africa and the Middle East God never went away. In our secular society we sometimes forget that for the overwhelming majority of the peoples of this world it is the life of the spirit, God, ancestors, and the semi-permeable membrane between here and now—the life of the past and the life hereafter; not “isms” and “ologies”—that determines what they do and how they see the world. When we seek to formulate policy seeing the world through secular eyes, we are likely to get it wrong. Indeed, in many aspects of foreign and development policy we have got it wrong with terrible consequences. In looking at the plight of Christians in the Middle East in its wider context, as so many Members of this House have urged us to do, we are able to think about practical ways in which we might rectify the omission of failing to see our world through the context of the faith that is so important to so many. It is also important that we should look at practical ways of doing this because simple assertions of common humanity and of shared values are not likely to get us very far in this debate unless they are implemented by actions on the ground.
As we speak, people are being persecuted for their faith, driven out of their homes and places of worship are being destroyed and desecrated while, frankly, in the main, the rest of the world is silent. We seem able to talk about every sort of abuse of human rights and discrimination except discrimination and abuse on grounds of faith. It would be a good thing if the Prime Minister made a speech on similar lines to the one he made in Perth, but about discrimination on grounds of faith. I welcomed the Perth speech and I would welcome a similar speech about the importance of religious freedom. I wonder whether one will be forthcoming. I hope that as a result of this debate we will see a greater willingness than we have seen in the past to be assertive on this issue, and to be unashamed about being assertive.
I hope, too, that the Foreign Office, which inevitably bears the greater burden of taking forward the product of this debate, will empower and enable those Heads of Mission who feel confident in matters of faith to make the representations and assertions that need to be made on the ground in order to protect and promote religious freedom because if that is not done, it will not be protected. That is a matter for Ministers and the Permanent Secretary to undertake. I was very glad that in 2009, when we had our gathering of Heads of Mission in London, the Permanent Secretary and Ministers supported an initiative whereby Heads of Mission who felt inclined to do so came to St Ethelburga’s in the City, the centre for peace and reconciliation which the most reverend Primate will know well, to meet with faith leaders—Christian faith leaders in this instance—and stakeholders to discuss what the Foreign Office was seeking to do.
It was the first such meeting. I understand that another occurred in 2010. It would be a great help if Ministers would say that this is something that ought to happen regularly to enable faith communities to make a direct input into what the Foreign Office is doing on the ground. In so doing, they would enable the Foreign Office not only to act better in this area but to equip itself to see the world in which we live through spectacles that are not blind to faith. As long as we cling to a view of the world that is avowedly secular, we will be denying reality—what is taking place on the ground around us.
That is the simple point I want to make. I believe that Abraham’s path is a path for Muslims, Christians, Jews, people of all faiths in the Middle East and in Africa—sometimes it is necessary to remind folk that Libya, Tunisia and Egypt are in Africa. Our Lord was taken by his mother and father to Africa to escape persecution:
“Out of Egypt have I called my son”.
People who seek to follow in Abraham's path ought to appreciate and practise the truth that for us, it is not simply about tolerating diversity but embracing diversity. When we embrace diversity with practical policies on the ground, we walk a true path.
My Lords, the whole House, and especially the beleaguered Christian communities in the Middle East, the ancient churches, are greatly in the debt of the most reverend Primate, the Archbishop of Canterbury, for initiating today's debate. At the outset, I declare two non-pecuniary interests as honorary president of the United Kingdom Coptic Association and as a co-founder of the Jubilee campaign, which was established in the 1980s to promote religious liberties worldwide. In parenthesis, at the outset, I endorse what the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay of Clashfern, and others said about the work of Canon Andrew White, the vicar of Baghdad. I, too, was privileged to travel with him in both Israel and Palestine, along with the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Bath and Wells. I endorse everything that has been said about his indomitable spirit and incredible courage.
The noble Lord, Lord Boateng, concluded by talking about the importance of embracing diversity. He made a very powerful case, especially about the importance of political leaders such as the Prime Minister speaking out on these questions. I endorse every word he uttered a few moments ago.
Like his Grace, His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI has called on those of us who enjoy freedom of speech and belief—the freedom to reject religious belief, for that matter—to speak out more clearly on behalf of the Christians in the Middle East. In remarks at Castelgandolfo in September 2007, he warned:
“Churches in the Middle East are threatened in their very existence”.
As the sand slips through the glass, the situation seems to get worse and worse. Palestinian Christians now constitute just 0.5 per cent of the population, and in Lebanon, they have declined from 75 per cent to 32 per cent. Jerusalem, a holy city for Jews, Christians and Muslims, is, as the historian Simon Sebag Montefiore elegantly puts it in his magnificent book, Jerusalem,
“the prime place on Earth for God to meet man”.
Yet, in that same city, man seems incapable of meeting man.
All over the Middle East, men of faith need to go back to their holy Scriptures and consider what must be done to enable men and women to meet one another, to coexist and to honour and respect each other's religious traditions. In particular, it is essential, as others have done during this debate, to affirm the goodness of many fine Muslims but also to be willing to criticise those things which are being done by radicals in the name of Islam. These range from outright murder, such as the slaying of the Bishop of Orano in Algeria in 1996 to persecution by law, such as the existence and capricious use of apostasy and blasphemy laws in many countries to suppress and intimidate, and to the publication in schools throughout the region of books being used by the next generation which include pernicious incitements to hate and which poison minds.
Throughout the region, the case for religious freedom has been going by default. Take a country such as Iran, which affirms Article 18 of the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights. It is worth reminding the House that that article states:
“Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief, in worship, teaching, practice and observance”.
Yet in Iran, over the past year, there have been 300 arrests of Christians in 48 cities. Twenty remain in prison, some seeing a significant deterioration in their health. One, a 34 year-old, Youcef Nadarkhani, held for two years in Rasht prison, has been sentenced to death for apostasy. There are now hundreds of thousands of Iranians who have become Christians. Are they all to be sentenced to death? I will send the noble Lord, Lord Howell of Guildford, details of some of the others who languish in jail, and I hope that some way will be found, despite the severance of our diplomatic relations with Iran, to champion their cause.
Iran’s model of intolerant theocracy, its export of hideous terror, its failure to honour Article 18 and its increasing persecution of religious minorities—for instance, it executed a Baha’i convert—have disfigured the life of a great nation, and its ideology has seeped like poison all over the region. In clinging to sectarianism, Iran’s regime also misses a central point, one on which the most reverend Primate touched in his remarks. Religious freedom is important in its own right, but in democratic societies, religious freedom is a major factor in good economic, political and social outcomes. Iranian ideology underpins both the misuse of religion and the resultant demonisation of Muslims the world over. Throughout the region, these same Iranian ideologues are in danger of casting a terrible shadow over the Arab spring. As the winds of change have swept across the region, Christians have found themselves unprotected, targeted and caught in the crossfire. It is a cruel paradox that the removal of tyrannical regimes has often removed the thin veneer of protection which was previously afforded to the Christian minorities. The same may tragically be true in Syria.
Violence in the region has been at its worst in Iraq, where it was assumed that, as the situation stabilised, we might see an improvement. However, the killing of Christians there has not stopped. In October, in Kirkuk, in the district of Muthana, according to the charity Aid to the Church in Need, an armed group assassinated a 30 year-old Catholic, Bassam Isho. On 1 October, the body of Emmanuel Polos Hanna was found at the edge of the road in Baghdad. He had been shot dead. Christian sources in Kirkuk said:
“The attacks on Christians continue and the world remains totally silent. It's as if we had been swallowed up by the night”.
Not only is Iraq—Mesopotamia—the cradle of civilisation, it forms an essential part of the cradle of Christianity. The scriptures celebrate the great city of Nineveh, the waters of Babylon and Ur of the Chaldeans. Today, the cradle of the ancient churches is the scene of their asphyxiation and annihilation.
Since June 2004, 71 churches in Iraq have been attacked—42 in Baghdad, 20 in Mosul, eight in Kirkuk and one in Ramadi. In many cases, the churches in question have been attacked more than once—sometimes several times. In the past five years, 18 Iraqi priests and two Iraqi bishops have been kidnapped in Baghdad, Mosul and Kirkuk. In March 2008, the body of Archbishop Paulos Faraj Rahho was found dumped in a shallow grave in the city. Since 2003, up to 585 Christians have been killed and there have been large-scale atrocities. In October 2010, 58 Christians were killed during evening mass at Our Lady of Perpetual Help, the Syrian Catholic cathedral in Baghdad.
Is it any wonder that Christians are fleeing in an exodus of Biblical proportions? Many have fled to Syria, and it is anyone’s guess what their fate will now be. In 1987, according to the last census in Iraq, there were 1.4 million Christians. Today, as we have heard, there could be fewer than 150,000.
Iraqi Christians have a historic right and duty to take their place alongside other citizens in the development of a pluralistic, open society and to once again make a huge contribution to the life of the nation. However, this cannot occur unless the Government of Iraq do more to improve security and uphold the rule of law, rooting out the perpetrators of religious hatred, curbing the extremist groups, and ending the cycles of violence and the sporadic killings, bomb attacks and kidnappings, which always leave Christians fearful and at risk.
In their Christmas messages last year, the most reverend Primate and Pope Benedict both reflected on the murders at Baghdad’s Syrian Catholic cathedral. At the time, the perpetrators of those murders threatened violence against Egypt’s Christian communities, and we did not have to wait long to see those threats become a reality.
At the very beginning of this year, days after those Christmas messages, a bomb attack took place outside the al-Qiddissin church, the Church of the Two Saints, in Alexandria as worshippers were leaving a midnight service to celebrate the New Year. Paradoxically, Alexandria is the place where the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Carey of Clifton, did so much wonderful work in bringing about the Alexandria Declaration. According to official figures, at least 21 were killed and 79 were injured. The injured included eight Muslims. The church and a nearby mosque suffered extensive damage from the blast, and other attacks have followed.
On 1 January this year, I wrote to the noble Lord, Lord Howell, with a copy to the Foreign Secretary, detailing those events. On 23 June and 1 February this year, I raised in your Lordships’ House the violence directed at Copts. Throughout 2011 the violence has been intensifying, with hardly a murmur of protest. Last week in your Lordships’ House I asked the Minister whether he had seen the figures published by the European Union of Human Rights Organisations showing that more than 100,000 Coptic Christians have left Egypt since March this year. This quotation is from its director:
“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”.
It is hardly surprising that the Iraqi exodus is being replicated in Egypt. In your Lordships’ House I raised the attacks at Maspero just a few weeks ago. At least 26 people were killed in the massacre and more than 300 were injured. Nothing has been done to bring the perpetrators of that violence to justice. It is hard to believe that this is happening in 21st-century Egypt, which prides itself on being a member of the United Nations Human Rights Council.
In a letter to me of 29 July about the situation of Egypt’s Christians, the noble Lord said:
“We believe that there is now a moment of opportunity for Egypt ... We support a peaceful transition to a diverse, non-discriminatory and democratic Egypt”.
That moment looks as though it may pass. I hope that when the noble Lord comes to reply to this debate, he will tell us in particular what is being done to engage the authorities in Egypt to protect its Coptic community.
In conclusion, by rooting religious freedom in the dignity of the human person, the claim for religious freedom becomes a universal one, securing the freedom of all people of conscience—Christian or not—to embrace the religious belief of their choice. In turn, the elevation of religious freedom brings great bounty to society in the working out of charitable endeavour and the deepening of the common good. Perhaps—in the context of the challenges to which I have referred—this denotes the greatest benefit and the reason why all Governments should be seized by the importance of promoting freedom of religious belief.
I end with a sentence from the historic document Dignitatis Humanae, the great declaration for religious liberty which emerged from the Second Vatican Council and which forcefully sets out the case for religious freedom. It includes this telling admonition to lawful authorities:
“A society which promotes religious freedom will be enlivened and enriched; one that doesn’t will decay”.
My Lords, with the democratic awakening of the Arab world and the attendant rise of Islamist groups, it is important not to forget the Christian minority at the heart of the Middle East. I, too, am most grateful to the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury for bringing this important debate to your Lordships’ House and for his remarkable speech in opening it.
The Arab spring defies generalisation, and each country is undergoing change in its own way. However, a common theme is the desire for dignity, which unites not just the Arab world but everyone across the world. The other common theme is the desire for economic prosperity. The changes that we are witnessing will be judged by how well they meet these expectations. They will also be judged by how well these countries treat their minorities.
