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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
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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.
Lord Cormack: 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
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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
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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.
Lord Macdonald of Tradeston: 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
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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:
"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".
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
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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,
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.
Lord Hylton: 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
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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
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Lord Wood of Anfield: 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
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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:
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:
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.
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
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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.
The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Lord Howell of Guildford): 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
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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
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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
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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
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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.
The Archbishop of Canterbury: 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
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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-
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