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My Lords, I, too, thank the noble Lord, Lord Steel, for this debate. I must acknowledge that many among your Lordships know far more about this long-standing conflict than I do. However, the shakiness of the implicit premise of this debate concerned me so deeply that I felt unable to keep silent.
I am deeply uneasy about glossing over the very real stumbling blocks that justice prevents us from treating as minor irritations, most notably the statements in the Hamas charter of murderous intent towards its neighbour, the State of Israel. We are being asked to treat the Palestinian state as equally valid with Israel when there is an explicit commitment to destroy the people who live across its borders. I am fully committed to the Government’s approach of working toward a negotiated and meaningful peace agreement that results in an independent Palestine thriving alongside a safe and secure Israel, but both of those are essential.
How can Israel be safe and secure when Palestine is committed to its destruction? Further, I have grave concerns that this would be a state that violated the human rights of minorities living within its borders to practise their religion freely. The recognition of Palestine, without a negotiated settlement with security for adherents of all faiths at its foundation, would exacerbate the already precarious situation for Christians in the Palestinian territories, and especially in Gaza. Under Hamas, the official religion of Gaza is Islam, the country exercises sharia law, and the expression of other religions is challenged.
The Guardian and other newspapers report how in Gaza public displays of faith and the open practising of Christianity is extremely risky, and that Christians avoid celebrating festivals such as Christmas in public places. Along with accounts from Reuters a couple of years ago, there is ongoing evidence to suggest that Christians are strongly compelled to give up their faith and become Muslims, whether through the inducement of jobs and houses—which is powerful, as many Christians live in poverty—or through social and more sinister pressure. Proselytisation by Christians in Gaza can be punishable by death. Fear is growing that the population will be completely eliminated through Christians fleeing the territory and forced conversions, whether through the influence of militant Islam or economic pressures.
Without wishing to idealise Israel, in terms of tolerating other religions it stands in stark contrast particularly to Gaza. At a recent lunch I attended, the Prime Minister remarked that Israel is a vulnerable country and yet, against all the odds, it has become an oasis of freedom where the call to prayer mingles with church bells—where Hebrew, Arabic and Aramaic echo down narrow souks.
Creating an environment where Christians are free to worship and flourish is no mean feat in the Middle East given that other countries are also seeing their Christian populations dwindling. Writing in the New Statesman, former British and UN diplomat Gerard Russell describes the decline of Christian populations right across the Middle East, whether in Egypt, Iran, Jordan or Iraq. In 1987 Christians in Iraq numbered 1.4 million. Nearly 30 years later the country’s population has doubled, but its Christian population has dwindled to 400,000. Of those who remain, many have been forced to leave their homes as a result of militant Muslims’ efforts to establish an Islamic state, or caliphate. Russell paints a picture of an impoverished cultural landscape left in the wake of this flight. Historically, Christians have contributed greatly to the preservation of the heritage they share with Muslims, whether that is the Aramaic language in Iraq or Pharaonic hymns in Egypt. The schools run by Christians in the Middle East have educated generations of Arabs and other Muslims.
In summary, I am deeply concerned about what Christians’ fate would be in a Palestinian state, given that Hamas is grounded in radical Islam. This, alongside the deeply troubling commitment to the destruction of Israel, which would of course sweep away Christians and other non-Jews, raises questions that have to be considered head on, and can by no means be made the subject of wishful thinking. They will certainly not be made to go away by unilaterally acknowledging Palestinian statehood; in fact they could become harder, not easier, to resolve after that had happened.