Christians in the Middle East — Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 1:51 pm on 9th December 2011.

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Photo of Lord Wood of Anfield Lord Wood of Anfield Shadow Minister without Portfolio (Cabinet Office), Shadow Spokesperson (Cabinet Office) 1:51 pm, 9th December 2011

My Lords, I thank the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury for giving this House a chance to discuss the plight of Christians across the Middle East. Some debates in this Chamber are about issues that divide us, but this is not one of them. The great virtue of this debate is that it is not to argue about policy but to bring to the attention of this House and those who follow its debates the disturbing and deteriorating situation faced by Christians in the Middle East. It is a subject that has received remarkably little attention in the UK, where the Middle East is more often thought of as the location of holy sites in Christianity's history rather than as the home of active Christian communities in the modern era. It is also surprising in the light of the startling fact revealed by the Aid to the Church in Need report earlier this year that 75 per cent of all religious persecution in the world is carried out against Christians.

The situation and welfare of Christians in the Middle East is a cause for concern for all of us, whether or not we share the Christian faith, partly because we should proudly defend the rights of minorities in the region as elsewhere, but also because, as the noble Lord, Lord Sacks, reminded us, the way religious minorities in the Middle East are treated is a litmus test in that most fragile of regions for the presence of the basic levels of tolerance and respect that are needed for genuine stability to emerge.

We have heard much today about the persecution that the 10 million to 15 million Christians living in the Middle East today continue to face, but I believe that if we want to understand this persecution-why it occurs where it does and how to respond to it-we need to understand the diversity of Christian experiences in different countries of the region. In some countries, Christians have been the subject of outright atrocities, such as the attacks just in the past 12 months on a Coptic church in Alexandria and on a Catholic church in Baghdad, in which a total of 73 Christians were murdered. In other contexts, Christians find their churches attacked and the security services in those countries uninterested in finding and prosecuting those responsible, or find the land of their churches seized. Some Christians face discrimination in basic constitutional rights while in countries such as Iran, Christians ostensibly have formal rights recognised in the constitution but in reality face discrimination when it comes to employment, political and other rights.

Many Christians in the region find their communities and their faith maligned in popular culture and sometimes, as the noble Lord, Lord Alton, mentioned, in school textbooks and on private television channels. In countries like Saudi Arabia, Christians are unable to worship freely without intimidation or fear of arrest, while for Palestinian Christians, for example, restrictions on freedom of movement affect their ability to practise their faith. I am thinking here of remarks made earlier by the noble Lord, Lord Wright of Richmond, and Monsignor Twal, Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, who recently pointed out that many Christians living in Bethlehem find themselves unable to visit the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem because of the walls that now separate communities in the region.

For millions of others, however, daily life is not characterised by incidences of gross violence but by a steady growing anxiety about the situations in which they live; anxiety about the commitment of Governments to uphold their basic rights; anxiety about their ability to profess their faith with confidence as their numbers reduce over time; and anxiety about what the future holds in countries in the middle of political transition with uncertain outcomes.

The responses of Christians to these uncertainties, as we have heard today, have been diverse. Many who face intimidation have chosen to convert to escape the possibility of persecution. For example, we know from one study that in one three-year period in the late 1980s, 50,000 Egyptian university graduates converted away from Christianity. Some, such as some within the Lebanese Christian community, are quietly arming themselves for self-protection as a precaution. Others, such as many of the Egyptian Copts, are embracing nascent democratic processes, supporting secular and liberal parties. But across the region, the most notable response has been the choice to emigrate, as the most reverend Primate said, which, combined with growing differentials in the birth rates between Christians and other groupings, has led to dramatic reductions in the Christian population.

For example, in 1948, Jerusalem was 20 per cent Christian, but now it is less than 2 per cent. In Bethlehem, about which we have heard a lot today, Christians were for a long time around three-quarters or more of the population. Now, although the figure is disputed, as we have also heard today, it is under 20 per cent. Lebanon has gone from being a majority Christian country to Christians constituting around 30 per cent or less of the population, and this number is still going down-so more than half of Lebanon's Christians now live outside the country. Well over half of Iraq's 1.5 million Christians have fled the country in the past 10 years.

As numbers go down and Christian minorities become even smaller minorities, the anxiety about future persecution and intimidation grows. Why has this situation become more precarious? The noble Lord, Lord Parekh, earlier offered some illuminating reflections on this subject. I think that it is the result of three different developments. The first is the changing balance of populations, which has been discussed today, and-whether rational or not, or based on fear or evidence-Christians have begun to feel more intimidated than before. The second is the mounting suspicion of the West among Muslim populations and the association of Christians with the political agenda of the West, particularly in the light of military action in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the growth of radical Islam in some parts of the region. Again, Monsignor Twal expressed the thought well from the perspective of Christian Palestinians in Jerusalem:

"Muslim fundamentalists identify us with the Christian West-which is not always true-and want us to pay the price".

The third factor is the failure of secular ideologies in the Arab world-from Nasserism to Arab nationalism to pan-Arabism-that in practice offered a relatively protected sphere for Christians. This takes us to the central paradox of the region, which has been discussed by not only the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury and the noble Lord, Lord Alton, today but also by the Foreign Secretary, William Hague, who has spoken eloquently on this subject. We might think of it as the paradox of the Arab spring. The paradox is that the courageous turn by populations against the corrupt authoritarianism of regimes in Arab countries and the instinct, however crude, towards greater democracy in some form has increased rather than diminished the degree of threat felt by Christians in the region. In some quarters this has even created a kind of nostalgia for pluralism under autocracy of the sort that on occasion was experienced by Christians in the Ottoman Empire.