As we have heard, the Christian community is disappearing from the Middle East at an alarming rate. War, oppression, occupation, persecution and low birth rates all have some part to play. Yet the strengths of the Christian community, which has so enriched the Middle East over the centuries through its contribution to science, art, culture, the economy and politics, are probably needed now more than ever. How we react to this and the steps that we take to redress it are of importance not just to a religion with its birth and roots in the region but, as the most reverend Primate said, to the stability of the region as a whole. We must encourage the moderate, mainstream majority of Muslims, whose voices we will hear today in this debate, to denounce extremism in all its forms. That is not always easy, because moderate Muslims suffer too from the hands of extreme Islamists.
The world needs to understand the true face of Islam. In an article published earlier this year in the Independent online, in response to the killings of Christians in Iraq and Egypt, Dr Mohammed Abdel-Haq, a Muslim and the chairman of the advisory board of the Conservative Middle East Council—an organisation which I chair—wrote of the sensitivity of the Second Caliph Umar displayed to Christians when he entered Jerusalem. His declaration, known as the treaty of Umar, states that Christians will enjoy security for themselves, their money, their churches, their lowly, their innocent and the remainder of their people. Their churches are not to be taken or destroyed, and they are not to be degraded or belittled, nor are their crosses or their money, and they are not be forced to change their regions, nor are any of them to be harmed. That was in 637.
More recently—last night, in fact—I returned from Jordan, having been at a meeting of the international advisory board of the Amman Arab university. I love Jordan in December. Everywhere you go, you find Christmas trees and decorations, and Jordanian Muslims joining with their Christian neighbours to celebrate Christmas. As the noble Lord, Lord Turnberg, quite rightly said, this is a tribute to the tolerant rule of His Majesty King Abdullah and to his father King Hussein before him. These two examples—Omar and Jordan, in 637 and today—encapsulate the Muslim faith that I have always had the pleasure of encountering. This is the face of Islam that we should all encourage, because extremists of all faiths are not just a threat to other faiths but a potent threat to their own.
The Christian faith has also to be careful how it frames the tone and content of this debate. Today was an excellent start. We should embrace the values that bind the three great monotheistic religions, and others, rather than constantly looking at our differences. We should also recognise that some of the things we find uncomfortable today were acceptable in our church not long ago. I received—as I am sure all noble Lords did—research from Christian Middle East Watch. I am not sure who they are. I looked at their website, but apart from what they do they seem very shy of revealing their identity. However, in their research they submit certain texts used in Palestinian schools. I do not support the texts but I could not help remembering my husband telling me that when he was at one of the great Catholic schools, not that long ago, his knowledge of history stopped at the Reformation. We have all been guilty over time of spinning the story to suit our narrative.
In my remaining minutes I will return to Palestine. I declare an interest as the newly appointed president of Medical Aid for Palestinians. Recent research by the Applied Research Institute in Jerusalem estimates that the occupation costs the Palestinian economy 85 per cent of GDP—that is, £4.4 billion a year. This impacts on the whole community, but it has a disproportionate effect on Christians. They tend to have better contacts abroad and better resources to emigrate. Therefore, instead of putting up with confiscation of land and water, curfews, roadblocks and checkpoints, the demolition of houses and restrictions on new building, and the encroachment of settlements, they take their skills and good education and move abroad.
Today, almost three-quarters of all Bethlehem Christians live abroad. As the noble Lord, Lord Storey, said, more Jerusalem Christians live in Sydney, Australia, than in Jerusalem. This is bad news not just for Palestinian Christians but for all Palestinians and all Israelis, because these are well educated, good business men and women. Above all, they are moderate and they are needed in Palestine because they are an integral part of Arab culture. Of the 2 per cent of Christians who still live in Palestine, many hold seats in the legislative council. I join the noble Lord, Lord Wright, in praising the many Israelis who work tirelessly for the human rights of Palestinians.
I had the privilege last month of attending a round-table discussion at Lambeth Palace on the situation of Christians in the Middle East. It was generously hosted by the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury. It was generally agreed that we need a change of hearts and minds and that the Christian people have a heart for their country and a desire to see their countries prosper. Christians are an essential component of a safe and stable Middle East. As Karen Armstrong concludes in her excellent book, Muhammad: Prophet for Our Time, if we are to avoid catastrophe, the Muslim and western worlds must learn not merely to tolerate but to appreciate one another.
My Lords, as we advance towards Christmas it should be a statement of the obvious that Christians, from the young rabbi who is recognised as Jesus the Christ by his followers, have been in what we call the Middle East for two millennia. Yet curiously, as has already been noted in the debate, the general western perception is that the Middle East is Islamic and the West is Christian. Both perceptions are demonstrably false. That has been articulated in a number of speeches, most notably by the most reverend Primate.
We have all been attending to the continuing election process in Egypt in the last few days. The Muslim Brotherhood appears to be the dominant emergent party but there has been strong support for a more sectarian party. I am sure that all noble Lords wish all Egyptians well for a better participatory, democratic future; but we also understand the real unease of the Christian communities in the Middle East, and especially in Egypt. Yet in Egypt they are not a tiny minority. It is difficult to get accurate figures, but estimates of Egypt's Christian population vary between 6 million and 12 million people. The largest group, as has already been noted, is the Coptic Orthodox Church under their Father in God, Pope Shenouda. In the past I attended his powerful sermons in St Mark's Cathedral, Alexandria, and in Cairo. I saw the work of the Coptic Church in Egypt with the poorest of the poor in the township of the Zabaleen—the shanty town of the street cleaners of old Cairo. There were not only new churches, but alongside them clinics and schools.
The Coptic Church is ancient. It goes back to the tradition of St Mark himself, centuries before Islam. It is rather older than the Church of England and certainly older than my diocese of Guildford. I am happy to say that until recently we hosted a Coptic congregation in one of the churches in my diocese. They now have their own church. It is also very good to spy here today not a stranger in the Gallery but a friend in Bishop Angaelos, who has responsibility for the Coptic communities in Britain.
There have been difficult times in the recent past and present, which have been well articulated. In an article in a recent edition of the Egyptian Gazette, a visiting lecturer at the great Muslim Al-Azhar University in Cairo, already mentioned in the debate, cited a letter from the Prophet Muhammad to the monks of the monastery of St Katherine on Mount Sinai. The letter exhorts Muslims to protect Christians. When there were tensions in the past, the Coptic Pope Shenouda was put under house arrest because it was necessary to take steps against some Muslim groups and there was a sort of political even-handedness. I tell this story for the comfort of the most reverend Primate. Pope Shenouda was exiled to his peaceful monastery—already alluded to by the noble Lord, Lord Patten—in the Alexandrine desert. When the most reverend Primate is next in trouble with some sections of the British public and media, perhaps he might ask for such a peaceful place of exile.
In Syria and in Iraq the Christian churches are much smaller, but they, too, have been there since the beginnings of Christianity. The name Syrian Orthodox—the Suriani—speaks for itself. The patriarchs of Antioch take their title from the city where Christians were first so-called. Today there is deep uncertainty. Syrian Christians are meeting today in Geneva with the World Council of Churches to talk about their future. They are led by their patriarch, whom I remember as a young Syrian Orthodox bishop for whom I once organised a visit to the Church of England. He was rather impressed by Christ Church, Oxford. From the eastern Christian Syrian tradition—the Church of the East or Nestorian Church—there spread missions that reached the Malabar coast of India and the city of Nanking in China via the spice trade routes. Yet we have almost forgotten these ancient Christian churches, and many of their faithful are now in diaspora in Sweden, the USA, Canada, Australia and elsewhere, and of course here in Britain.
There was a time in living memory when, in most places of the region we are debating, the relationship between Christian and Muslim neighbours was good. They even shared in the veneration of sacred spaces and shared forms of pilgrimage. One can read William Dalrymple’s From the Holy Mountain for that fascinating story. The noble Baroness, Lady Morris, referred to Caliph Umar. I must check my dates with her: I have him entering Jerusalem in 638 other than 637. The caliph was shown the great Church of Constantine by the patriarch Sophronios, but declined to pray in the church—despite being invited to, and provided with a carpet, by the patriarch. Why? Because, he explained, the Muslims would have taken over the church after his death because the caliph had prayed there. He protected that church.
But today there are fears. As we have heard, Christian groups are subject to surveillance and harassment, churches are torched or bombed and the faithful are killed. Perhaps the relatively new, and more assertive if not aggressive, Muslim tradition of Wahabiism may be in part responsible, but so also must the political identification of Christianity with the West and western political and economic influence in the Middle East. Many Muslims now see in Christians a political instrument of the West.
Let me give a little example of that from the early 20th century. I have already referred to the Nestorian Church, the ancient Church of the East, which is sometimes called the Assyrian Church. At the time of the First World War, the Assyrian clans supported the British against the Ottomans, and we encouraged this. Their clans then served in the Royal Air Force in Iraq and Iran in the 1920s and 1930s, so they inevitably became associated with British influence. That has become a very mixed blessing. More dangerous for all Christians since has been the association of Christianity with the more recent western interventions, as has been alluded to by the most reverend Primate and the noble Lord, Lord Wright. I urge a sensitive and informed understanding of all Christians in the Middle East, not least those who have been there since, in Christian terms, New Testament times, and who do not wish to go and who are loyal citizens of their nations.
Let me end with a quote from the Egyptian newspaper article to which I have already referred:
“For fourteen hundred years, people of faith have lived together in peace not only respecting one another but also sharing one another’s joys and sorrows. Inshallah, God Willing, this will be the case for another fourteen hundred years”.
That is an aspiration and a prayer, which will require not only changed perceptions but actions, both here and there.
My Lords, I must begin with an apology for the fact that I must infringe the convention of this House by not being here at the end of this debate. As darkness falls early in these winter months, the Jewish Sabbath enters very early and I must have ceased work in time to observe it. I hope that your Lordships will understand that, given the topic, I felt it important to be here in support of the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury, and to thank him for his wise and moving words.
It was Martin Luther King who said:
“In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends”.
That is why I felt that I could not be silent today. As a Jew in Christian Britain, I know how much I, my late parents and, indeed, the whole British Jewish community owe to this great Christian nation, which gave us the right and the freedom to live our faith without fear. Shall we not therefore as Jews stand up for the right of Christians in other parts of the world to live their faith without fear?
And fear is what many Christians in the Middle East feel today. We have already heard today about the plight of Coptic Christians in Egypt, of Maronite Christians in Hezbollah-controlled areas in Lebanon, of the vast exodus of Christians from Iraq and of the concern of Christians in Syria as to what might happen there should there be further destabilisation. In the past year, we have heard of churches set on fire, of a suicide bombing that cost the lives of 21 Christians as they were leaving a church in Cairo, of violence and intimidation and of the mass flight of Christians, especially from Egypt. I believe that we must all protest this series of assaults—some physical, others psychological —on Christian communities in the Middle East, many of which, as the most reverend Primate has reminded us, have long, long histories. I, and I hope all other Jews in Britain, stand in solidarity with our Christian brothers and sisters, as we do with all those who suffer because of their faith.
I have followed the fate of Christians in the Middle East for years, appalled at what is happening and surprised and distressed by the fact that it is not more widely known. We know how complex are the history and politics of the Middle East and how fraught with conflicting passions, but there are two points that I wish to make that deserve reflection.
First, on the Arab spring, which has heightened the fear of Christians in many of the countries affected, we make a great intellectual mistake in the West when we assume that democracy is, in and of itself, a step towards freedom. Usually, that is the case, but sometimes it is not. As Alexis de Tocqueville and John Stuart Mill pointed out in the 19th century, it may merely mean the “tyranny of the majority”. That is why the most salient words in the current situation are those of Lord Acton, in his great essay on the history of freedom, who said:
“The most certain test by which we judge whether a country is really free is the amount of security enjoyed by minorities”.
That is why the fate of Christians in the Middle East today is the litmus test of the Arab spring. Freedom is indivisible, and those who deny it to others will never gain it for themselves.
Secondly, religions that begin by killing their opponents end by killing their fellow believers. In the age of the Crusades, Christians fought Muslims. Between the Reformation and the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648, Christians fought Christians—Catholic against Protestant. Today, in the Middle East and elsewhere, radical Islamists fight those whom they regard as the greater and lesser Satan, but earlier this week we mourned the death of 55 Shia worshippers at a mosque in Kabul and another 28 Shia who were killed in a terror attack in Iraq. Today, the majority of victims of Islamist violence are Muslim, and shall we not shed tears for them, too? The tragedy of religion is that it can lead people to wage war in the name of the God of peace, to hate in the name of the God of love, to practise cruelty in the name of the God of compassion and to kill in the name of the God of life. None of these things brings honour to faith; they are a desecration of the name of God.
May God protect Christians of the Middle East and people of faith who suffer for their faith, whoever and wherever they are.
