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Arab Spring

Volume 748: debated on Tuesday 29 October 2013


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what is their assessment of the situation of religious minorities in the Middle East and North Africa after the events of the Arab Spring.

My Lords, I am very grateful for this opportunity to speak about the situation of religious minorities in the Middle East and north Africa since the Arab spring. The debate will, I hope, provide the opportunity to take a more detached view on developments over the past few years and to look at the underlying dynamics affecting religious minorities in the region.

Events in the Middle East since the start of the Arab spring have been a challenge not only to those living in the region but to all of us. Many, myself included, have viewed the series of uprisings which started in Tunisia through the lense of our experience of the Cold War. We wrongly assumed then that the fall of the Berlin Wall would usher in an era of tolerance and political pluralism throughout Europe. The reality was very different. Released from the uniformity of authoritarian rule, the former states of the USSR struggled with weak Governments to meet the diverse and competing aspirations of all their people. Often, as in the case of Balkans, those struggles turned horribly violent, with religion politicised as a marker of identity. Of course, the lessons of our own European history are seminal when trying to understand the transformations shaping the Middle East today. Revolutions are never simple and straightforward affairs. The Reign of Terror and the Vendée in France at the end of the 18th century were perhaps the beginning in our own modern era.

Revolutions unlock a Pandora’s box of deep-rooted societal insecurity as people negotiate new identities and find their moral moorings destroyed. We cannot expect the Arab spring to be any shorter lived or less traumatic. These societies are grappling with fundamental questions about identity, how they should be organised, the relationship between what we would call church and state, and about the rights of individuals and minorities. They are attempting to face their past even as they negotiate their future.

How should the international community respond? Perhaps two fairly obvious words are wisdom and patience, with a focus on core values and some kind of shared moral purpose. Getting the policy right is not an easy task; it has certainly been made harder by the complicity of some Governments in the past in their support of authoritarian regimes. At times, our leverage seems slight. But a key point which needs emphasising time and again is that legitimate government can be based only on consent. There may be many ways to achieve and measure such consent, and while, as we have seen in Egypt, the ballot box is an important part of any democratic system, it is clearly not the end of the story.

It is easy for nations such as our own to judge on the basis of our history and tradition. Core values and morality have been hammered out over centuries. Increasingly these have given to our society a security which honours the rights of minorities. Indeed, that very security, produced by an assumption of core values, allows us the sense of freedom to allow those minorities to prosper. In this context, the freedom of religion and belief is a primary barometer of the social health of a nation. States that respect this freedom are more likely to respect other crucial freedoms, particularly because an individual’s sense of his or her identity is generally fundamentally driven by their beliefs and religion, if they have one.

Against this standard, the record in Arab spring countries to date is all too often weak and troubling, even in those countries that can claim to have made some kind of transition from the oppressive regimes of the past. As just one more human being, I am concerned about the fate of all minorities in the Middle East, religious or otherwise. As a bishop, I am understandably concerned by what is happening to the Arab Christians. My time with Robert Runcie, the then Archbishop of Canterbury, when I worked as his international affairs person in the early 1990s made me realise how little the story of Arab Christians is understood in the West.

They have a claim to be seen as the oldest of Christian communities. The Assyrian Christians in Iraq, the Orthodox Christians and Melkites in Syria, the Armenians in Iran and the Coptic community in Egypt, not to mention the Arab Christians in Palestine, all fall into this historic background. They can easily find themselves caught between conflicted forces. In Egypt, Coptic Christians are targeted for the part they played in the overthrow of President Morsi and the subsequent return to quasi-authoritarian rule. In Syria, churches are politically targeted, just as they were in Iraq at the time of the fall of Saddam Hussein, having been seen in the past as supporting a brutally repressive regime. Either way, the result is the same. In Israel, Arab Christians are fleeing their ancestral land and homes. Many of your Lordships will know the statistics, and the numbers seem to increase as the weeks, months and years go by. Alongside the events in Syria, Iraq and Egypt, it is a human tragedy of historic proportions.

In many ways, I fear that this vulnerability is a reflection of a wider societal insecurity, as I have already hinted. How can we assist? States need to feel comfortable and confident enough in their own skins, as one might put it, to uphold their core values for all citizens regardless of religious or non-religious background. Even in our own nation, it can sometimes appear to be a fragile commodity but we have the comfort of two centuries’ experience of relative tolerance. If freedom of religion is in many ways the fundamental right upon which all other rights turn, it is important for our and other Governments to remain actively engaged over the long term, pressing for the rights of all religious minority communities. At their best, such nations can offer something of their own experience of tolerance and freedom—of security in their own core values—with the ability to be more generous to minorities.

On the Bishops’ Benches, we have been grateful for the energy that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office has brought to this area, especially through the concentrated work of the noble Baroness, Lady Warsi, and, until recently, Alistair Burt. However, I wonder whether the machinery of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office might be further strengthened in this respect by the appointment of some sort of ambassador at large for religious freedom.

