My Lords, we are all in the debt of the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury for initiating this important debate. It is timely but it is also complex. I am grateful for the thorough way in which he outlined the issues.
For hundreds of years, Christianity has flourished in this region, which was central to its foundation and where it has made an important-indeed, a transformational-contribution to life. On the whole, in modern times, Christian communities have got on happily with their more numerous Muslim and Jewish neighbours. Sadly, it is in recent years that things have changed. The problems are manifold. There are, of course, the many attacks on Christian communities in Egypt, Iraq and elsewhere. However, I do not want to linger on the violence, as others have detailed it and, as I said, it is not as straightforward as many outside this Chamber believe. There are political reasons, as the noble Lord, Lord Wright of Richmond, has outlined, but we also know that violence against religious people is by no means only against Christians, though that is our immediate concern in this debate. We should remember that on Wednesday this week a Shia mosque in Afghanistan was blown up on a Shia holy day. The episode reflects the terrible and unnecessary war going on between violent people in both Sunni and Shia forms of Islam.
What all these terrible events have in common is that they all stem from the same lethal combination of fear and intolerance, fomented in most cases by inadequate understanding and education on the one hand, and inaudible authentic religious leaders on the other. It is the lack of true understanding that results in vulnerable minorities being exploited by those with political ends.
What contribution can our debate make? Wringing our hands may bring a little relief, but will not help those who have the courage to hold on to faith when all the worldly circumstances might suggest to young Christian families in the region that it would make sense to abandon it, especially for the sake of their children. The lack of a secure future is a major reason why many Christians are fleeing the Middle East for the West, and it is rumoured that already well over 100,000 have fled Egypt alone this year. We should remember too that 5 per cent of the population in Syria is Christian and, with a civil war now under way, what will happen to them? The landscape of the Middle East is at grave risk of losing a vibrant Christian presence that has been a vital part of its history and culture, and the region will be hugely the poorer for that loss.
There are many responses that we might offer to the problem, but one thing should be very clear. Everybody should enjoy equal treatment as citizens in the Middle East. Discrimination and legal impediments against Christians cannot be right, yet we know that there is much discrimination in practice, ranging from discrimination in employment through to the fact that in many places it is very difficult to get permission to build, or even to maintain, churches.
There is also a cogent argument that the long-term solution lies in improving and standardising the quality of education, and requiring that much of what is taught about other faiths is accurate and promotes mutual harmony. This will help to create future generations who respect diversity and seek harmony.
However, although the situation is alarming, the story is not all doom and gloom. I hope that a message might go from this Chamber to the vibrant Christian communities, be they Chaldean, Roman Catholic, Anglican, nonconformist, Coptic, Syrian Orthodox or from any of the other churches, that we salute their bravery and want to support them in the days ahead. I also want to salute organisations such as SAT-7, a Christian television broadcast service that is helping at the educational level. Other groups are involved as well.
We should also recognise the support of Muslim and Jewish leaders, who are as concerned as we are about the situation. I know from my relationships with the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar, the Chief Mufti and the Chief Rabbis of Israel how concerned they are, as are religious leaders in this country.
However, I have two practical suggestions that I should like to offer. First, I note that valuable work has been done under the mandate of the United States Congress for an annual freedom of religion report. I suggest that some formal process might be considered whereby our Foreign Office and embassies also present an annual assessment of the degree to which the right to freedom of religious belief and practice has been respected and enhanced in the Middle East. Indeed, some kind of assessment of the impact of religion in general on their work might be very helpful.