My Lords, first I join others in thanking the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury for initiating this most important of debates. Let me also say what a huge privilege it is for me to follow the noble Lord, Lord Sacks.
The noble Lord, Lord Boateng, talked about the Abrahamic faiths. I remember my own early learnings in a Church of England school and how I returned home after hearing the words of the noble prophet Jesus, who said:
“You have heard the law that says, ‘Love your neighbour and hate your enemy. But I say, love your enemies! Pray for those who persecute you! In that way, you will be acting as true children of your Father in heaven”.
When I reflected on those words and asked my mother about them, she said, “The Abrahamic faiths are that Judaism lays the foundations, Christianity builds the walls and Islam is the roof. We all have the same origin and the same destination. Together we build a single house of worship”.
As many noble Lords have said, it should not be forgotten that the Middle East is the birthplace of the noble prophet Jesus, the home of Christianity and where many of the world's most ancient Christian denominations hail from. Indeed, I am often asked as a Muslim why Islam is in conflict with the West. I reply by saying, “I am a Muslim and I am of the West. I assure you there is no conflict. I do not stand in front of the mirror every morning and slap one cheek from the Muslim side and slap the other from the West. They are perfectly compatible. Equally, there are many Christians and Jews, rightly so, who are of the East. That is where the Abrahamic faiths originate”.
Today, between 10 million and 12 million native Christians remain in the Middle East, concentrated across Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Israel, Palestine and Iraq, yet those Christian communities are declining, as we have heard, not just because of low birth rates and emigration but, most alarmingly, because of persecution and violence against them. Indeed, this final and sinister element is now prevailing further afield, including in Pakistan and Indonesia, where extremist and erroneous interpretations of noble Islamic scripture have resulted in communities being attacked, churches being destroyed and, most tragically, lives being lost. Extremists pitch this as a battle between faiths and ideologies. I reject that. I believe it to be a fight against devout faith and religious extremism. There is a difference. Ultimately, being truly devout makes you anything but an extremist. Yet as much as some in the West equate all Muslims with extremists, there are those in the Middle East who are suspicious of the West. That is prevalent in many Islamic parts of the world. It is based on an extreme hatred of the western imperialism and the perceived unqualified support for Israel. Unfortunately and tragically, this has served on occasion as a pretext to scapegoat indigenous Christians.
What is the solution? As we have heard from many noble Lords, an opportunity is perhaps provided by the Arab spring and the desperate need to drive for a solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict. These have become essential components in what I believe will be a lasting and peaceful future for all communities and all faiths, not just in that region but in the wider world.
Too often we lay the responsibility on someone else's doorstep: “It is for the US to resolve” or “Let each country decide its own fate”. We hear those remarks quite often, and I wish to spend a moment or two on two propositions. The first is Britain’s role on the world stage. We have influence, perhaps beyond what we sometimes realise. When Britain talks, people listen; when Britain walks, people follow. Our diplomacy is world renowned, so let us not discard our role on the world stage. An ambition to play a central and pivotal part in resolving the Israel/Palestine issue should not be dependent on the Americans. Let us not wait for the US to lead. Our Government can take the initiative and build the hope and rekindle the spirit and brave ambition of those leaders emerging in the region today much in the spirit of President Sadat and Prime Minister Rabin. Of course we desire countries to design their own fate, yet helping them to nurture and develop state structures is also important. Intervention should not be in military might alone, but should extend to education and investment.
It is against this backdrop that we must work with the Islamic world in nurturing stable, settled, prosperous and free Christian communities, and all communities, across the Middle East. As the noble Lord, Lord Sacks, said, this will be the ultimate test of Islamic openness. It is this Islam whose hand needs to be strengthened. It is this Islam that needs to prevail. When Muslims interact with Christian communities, and with all communities, with mutual respect and understanding and when faith does not condone suicide bombers but, as the noble Lord, Lord Patten, said, respects human and civil rights and is not out for religious domination but instils the principle of religious pluralism, then it is truly at ease and compatible with the emergence of liberal democracy. Some may say that that is a model too far. Of course it is not, for we find its mirror image on our shores. What Muslims living in the West demand—and receive—for themselves by way of rights, legal protections and representation, they ought to be able to grant to Christians and all communities living in Muslim-majority countries.
I stand before noble Lords today as someone proud of his country and his faith, who is proud of being British and Muslim. The Arab spring should provide opportunity and hope to millions who will be able to say in years to come that they are proud to be Iraqi or Syrian or Egyptian and Christian. Promoting a democracy among Muslims that stresses minority rights and secularism will be the foundation of a healthy pluralism in the Middle East. It can be achieved with the desire and the ambition of people of all faiths. As the right reverend Prelate said, ultimately, with prayer, it can be achieved. Inshallah.
I end with the words of the holy prophet of Islam, the noble Prophet Mohammed, peace be upon him, who, when addressing the religious leaders of the monastery of Saint Catherine in Mount Sinai, who had sought the protection of the Muslims, said:
“This is a message written by Mohammed ibn Abdullah, as a covenant to those who adopt Christianity, far and near, we are behind them. Verily, I defend them by myself, the servants, the helpers, and my followers, because Christians are my citizens; and by Allah! I hold out against anything that displeases them. No compulsion is to be on them. Neither are their judges to be changed from their jobs, nor their monks from their monasteries. No one is to destroy a house of their religion, to damage it, or to carry anything from it to the Muslims' houses. Should anyone take any of these, he would spoil God's covenant and disobey His Prophet. Verily, they are my allies and have my secure charter”.
I end as a Muslim by extending to the Christians in this House the peace of the season and wish them a very merry Christmas.
My Lords, much has been written and spoken about the Arab spring. Many see it as a time when millions of people across the Middle East were liberated from tyranny, but of course not all of them were. For a great many, such as the people of Syria, the spring has yet to come. In Egypt, it looked for a while that the spring had passed very quickly through summer and autumn into winter. For the liberation experience of the Arab spring to mean anything, it must be for all Arabs, Christian as well as Muslim. Both communities must make common cause in the battle for freedom and democracy. There are some encouraging signs and small shoots that have appeared and need to be nurtured.
Recently, I read an article in the Tablet, written by Michael Gunn, a freelance journalist based in Cairo. In particular, he wrote about the Egyptian election campaign and made reference to Alexandria where there were signs that the electoral process was tilted towards the Islamists and posters for the hard-line Salafist groups caked the walls of the alleys. He also reported that in the mixed Muslim-Christian neighbourhoods there were good relations between Muslims and Christians, and that both communities shared concern about extremists. I believe that that shared concern can help to bridge the religious divide.
The Arab spring is complex and is not easily categorised. Each Arab country has a unique set of circumstances with differences and tensions between urban and rural populations and social class. Even more, the attitude of the older generation based on the pain of past conflicts is at times at odds with the aspirations of a better educated younger generation who have not experienced these conflicts. Despite our hopes for the Arab spring, there are still many real dangers for Christians in the region.
In the past few years, the pogrom in Iraq has shown terrible evidence of that. The success of the Muslim brothers in the Egyptian and Tunisian elections is proof of the strength of Islamist feeling. We must all hope that the experience of governing will bring its own constraints and might moderate previously hard-line views. The real problem is likely to be the growing influence of the Salafi groups and there is no easy answer to their brand of radicalism. But possibly the most effective challenge to it is likely to come from the Muslim brothers, resentful at finding their electoral base being usurped.
Across the region there are also strong Christian communities, such as in Lebanon, and signs of hope, such as the relative tolerance shown in some Gulf states. For me, tolerance is at the heart of the matter. I well remember my late old friend Leo Abse who, when he announced his retirement as a Member of Parliament, would give only one piece of advice to his successor. He said, “Tolerate everyone, tolerate everything but never tolerate the intolerant”. I believe that it is that tolerance that we need to encourage.
To portray all Middle Eastern Christians as oppressed does many of them a disservice. Christians are not above or apart from the Arabic-speaking cultures in which they were born. Many of their families go back many centuries, even to the time of our Lord. It is important to talk about the common good, rather than to focus exclusively on one religious minority since that reinforces the perception that Christians are somehow alien transplants without indigenous roots. Christians in the West need to be cautious and to recognise that while prayerful solidarity is a duty it needs careful expression to avoid giving the impression that we are acting as proxies for Western Governments, many of whom gave succour and aid to the police states that have just fallen.
It is salutary to remember that the great majority of victims of religious persecution in the region are not Christians but Muslims. The most fundamental point is that the fate of Christians in the Middle East is inextricably linked to the health of the societies of which they are part, which means that anything that contributes to creating prosperous, democratic and law-based states will help the Christian communities. Equally, anything that undermines a pluralist state will have a negative impact on Christians. A key indicator for us to watch will be the rising or declining legal status of women.
I know from discussions I have had with Dr David Ryall, the assistant general secretary of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales, that the Catholic Church places great stress on religious freedom because it is fundamental to the health of our democracy and to our rights. It should be understood as a freedom for people of all faiths and looked at as a guarantee of non-compulsion for believers as well as non-believers.
As Christians living in the West our ability to influence developments within the Middle East is often limited. Possibly our most effective contribution is likely to be in engaging with our own Government, parliamentarians and officials, both in London and Brussels, so that they become more conscious of the importance of monitoring and promoting religious freedom. Central to that is an understanding on the part of policy-makers that religious freedom is necessary for a stable political order. Without a commitment to respecting the rights of minorities, Christians, often the most dynamic, entrepreneurial and secular elements within the region, will find emigration difficult to resist. Denuding the Middle East of Christians will in turn strengthen the hand of those who wish to see the region’s cultural mosaic smashed and destroyed.
Our Government, thankfully, have made a start. There have been some promising moves within the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and all will welcome William Hague’s setting up and appointment of the Advisory Group on Human Rights. But I wonder if we can persuade him to go a step further. If the Foreign Secretary appointed an envoy for religious freedom, that would be one way of both expressing concern and attracting expertise within the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and would be very useful indeed. In the United States, the State Department has the Office of International Religious Freedom which is led by an ambassador at large. That might be another way of achieving the objective I have just mentioned. Possibly, the European Union’s External Action Service might also look at this suggestion. I also certainly welcome the suggestion made by Archbishop Dominique Mamberti, the Holy See’s equivalent to a foreign secretary, who, when addressing the 18th Ministerial Council of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe, proposed that we should have a world day against the persecution of Christians. This could be a right and proper focus for us across the world.
Christians and Muslims, although divided by faith, share a common humanity, and both faiths preach the importance of this common humanity. If we can unite around that common humanity, we can tolerate our religious differences as a first step and then learn to live in peace as a second step.
My Lords, I welcome the debate and the priority given to this issue by the most reverend Primate. I hope that the Christian communities in the Middle East will hear that we are thinking of them, that we are praying for them and that we offer them our understanding and support. I hope also that some sort of message will be sent to the Christian communities as a result of our debate today. There is a very worrying increase in religious intolerance and denial of religious freedom and, as has already been said, we should recognise the valuable work done by moderate religious groups, especially Muslims. I also refer to the decisions of the Israeli Supreme Court in recognising the rights of Palestinians and standing up for them even when ultra-Orthodox Jews marched through Jerusalem in opposition to those decisions. Today I have been very impressed by the wise words of many noble Lords including, if I may mention, the noble Lords, Lord Parekh, Lord Popat and Lord Ahmad, and I was inspired, as I am sure many other noble Lords were, by the words of the noble Lord, Lord Sacks.
I speak with some diffidence since I have really come to listen and learn. But I have to confess to noble Lords that I am not helped by my pasting on my iPad, by mistake, a photo of my dog on top of my remarks. I do, however, want to tell your Lordships about two experiences, one sad and the other hopeful. On a visit to Israel and the West Bank last year, on our way to Bethlehem we stopped at a village probably well known to many noble Lords, Shepherds’ Fields. The Christian driver of our coach told us that he used to live in the village alongside Muslims. But he told me that the Christians and Muslims have left and that the village was now Jewish. I echo the passionate words of my noble friend Lord Wright of Richmond, although equally I recognise the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Turnberg, on the increase in the Christian population in Israel.
If I may be forgiven for going beyond the actual Middle East and referring briefly to Pakistan, I shall mention that my husband and I were on our way to Muzaffarabad in Azad Jammu and Kashmir. Our High Commission four-wheel drive broke down at Muree up in the hills, and we were looked after by the wife of the local pastor. His church had been burnt down at least twice, and he had rebuilt it. He continues to provide holidays for Christian families from all over Pakistan and a retreat for Christian communities, again from all around Pakistan and, I think, some from India. He and his family seem to be indomitable and present a wonderful example of fortitude and of triumphing over continuing persecution.