In concluding, I merely note that we need to be aware of a growing sense of Middle East fatigue that might lead to international disengagement. As a country, we should never forget our own deep involvement in setting the boundaries and establishing the states that are now struggling to cope with these complex problems. Alongside that, as a member of the United Nations Security Council, our responsibility is to foster international peace and security. The longer these problems linger, the greater the risk of further destabilisation—in Jordan, Lebanon and even Saudi Arabia. I suppose the lesson is that no country is an island unto itself.

My Lords, it is a great pleasure to support the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Wakefield in his Question and his wise counsel to the Minister today. I was particularly moved by the scale of the unfolding tragedy that he told us about. The plight of religious minorities, particularly Christians, is very great at this time. The persecution of these minorities and intolerance towards other faiths is a clear abuse of basic human rights.

This is not a new issue. The First Amendment to the United States Constitution, adopted in 1791, guaranteed that the free exercise of religion would not be impeded. More recently, there is the historic significance of President Franklin D Roosevelt’s message to Congress on 6 January 1941, when he stressed the importance of basic human rights. Apparently, it was the fourth draft he had worked on and he dictated these words to his personal assistant:

“In the future days, which we seek to make secure, we look forward to a world founded upon four essential human freedoms. The first is freedom of speech and expression—everywhere in the world. The second is freedom of every person to worship God in his own way—everywhere in the world. The third is freedom from want … The fourth is freedom from fear”.

These four freedoms, which came to symbolise the war aims of the allies, were affirmed in the Atlantic Charter, which Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt shaped during their historic meeting later that year on a warship off the coast of Newfoundland. They were also later enshrined in the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the fledgling global organisation in 1948. Article 18 declares that everyone has the right to,

“freedom of thought, conscience and religion”.

The right includes freedom to change your religion or belief, either alone or in community with others. Article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights, drafted by the Council of Europe, also provides a right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion. In view of these humane and civilised declarations down the years, it is a matter of great sadness to have to acknowledge that Christians in particular are currently subjected to various forms of persecution in the Middle East as well as in other parts of the world.

A report produced by Aid to the Church in Need, launched here in Westminster this month with the participation of the immediate former Archbishop of Canterbury, the right reverend and noble Lord, Lord Williams of Oystermouth, claims that the situation of Christians has sharply deteriorated in many countries. The report says that although the Arab spring has brought in its wake suffering to all faith communities, Christians have had to endure the most hostility and violence. One of the authors claim that the report, entitled Persecuted and Forgotten?, begs deep questions about the international community’s commitment to standing up for religious freedom.

Obviously, democratic Governments believing in the rule of law should have the presence of mind to raise the matter whenever basic human rights are flagrantly abused, contrary to the terms of Article 18 of the UN charter. It is an outrageous form of discrimination, which should be vigorously condemned. I therefore ask the Minister to endorse the message given by the previous Archbishop of Canterbury that we are not seeking special treatment for any one denomination but merely the application of the rule of law for all. By inference that necessarily means that religious minorities should be protected. If a country cannot conform with Article 18 of the UN charter, the matter should be raised with the country concerned so that rational discussion can take place and the problem be rectified, if at all possible. I believe that the United Kingdom has a good record but it would not be acceptable for other democratic Governments to behave like ostriches and bury their heads in the sand.

A short time ago, I visited Winnipeg, where a human rights museum of national and international importance is to be opened in 2014. It will provide a centre for learning where visitors from all over the world will be able to see its mission statement:

“Commit to taking action against hate and oppression”.

Hopefully, it will highlight the stories of men and women who, from the beginning of time, have risked their lives in the struggle against intolerance and oppression, discrimination and persecution.

President Roosevelt ended his speech by saying:

“Freedom means the supremacy of human rights everywhere. Our support goes to those who struggle to gain those rights or keep them”.

We must all continue to speak out and strive to bring about a world in which all countries uphold and defend those essential freedoms, including freedom of worship, whose continuing abuse is causing so much suffering in so many parts of the world.

My Lords, I congratulate the right reverend Prelate on his initiative and I propose to go even further back than the noble Lord, Lord Selkirk, to a time before Franklin Delano Roosevelt—indeed, back to the year 313. This year we celebrate the anniversary of the Edict of Milan—the so-called Edict of Toleration—which stressed freedom of religion. It states:

“When I, Constantine Augustus, as well as I, Licinius Augustus, fortunately met near Mediolanum (Milan), and were considering everything that pertained to the public welfare and security, we thought … we might grant to the Christians and others full authority to observe that religion which each preferred; whence any Divinity whatsoever in the seat of the heavens may be propitious and kindly disposed to us and all who are placed under our rule”.

That was 1,700 years ago. Now that is echoed both in the international instrument mentioned by the noble Lord, Article 9 of the European convention, and of course, most of all, in Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. I recall that that post-war universal declaration has been signed by all the key countries in the Middle East, and the words are crystal clear with no ambiguity: freedom to manifest religion and freedom to change one’s religion. However much one tries to modify this—it is fair to say that there has recently been some helpful movement by the OIC on blasphemy—overall, the position has worsened.

