Church Commissioner Questions – Christian persecution, church buildings, anti-Semitism, Christmas campaign

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On 24th November 2016 the Second Church Estates Commissioner, Rt Hon Dame Caroline Spelman MP, answered questions from MPs on the persecution of Christians overseas, the Red Wednesday campaign, church buildings, anti-Semitism and the Church’s Christmas campaign: 

Caroline SpelmanChurch Commissioners. The right hon. Member for Meriden, representing the Church Commissioners, was asked—

Persecution of Christians

Henry Smith (Crawley) (Con):

What recent representations the Church of England has received on the persecution of Christians overseas. [907442]

The Second Church Estates Commissioner (Dame Caroline Spelman): The Church of England remains concerned about a number of religious minorities across the world, not just Christian ones. Recently, the Lord Bishop of Coventry travelled to northern Iraq to visit the Christians in Mosul because it is clear that questions remain about their continued safety and the need to make their homes and businesses safe if they are to sustain themselves there.

Henry Smith: Will my right hon. Friend join me in paying tribute to the Open Doors organisation, which does so much to raise awareness of the persecution of Christians around the world and often courageously defends communities?

Dame Caroline Spelman: Yes. There are a number of excellent organisations such as Open Doors, Christian Solidarity Worldwide and Aid to the Church in Need which are working to support the Christian community overseas. I plan to attend a reception for the launch of the 2017 World Watch List in January, and I encourage hon. Members also to attend.

Fiona Bruce (Congleton) (Con): What discussions did the Archbishop of Canterbury have during his recent visit to Pakistan about religious persecution there?

Dame Caroline Spelman: The Archbishop of Canterbury made his second pastoral visit to Pakistan last weekend and met the victims and the bereaved of the recent suicide bomb attacks in Islamabad and Lahore. He also met the adviser to the Prime Minister of Pakistan, where the conversation was warm and constructive on a range of matters, including the contribution of the Christian community in Pakistan and the suffering of many Muslims and Christians in the struggle against terrorism.

Bob Blackman (Harrow East) (Con): What representations has my right hon. Friend received in relation to the persecution of Christians in Iran? Last week, we had a conference attended by several bishops, and the concern there was that Christians cannot even congregate and are subject to military rule.

Dame Caroline Spelman: As I mentioned, the Lord Bishop of Coventry made a recent visit to Iraq, precisely to look at the terrible oppression that religious minorities, including Christians, are suffering. There is no question for any Member of this House but that safety and security are paramount issues, and we look to the Foreign Office to help us in our support for persecuted religious minorities in the region.

Mr Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): If we made it a criminal offence in this country for a Christian to become a Muslim, there would be outrage across the world. Yet people in many Arab countries face legal persecution and prosecution if they convert from Islam to Christianity. What representations is the Church making to these Arab countries that have such rules on apostasy?

Dame Caroline Spelman: Obviously nations are sovereign, and we know that in this country there is an appetite to respect sovereignty, but that does not preclude Government Ministers and Church leaders from speaking with force to the Ministers of countries where religious minorities are oppressed, to ensure that there is tolerance towards those minorities in their society.


Church Conservation

Oliver Colvile (Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport) (Con):

What advice the Church of England makes available to parish churches on building conservation. [907443]

Dame Caroline Spelman: The Church of England does provide advice and support to parish churches in the following ways: diocesan advisory committees, which give free advice; specific officers to advise parishes regarding the care of historic churches; the national ChurchCare website, which provides guidance; and grant schemes operated by ChurchCare.

Oliver Colvile: Earlier this autumn, the Ministry of Defence announced that the Royal Citadel, which includes a royal chapel, will be released back to the Crown Estate. I suspect it will need significant restoration and investment. Who shall I speak to about the restoration, and what will be the status of St Katherine once the royal chapel and the barracks are fully released?

Dame Caroline Spelman: That is a specific question about a specific type of church, but I can assure my hon. Friend that if he takes up direct contact with me, I will take up that specific case on his behalf to see how we can assist this transition. However, the community that worships at that church is able, of itself, to look at the ChurchCare website to see what is available in theory to assist the church. My hon. Friend has seen for himself the way in which the Church has assisted St Matthias Church in Plymouth to transform itself to meet the needs of the student community, with services that are appropriate for that age group and with a style of worship it would enjoy.

Chris Bryant (Rhondda) (Lab): When I was a curate, which was obviously in another millennium, one of the biggest problems that faced the Church in relation to conservation was not only meeting the cost, particularly for beautiful elderly churches, but finding the people who had the craft skills to do the work. Now that the head of the Church’s Buckingham Palace is going to be done up, at the same time that this Palace and many churches around the country are going to be done up, would it not be a good idea to have a joint industrial strategy to make sure that we get lots of young people trained up in these skills?