My Lords, the wonderful thing about your Lordships’ House is that it never fails to surprise, to entertain and to inform. At the moment I am a little let down by tears because this is by far the most interesting collection of speeches that I have heard in all my time in this House—but I should have known that because the right reverend Prelates are extremely well educated and well informed. They absorb information in a way that even a wet sponge cannot do. What is it about them? First, we are not going to let them go from this House. We need them and have always needed them, as the knowledge that has been imparted to us today demonstrates.
I would like to thank the most reverend Primate for surprising me. I suffer from many disadvantages. I was christened into the Church of Scotland, but no one bothered to tell me until maybe 10 years after the war. My Christian name is Malcolm, after St Columba, the dove of peace. My family motto is “Deus Providebit”—God will provide, with a hand holding a cross crosslet. I was not quite sure what the three little crosses were until someone said, “Perhaps you could cheat a bit and call them church, law and Parliament, the three great estates”.
The school that I went to, Winchester, surprised me the other day. I was not adequately academic to be academically active, but I got a note advising that they had bought a copy of the first edition of the King James Bible. I then found to my surprise that one of the earlier headmasters had actually translated it and had pointed out that there were dangers in translation in terms of misinterpretation. Even the brochure, or little leaflet, that I got showed many examples of complete misinterpretation.
So I go back to the power of the word—the written word, the spoken word—and,
“the Word was with God”.
What I fear may happen in these days between church, law and Parliament is misunderstandings and misinterpretations between religions, particularly those that are based upon the written word. Hence, I shall not stray too far into the people of the book, because, unfortunately, the books that I was going to read yesterday at some length did not arrive from the Library in time.
I have done many things in my life, but for a long period I was chairman of the Committee for Middle East Trade, responsible for trying to encourage and develop trade in the Middle East. This meant that the Foreign Office would recommend that you went to the most awful places because no one else could go there. Among other things, I had to go to Iran without a visa to try to sort out the problem of The Satanic Verses. I was picked up and taken to Isfahan, the holy city. I had an Islamic lawyer; I had a mullah; I had my own team, whose English was not perhaps quite as good as my own, and we had room for misunderstandings. But we sat to decide and discuss what should happen next.
In that, I suddenly learnt that people quote things. My quotations would have been:
“Quinquireme of Nineveh from distant Ophir,
Rowing home to haven in sunny Palestine”.
I used to have to learn things parrot-wise—14 lines, a sonnet each week—and also in German. Often I did not know what they meant, but I had learnt them and then I could trot them out for no reason.
In my time in the Middle East dealing with trade, we found that, every time there was some problem, you would have a debate and a discussion of the Word and the writings—Old Testament, New Testament and, of course, occasionally the Koran. Trade was the advantage, because it is the duty of every good Muslim to trade. That, I had never heard in religion before, but it would mean that when you were talking with someone in a souk, next door to him would be a Jewish trader with his children being trained. There was no problem in the trade. You looked at the old trade route and you found that, in general, it was not emotion or religion that caused the problem; it was temporal matters such as territorial gain.
We have failed to recognise or note today the tremendous importance of our own British colonialism or empire over Middle Eastern territories for a long period. We were there mainly because of the opportunities for the development and creation of added value to resources. We forgot, too, that the Arab world—which I tend to refer to it as, rather than the Middle East—was based historically on trade. They were the first slavers, seeking above all white slaves, who were at a far greater premium. They were the ones who sailed the world. They were the first navigators. There is an ancient culture there that is difficult for many people to understand. Over my time, I have been drip-fed and I have appreciated the knowledge and learning that comes with it. The trouble is that if you are not properly trained in these matters, you can suddenly find yourself one day in the Sinai desert in the middle of a minefield where you have been asked to develop a hotel called Hammam Phar’oun—Pharaoh’s Bath—on the very spot that Musa or Moses took his staff, stuck it in the ground and water came out, having just passed across the Red Sea at low tide. As you read these books you realise that each generation alters the text slightly and there may be misinterpretations. At the end of the day, surprisingly enough, it is the written word that has power. We can look at treaties, we can look at everything else and we can look at people.
We used to say that the Foreign Office was all Arabist. They used to drop the “W” from the name of the noble Lord, Lord Wright of Richmond, because he was always right. I would find myself in Petra having meetings with people or at the bottom of Jordan with Alec Douglas Hume, whose speeches we should not forget, and the noble Baroness, Lady Thatcher. We were trying to work out the future. I was picked up by plane and taken back to Oman. The next day I was being flown by King Hussein in his plane back to England. He said, “We are in the air now so we can talk freely”. I asked why and he said, “We are between heaven and earth”. You could talk very openly with these people and I found that there were three postures—the official, the religious and the personal. In all these territories, which I got to know very well, I would look at the trade routes. I would be amazed that the Jewish faith was particularly popular in Dakar, Senegal. As you moved across the Atlantic, the same was the case in Sao Paulo and you realised that it was due to periods of migration or persecution that moved whole nations.
I do not fear too much about the future of the Middle East as it is, but I feel that there are so many opportunities and misunderstandings and we must look back to the books. Islam says that he who kills shall surely himself be killed, and that he who forgives from a position of strength is more honourable than he who forgives from a position of weakness. When I read this debate, a little tear will come to my eye. We have had a remarkable collection of speeches so far. It will be difficult to differentiate between the speech, the sermon or ultimately what will become the saying.
My Lords, I join in congratulating the most reverend Primate—feet on the ground, eyes looking upwards and outwards. I make three simple propositions. First, the Middle East is the birthplace of Christianity. Secondly, from New Testament times there have been diverse Christian communities throughout the Middle East. Thirdly, increasingly, there is intense pressure on those communities from a resurgent Islamic fundamentalism. I shall pose the question of how best we can respond.
Christianity of course began in the Middle East. Christ was born in Bethlehem of Judaea and spent all his short life, after an Egyptian exile, in Palestine. St Peter had his vision of the expanding new religion in Joppa near Tel Aviv. The Epistles illustrate that expansion. St Paul was converted on the road to Damascus. St Mark the Evangelist was martyred in Alexandria and there are indeed other Christian martyrs in Alexandria today. St Augustine and others worked in the Maghreb. With such a crowd of witnesses, it would be a bold assertion that Christianity is some alien insertion into the Middle East.
Many diverse Christian communities were formed throughout the Middle East. Roughly 10 per cent of Egyptians are Copts. Syria has a sizeable Christian minority of at least 10 per cent. Lebanon is the only Middle East country to have until recently a Christian minority, with a remarkable constitution drawing lines between the different communities. In Israel, a proportion of the Israeli Arabs are indeed Christian, and Israel is perhaps the only country in the region that has not only total freedom of religion but also freedom to convert to change one’s religion. In Bethlehem, there used to be a Christian minority, which is now massively decimated. In Jerusalem, too, once a Christian city or at least one with a Christian majority, there is now but a small portion. There has been a Christian presence in Iraq from the second century, and the liturgical language is Syriac, which is derived from Aramaic, the very language spoken by Christ. Throughout the Middle East, there are therefore large parts of the landscape that are, indeed, Christian.
Thirdly, there is a remarkable increase in pressure on those communities from resurgent fundamentalism, to the point of religious cleansing, as the noble Lord, Lord Patten, said so well. There is at least a risk of Christianity ultimately disappearing from parts of its biblical homeland. The decline is certainly, in part, due to persecution, low birth rates and emigration. Certainly in Egypt, Iran and Iraq, there have been examples of massacres and burning of churches. Alas, it is perhaps the old authoritarian regimes in Egypt and Syria, as well as Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, which provided the safest havens for Christians. Equally, all these countries in principle support the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948, which enjoins not only freedom of religion but the freedom to change one’s religion. Apostates are persecuted throughout that region. In Iran, Pastor Nadarkhani has bravely refused to renounce his faith, which would save him from the death penalty for alleged apostasy. A decision is expected on his fate before Christmas. Then of course there is the Arab spring—or as the Americans are prone to call it now, the Arab thing, because of the uncertainty about its future. This brings new dangers of repression, actual and threatened, as Islamic parties in a swathe from Morocco through Tunisia unto Egypt gain the ascendancy. Of course, there are moderate elements. The Muslim Brotherhood will reach accommodations and can, as the Palestine parties have shown, become ever more tolerant. It is fair to say that in Morocco, for example, the king has appointed an Islamic leader who has said all the right things. But we wait to see the eventual result. Western dreams and Egyptian realities!
Syria, currently a relative haven for Christians, is likely to become much less so if the Assad regime is overthrown. So we are left with this dilemma. Of course, according to our principles, we encourage democracy, but some of the consequences are likely to be unwelcome. How do we then respond to these challenges? What are the principles on which we should act? I give only headlines, because of the severity of the time limit. I assert that we should defend human rights in general, and Christianity only as part of that, as this may be used against Christian minorities if it is seen that the West is supporting only them. There are many other groups—and I hesitate to use the word minorities, after what the right reverend Prelate said—which are suffering, such as the Baha’i in Iran. Perhaps the Christians will be made targets.
We should remind states of their international obligations, particularly in respect of the right to have one’s religion and the right to change it, and use the embarrassment factor. We should encourage Muslim leaders in this country and the Middle East to speak out boldly, as the Grand Mufti has done. We should also give a model of toleration in our own country. Although the recent Shia procession in Kabul was bombed by a suicide bomber, a similar procession in London was greeted by a certain curiosity. Just as many of the exiles who are now returning to Egypt and Libya experienced our own toleration as exiles in this country, so I hope that some of that will rub off on them as they assume positions of authority in their own countries.
Our aid policies should encourage human rights, democracy and the rule of law and we should of course use our international institutions. Briefly, the Council of Europe’s Parliamentary Assembly has recently formed the so-called status of Partner for Democracy with Morocco and with the Palestine Authority in the lead. That status has a review provision of the human rights obligations assumed by those countries, which should be extended, but we should clearly recognise that the real battles will be fought and, I hope, won by domestic forces. There are great limits to external pressure. It is the new forces, particularly women and young people, who give us hope. They demand freedom for themselves and, I hope, for minorities such as Christians. If they are to succeed in their aspirations to modernise successfully, that can ensure that the revolutions will evolve and not be betrayed—and that new Presbyter will not be old priest writ large.
My Lords, I, too, thank the most reverend Primate for initiating this very timely debate. In the short time available, I will try to reflect his emphasis on diversity by focusing on four countries which have not experienced recent political upheavals—Saudi Arabia, Iran, Turkey and Iraq—and two which have undergone recent revolutions: Egypt and Tunisia.
Saudi Arabia is the most extreme and repressive country in the Islamic world today, with a total ban on religious practice by non-Muslims; a refusal to allow anyone even to bring a Bible into the country; a religious police, ruthless in punishing anyone who violates these prohibitions; and school textbooks which promote religious intolerance and virulent anti-Semitism. It is also a cause of particular concern that Saudi Arabia is promoting its very hard-line form of Islam, Wahhabism, around the world.
In Iran, a nation already referred to by my noble friend Lord Alton, Article 4 of the constitution states that all laws must be based on Islamic principles, which makes the 2 per cent of the population belonging to other faiths, including Christians, Jews and Baha’is very vulnerable to oppressive policies and harsh penalties for crimes such as apostasy. Reports indicate an increase in harassment of Christians, while Baha’is have been heavily persecuted. The reports are that the increased persecution against Christians is sometimes made on the charge of actions against the security of the state. While we speak here today, I will again refer—this case has already been referred to twice, but I want to highlight it—to the situation of the 35 year-old Christian pastor, Youcef Nadarkhani, who faces possible imminent execution, having been told by courts on three appearances that he must recant his Christian faith or die.
Not surprisingly, Iran has seen a haemorrhage of Christians since the 1979 revolution: for example, the number of Assyrian Christians has dwindled from 100,000 in the mid-1970s to barely 15,000 now. Iraq has been widely discussed by many of your Lordships, and I will not repeat the statistics that my noble friend Lord Alton has provided to the House. He has detailed a number of attacks and killings of Christians. I add my tribute to those that have already been made to Canon Andrew White for his magnificent work, particularly in promoting interfaith relations, in that difficult situation.
There are other aspects of what is happening in Iraq that we should be aware of, in addition to the killings and the attacks on churches. Christians have also experienced verbal insults to their faith, personally and in the media; graffiti on buildings telling them to convert or “face the consequences”; text messages threatening to kidnap Christian children; and death threats by phone or text, often involving demands for money. Such menaces represent a serious security issue for an already vulnerable community. Of particular concern are the very serious recent attacks on Christians in and around Dohuk, in an area which had recently been seen as so safe that many Christians fled there thinking that it would be a haven for them, a disturbing development that has not even been reported in the media. Hence we have seen another mass exodus of Christians, from 1.5 million to a mere 150,000 today.