A key phrase in the Edict of Milan is significant, which is,

“considering everything that pertained to the public welfare and security”.

There are echoes here of our prayer at the beginning of the Session, about seeking the tranquillity of the realm; that is, tolerance is designed to promote stability. In the Middle East today, the persecution of minority religions arises in part from instability and is itself a cause of instability. To quote the general secretary of the Fellowship of Middle East Evangelical Churches talking to the Barnabas Fund:

“The majority have been displaced from their homes with hardly anything to subsist on; most are jobless, homeless, and in danger of abduction and assaults by radical militants”.

The excellent FCO report Human Rights and Democracy 2012, published in April, says:

“It is deeply regrettable in particular that religious minorities in the Middle East and North Africa have in a large number of cases suffered as a result of instability linked to the Arab Spring”.

How much we welcomed that Arab spring; bliss was in the dawn. Alas, like many revolutions, many sons and daughters of that spring have been killed.

Of course, there is discrimination to varying degrees against many other minorities. One thinks of the peace-loving Baha’i in Iran and the Shia in Bahrain. Overall, however, the chief victims are Christians in the Middle East—as, indeed, in the world as a whole, as the Pew Forum has shown. Of the 49 Muslim states, 17 do not tolerate any other religion; one thinks of Saudi Arabia. It is clear that, after the Arab spring, the position of Christian minorities has worsened in the Middle East, where, of course, Christianity had its origins.

Even in the year before the Arab spring, there were many challenges to Christianity, which some saw as a foreign religion: the religion of the western imperialists, those who invaded Iraq and Afghanistan. Even Algeria, after a relatively tolerant period, brought in new, discriminatory laws in 2006. This tempo is increasing. Yes, Christians joined with Muslims in Tahrir Square in Cairo but former President Morsi increasingly followed the agenda of the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafists. The Salafists have increased the pressure in Tunisia.

The real dilemma for Christians in many countries today is in recognising that they had a substantial degree of protection from absolute rulers such as Saddam Hussein and Mubarak. Now, despite rejoicing at the liberation of the Arab spring, they find themselves impelled to shelter behind the army or dictators who offer them a far better life. A day or two ago I spoke to a Conservative colleague who was asked by a leading Christian in Syria, “Do you think we shall be here in 50 years’ time?”. He said no, whereupon his Syrian friend replied, “Nor do I”. That is the extent of the pressure on Christians in their own homeland.

What is the nature of the current persecution? The first observation, obviously, is that in this new secularism, western Governments are curiously reluctant to intervene on behalf of Christians and minorities. Christian churches are burnt down, suicide bombers launch attacks on church leaders, while some, such as the Syrian Archbishop of Aleppo, are abducted. Christian families are forced to flee. It is said that over 50% of Egyptians in London are Coptic Christians. In Iran it was hoped that there would be an improvement under President Rouhani, but the latest reports say that no, there has not been.

How should we respond to this? We should do so, first, by seeking to have a blameless record ourselves. We cannot be taken seriously—

My Lords, I hesitate to intervene on the noble Lord, but I am conscious of the six-minute time limit on speeches.

I shall end in a moment. Let us have a perfect record by avoiding Islamophobia. We must recognise that Muslims are under pressure in countries such as Sri Lanka and Burma. Let us also urge those states that do persecute to mend their ways and accord with the international instruments of which they are members. Most of all, in so far as the Arab spring has soured almost everywhere, we should use every weapon at our disposal, including the sensitive ones, because we must go beyond ritual condemnation. We should use all our tools of soft power, including—I stress this—conditionality because it would be absurd if we continued to bankroll those countries which persecute their minorities, including Christian minorities.

My Lords, I, too, want to thank the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Wakefield for securing this debate. There are some points that are worth making about the Arab spring in general. The uprisings were not motivated by religious sentiment or indeed through any kind of ideology per se. The report of the Foreign Affairs Committee in the other place on the British Foreign Office’s responses to the Arab spring showed clearly that what the protests did was to unite discontented citizens from across the political spectrum and the economic, class and religious divides, simply in opposition to the long-standing authoritarian regimes that existed in those countries. Irrespective of the subsequent popularity of Islamist parties, as we saw, Islamism was not what those overthrows of government were about.

There was chronic economic underperformance across the region. The United Nations Development Committee reports of 2001, 2002 and, I think, 2004 showed that demographic expansion in the late 1970s has resulted in 60% of the population now being under 25 years of age. High unemployment, rising food prices and a widening inequality with endemic corruption, particularly among the elites of the countries, meant that it was inevitable that any kind of trigger could well result in mass uprisings. It was also predictable that the only organised groups that would have any credibility in protesting against the regimes were those who had made personal sacrifices in the past. They were the Islamists, whether the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt or the Shia minority in Bahrain and so on. These were people who had credibility because they had worked in towns and villages with the people who had had none of the privileges of the elites that were rising up over the period. As we know, they were elected with great popular support.

