ISIL, Iraq and Syria – Bishop of Truro asks about freedom of religion

On 16th October 2014 a statement by the Foreign Secretary on ISIL, Iraq and Syria was repeated in the House of Lords by the Minister of State at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, Baroness Anelay of St Johns. The Bishop of Truro, Rt Rev Tim Thornton, asked a question in response:

Bishop of Truro 20.6.13

The Lord Bishop of Truro: My Lords, I, too, thank the noble Baroness for her Statement and associate the Lords spiritual with her thanks and tributes to those she mentioned in it. The conflicts in Syria and Iraq are, sadly, part of a wider cycle of sickening violence in which individuals and groups are increasingly targeted for their religious affiliation. I do not know whether the Minister has had a chance to read the article by my most reverend friend the Archbishop of Canterbury in the journal Prospect today. In line with that article, I wonder what steps the Government are taking to ensure that human rights considerations, including freedom of religion and belief, are given greater urgency in their relations with the Government of Iraq, the Friends of Syria Group and any required dealings with the Assad regime.

Baroness Anelay of St Johns: My Lords, I am grateful to the right reverend Prelate. I referred to that very briefly at the end of Questions yesterday; it was too brief, I know, but time was running out. We recognise that life in Syria for Christians and other minorities continues to be deeply distressing. That extends to Iraq as well, where whole communities have had to flee. We have serious concerns about rising sectarian tensions. As for Syria, we believe that President Assad’s actions include a deliberate attempt to stir up such tensions in his efforts to hang on to power. The right reverend Prelate asks a timely question.

We think that the only way to secure the position of Syria’s minority communities is to find a political solution to the crisis. Part of that must involve respect for each religious group. I mentioned the other day that one of the priorities for the Foreign Office is freedom of religion or belief. I am involved in working to deliver some practical examples of how that may be achieved. The task of achieving that freedom of religion and belief in societies which are at peace but divided by religion is difficult enough. It is multiplied perhaps a hundredfold or more when we have the situation in Syria and Iraq. However, I am aware that when Foreign Office Ministers visit a region, they do the best they can in the time available to meet Christian communities to discuss their concerns and learn from them. I know that my honourable friend Mr Ellwood visited Iraq at the end of August and raised the persecution of Christians with the then Foreign Minister and other senior officials, but I assure the right reverend Prelate that that will not be the last time that we do that.