I turn to two countries that have experienced the recent so-called Arab spring, Tunisia and Egypt. Tunisia—one, hopefully, can report—is an example of cautious optimism. Minorities are staying in the country, hoping that there may be genuine democratic reform. According to the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Tunis,
“The democratic spirit is there … This is not Iran, Pakistan or Saudi Arabia—it’s not Switzerland or Sweden either … This will be a real Arab democracy, with a Muslim colouring”.
I hope that that will be a real precedent for other countries undergoing change.
Egypt, by contrast, has seen an upsurge of violence, which has already been referred to in this debate. That violence has increased since January. Under Mubarak, there was systematic discrimination and episodic violence against the Christian Copts, who represent 15 per cent of the population, but there have been twice the number of attacks against them since January than in the previous two years and perpetrators have not been called to account. The culture of impunity has become almost institutionalised and is believed to have encouraged attacks on the Copts since the beginning of this year, leading to a feeling of vulnerability among people who should feel protected by their nation state. The violence, the insecurity, the impunity for aggressors and the fear of the growing influence of the Muslim Brotherhood have resulted in yet another mass exodus of Christians—nearly 100,000 since March this year.
Countries that are ruled by adherents to Sharia law experience inherent discrimination, ranging from the imposition of special taxes to threats of the death penalty for apostasy and blasphemy. Even Turkey’s secular democracy still exhibits some discrimination against Christians. Many feel that the Government there are trying to achieve the gradual extinction of Christianity by draconian regulations affecting succession in governance, entry into the priesthood through seminaries, the building of new churches and public expressions of religious affiliation. There have also been episodes of violence, for which perpetrators have not been brought to account. However, recent developments, such as the pledge to return property confiscated from Christian and Jewish communities, are perhaps signs of improvement and to be much encouraged.
I conclude by suggesting some possible types of response. First, I stress the importance of building bridges, not walls, wherever possible. One positive example from my own experience is taken not from the Middle East but from Indonesia, the world’s largest Islamic nation with an honourable record of religious tolerance until that was shattered in 1999 with an invasion of Islamists from the Middle East in the form of Laskar Jihad, which generated conflict in Maluku and Sulawesi, a conflict in which thousands were killed and displaced and many non-Muslims subjected to forced conversion. However, after a few years, the traditional Muslim leaders wanted to normalise relations with the Christian communities. I was privileged, at their request, to help to establish the Islamic Christian Organization for Reconciliation and Reconstruction, which was launched in Jakarta with the late former President Abdurrahman Wahid as honorary president. I was delighted when the British Government funded an interfaith delegation under the auspices of IICORR to come to the United Kingdom to work out policies of reconciliation and reconstruction away from the conflict zone. I was even more delighted when, on return to Ambon, they were able to prevent renewed conflict on the basis of the good faith developed while here in the UK. I hope that many more such initiatives might be ways forward as regards some of the situations that we are discussing today. I am therefore deeply committed to such inter-faith initiatives, which promote genuine inter-faith harmony and reconciliation where there has been conflict. However, there is also a need for realism and a need to take appropriate measures on behalf of victims of persecution.
I have great respect for the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, with its remit to publish annual reports on the state of religious freedom around the world, already mentioned by my noble and right reverend friend Lord Carey. Particularly significant is the commission’s authority to require the US Administration to take appropriate measures to call to account countries exhibiting violations of religious freedom. I ask the Minister whether Her Majesty’s Government might consider a similar initiative. In July, I understand, the Foreign Office sponsored a conference on religious freedom, the Wilton Park conference, promoting religious freedom around the world. Will the Minister let us know what were the outcomes of that conference and what actions Her Majesty’s Government intend to take in the light of those outcomes?
It is encouraging that the Foreign Secretary recently said:
“The freedom of religious belief is a universal human right which needs to be protected everywhere, and the ability to worship in peace is a vital component of any free and democratic society”.
Those words must be warmly welcomed, but reports that the European Union is reluctant to promote the freedom to change one’s religion for fear of the response from the OIC nations are a cause for concern. Can the Minister offer any reassurance on that point?
I also ask the Minister whether the issue of symmetry is raised during discussion with countries such as Saudi Arabia, where the restrictions are so severe, and whether any consideration is given to Saudi Arabia’s massive investment of money in building and sponsoring mosques and madrassahs here in the United Kingdom while still allowing no religious freedom to non-Muslims in its own country with severe punishments for anyone caught practising their own religion.
I thank the noble Baroness for giving way. She has just mentioned Saudi Arabia, and the lack of reciprocity between our practices and theirs. The same is the case with Turkey, which was mentioned earlier in the speech of the noble Baroness. Does she feel that we could or should do more to encourage the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to use the argument of reciprocity as a starting point and not brush it under the carpet?
I am grateful to the noble Lord for highlighting the point that I was intending to make, and for making it absolutely explicit. I thank him.
I ask the Minister whether religious freedom features as a priority in discussions on human rights with other countries and whether in cases of gross violations, consideration might be given to the use of appropriate pressure with regard to religious freedoms. My last question is what consideration is given to the provision of aid to victims of oppression and persecution, such as the desperately needed humanitarian aid for Christians under attack in Iraq.
In conclusion, religious freedom is one of the most fundamental freedoms enshrined in the universal declaration of human rights, to which the UK is a signatory. The threats to this freedom are growing in ways highlighted by today’s debate, which is why we owe a debt of gratitude to the most reverend Primate for initiating it. I sincerely hope that the Minister’s reply will demonstrate the Government’s deep commitment to the protection and promotion of religious freedom to bring reassurance to Christians and members of other faiths who are currently suffering persecution and oppression, and to assure faith communities that we are taking their situation seriously. We who enjoy our freedoms must surely use those freedoms to speak and to act for those who are denied theirs.
My Lords, I want to say a few words about the situation of one of the most ancient middle-eastern churches, whose ancestral homeland now straddles the border between Syria and Turkey. Before I do so, I say a particular thank you to the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, for mentioning the Wilton Park conference, in which I was a participant—as, indeed, was Bishop Angaelos, who is present in the Gallery, as has already been noted. I look forward to what the Minister has to say to us about that conference.
In saying what I want to, I declare some personal but non-pecuniary interests. I was previously the Bishop of Gibraltar in Europe, and the Church of England diocese with responsibility for Anglican congregations in Morocco and, I say to the noble Lord, Lord Patten, Turkey as well—about which I could tell the noble Lord quite a bit if he likes. My present diocese is twinned with some monasteries and communities of the Syriac Orthodox Church. One of my former students is a deacon and tutor in the monastic centre of Mor Gabriel and Tur Abdin, the Mountain of the Servants of God, in south-east Turkey. Another is now an archbishop of that church. A long-standing friend and colleague on the Faith and Order Commission of the World Council of Churches is a diocesan bishop in Syria itself. I have been honoured to host a number of Syriac bishops and laity in your Lordships’ House and on regular exchange visits.
It was in Syria that Saint Paul was converted. Antakya in modern Turkey was the ancient Antioch on the Orontes, the second centre of Christianity after Jerusalem and the hub from which the gospels spread. In Syria today remain those last communities where Syriac or Aramaic, the language of Jesus himself, is in not only liturgical but vernacular use.
On 3 May this year I was due to have departed these shores to lead a pilgrimage from the diocese of Chichester to our friends in Syria. A fortnight before our departure, after a few weeks of increasing uncertainty, Her Majesty’s Government said that no travel to Syria should take place. In the light of this advice, we had no option but to cancel the trip, much, I have to say, to the chagrin of our Syrian friends, who had already made considerable plans to receive us. I am not for one second questioning the wisdom of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, but I ask your Lordships to understand the sense of abandonment felt by many of the ancient pre-Arab peoples of the land, and how easily we can compound the difficulties that they have experienced for centuries.
Constantinople was not the kindest of overlords. In the Ottoman Empire, Christians were second-class citizens. Under the Ba’athist regime and its Alawite rulers, they have had a degree of protection along with other minorities. This can make Christians in Syria quite confused about what best to hope for at the moment and very fearful of what might lie ahead. One senior bishop wrote to me only a few days ago. I say to the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss: yes, they know about this debate and are hugely encouraged by the fact that it is taking place. He wrote about their desire,
“to strengthen our role in the multiple society. What we need is the concept of pluralism to be accepted by everybody and all citizens should work together for justice and peace”.
In that letter, he also drew particular attention to the intervention of the most reverend Primate in raising this debate and expressed his gratitude.
Across the border in south-east Turkey, some monasteries that have flourished since the third and fourth centuries are locked in legal battles with more recent arrivals over title to land. Some years ago, when the prospect for Turkey’s accession to the European Union looked rather more promising as a mid-term goal than it does today, the situation for the Syriac communities and other minorities improved for a while and increasing numbers of émigré families began to return. However, that is not really continuing now.
The point that I am trying to make is that although not normally thought of as a middle-eastern country, Turkey is pivotal. The policies of the Government and other western powers can have a direct impact on the situation of Christians, whose presence in Anatolia, I hardly need to remind your Lordships, predates the arrival of the Seljuk Muslims by the best part of a millennium, although the situation in Upper Mesopotamia, close to the Syrian border, was rather more complicated. The future of Turkey will also have profound consequences for neighbouring states and their religious numerical minorities. Many current middle-eastern problems reflect not only tensions within the Muslim and Arab worlds, such as that between the Ummah and nationalism, but meddling, whether well meaning or otherwise, by Europe and, recently, America. We must not compound these problems by thinking that we can solve other people’s problems, especially when we share some responsibility for them.
What we can do, however, is stand by in the sense of being alongside, not standing by apart from—that is an interesting, ambiguous expression—our brothers and sisters throughout the region, of whatever religion or none. This is the nub of it for us—we must demonstrate, in fact as well as in deeds, in our internal home policies as well as in what we grandstand around the world, that we really do believe in the indivisibility of human dignity. It is not perhaps something that our country is necessarily making a spectacularly good fist of in its own internal affairs at the moment. In return, the new Middle East, if it is enabled to emerge healthier and more confident from its present travails, may well have something to teach us about the significance of faith as a positive driver of policy—I was grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Boateng, who is not in his place, for what he said about this earlier—and about how faiths can live together in harmony not by privatising or marginalising religion but by embedding mutual respect in social and civil institutions.
My Lords, it is a privilege to take part in this debate. I agree very strongly with my noble friend Lord Selsdon that we have had some exceptionally moving and powerful speeches. I am so glad that the noble Lord, Lord Sacks, is still here because no one who heard his speech will ever forget it, nor the sentiments which prompted it. We are all very much in his debt, just as we are in the debt of the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury for introducing this debate, and for doing so, if I may say so without sounding a little patronising, in a beautifully balanced and moderated speech which was an exemplar of its kind.
It is difficult in a debate like this, when one comes late in the batting order, not to say things that have already been said. However, as I have listened to every word that has been uttered, it struck me that I would like to share with your Lordships' House one or two memories which encapsulate much of what we have been talking about today. First, I go back to a scene in 1973 in Vienna, which I visited with the noble Lord, Lord Janner of Braunstone, then Greville Janner—a dear friend in the House of Commons; we had both been elected in 1970—and a group from the Campaign for the Release of Soviet Jewry, which the noble Lord and I founded together in 1971 when we were brand new Members of Parliament. There we received some of those who had been granted their exit visas from the then Soviet Union. I shall never forget one incident in particular when we met a young lady from Estonia who spoke the most impeccable and flawless English. I said to her that she must have passed out the top of her class. She laughed and replied, “I did until my parents were granted their exit visas, when the rector of the University of Tartu summoned me to his office and said that there had been a mistake and I had failed every examination”. That is a small vignette but it illustrates so much.
In 1990, the Soviet Union had changed beyond recognition. I served on a small international human rights committee that had contacts at high level in the Kremlin. We were the first group to be allowed to stay in the Hotel Octoberskya, which had previously been reserved for leaders of the Soviet bloc. It was a very solid, stolid place, but the thing I most remember about it is celebrating Epiphany in 1990—the feast of the manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles. In an upper room in that hotel, Father Ted Hesburgh, who had formerly been President Kennedy’s director of human rights, Rosalynn Carter, wife of the former president, Madame Giscard d’Estaing and I took part in a most moving ecumenical celebration of the Holy Communion. I was privileged to read from the Book of Common Prayer and the Gospel, and we shared the sacrament in a place where it had been forbidden. After the service, Andrei Grachev, a principal aide to Mikhail Gorbachev—to whom we all owe a great deal—received from us a symbolic bible, which was to mark the accepted gift of 1 million bibles into the Soviet Union. What a change from that day in 1973.