With the exception of Turkey with its secularist constitution, there is no tradition in these countries of choosing between different ideologies. The choices are mainly between clan, communal and religious loyalties. Illiteracy among these populations is sometimes as high as 50%. Figures recently released for Egypt indicate that in the rural areas, illiteracy is running as high as 60% or 70%. Half the electorate, notably women, are either excluded or told who to vote for. The only unifying factor across a country as diverse as Egypt or Syria is Islam or variants of it, according to your communal ties.

Religious minorities, just like the population as a whole, tend to opt en bloc for the system that best protects them. While they supported the Arab spring initially, they have witnessed the impact of political Islam on their own survival in these countries. I emphasise that I am talking about political Islam, with its emphasis on “us versus them”, rather than the religion I know, which is about pluralism and respect for other minorities, particularly the Abrahamic faiths.

However, political Islam in government—pace Egypt under President Morsi—finds that it has to overturn the status quo ante: it has to overturn women’s rights and reform the structures of state; it has to challenge liberals and secularists, as it has done over the past 16 months, in order to implement Islamist constitutional processes and norms; and it sees minorities as easy to scapegoat as “the other”. So minority rights and secular space are attacked while only fellow religionists are supported.

Recently I came across an article on Egypt by Yasmine El Rashidi in the New York Review of Books, called “Egypt: The Misunderstood Agony”. It sets the record of more than a year of Islamist government thus:

“The groups that have used religion as their shield and succeeded to attracting the public with their distorted view of religion, came to power and stayed there for a year. It was one of the worst years that Egypt ever went through”.

Being familiar with the excesses of the Brotherhood, I used the opportunity when I was in Egypt in August to raise the plight of Coptic Christians and Shias with the leader of the parliamentary faction of the Muslim Brotherhood, Essam al-Erian. Alas, his response was typical of Brotherhood propaganda. “No,” he said, “no Christians, no minorities, nobody has been ill treated. It is just a western media conspiracy”.

In conclusion, our support for democratic government cannot trump our promotion of core values in human rights. It is for this Government to walk the fine line between supporting democracy and popular will but at the same time reminding the Governments of these countries what their obligations are in universal terms.

My Lords, I thank the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Wakefield for initiating this debate. I have a non-pecuniary interest as president of UK Copts. Indeed, my remarks will focus predominantly on the situation in Egypt, following on from what the noble Baroness, Lady Falkner of Margravine, has just said.

Before starting, I must say in parenthesis how much I agree with what the noble Lords, Lord Selkirk of Douglas and Lord Anderson, said about the importance of upholding Article 18 of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights. I commend to the Minister the excellent report of the All-Party Group on International Religious Freedom or Belief, of which I am an officer, entitled Article 18: An Orphaned Right, which sets out many of the arguments eloquently expressed today by the noble Lords.

Hostility and even violence against Christians is not new in Egypt, but the turmoil that followed the overthrow of President Mubarak and the subsequent removal of President Morsi has led to unprecedented violence. Just a few days ago, as the members of a community prepared to celebrate a wedding, they sorrowfully returned to their church to bury four of the guests, including two little girls: Mariam Ashraf Seha, aged eight, and Mariam Nabeel, aged 12. They were shot dead as two men with automatic weapons opened fire on guests outside the Virgin Mary Church on the west bank of the Nile. Another 17 people were wounded. The most senior cleric at Al-Azhar University, the world’s primary seat of Sunni Islamic learning, described the killings as,

“a criminal act that runs contrary to religion and morals”.

These killings come in the wake of a summer of violence. Writing about the plight of the Copts and the other ancient churches of the Middle East, Professor Diarmaid MacCulloch, Professor of the History of the Church at the University of Oxford, recently wrote:

“It is easy for them to feel abandoned and betrayed by the Christian-based cultures of the West. When will this Western silence end?”.

In November 1938, in an orgy of violence that would become known as Kristallnacht, Jewish synagogues, homes, hospitals and schools were ransacked and pillaged. The sledgehammers and petrol left more than 1,000 synagogues burnt and more than 7,000 Jewish shops and businesses in ruins. The streets were covered in shards of smashed glass from broken windows. If noble Lords compare pictures of the charred husk of the Fasanenstrasse Synagogue in Berlin, in 1938, with those of the blackened walls of Degla’s ruined Virgin Mary church, taken two months ago in Egypt, they will readily understand why August 2013 represents Egypt’s Kristallnacht. One can also compare the terror of 1938 with the fear among Copts as members of their community have been left dead and others assaulted. Their 118th Pope, Tawadros II, is now under protection, having had death threats made against him.

In 1938, the Times commented:

“No foreign propagandist bent upon blackening Germany before the world could outdo the tale of burnings and beatings, of blackguardly assaults on defenceless and innocent people, which disgraced that country yesterday”.

