My Lords, I, too, thank the noble Lord, Lord Roberts, for securing this debate and for keeping the focus of this House on the suffering of Syria. I also thank him for the deep compassion of his words.
On this holy day in the Christian year, my mind is full of memories of spending Maundy Thursday 2006 in Hasakah, in north-east Syria, and sitting in the archbishop’s residence as community and religious leaders, mainly Muslims, came to give their greetings to the Syrian Orthodox Christian community in a custom of civic conviviality that was entirely normal and was reciprocated by Christians during Muslim festivals. It was a sign, among many, of the diversity of Syrian society and the deep bonds of mutual affection between the peoples.
Later in the day we travelled to Qamishli on the Turkish border for a foot-washing service and Holy Eucharist. The large church was heaving with people of all ages rehearsing the foundational events of their faith with a devotion and joy that you could almost touch. It was a sign, among many, of the vitality of the Syrian Orthodox Church in those not too far distant days, and of the great contribution of Christians to the social fabric of the land, as well as of their critical role in Syria’s professions and businesses and of the great work of their hospitals, schools and projects of care serving the whole of Syrian society.
So much of that lies—literally, as we know—in ruins, and will take great efforts to rebuild. I am confident that the Minister will want to join me and the noble Baroness, Lady Cox—and, I am sure, others in this House—in saying to the now-beleaguered Christian community, who, with their fellow Syrian citizens, have suffered so much, that their future in their own land matters to your Lordships’ House and that we respect the churches’ commitment, even now, to reconciling communities that have become divided by the violence of civil war.
As the Church in the west this night enters more deeply into the suffering of a Middle Eastern person 20 centuries ago, and as the Church of the east prepares for its own commemorations next week, I hope that your Lordships will allow me to frame my own comments today around Jesus’s own plea to the city of Jerusalem only a few days before it became his place of execution:
“Would that you knew the things that make for peace”.
That question has an urgency when it is voiced by the victim.
The number of victims—living and now dead, those still in Syria, those exiled abroad, young and old, Muslim and Christian of all shades—is beyond our imagining. I have tried to spend my Holy Week this year—some of it, at least—listening to Syrian victims in my own city of Coventry and beyond. Very many to whom I have spoken had terrible and terrifying stories to tell about the persecution they had suffered at the hands of the Assad regime. They told me of the ever-present danger faced by their friends and family in Syria, whether in rebel areas or not. Others spoke of the protection that they had experienced from the regime and their gratitude that their family and friends had been saved from the chaos and carnage that have come in the wake of the forces of the opposition. They were the sort of testimonies brought to our attention by the noble Baroness, Lady Cox.
Whatever their personal experience and political perspective, however, every Syrian I meet tells me that what they want most is peace—“Let it be over”, as we heard. Beautiful words. They are deeply grateful, of course, for the humanitarian assistance that they receive, but what they desire above all else is peace, and the safety that comes from peace: a safety that they long to see so that they can return to their own land. That is what they desire. “It is our land”, they say, and that is their greatest humanitarian need. They know that peace and safety will come only when foreign fighters leave and when foreign powers use their power to broker peace.
Today, I left a service in Coventry Cathedral early to take part in this debate—but not before we had blessed the oils of Christian ministry to be used throughout the year. The oil of healing was brought to me—uniquely in Coventry—from the ruins of the old cathedral that now stand as permanent memorial to the suffering of humanity, especially innocent civilians, through violence and war. We call it the Cathedral of Crucifixion.
Some years ago, Pope Francis said:
“Pray for peace … there is no military solution for Syria”.
I printed out his words in large type and they have hung in my house ever since, waiting for the world to recognize their wisdom. What have the bombs and bullets of all sides in Syria accomplished and what has the fuel of the nations’ weaponry, thrown on to the fires of civil war, brought to this beautiful land? Have they brought its people any closer to peace or nearer to justice?
The call of Coventry from the devastation of its cathedral in 1940, from the civil war that raged across Europe, was to have hope in humanity: hope even in the darkest time, hope that said, “We will build a new cathedral and we will call it the Cathedral of Resurrection, because we will not give up on hope for humanity and its capacity to break out of the cycle of violence and find peace”. Now, as a Coventrian, I was much moved by the personal stories of the noble Lord, Lord Roberts, about the war and the peace that came out of it.
I know that the cause of Syria’s peace and the needs of its victims weigh heavily on Her Majesty’s Government, and I would not be surprised if the complexity of Syria’s situation and the lack of levers that we have on this international stage of war, with powers fighting their proxy wars, do not, at times, become a counsel of despair for our Government. That despair haunts my own heart also. But on this Maundy Thursday, the day of the Mandatum—the commandment to love one another—let this House and Her Majesty’s Government not give up hope. Let us rather call the nations to a new form of international conversation that, away from the glare of publicity and the lure of political grandstanding, creates a common, ethically driven narrative that appeals to the deepest humanitarian instincts of every person and nation and makes the Syrian people no longer victims of struggles for power, internal or external, but victors in a new war of words that will not cease until peace has come. In the interests of creating that common cause, perhaps I may ask the Minister whether he will assure your Lordships’ House that the Syrian people will not become victims again of the current disruptions in UK-Russian relations.
If it be said that my calls for a determined renewal of hope that peace is possible and need not be far off are the pious naiveties of a churchman beguiled by ancient stories of a dead man rising that belong to a very different world from the realities of 21st-century international politics, I say that history is on the side of hope, and that the things that make for peace prevail over the things that make for war. To act on the deepest humanitarian instincts to save the suffering, and to see that it is the common interest of nations, is the standard by which the greatness of the world’s leaders will be judged.