Of course, it is not all progress. Five years later, campaigning for Bosnia and its oppressed Muslim minority, I worked closely with the late Prince Saddrudin Aga Khan on the council for peace in the Balkans, where we were struggling to ensure that the freedom that had now come to Christians—and, indeed, to Jews—in what had been the Soviet Union would come to Muslims who had had it taken away from them by Serbian aggression in Bosnia. We can go on to consider some of the Serbs who suffered in Kosovo.
This is a many-faceted story. The most reverend Primate was right to highlight for us today the plight of Christians in the Middle East, but I mention those three examples to illustrate that we are really talking about oppressed minorities in all parts of the world. The freedom to worship openly without fear of intimidation or reprisal is, as has been said by others, the most fundamental of all human rights. It is the hallmark of a civilised society. No country has the right to call itself civilised if its people cannot worship in freedom and in peace.
We come to what we, both as a nation and through our Government, can do about this. There are many things we cannot do. We cannot withhold recognition from regimes that we find corrupt, offensive or repressive. We can consider withholding aid and assistance from regimes which persecute minorities. There has been much talk in recent days of credit ratings. Would it be a bad thing if we had some rating of those countries that are oppressing religious minorities—ratings in what I would call aid-worthiness? I am not being naive and suggesting that we can withhold aid everywhere, but it should be a test of a country to which we are giving aid whether it is honouring its civilised obligations to all its citizens, regardless of their belief.
The noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Carey, and others, have talked about an annual assessment. As I have listened to this debate today, and been both amazed and moved by the degree of expertise exemplified in the speeches, it struck me that it would be a good thing for there to be a consultative committee of your Lordships' House embracing the most reverend Primate, the noble Lord, Lord Sacks, my noble friend Lord Ahmad, and others, who could advise the Government on the aid-worthiness of countries to which we give assistance.
Would it not be an excellent idea, following the example of the most reverend Primate, if every year we had upon this feast a debate on the subject, when we could assess the progress made? The Minister could report to us on what had been done by government and what note had been taken of the advice given. This House is truly unique. Noble Lords know that I believe fundamentally in its very being and I want it to continue. It has an assembly of expertise and experience that is replicated nowhere in the world, so we should use it.
I finish, as we approach our Christmas season, on a small personal matter. I carry in my pocket a little cross carved from olive wood. It was made in the Middle East and sent to me some years ago. We all want the day when all Christians in the Middle East can not only carry a cross if they wish to but wear it openly and be proud of it, knowing that they will not be persecuted for it.
My Lords, I thank the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury for this timely debate and for his clear and insightful review of the situation of Christians in the Middle East.
As we have heard today, the potential for greater violence against Christian communities is feared by millions, and the Arab spring, which raised such high hopes, might now remove some of the protection that was previously imposed by dictatorial state edicts.
The violence against Coptic Christians in Egypt goes back decades, as we have heard. Given past hostilities, the recent killings in Cairo must confirm their worst fears following the recent election results. Even in more tolerant Tunisia, elections brought to power an Islamist party. However, in Tunisia we may also glimpse the possibility of a new political path away from past intolerance. The president of the victorious al-Nahda Party, Rached Ghannouchi, says that lessons have been learnt from North Africa’s harsh past. He recalls the experience of a generation ago in Algeria, where the electoral victory of an Islamist party with an extremist agenda was brutally crushed by the Algerian military and other vested interests. Mr Ghannouchi assures the world that he wishes to govern with a wide coalition of Tunisian political parties.
It is interesting, too, that the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt also claims to have become more accommodating to other parties with differing views. The Egyptian-born cleric, Yusuf al-Qaradawi, preaches a now moderated Sunni message weekly on Al-Jazeera from his base in the pro-western state of Qatar.
These Islamists blossoming in the Arab spring say that they now prefer the model of reform and Islamist government successfully deployed in modernising Turkey to any repeat of the bloody Algerian adventure or the risk of a return to violent repression by the army in Egypt. In Turkey, while moving to join the EU and embracing the market economy, the Freedom and Justice Party has also defanged the military and dispelled the threat of a coup against its electoral legitimacy.
Of course, the optimism about the Arab spring may turn out to be misplaced. In fact, realists predicted the rise of long-repressed Islamist parties in possible alliance with authoritarians in the military. After the first election, they warned, the Islamist victors would ensure that it was the last fair election—witness Iran. That might still be the case, as I think the noble Lord, Lord Sacks, suggested.
Nevertheless, the most viable option is to attempt to turn the rhetoric of reform into reality and to direct it towards endorsing the values and the institutions of the international community. As a former chairman of the All-Party Parliamentary Humanist Group, I readily accept that interfaith dialogue, as advocated by many of your Lordships today, is a more productive route than any alternative that I could propose. Noble Lords will surely have the support of non-believers in their efforts to encourage tolerance and dialogue, and most assuredly in every effort to protect Christians and other groups, including converts—apostates from Islam, who often live with even greater risk of persecution. In return, I hope that faith groups will be equally strong in their defence of non-believers. The democratic West has propped up a range of unlikely and often unsavoury allies for strategic reasons, and as a by-product offered protection from sectarian violence to vulnerable groups. If that strategy is now in question, we might try a route of real democracy and accept that we will not always welcome the electoral outcome. I agree with my noble friend Lord Parekh that democracy can be its own corrective in exposing and discrediting the policies of extremists.
The most reverend Primate noted that today is Global Anti-Corruption Day. I note that tomorrow is International Human Rights Day. Our basic document for the democratic direction of nascent Governments in the Middle East must surely be the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The great moral document, which emerged from the horrors of the Second World War, states that:
“Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion”.
There are many other explicit and inspiring articles in that great declaration that have been carried into the European Convention on Human Rights, such as the statement:
“Freedom to manifest one's religion or belief shall be subject only to such limitations as are prescribed by law and are necessary in a democratic society … for the protection of public order, health or morals, or for the protection of the rights and freedoms of others”.
There is scope here for constructive interfaith dialogue and the consolidation of democratic secular experience.
The European Convention on Human Rights, incorporated into UK law in our Human Rights Act 1998, has also, through case law, moved to recognise a category of “religion or belief”. Humanists and faith groups might also find common cause in explaining that an ideal secular state is simply one that protects the rights of all its citizens to hold their own beliefs and religious practices.
I hope, too, that the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury will amplify the analysis made in his 2006 lecture, Secularism, Faith and Freedom, to promote procedural secularism. He spoke of a situation in which,
“religious convictions are granted a public hearing in debate; not necessarily one in which they are privileged or regarded as beyond criticism, but one in which they are attended to as representing the considered moral foundation of the choices and priorities of citizens”.
That would be a very pertinent contribution to the debate on the constitutional challenges that attend the Arab spring. I also hope that it will be propagated by the UK Government and that secularism can be rescued from the misunderstandings that are so widespread still in some faith communities.
My Lords, I am pleased to follow my next-door neighbour in London and also to agree with the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, who said that it was a privilege to take part in this debate. I agreed very strongly with the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury when he said that Christian communities had played a vital part in the Middle East over the past 2,000 years. At the moment they are also very vulnerable and we must all do our very best to work with the leaders of the Arab spring in the direction of human dignity and common citizenship for all.
It is a sad fact that the indigenous Christian communities of the Middle East have declined in numbers for many decades. They have shared this experience with other religions. Jews, Ismailis, Ahmadiyya and Baha’i have all suffered varying degrees of discrimination and sometimes outright persecution. In this situation it is important and urgent not to demonise all Muslims or to insist on there being a necessary clash of civilisations. Many Muslims understand their faith as one committed to peace, and in particular to respect for the peoples of the book, chiefly Jews and Christians.
Just like many nationalist movements, political Islam is made up of a wide spectrum of points of view, from the completely non-violent, through those who justify self-defence, to others who seek world domination, and on to a small minority who insist on their right to use force and even terrorism to achieve their aims now. The concept of jihad, or holy struggle, has many shades of meaning: some see it as a purely personal striving for self-control and righteousness; others understand it as a collective effort to end ignorance, poverty and disease; some believe that force should be used to defend Muslim communities and lands; and a small minority think that aggressive wars are acceptable for spreading the faith or converting pagans. This minority is now probably less strong and less influential than it was, following the heavy losses suffered by al-Qaeda and the progress made by the Arab spring.
After this analysis, I should mention that I have met members of the Muslim Brotherhood in Cairo, Amman and London. I would place them firmly in the non-violent part of the spectrum, even though in the past some of them took part in acts of terror. They seemed to me not unlike the Christian Democrats of France, Germany and Italy, who tried to give political expression to their faith after resisting the crimes of the Fascists and Nazis. In the Middle East, both Hamas on the Sunni side and Hezbollah on the Shia side believe in self-defence and national liberation when faced with occupation and blockade by armed enemies. The Salafists, who model themselves on the companions of the prophet, with their fellow travellers in Europe, hope to spread Islamic political control and to create a modern caliphate based on Sharia law. The extreme part of the spectrum contains the world revolutionaries and terrorists.
I have tried to describe the background to the situation of Christians in the various, widely differing, countries. Diplomats who have lived in the Middle East will know this background in depth; others, such as advisers and sometimes even Ministers, who have grown up in secular, individualistic societies, still have much to learn. They have to appreciate the importance of religion as a force able to mobilise collective behaviour. Socialism and pan-Arabism have been tried and have failed; religion, however, remains and makes a political difference, whether in Israel or in the Arab and Muslim world.
I turn now to Iraq, which I have visited three times in recent years. There have been indigenous churches there since the days of the apostle Thomas. They use Arabic and Aramaic in their prayers and services. Under Saddam Hussein, Christians were safe and sometimes held high office, although of course they suffered, with others, the terrible casualties of the war with Iran and the hardships imposed by sanctions. My noble friends Lord Alton and Lady Cox have given chapter and verse on what has happened to the Christian communities since the fall of Saddam Hussein, so I will not repeat that, but it is a certain fact that the Christian communities are now much diminished in numbers and live in varying degrees of fear. Today, there may be—whatever the figure is—something less than 0.5 million Christians left in Iraq.
In these difficult conditions, my friend Canon Andrew White, who is an Anglican who has already been mentioned several times, has worked consistently since 2003 for national reconciliation. He has brought together all the religious leaders who, as a result of coming together, have managed to overcome their traditional differences and are now quite in the habit of working together. They have issued previously unheard of joint Shia/Sunni fatwas against suicide bombing and attacks on religious minorities. These nationwide appeals have reduced the level of sectarian violence. They have been widely reported in the media and are now being reinforced by smaller meetings at provincial level. I am very glad to say that the Foreign Office and the British Embassy have supported this spreading of the message of mutual respect and civil harmony. Lives have undoubtedly been saved as a result. I urge us to keep up our support, remembering our interest in stability and peace. I mentioned earlier how important it is to recognise the impact of religious beliefs, especially in the Middle East. It is good that this is now becoming officially accepted. It can be useful in many conflict and post-conflict scenes, such as Iraq. Religious support could also be helpful in resettling refugees, whether those who have left Iraq or the millions who have now been away from their homes in Palestine for decades.
My Lords, I thank the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury for giving this House a chance to discuss the plight of Christians across the Middle East. Some debates in this Chamber are about issues that divide us, but this is not one of them. The great virtue of this debate is that it is not to argue about policy but to bring to the attention of this House and those who follow its debates the disturbing and deteriorating situation faced by Christians in the Middle East. It is a subject that has received remarkably little attention in the UK, where the Middle East is more often thought of as the location of holy sites in Christianity's history rather than as the home of active Christian communities in the modern era. It is also surprising in the light of the startling fact revealed by the Aid to the Church in Need report earlier this year that 75 per cent of all religious persecution in the world is carried out against Christians.
The situation and welfare of Christians in the Middle East is a cause for concern for all of us, whether or not we share the Christian faith, partly because we should proudly defend the rights of minorities in the region as elsewhere, but also because, as the noble Lord, Lord Sacks, reminded us, the way religious minorities in the Middle East are treated is a litmus test in that most fragile of regions for the presence of the basic levels of tolerance and respect that are needed for genuine stability to emerge.
We have heard much today about the persecution that the 10 million to 15 million Christians living in the Middle East today continue to face, but I believe that if we want to understand this persecution—why it occurs where it does and how to respond to it—we need to understand the diversity of Christian experiences in different countries of the region. In some countries, Christians have been the subject of outright atrocities, such as the attacks just in the past 12 months on a Coptic church in Alexandria and on a Catholic church in Baghdad, in which a total of 73 Christians were murdered. In other contexts, Christians find their churches attacked and the security services in those countries uninterested in finding and prosecuting those responsible, or find the land of their churches seized. Some Christians face discrimination in basic constitutional rights while in countries such as Iran, Christians ostensibly have formal rights recognised in the constitution but in reality face discrimination when it comes to employment, political and other rights.