Reports in the Times and Sunday Times in August 2013 are in an almost identical vein, with the latter paper referring to an event in Cairo where Franciscan nuns saw the cross over their school gate torn down and replaced by an al-Qaeda flag. The school was burnt down and three nuns were frog-marched through the streets while mobs showered them with abuse. One nun was reported as saying that,

“they paraded us like prisoners of war”.

Joe Stork, deputy director for the Middle East at Human Rights Watch, reported that,

“dozens of churches are smouldering ruins, and Christians throughout the country are hiding in their homes, afraid for their very lives”.

It took the outgoing British Chief Rabbi, the noble Lord, Lord Sacks—always mindful of the events to which Kristallnacht led—to point to our indifference to the assault on the Copts, which he described as a tragedy “going almost unremarked” and as,

“the religious equivalent of ethnic cleansing”.

That is why Egypt now needs a constitution, an issue being considered as we meet, that protects minorities, women—as mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Falkner, a few moments ago—and secular groups. It is easy to get into denunciatory mode about the role of armies, but as Egypt saw attempts to impose a theocratic state, and the country descended into total anarchy, were those who love their country supposed to simply stand by and watch it happen? Egypt’s future can only be based on a secular constitution where human rights include the rights of women and of minorities and the rights of religion and belief—including the right not to believe—and where all those things are respected.

The 50-member committee tasked with amending the suspended 2012 constitution has, according to the Ahram news website this week, initially adopted an article 47 which stipulates “absolute freedom” of belief for Egyptian citizens and endows the state with the responsibility to ensure free practice of religion. It also adopted a transitional article that will cancel existing restrictions regulating the building of new churches. All this is very welcome, although there is pressure to restrict this to the three monotheistic beliefs, which would exclude Baha’is, for instance. I hope that that will be resisted and will be interested to hear from the Minister whether we have raised that issue directly with the Egyptian authorities.

In a climate of fear and intimidation, coupled with historic and long-standing discrimination, the significant exodus of Copts from Egypt that is now under way is entirely understandable. However, if this represents the only future for Copts it will be a tragedy for Egypt and for the Copts’ Muslim neighbours alike. An Egypt which is unable to accept difference and unwilling to promote tolerance will be an increasingly unbearable place for all of its citizens. That is why Egypt’s Kristallnacht matters so much.

My Lords, I thank the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Wakefield for securing this debate and introducing it with such wisdom. We need to remember that the Middle Eastern countries are negotiating several transitions: not just one from authoritarian regimes to democracy but from a pre-industrial to an industrial society, from a hierarchical to an egalitarian society and from a thoroughly and dogmatically religious to a moderately religious or secular society. The transition to democracy has to be seen in this wider context. Sometimes democracy gets blamed for things for which it is not responsible, because it has to pick up the pieces that the other transitions have provoked.

In this context, there is one important historical lesson to bear in mind, which I call the paradox of democracy. Wherever democracy has appeared, in the first few years you always tend to have this kind of discrimination against religious or ethnic minorities. I cannot think of one example to the contrary. There are two related reasons for this. First, with the rise of democracy, long-suppressed groups that have been denied their legitimate rights begin to claim them; once they have claimed them, the majority, which is not in the habit of conceding them, is forced to grant them, which leads to a certain amount of resentment.

However, there is also a deeper cultural process. When there is democracy, you require a sense of community, which has to be given an identity and defined in a certain way. The majority therefore has a tendency to claim the ownership of the country. I saw that in the case of India, where the Hindus will say, “This is our country, isn’t it? Muslims are simply here to live on our sufferance”. This happens in many places, where the majority begins to claim proprietary rights over a country; when it begins to do that, it defines the identity of the country in majoritarian or religious terms, with the result that religious minorities become the first casualty.

We need to remember the inner dynamics of what goes on. When discrimination takes place, as it is taking place in the aftermath of the Arab spring, it takes place either against other religions or against sects within one’s own. A classic example of the latter is what we saw in Bahrain. In 2011, the Government instituted the state of national safety law, under which the security forces detained and tortured thousands of Shia protestors. They destroyed Shia mosques and thousands were dismissed from public and private sector jobs. In Egypt, it has not taken that kind of form; by and large, it has been directed against Coptic Christians. Even there, it has been much more muted; nevertheless, it takes place.

In my remaining two minutes, I do not want to detail what goes on in different countries but to ask what we can do to address the problem. The first point to bear in mind—and here I introduce a note of slight disagreement with the right reverend Prelate—is that we should not single out a particular religious community. When the bishop said that as a Christian we would expect him to be concerned with Christians, I thought that, on the contrary, as a Christian I would not expect you to be concerned with Christians, who take all religious communities in their stride. I thought that the ecumenical state was inherent in Christianity. Of course, I understand what the bishop is saying, but I wanted to emphasise that singling out a particular religious minority, as we have tended to do, makes it a target in the eyes of the local community and makes our motives seem suspicious. We come to be seen not as genuinely concerned with religious minorities and their freedom but rather with one particular group.

