Bishop of Wakefield leads debate on religious freedom in the Middle East and North Africa

“States need to feel comfortable and confident enough in their own skins, as one might put it, to uphold their core values for all citizens regardless of religious or non-religious background. Even in our own nation, it can sometimes appear to be a fragile commodity but we have the comfort of two centuries’ experience of relative tolerance. If freedom of religion is in many ways the fundamental right upon which all other rights turn, it is important for our and other Governments to remain actively engaged over the long term, pressing for the rights of all religious minority communities.”

On 29th October 2013, the Bishop of Wakefield, the Rt Revd Stephen Platten, led a debate in the House of Lords to ask Her Majesty’s Government what is their assessment of the situation of religious minorities in the Middle East and North Africa after the events of the Arab Spring. He noted that the Arab Spring and resulting events were about issues of identity, political organisation and rights, all of which impact on the place of religious minorities. He urged wisdom and patience from the international community and urged for governments based on consent to be established throughout the region. He noted in particular the persecution of Christians in the region, including many groups historically amongst the earliest Christian communities. He commended the work of the Government in prioritising the freedom of religion but called for there to be consideration around the appointment of an Ambassador-at-Large for Religious Freedom. 

Bishop of Wakefield PlattenThe Lord Bishop of Wakefield: My Lords, I am very grateful for this opportunity to speak about the situation of religious minorities in the Middle East and north Africa since the Arab spring. The debate will, I hope, provide the opportunity to take a more detached view on developments over the past few years and to look at the underlying dynamics affecting religious minorities in the region.

Events in the Middle East since the start of the Arab spring have been a challenge not only to those living in the region but to all of us. Many, myself included, have viewed the series of uprisings which started in Tunisia through the lense of our experience of the Cold War. We wrongly assumed then that the fall of the Berlin Wall would usher in an era of tolerance and political pluralism throughout Europe. The reality was very different. Released from the uniformity of authoritarian rule, the former states of the USSR struggled with weak Governments to meet the diverse and competing aspirations of all their people. Often, as in the case of Balkans, those struggles turned horribly violent, with religion politicised as a marker of identity. Of course, the lessons of our own European history are seminal when trying to understand the transformations shaping the Middle East today. Revolutions are never simple and straightforward affairs. The Reign of Terror and the Vendée in France at the end of the 18th century were perhaps the beginning in our own modern era.

Revolutions unlock a Pandora’s box of deep-rooted societal insecurity as people negotiate new identities and find their moral moorings destroyed. We cannot expect the Arab spring to be any shorter lived or less traumatic. These societies are grappling with fundamental questions about identity, how they should be organised, the relationship between what we would call church and state, and about the rights of individuals and minorities. They are attempting to face their past even as they negotiate their future.

How should the international community respond? Perhaps two fairly obvious words are wisdom and patience, with a focus on core values and some kind of shared moral purpose. Getting the policy right is not an easy task; it has certainly been made harder by the complicity of some Governments in the past in their support of authoritarian regimes. At times, our leverage seems slight. But a key point which needs emphasising time and again is that legitimate government can be based only on consent. There may be many ways to achieve and measure such consent, and while, as we have seen in Egypt, the ballot box is an important part of any democratic system, it is clearly not the end of the story.

It is easy for nations such as our own to judge on the basis of our history and tradition. Core values and morality have been hammered out over centuries. Increasingly these have given to our society a security which honours the rights of minorities. Indeed, that very security, produced by an assumption of core values, allows us the sense of freedom to allow those minorities to prosper. In this context, the freedom of religion and belief is a primary barometer of the social health of a nation. States that respect this freedom are more likely to respect other crucial freedoms, particularly because an individual’s sense of his or her identity is generally fundamentally driven by their beliefs and religion, if they have one.

Against this standard, the record in Arab spring countries to date is all too often weak and troubling, even in those countries that can claim to have made some kind of transition from the oppressive regimes of the past. As just one more human being, I am concerned about the fate of all minorities in the Middle East, religious or otherwise. As a bishop, I am understandably concerned by what is happening to the Arab Christians. My time with Robert Runcie, the then Archbishop of Canterbury, when I worked as his international affairs person in the early 1990s made me realise how little the story of Arab Christians is understood in the West.

They have a claim to be seen as the oldest of Christian communities. The Assyrian Christians in Iraq, the Orthodox Christians and Melkites in Syria, the Armenians in Iran and the Coptic community in Egypt, not to mention the Arab Christians in Palestine, all fall into this historic background. They can easily find themselves caught between conflicted forces. In Egypt, Coptic Christians are targeted for the part they played in the overthrow of President Morsi and the subsequent return to quasi-authoritarian rule. In Syria, churches are politically targeted, just as they were in Iraq at the time of the fall of Saddam Hussein, having been seen in the past as supporting a brutally repressive regime. Either way, the result is the same. In Israel, Arab Christians are fleeing their ancestral land and homes. Many of your Lordships will know the statistics, and the numbers seem to increase as the weeks, months and years go by. Alongside the events in Syria, Iraq and Egypt, it is a human tragedy of historic proportions.

In many ways, I fear that this vulnerability is a reflection of a wider societal insecurity, as I have already hinted. How can we assist? States need to feel comfortable and confident enough in their own skins, as one might put it, to uphold their core values for all citizens regardless of religious or non-religious background. Even in our own nation, it can sometimes appear to be a fragile commodity but we have the comfort of two centuries’ experience of relative tolerance. If freedom of religion is in many ways the fundamental right upon which all other rights turn, it is important for our and other Governments to remain actively engaged over the long term, pressing for the rights of all religious minority communities. At their best, such nations can offer something of their own experience of tolerance and freedom—of security in their own core values—with the ability to be more generous to minorities.

On the Bishops’ Benches, we have been grateful for the energy that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office has brought to this area, especially through the concentrated work of the noble Baroness, Lady Warsi, and, until recently, Alistair Burt. However, I wonder whether the machinery of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office might be further strengthened in this respect by the appointment of some sort of ambassador at large for religious freedom.

In concluding, I merely note that we need to be aware of a growing sense of Middle East fatigue that might lead to international disengagement. As a country, we should never forget our own deep involvement in setting the boundaries and establishing the states that are now struggling to cope with these complex problems. Alongside that, as a member of the United Nations Security Council, our responsibility is to foster international peace and security. The longer these problems linger, the greater the risk of further destabilisation—in Jordan, Lebanon and even Saudi Arabia. I suppose the lesson is that no country is an island unto itself.

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Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon (Con): My Lords, first, I join other noble Lords in thanking the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Wakefield for bringing forward such an important issue for debate, and as all the contributions have shown, once again we have had what I would describe as a thoughtful and constructive discourse. Perhaps I may also add my personal warm welcome to the noble Baroness, Lady Morgan of Ely, to her new role on the Front Bench. I wish her every success and I am sure that we will work together on many issues.

All of us, whether of a religious faith or not, should be deeply concerned about these issues because, as several noble Lords have said, they touch upon a fundamental human right: the freedom to choose what to believe and how to practise that belief. Such a right should be an indispensable element of any society. I join the right reverend Prelate in the thanks that he extended to my noble friend Lady Warsi in her continuing work, and of course the excellent work of my right honourable friend Alistair Burt…

The right reverend Prelate spoke in his opening remarks about the need for wisdom and patience. I agree with that. I end with the words of the noble prophet Jesus, who said:

“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called children of God”.

Let us hope that the peacemakers in the region, supported by the UK Government and others, committed to fundamental human rights, are able to overcome those who would like to sow further violence and division.

(Via Parliament.uk, Full transcript of debate available here)