Many Christians in the region find their communities and their faith maligned in popular culture and sometimes, as the noble Lord, Lord Alton, mentioned, in school textbooks and on private television channels. In countries like Saudi Arabia, Christians are unable to worship freely without intimidation or fear of arrest, while for Palestinian Christians, for example, restrictions on freedom of movement affect their ability to practise their faith. I am thinking here of remarks made earlier by the noble Lord, Lord Wright of Richmond, and Monsignor Twal, Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, who recently pointed out that many Christians living in Bethlehem find themselves unable to visit the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem because of the walls that now separate communities in the region.
For millions of others, however, daily life is not characterised by incidences of gross violence but by a steady growing anxiety about the situations in which they live; anxiety about the commitment of Governments to uphold their basic rights; anxiety about their ability to profess their faith with confidence as their numbers reduce over time; and anxiety about what the future holds in countries in the middle of political transition with uncertain outcomes.
The responses of Christians to these uncertainties, as we have heard today, have been diverse. Many who face intimidation have chosen to convert to escape the possibility of persecution. For example, we know from one study that in one three-year period in the late 1980s, 50,000 Egyptian university graduates converted away from Christianity. Some, such as some within the Lebanese Christian community, are quietly arming themselves for self-protection as a precaution. Others, such as many of the Egyptian Copts, are embracing nascent democratic processes, supporting secular and liberal parties. But across the region, the most notable response has been the choice to emigrate, as the most reverend Primate said, which, combined with growing differentials in the birth rates between Christians and other groupings, has led to dramatic reductions in the Christian population.
For example, in 1948, Jerusalem was 20 per cent Christian, but now it is less than 2 per cent. In Bethlehem, about which we have heard a lot today, Christians were for a long time around three-quarters or more of the population. Now, although the figure is disputed, as we have also heard today, it is under 20 per cent. Lebanon has gone from being a majority Christian country to Christians constituting around 30 per cent or less of the population, and this number is still going down—so more than half of Lebanon’s Christians now live outside the country. Well over half of Iraq’s 1.5 million Christians have fled the country in the past 10 years.
As numbers go down and Christian minorities become even smaller minorities, the anxiety about future persecution and intimidation grows. Why has this situation become more precarious? The noble Lord, Lord Parekh, earlier offered some illuminating reflections on this subject. I think that it is the result of three different developments. The first is the changing balance of populations, which has been discussed today, and—whether rational or not, or based on fear or evidence—Christians have begun to feel more intimidated than before. The second is the mounting suspicion of the West among Muslim populations and the association of Christians with the political agenda of the West, particularly in the light of military action in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the growth of radical Islam in some parts of the region. Again, Monsignor Twal expressed the thought well from the perspective of Christian Palestinians in Jerusalem:
“Muslim fundamentalists identify us with the Christian West—which is not always true—and want us to pay the price”.
The third factor is the failure of secular ideologies in the Arab world—from Nasserism to Arab nationalism to pan-Arabism—that in practice offered a relatively protected sphere for Christians. This takes us to the central paradox of the region, which has been discussed by not only the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury and the noble Lord, Lord Alton, today but also by the Foreign Secretary, William Hague, who has spoken eloquently on this subject. We might think of it as the paradox of the Arab spring. The paradox is that the courageous turn by populations against the corrupt authoritarianism of regimes in Arab countries and the instinct, however crude, towards greater democracy in some form has increased rather than diminished the degree of threat felt by Christians in the region. In some quarters this has even created a kind of nostalgia for pluralism under autocracy of the sort that on occasion was experienced by Christians in the Ottoman Empire.
The implications for Christians of the uncertainty and the political vacuum under the Arab spring are difficult territory for all of us. But I believe that the right response is to maintain a principled approach and support for democracy while at the same time not falling prey to naivety. The Arab spring has surely shown us that it is an illusion to think that true security and stability, and sustainable protection of the rights of minorities, can be secured by support, whether tacit or otherwise, for authoritarianism. Our support for the aspiration of populations in Arab countries to create their own brand of democracy must be full throated. As the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury put it recently in an interview:
“A real participatory democracy in the region is bound to be in the interests of minorities because good democracies look after minorities”.
The key word here is “real”—a real participatory democracy. That means a participatory democracy in which the first key principle, the authority of the will of the majority, is combined with the second key principle on an equal standing, which is the fierce insistence on observing basic civil and political rights for all minorities.
Britain’s influence in the region is of course coloured by our historical role and we have to tread very carefully in the light of that, and I am not suggesting a blunderbuss approach to evangelising liberal democracy. I also know that in countries such as Lebanon, our embassy has being doing valuable work in building confidence among the Christian communities. But I wonder if the Minister, in replying, could outline the way in which the insistence on basic constitutional provisions, the formal protection of rights and the assurance of the observance of those rights, including for Christians, is woven into our diplomatic engagement with the new regimes in countries such as Tunisia and Libya, and especially in Egypt and Iraq. Picking up on a question from the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, I ask what role the Government see for the European Union under the leadership of my noble friend Lady Ashton in applying pressure on regimes in the area to ensure better protection.
I also ask the Minister for his view on the approach adopted by the United States since the Clinton presidency. In 1997, President Clinton initiated a new Freedom from Religious Persecution Act to,
“support the aspirations of ethnic and religious minorities in other nations as they strive for their own right to worship freely”.
It set up a US Commission on International Religious Freedom, which submits an annual report on areas of concern. An office was set up in the White House inside, I believe, the National Security Council, to recommend ways in which US foreign policy should be informed by evidence of religious persecution, and it allowed the President to take action on aid and trade policies in response to that evidence. Some commentators argue that there is evidence that this approach had some limited effect on, for example, making the Mubarak regime behave a bit better towards the Coptic minority, particularly on the return of church land and allowing church repairs. I am not advocating this approach, but, again, I would be keen to hear the Minister’s reflections on it. What is his view on whether this approach has been effective and do the Government have any thoughts on adopting some kind of similar approach in the UK going forward?
I have one last thought about optimism. Many people, including many noble Lords from whom we have heard today, approach the subject of the position of Christians in the Middle East with pessimism. They see conflict in the past and have fears for the future. The Arab spring has tended to make the pessimists more pessimistic. I believe, as I argued earlier, that we must be alive to the diversity of Christians’ experiences of intimidation and persecution and seek to understand the factors that propel it. But I also want to follow my noble friend Lord Turnberg and the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Carey, in their search for a glimmer of hope, as I believe my noble friend put it, and sound a cautious note of optimism about the prospects for interfaith relations in the region. I do not believe that the conditions under which Christians in the Middle East live will necessarily worsen or that there is something in the DNA of the history of the Middle East that makes their marginalisation and ever increasing persecution inevitable. Alongside the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Guildford, I think that the history as well as the contemporary politics of the region offers some cause for optimism for those who strive for a peaceful future.
Let me briefly illustrate this with the case of Egypt. As we have heard, Coptic Christians in Egypt are the single Christian grouping in the region, and events over the past 50 years have given them good reason to be anxious. Since 1981, more than 30 attacks on Copts have been recorded, and I stress that those are just what have been recorded, with over 200 Christians killed. As alarming as these attacks has been the anaemic response by the Egyptian security services. On New Year’s Day this year, an attack on a Coptic church in Alexandria killed 21 people, while churches in Cairo are now cordoned off by police checkpoints. Private Muslim channels hurl vitriolic abuse against Copts. Just two months ago today, hundreds of Copts marched on state-run TV stations to protest the failure of the authorities to investigate the burning of a church in Aswan. Soldiers responded with violence and 28 people died, with 325 wounded. We must be determined to do what we can to ensure that outrages of this sort, as well as daily, more low-level intimidation, are not a hallmark of Egypt’s future.
However, the history of Egypt has another strand to it. It shows that, at times, with leadership on both Muslim and Christian sides, the relationship between the two populations can be marked by equality and co-operation. After 1856, when the Ottoman Sultan conceded the principle of equality before the law to all subjects of the Ottoman Empire, there was a period within which Copts became fully integrated into the Egyptian political system. After the 1919 revolution, when Copts and Muslims united in that great cause to oppose the British occupation, there followed a brief period of genuine co-operation to build a new political order.
If you are looking for sources of hope, you do not have to go back to benign episodes of Egyptian history. You should cast your mind back to the extraordinary scenes in Tahrir Square earlier this year, when Muslims and Christians stood side by side with shared courage and shared determination to demand reform. Muslim groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood have professed their tolerance towards other groups. While there is widespread cynicism about their being true to their word, we should encourage them to be true to it, challenge them to live up to their pledges, and use our influence to empower the moderates and marginalise the extremists rather than approaching these groups with a pre-formulated certainty that they have no intention to act in good faith.
These causes for optimism should not make us complacent about the appalling situation faced by so many millions of Christians in the Middle East, but they should give us encouragement to think that the story of Christians in the region is not one of inevitable decline and that it is worth us engaging to ensure that, working with more liberal and moderate voices in the region, the future can be a better one for Christian populations.
My Lords, this has been a hugely enlightening debate, unlocking the vast stores of wisdom that are to be found in your Lordships' House on the issues that we are addressing, on the history behind them—the hinterland of knowledge—and on the prospects for the present and the future in a very turbulent world. We have had some excellent speeches. I was wondering how on earth how I was supposed to encompass 2,000 years of history and all those excellent speeches in 20 minutes. I suppose that it is possible and I shall have a try, but I really do not know quite how to do it.
What I do know is that we all owe the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury enormous gratitude for promoting this debate and for sharing with us at the beginning of it his wisdom on a whole range of issues. I hope that this has been a valuable debate as a result and, like the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, that it sends a message which will be of support and hope to many peoples who are suffering grievously.
I shall come in a moment to many of the detailed points that the most reverend Primate made, because his speech deserves the closest examination and response, but I should start by saying in more general terms that, as countries embrace reforms to varying degrees, at varying paces and in varying ways in the wake of the Arab spring, which has been referred to by many of your Lordships, it is absolutely crucial that religious diversity in the Middle East be respected. This potential will be realised only if Governments respond to demands for respect of universal human rights by implementing reforms that apply universally to all citizens, regardless of faith, ethnicity or gender, and the central consideration must be the one that has come through again and again in this debate—I think the phrase came from the noble Lord, Lord Patten: that religious freedom is a basic human right. That was repeated by many of your Lordships and is certainly central to the thinking of Her Majesty's Government in dealing with this very fluid and unfamiliar pattern of events which now shapes the whole region. Perhaps the other adage or maxim that lies at the heart of our debate is the one that came from the noble Lord, Lord Sacks, who I always listen to with great fascination. That is that the treatment of religious minorities and the way that Governments deal with them is really the litmus test of whether we are watching a truly liberalising democratic process unfolding in the Middle East region or whether we are merely seeing eruptions, as power moves from one set of hands to another, with a lack of concern for human rights and so forth.
In his speech, the most reverend Primate rightly began by referring to the phenomenon of the Arab spring. He asked whether it is leading to new kinds of oppression on top of the unending story of repression of minorities. He mentioned the increasingly disturbing reports of attacks on other minorities: Christian minorities in Egypt, the Copts in Syria and the dreadful stories out of Iran—an Iran which the noble Lord, Lord Alton, the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, and others described in such graphic detail. We have discussed them in the House from time to time within the limit of what we are allowed to discuss and the discipline of Question Time, and I have been glad to answer a number of highly informed and penetrating Questions over the past year. What is in no doubt is that reports of attacks have increased.
The noble Lord, Lord Wood, mentioned the United States and how it sees things. I get the impression that among the political establishment in the United States there are some doubts, after earlier enthusiasm for the Arab spring, that these kinds of attacks and repression of minorities are not maintaining the momentum towards democracy and the spring-like evolution of freedom that we all hoped for at the start. I do not think we should get into too pessimistic a mood, but there are clearly some difficulties along the way and major mountains to climb. The Government here will do everything possible at every point to enable the fledgling new Governments, regimes and authorities such as in Libya to overcome their difficulties and move on to democracy.