Secondly, we need to bear in mind that these countries require a sympathetic understanding. In some cases, minorities may be discriminated against not because they are religious but because they were in league with the previous authoritarian regime or with outside powers, or are in command of resources and therefore resented not as a minority but as a particular class. Sometimes there are genuinely religious reasons why this is happening; the important thing therefore is to understand each situation in its own terms and not simply to generalise.

The third important thing to bear in mind is that Governments have limits, and we should work through NGOs in our own country as well as in the countries that we are trying to address. It is also important to bear in mind that religious conflicts by and large are never sui generis; they are never entirely religious in origin but have political and economic causes. The best way in which to solve them, as in the case of Lebanon, is through constitutional mechanisms, such as giving minorities adequate representation in the institutions of the state.

Finally, it is also important that, in so far as religious leaders have an important say, we find some way in which to get them together and get them to talk. I sometimes wonder why the Ditchley Park experiment, which we have tried in some situations, has not been tried in relation to foreign countries. I have attended a couple of sessions there with about 20-odd people from different walks of life who are interested in a common problem. They stay for three days, work and knock their heads together and arrive at some kind of mutual understanding. It ought to be possible to get religious leaders from Middle Eastern countries to travel to Ditchley Park in Oxfordshire to meditate together on problems of common interest. All this will work only if our own record is honourable. By and large, it is, but sometimes it is not. Unless we can say that we have treated our religious minorities with equality and justice, be they Muslims or others, we will not be able to lecture other countries.

I, too, congratulate the right reverend Prelate on securing this debate on the situation of religious minorities in the Middle East and north Africa. Religious persecution in these areas is not new, but the turmoil and instability that we have seen recently have certainly exacerbated the problem. The big difference is that the turmoil and the upheavals have meant that many of the attacks have gone unpunished, which, of course, fuels extremists to carry out further atrocities. The good thing is that, although this persecution has been happening for a long time, the increased focus on the area means that we are shining a light on this issue, thereby giving it the attention which it deserves.

Although I accept the point that the noble Lord, Lord Parekh, made, it is important to note that 80% of the acts of religious discrimination in the world today are directed against Christians, according to the International Society for Human Rights, based in Frankfurt. However, of course, it is not only Christians who are suffering. The Jews, the Baha’i, the Yezidis, the Sabeans, the Ahmadias, and others are all suffering and it is right that we draw attention to the plight of all of them. In the region, they number about 12 million people.

I would like to start by making it clear that the Labour Party condemns all instances of violence and discrimination against individuals and groups because of their faith or belief, irrespective of where this occurs. The area that we are talking about today is huge and diverse so it is not possible to give a blanket response on this persecution. There are some instances in the region where religious persecution is endorsed and accepted by the relevant Government, while in other countries religious persecution is frowned upon formally but little is done by state authorities to castigate those who carry out these repugnant acts of violence. That, of course, fuels the extremists. It is imperative that we have the confidence to tackle both these issues, and that we continue to challenge and confront the authorities in those countries where we do not think enough is being done.

However, it is also important that we do not fall into the trap of inflaming a battle of civilisations and religions in the heat of these exchanges. I do not believe for a moment, as some have claimed, that there is a worldwide war on Christianity. There are more than 2.2 billion Christians in the world and the idea that this group is facing a collective siege is a long way from the truth. Moreover, I think that the kind of talk that we have heard from some members of the Tea Party tendency in the USA risks doing a disservice to Christians around the globe who are suffering repression and persecution by misrepresentating and mischaracterising the real threats that many Christians face today. This is not a global phenomenon and it is certainly not a war but it is an increasing problem in the Middle East and north Africa.

Many noble Lords have made the point about the post-war Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Freedom of religion as set out in the United Nations charter is absolutely crucial. However, it is important to remember that some of the countries in the area have not signed the charter; what they have signed is the Cairo Declaration on Human Rights in Islam. That declaration also forbids discrimination on the basis of religion.

I would like to focus on four specific countries where there is clear evidence of discrimination against religious minorities. Iran is one of the countries where there has been a steady increase in cases of Christian persecution. It is of course a theocratic republic with 98% of its population being Muslim and the highest number of Shia Muslims in the world. Under 0.5% of the population is Christian. Many of them suffer from societal ostracism, and nearly all Christian activity, including proselytizing and Bible publishing, is illegal. The Iranian constitution gives nominal protection to members of the Christian, Jewish and Zoroastrian faiths by recognising them as minority religions. However, the number of Christians and Christian converts in Iran who have been arrested or detained has increased significantly over recent years. Moreover, under Iran’s strict interpretation of Islam, anyone converting to another religion could face the death penalty or at least life imprisonment. Other religious minorities such as the Baha’is do not receive even this slender protection. Seven members of the Baha’i leadership in Iran have been sentenced to 20 years in prison. In May this year, four high-level United Nations human rights experts called on Iran to immediately release the seven imprisoned Baha’i leaders.