Dame Caroline Spelman: I am sure that the hon. Gentleman, during his curacy, knew what a struggle it is to maintain these ancient buildings. That is why the Church is participating in the ongoing review by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport to examine the sustainability of Church of England churches. However, I am sure he will join me in once again thanking the Treasury for its assistance with the world war one centenary cathedral repairs fund, which helped 42 cathedrals around the country to make significant repairs and created jobs for many young people in the crafts he would wish to see flourish.


Red Wednesday

Robert Flello (Stoke-on-Trent South) (Lab):

What steps the Church of England is taking to support the Red Wednesday campaign against religious persecution. [907446]

Dame Caroline Spelman: The Church of England welcomes very much the Red Wednesday initiative from Aid to the Church in Need. This is a multi-faith initiative. I would particularly like to thank you, Mr Speaker, for agreeing that the Palace of Westminster should join Westminster Abbey, Westminster Cathedral and Lambeth Palace in lighting their buildings in red yesterday to stand in solidarity with those facing persecution for their faith.

Robert Flello: May I join the right hon. Lady in thanking all those who lit church and other buildings, including, as she said, our own Parliament? While I live in hope that religious persecution will diminish and one day end, will she join me in encouraging those responsible for all buildings to take part next year to make a public statement of our solidarity with all those suffering persecution on the grounds of their religious faith?

Dame Caroline Spelman: Yes, I very much hope that other significant buildings will join in with this. The fact that students from schools in many parts of the UK marked Red Wednesday by wearing an item of red clothing and holding prayer services is an example of how we extend the acknowledgment of the suffering and persecution of religious minorities. That is important, and I hope that this will catch on.

Sir Edward Leigh (Gainsborough) (Con): I wonder whether my right hon. Friend will join me at 11 o’clock this morning in the Grand Committee Room, where I am sponsoring an event for the wonderful organisation, Aid to the Church in Need. Indeed, I hope that all Members might consider turning up. Three quarters of the world’s population now live in countries where there is some sort of religious persecution. This is such an important issue that I hope we can all unite behind my right hon. Friend, the Speaker and everybody else to voice our concerns.

Dame Caroline Spelman: I had meant to mention myself that this event is being held just after this session of questions, so if hon. Members would like to divert to the Grand Committee Room they will indeed find the report being launched. We would all do well to read it.


Anti-Semitism

Diana Johnson (Kingston upon Hull North) (Lab):

What steps the Church of England is taking to tackle anti-Semitism. [907447]

Dame Caroline Spelman: The Church of England takes anti-Semitism very seriously and is supporting the work of the Chief Rabbi and the Holocaust Memorial Trust to counteract the growing anti-Semitic and extreme language evidenced in a report by the Home Affairs Committee.

Diana Johnson: With the incidence of anti-Semitic attacks rising by 11% in the first six months of this year, and the documented rise in hate crimes since the Brexit vote in June, what more could the Church of England, as the established Church in England, do in its leadership role in communities throughout the whole of England?

Dame Caroline Spelman: I could not commend strongly enough to all Members the Home Affairs Committee report recording the very disturbing rise in anti-Semitism. That is precisely why, last week, the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Chief Rabbi launched In Good Faith, a twinning arrangement between rabbis and priests in local neighbourhoods around the country. It is in its early stages, but it will involve a commitment to work together to counteract anti-Semitism.


 

Christmas

Nigel Huddleston (Mid Worcestershire) (Con):

What steps the Church of England is taking to use technology to promote its values and beliefs over the Christmas period. [907452]

The Second Church Estates Commissioner (Dame Caroline Spelman): I thank the hon. Gentleman for his timely question as we prepare for the arrival of Advent this weekend. The Church of England will launch a new website—www.achristmasnearyou.org—on 1 December to help the 2.7 million members of the public who attend church over Advent, and the 2.5 million people who attend at Christmas, find their nearest church service or celebration.

Nigel Huddleston: How are churches being encouraged to use social media to share the message of Christmas, and what is the take-up of social media by churches in constituencies such as mine?

Dame Caroline Spelman: Some 23,000 services have been added to the website by more than 5,000 parishes. It might interest hon. Members to know that it has filters, so, for example, disabled parishioners can find out how easily they can access a church, and there is a filter for those who wish to know whether mince pies and mulled wine will be served. The social media campaign also includes a video in which Mr Speaker’s very own chaplain makes her important contribution under the hashtag #joytotheworld. I recommend that we all watch that.

Mr Speaker: That is very good news, because she is an excellent woman, as everybody in the House can testify, and, if I say so myself, a fine appointment by me.