Then there is the key question that the most reverend Primate put to us of what role moderate Islam, or as I gather it is now called in some quarters, soft Islam, can deliver in seeing these matters go forward safely, and what is the Christian position in all of this? Before coming on to his ideas, proposals and priorities he mentioned the centuries of coexistence between Christians, Muslims and other religions throughout the whole of that region. The noble Lord, Lord Alton, referred to Simon Sebag Montefiore’s magisterial work on the history of Jerusalem starting well before the birth of Christ. It brings home the fact that this precious city at the centre of the world as it used to be seen in medieval times—and still is by some—has been successively controlled by the Jewish people, by Christians and by Islam for hundreds of years at a time. There have admittedly been some hideous deteriorations and some appalling bloodshed, but in between there were long periods of coexistence.
Other noble Lords mentioned the pattern of syncretic worship that emerged after the birth of Mohammedian times between Christians and Muslims. I do not want to strike too banal a note, but I happened to spend the weekend in Muslim countries in the Middle East and could not help noticing that in every airport and in most hotels there were Christmas trees. So there is already a kind of syncretic pattern going on, even in countries that are very strictly Muslim. In one area that I visited in one of the great new city states of the Middle East, where vast wealth has been accumulated, which we will have to borrow and use for our own economic purposes—I am talking about Qatar—there is a permission for churches to be built. That is in contrast to other Islamic countries and, I think—I do not want to get this wrong—in contrast to the position in Saudi Arabia. While we set our example by the building of mosques in this country, we would like to see the Qatar pattern of readiness to allow minorities and faiths to build their own temples and churches, as they wish, extended throughout the Middle East.
I should also mention the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Guildford, not just because he has the same name in his title as I have but because he made a fascinating speech about the coexistence of Christians and Islam through the centuries, which of course has been remarkable. I do not think that anyone mentioned some of the extraordinary Governments, such as those in Sicily in the 14th and 15th centuries, when senior officials of Christian and Muslim faith worked very closely together in governing the glittering kingdom of Sicily and Naples at that time. So there are all sorts of examples of how it is not but could be.
Then came the central question of the right reverend Primate’s speech, which was what do we do—what are the steps and priorities? What he had to say was echoed by a number of your Lordships in a very positive way. I am going to parody it and put it in shorthand slightly, but the menu that he set before us was, first, that there should be no superior lecturing as though we had some monopoly of knowledge, faith and rectitude to insist on in dealing with countries in the Middle East. There should be no talk of somehow the Christian communities under attack, or those not under attack, being in some way outposts of an alliance with the foreigners and the West. That is entirely the wrong approach—a point that the noble Lord, Lord Parekh, made in a superb speech. There should be no forgetting that Christians are not the only group under attack, as the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Carey, reminded us. Of course they are not. Minorities are threatened in many countries, in many ways. There should be an insistence on an even-handed rule of law and an absolutely equal treatment under the law, when new constitutions are being manufactured.
A number of noble Lords mentioned the development of the problems of Egypt and the worries there, particularly with the appalling attack on the Copts. The noble Lord, Lord Alton, reminded us yet again of these. Marshal Tantawi has, of course, given personal assurances to my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary that the Egyptian Government are bringing forward a law of unified treatment—a law on which I have reported to your Lordships' House already—to give absolute equality of treatment to all religious groups under the law. That is an undertaking and a law; of course, one wants to see the practice as well. But there should be no doubt in your Lordships’ mind that we rest at nothing in bringing forward the need for such a law and approach to meet the very ugly developments against the Copts in Egypt, which as others have reminded us are not new but have certainly been prominent and most unpleasant in the recent months.
The most reverend Primate and others said that there should be no enclaves. We do not want that kind of division or creation of ghettos, camps and beleaguered groupings or districts with faiths in them. That is not the way forward. It is a mixture of peoples working together socially, respecting each other’s religions, that is required. There should be no talk of new crusades, which of course we hear from some—but they are wrong. That is not the spirit at all. The noble Lord, Lord Parekh, was very strong on that. We should remember, above all, that Christianity comes from the Middle East. We are talking about the cradle of Christianity, not some outside group that has pushed in from the West to bring the Christian religion. There it was, there it sprang up and there it developed in all its depth. I particularly liked the adage, as it were, used by the Baroness, Lady Cox, that we must approach all this by building bridges and not walls.
With all those ideas, the Government totally concur. It does not mean to say that we immediately assume powers to be able to do everything satisfactorily and carry forward measures on every front. Our powers are inevitably limited. We can do more, though, than just analyse or wring our hands. We can take a number of steps, and we are doing so. I want to describe how we will do that at the end of my comments. Before I do so, perhaps I might go over the many other contributions that your Lordships have made within this broad pattern of positive responses.
My noble friend Lord Storey, on the basis of enormous experience with interfaith work in Liverpool, emphasised the need for respect and understanding between the faiths. That was absolutely right. The noble Lord, Lord Wright of Richmond, again reinforced the hideous story of Christians draining out of Iraq and the treatment of Palestinian Christians. It has to be noted that he was somewhat challenged there by the noble Lord, Lord Turnberg, and by my noble friend Lord Palmer, who reminded us that Christians in Israel are actually growing in number, so we need to look on that situation in a factual and balanced way. The need to promote interfaith working was emphasised by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Exeter.
My noble friend Lord Patten, who I have already mentioned, seemed to touch the spring of the main theme of this debate: that religious freedom is a basic human right. I repeat that. He also had some queries on a matter that I know he is very concerned about: the treatment of Anglican worshippers in Turkey. We can correspond more on that, but we press the Turkish authorities at all times to repair some of the difficulties and unpleasantness in the Anatolian region and elsewhere, but there is more to be said and, I think, to be done. I am not sure that his comparison with other countries, as though we were lagging in this, is entirely fair but I would be very happy to discuss it further with him.
The noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Carey, characteristically made some deep and important points about the need to support vibrant Christian communities. It is not all gloom, although there are some severe threats around. He urged that the Foreign Office should have regular reports on religious freedom. That is certainly something we could consider more precisely and formally, although posts are very ready to provide regular information—particularly when there are unpleasant and nasty actions and violence, even deaths, to report—and to make HMG’s views very clear to the Governments of the countries concerned. We supported the Alexandria declaration and the Copenhagen summit statements and I am happy to discuss further with colleagues how we can promote that sort of idea further. I think that the Foreign Office has agreed to provide further funding for a meeting of the high council of religious leaders in Iraq, which seeks to bring together religious leaders and combat sectarian violence, and of course to continue the invaluable work of Canon Andrew White, who was frequently mentioned throughout the debate. That is what I wanted to say on the remarks from the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Carey.
The noble Lord, Lord Boateng, reminded us of the important work of the British Council. That is important and it is supported. We see it as a valuable channel, through which the messages of insistence on tolerance can be promoted with vigour and regularity.
The noble Lord, Lord Alton, once again with amazing knowledge and vivid description, described some of the horrors that are going on. The Iranian attack on Christianity and other religions, including Baha’is, is particularly repulsive, and he is right to keep reminding us about it.
My noble friend Lady Morris produced yet another major theme of the debate, reminding us that extremism threatens all religions. The civil war within Islam could lead to—indeed, is leading to—more destruction and more deaths than the ugly attacks on Christianity about which we have been so concerned in this debate.
I see that I have nearly come to the end of my time, with many more fascinating comments from the debate that I long to comment on. The noble Lord, Lord Touhig, reminded us to be tolerant of everything except intolerance—superb stuff. My noble friend Lord Selsdon took us between heaven and earth, but I do not quite know which side we came down on.
The noble Baroness, Lady Cox, rightly talked about reciprocity. This is something about which a balance can be sensibly and realistically argued, and it is an important thought to feed into the debate. She mentioned the Wilton Park conference. That was a very successful event and we are looking at how best to implement the ideas that emerged from it. There could be an administrative meeting early next year of the leaders of Christian, Muslim, Baha’i, Jewish and other faiths to examine the scope for greater involvement in supporting our efforts to strengthen our universal commitment to religious freedoms.
There are many other points to make but no time to make them. Fascinating questions were aired in the New Statesman this very week about whether religion need be associated with violence as it often has been in history. I think my answer is no, it need not. Religion, pure and simple, free from the hands of power brokers, can be basically a non-violent culture; indeed, at the heart of almost every religion there is a non-violent message to be remembered, as people like Gandhi have argued.
I end my comments by saying that, unlike Mr Richard Dawkins, I have faith in the faiths. We as a Government are committed to promoting all religious groups, including Christians, around the world. We will continue to highlight and condemn all instances of violence and discrimination against individuals because of their beliefs, wherever they occur. In the long term, it may be that the Arab spring will be a really positive moment in history. I am an optimist and believe that it will, but that will not be achieved without a clear recognition by Governments in the Middle East that democratic values must be universally applied and human rights universally enjoyed.
I hope that your Lordships are assured that the Government take this whole issue and the theme of this debate, so eloquently promoted by the most reverend Primate, very seriously. We place tremendous value on religious freedoms and are wholeheartedly working to improve the situation. Let us hope that more open and democratic societies take root in the Middle East over the coming years, creating an environment in which all faiths can live and work together in peace and prosperity, as they have at times in the past and could do again if we work hard enough at it.
My Lords, I am deeply grateful for a debate that in both variety and quality has not disappointed expectations. Despite that variety, a number of unifying factors have emerged in the discussion, some of which have already been enumerated by the Minister. Not the least among those was the admiration widely expressed for the work of Canon Andrew White in Baghdad, and I am happy to associate myself with that admiration.
Wider points have emerged, and I shall touch on one or two. The definition of religious liberty, we have been reminded, is not always a simple matter. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Exeter pointed out that we are speaking not simply of the liberty to worship but a liberty of conscience—a mental liberty. That includes asking some difficult questions about the rights of conversion, which many noble Lords have raised in their contributions today.
I was delighted to hear the noble Lord, Lord Sacks, quote the late Lord Acton on the test of liberty being the treatment of minorities. It was the same Lord Acton who observed that a coherent doctrine of religious liberty was at the foundation of all serious talk about political liberties. We have a number of issues there worth taking up and holding in our minds.
We have also been reminded by a number of noble Lords about the significance of education and adequate communication in this field. Points have been made about the poisonous effect of certain kinds of school textbook, for example. I wonder whether that is something which we might not think about more practically as we move forward. Mention has been made of the British Council. Mention might also be made of educational partnerships of different kinds which exist between educational institutions here and in the region. I ask what possibility there is of using those partnerships to challenge some of the most unhelpful and destructive tendencies among educational circles in the region that we have been discussing. Your Lordships will be interested to know, I am sure, that in the conversations that have been held regularly between the Church of England and the Chief Rabbinate in Jerusalem, the issue of school textbooks has been raised repeatedly as affecting all the communities involved in the region. In addition to our thinking about religious and political liberty, I add as a necessary corollary some serious thinking about how we stimulate the best in education across the region as it moves forward.
I was grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Boateng, for his remarks about what I would call the need to address human problems in a three-dimensional way—that three-dimensionality including, inevitably, the dimension of faith. “God is back” is indeed rather a strange slogan. Those of us who profess a faith will of course believe that he has never been away, not even in Europe in recent years. However, the point made is a significant one. We are in an age where, in the north Atlantic culture, it is easy and fashionable to suppose that, somehow, the religious account of human life is thinner or narrower than others. The opposite, of course, is what I believe to be true, as do many other Members of your Lordships’ House. Whether or not that is something that you believe, it is quite clearly an impossibility to take a realistic approach to human issues by cutting out that enormous area of human motivation and inspiration which is represented by religion. That is, perhaps, also why a proper understanding of religious liberty is indeed at the foundation of a proper, full and robust account of political liberties more widely.
That may be a justification for moving on, in conclusion, to what is, in a sense, a slightly more personal observation; I hope that your Lordships will indulge me here. I spoke in my introductory remarks about the way in which the decline or threatened absence of Christianity in the communities and nations of the Middle East would impoverish those nations— would impoverish the future possibilities even for majority Islamic states and societies. Such a disappearance would also impoverish us as a civilisation, and us a church; I speak for myself here. Like some of my right reverend brethren here, I have some experience of what the noble Lord, Lord Patten, referred to as the spiritual depths of the communities that we were speaking about. It is now over 30 years since I made my first visit to one of the Coptic monasteries in Wadi Al Natrun, between Cairo and Alexandria, an experience which remains with me to this day as a formative time. I have been privileged in recent years to revisit some of those communities, always with enormous profit and enormous challenge. To lose the contemplative, reflective and imaginative spirit represented in those monasteries and the communities that support and sustain them would be for us to lose great depth from our Christian identity. If our Christian identity in the West becomes thinner and duller, so does our political and cultural identity overall. I cannot sit down without paying that particular personal debt to one community in the Middle East, but I believe that the debt is not just mine but ours—a debt we ought to discharge by the kind of serious, sustained, generous and careful discussion which your Lordships’ House has given to this subject today. Thank you.
House adjourned at 2.35 pm.