The situation in Iraq is different as in many instances the state is trying to do its best to protect Christian and other churches, but they are being targeted in particular by al-Qaeda extremists. Multiple attacks by these extremists on St George’s Church in the capital have prompted the Iraqi Government to set up three checkpoints to protect it. This demonstrates that the Government appear to be serious about attempting to uphold their international commitments. However, the violence targeted against Christians in Baghdad and elsewhere in the region continues to increase. In the aftermath of the invasion of Iraq 10 years ago, Christians were targeted as an alien minority and accused of being in league with the West. In October 2010, gunmen attacked the Syrian Catholic cathedral in Baghdad, killing 56 worshippers. The number of Christians in the country has reduced from 1.5 million to around 200,000 today. It is something that we need to take seriously.

Saudi Arabia continues to have one of the most persistent track records of human rights abuses. I need not talk about Egypt because other noble Lords have done so. I want only to point out that women and children in particular are suffering.

What are the British Government doing to draw attention to the situation? The key point is that they should be using all the diplomatic tools they have at their disposal to draw attention to this issue.

My Lords, first, I join other noble Lords in thanking the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Wakefield for bringing forward such an important issue for debate, and as all the contributions have shown, once again we have had what I would describe as a thoughtful and constructive discourse. Perhaps I may also add my personal warm welcome to the noble Baroness, Lady Morgan of Ely, to her new role on the Front Bench. I wish her every success and I am sure that we will work together on many issues.

All of us, whether of a religious faith or not, should be deeply concerned about these issues because, as several noble Lords have said, they touch upon a fundamental human right: the freedom to choose what to believe and how to practise that belief. Such a right should be an indispensable element of any society. I join the right reverend Prelate in the thanks that he extended to my noble friend Lady Warsi in her continuing work, and of course the excellent work of my right honourable friend Alistair Burt.

On freedom of religion and belief, let me be clear that the Government condemn all instances of violence and discrimination against individuals or groups because of their faith, regardless of the faith concerned. Several noble Lords have rightly pointed to Article 18. We base our position on Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which states that:

“Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief”—

as my noble friend Lord Selkirk of Douglas pointed out—

“and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance”.

I assure all noble Lords that the Government are fully committed to protecting this precious right. Indeed, the promotion of human rights, including religious freedom, is an important part of British foreign policy. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s embassies and high commissions have a responsibility to monitor and raise human rights in their host countries, and they do. Government Ministers and FCO staff raise concerns with host Governments regularly. We take action on individual cases and lobby against discriminatory practices and for such laws of discrimination to be changed.

We also meet regularly with leaders of different religious minorities from across the world, UK faith groups and civil society organisations to understand their concerns. Several noble Lords mentioned the Baha’i community; I have also recently met members of the Baha’i community and will come on to talk about Iran, where I know that that community is particularly persecuted. We work with all these groups to promote the universal commitment to religious freedom. I assure my noble friend Lord Selkirk that Her Majesty’s Government will continue to encourage religious leaders to defend publicly the religious freedom of all groups and to promote tolerance and respect between all faiths. As the noble Lord, Lord Anderson, said in eloquently reminding us of the words of President Roosevelt, the rule of law should prevail.

We have also been working with the international community to combat religious intolerance and protect human rights. This includes working with Canada to hold an international conference on this subject at the end of 2012. We also support the work of the UN special rapporteur on the freedom of religion or belief and held talks with him at the FCO earlier this year. Indeed, Canada’s ambassador for religious freedom, Andrew Bennett, has met with various officials and Ministers at the FCO; I, too, have had the opportunity to meet with him and raise concerns.

My noble friend Lady Warsi hosted a meeting on religious freedom in the margins of the UN General Assembly in September of this year. The discussion focused on international structures in place to combat religious intolerance, building international consensus, forging a common narrative among world leaders and the causes of religious intolerance. We are now looking to follow up on implementing joint projects on this scene with the Canadian Government.

All speakers have touched upon a number of specific concerns about the Middle East. The issue across the region is more poignant because we are discussing the birthplace of Christianity, Islam and Judaism. It is a region also particularly precious to many other religious beliefs. The Government recognise that the period since the Arab spring has been difficult for many religious minorities across the Middle East and north Africa. It is a tragedy that so many religious communities across that region are now suffering so badly—and, indeed, that some countries risk seeing the disappearance altogether of some communities which have existed there for centuries. The causes are complex. The key issue is how we and the international community work with the region to address these issues.

The ongoing crisis in Syria is particularly in our minds. Life in Syria for Christians and other minority communities is extremely difficult. We have serious concerns about rising sectarian tensions and believe that President Assad’s actions include an attempt to stir up tensions in his efforts to hold on to power. Non-Alawite minorities, including Christian communities, are in a vulnerable position, being neither Sunni like the majority of the opposition, nor Alawite like the core of the regime. They are also vulnerable because of the relatively small size of their communities and their geographic dispersal.