The implications for Christians of the uncertainty and the political vacuum under the Arab spring are difficult territory for all of us. But I believe that the right response is to maintain a principled approach and support for democracy while at the same time not falling prey to naivety. The Arab spring has surely shown us that it is an illusion to think that true security and stability, and sustainable protection of the rights of minorities, can be secured by support, whether tacit or otherwise, for authoritarianism. Our support for the aspiration of populations in Arab countries to create their own brand of democracy must be full throated. As the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury put it recently in an interview:

"A real participatory democracy in the region is bound to be in the interests of minorities because good democracies look after minorities".

The key word here is "real"-a real participatory democracy. That means a participatory democracy in which the first key principle, the authority of the will of the majority, is combined with the second key principle on an equal standing, which is the fierce insistence on observing basic civil and political rights for all minorities.

Britain's influence in the region is of course coloured by our historical role and we have to tread very carefully in the light of that, and I am not suggesting a blunderbuss approach to evangelising liberal democracy. I also know that in countries such as Lebanon, our embassy has being doing valuable work in building confidence among the Christian communities. But I wonder if the Minister, in replying, could outline the way in which the insistence on basic constitutional provisions, the formal protection of rights and the assurance of the observance of those rights, including for Christians, is woven into our diplomatic engagement with the new regimes in countries such as Tunisia and Libya, and especially in Egypt and Iraq. Picking up on a question from the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, I ask what role the Government see for the European Union under the leadership of my noble friend Lady Ashton in applying pressure on regimes in the area to ensure better protection.

I also ask the Minister for his view on the approach adopted by the United States since the Clinton presidency. In 1997, President Clinton initiated a new Freedom from Religious Persecution Act to,

"support the aspirations of ethnic and religious minorities in other nations as they strive for their own right to worship freely".

It set up a US Commission on International Religious Freedom, which submits an annual report on areas of concern. An office was set up in the White House inside, I believe, the National Security Council, to recommend ways in which US foreign policy should be informed by evidence of religious persecution, and it allowed the President to take action on aid and trade policies in response to that evidence. Some commentators argue that there is evidence that this approach had some limited effect on, for example, making the Mubarak regime behave a bit better towards the Coptic minority, particularly on the return of church land and allowing church repairs. I am not advocating this approach, but, again, I would be keen to hear the Minister's reflections on it. What is his view on whether this approach has been effective and do the Government have any thoughts on adopting some kind of similar approach in the UK going forward?

I have one last thought about optimism. Many people, including many noble Lords from whom we have heard today, approach the subject of the position of Christians in the Middle East with pessimism. They see conflict in the past and have fears for the future. The Arab spring has tended to make the pessimists more pessimistic. I believe, as I argued earlier, that we must be alive to the diversity of Christians' experiences of intimidation and persecution and seek to understand the factors that propel it. But I also want to follow my noble friend Lord Turnberg and the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Carey, in their search for a glimmer of hope, as I believe my noble friend put it, and sound a cautious note of optimism about the prospects for interfaith relations in the region. I do not believe that the conditions under which Christians in the Middle East live will necessarily worsen or that there is something in the DNA of the history of the Middle East that makes their marginalisation and ever increasing persecution inevitable. Alongside the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Guildford, I think that the history as well as the contemporary politics of the region offers some cause for optimism for those who strive for a peaceful future.

Let me briefly illustrate this with the case of Egypt. As we have heard, Coptic Christians in Egypt are the single Christian grouping in the region, and events over the past 50 years have given them good reason to be anxious. Since 1981, more than 30 attacks on Copts have been recorded, and I stress that those are just what have been recorded, with over 200 Christians killed. As alarming as these attacks has been the anaemic response by the Egyptian security services. On New Year's Day this year, an attack on a Coptic church in Alexandria killed 21 people, while churches in Cairo are now cordoned off by police checkpoints. Private Muslim channels hurl vitriolic abuse against Copts. Just two months ago today, hundreds of Copts marched on state-run TV stations to protest the failure of the authorities to investigate the burning of a church in Aswan. Soldiers responded with violence and 28 people died, with 325 wounded. We must be determined to do what we can to ensure that outrages of this sort, as well as daily, more low-level intimidation, are not a hallmark of Egypt's future.

However, the history of Egypt has another strand to it. It shows that, at times, with leadership on both Muslim and Christian sides, the relationship between the two populations can be marked by equality and co-operation. After 1856, when the Ottoman Sultan conceded the principle of equality before the law to all subjects of the Ottoman Empire, there was a period within which Copts became fully integrated into the Egyptian political system. After the 1919 revolution, when Copts and Muslims united in that great cause to oppose the British occupation, there followed a brief period of genuine co-operation to build a new political order.

If you are looking for sources of hope, you do not have to go back to benign episodes of Egyptian history. You should cast your mind back to the extraordinary scenes in Tahrir Square earlier this year, when Muslims and Christians stood side by side with shared courage and shared determination to demand reform. Muslim groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood have professed their tolerance towards other groups. While there is widespread cynicism about their being true to their word, we should encourage them to be true to it, challenge them to live up to their pledges, and use our influence to empower the moderates and marginalise the extremists rather than approaching these groups with a pre-formulated certainty that they have no intention to act in good faith.

These causes for optimism should not make us complacent about the appalling situation faced by so many millions of Christians in the Middle East, but they should give us encouragement to think that the story of Christians in the region is not one of inevitable decline and that it is worth us engaging to ensure that, working with more liberal and moderate voices in the region, the future can be a better one for Christian populations.