The Syrian national coalition has declared its commitment to democracy, ethnic and religious pluralism, and the rule of law. It has rejected discrimination and extremism as well as the use of chemical weapons. Of the 114 current parliamentary assembly members of the national coalition, other minorities are represented: Alawites, Christians and Kurds. Three Christians have positions of leadership within the national coalition. We are therefore working hard together with the Syrian national coalition to find a diplomatic solution to the conflict and to support the building of a Syria which respects the rights of all its citizens irrespective of race or religion. We have, of course, provided more than £500 million of humanitarian aid; the largest ever UK response to a single crisis.

I will turn to some of the questions raised during the debate. My noble friend Lord Selkirk talked of endorsing the message of Aid to the Church in Need, to repeat the report of the persecuted and forgotten. I agree that we are not seeking special treatment for any particular minority. We raise religious freedom issues whatever and wherever they occur. For example, we make use of the UN Human Rights Council’s universal periodic review process to raise these particular issues.

The noble Lord, Lord Alton of Liverpool, perhaps I may say at this juncture, has done some incredible work in raising minority issues across the world, in particular in Egypt, not just for the Coptic Church, which I know he has a close association with, but for other minorities as well.

We welcome the report of the APPG on international religious freedom and its particular focus on Article 18. I believe that my noble friend Lady Warsi met members of the APPG only last week for a very productive discussion. I can assure the noble Lord that all our work is framed on the full definition of the right to freedom of religion or belief as set out in Article 18, as I have already said.

Turning to Egypt, Tahrir Square is a memory, perhaps, in our minds now. The waving flags have long faded and the Coptic Church in Egypt has been experiencing many challenges since the Arab spring. Pressures and attacks have increased since 2011, but following the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak there have been a number of reprehensible incidents—for example, we have just had the second anniversary of the Maspero massacre, in which 28 Coptic Christians taking part in the demonstration were killed.

Following the military intervention to remove Mohamed Morsi on 3 July, there has also been a rise in the number of violent sectarian attacks. Churches, homes, businesses and individuals have been attacked and the Foreign Secretary has publicly condemned such attacks and urged an inclusive political dialogue. Most recently, the FCO Minister for the Middle East and North Africa, Hugh Robertson, condemned the killing of four guests at a Coptic Christian wedding on 20 October. The noble Lord, Lord Alton, also raised this matter.

Turning to points raised by my noble friend Lady Falkner, it is clear in contact with Egyptian authorities that the constitution should uphold the human rights of all including women and all religious minorities. We frequently raise these matters with the human rights issues under Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood rule. My noble friend mentioned political Islam. It is not for Her Majesty’s Government to indulge in how people should vote in other countries, but perhaps if I could reflect as a Muslim and suggest to many across the Islamic world that, if they looked at early Islam and issues such as the Medina agreement, they might find there the solution to some of their troubles.

On constitutional issues, Her Majesty’s Government have called on all Egyptian authorities to uphold religious freedoms of all faiths, not just the Abrahamic faiths.

Turning to Iran briefly, we are deeply concerned about the situation for religious minorities in the countries of the region. In Iran, the Bah’ais, in particular, are not just under mounting pressure, they have been clearly persecuted and detained for a long period of time. According to the Bah’ai international community, currently more than 100 Bah’ais remain in detention in Iran. The noble Baroness, Lady Morgan, also raised this point. On 23 September, the Foreign Secretary met the Iranian Foreign Minister in the margins of the UN and released a statement which underlined our Government’s commitment and concerns over the lack of religious freedoms in Iran.

The right reverend Prelate talked about the decline of Christians particularly in the Holy Land across Israel and the Palestinian territories. Part of this is economically driven, but undoubtedly the conditions that prevail in that region also contribute to migration from that area.

The noble Lord, Lord Anderson, raised issues around Bahrain. The UK continues to work hard in supporting the progress of reform currently under way. Undoubtedly there were issues raised by the persecution of the Shia community. The Bahraini independent commission of inquiry revealed deep-rooted issues that posed significant challenges for the Bahraini Government and we continue to raise concerns with them.

I assure noble Lords that the UK will continue to hold Iran to account for human rights abuses. This will continue in other countries as well.

More broadly, we are working through the Arab Partnership to support long-term positive change in the region through providing support, and for political and economic reform. The Foreign Office continues to review the issue that the right reverend Prelate raised about the appointment of an ambassador for religious freedom, although let me assure him again that my noble friend Lady Warsi, as Minister responsible for human rights, raises this issue wherever concerns are.

I shared many of the sentiments expressed by the noble Lord, Lord Parekh.

In conclusion, religious minorities of the region clearly face many challenges in the months ahead. I assure noble Lords that Her Majesty’s Government stand with them to be advocates of their human rights and supporters of their full and unhindered participation in all aspects of the nation to which they belong, in whatever aspect of civil society they wish to partake.

The right reverend Prelate spoke in his opening remarks about the need for wisdom and patience. I agree with that. I end with the words of the noble prophet Jesus, who said:

“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called children of God”.

Let us hope that the peacemakers in the region, supported by the UK Government and others, committed to fundamental human rights, are able to overcome those who would like to sow further violence and division.

Committee adjourned at 6.31 pm.