The Bishop of Chelmsford, Rt Revd Guli Francis-Dehqani, made her maiden speech in the House of Lords on 2nd December 2021, in a debate led by Lord Collins of Highbury, “That this House takes note of the detention of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe and the case for further action by Her Majesty’s Government to secure her release.”
The Lord Bishop of Chelmsford (Maiden Speech): My Lords, I was introduced to the House barely a month ago, having recently taken up my post as Bishop of Chelmsford, that vast and wonderful diocese that covers the whole of Essex and east London. It is a privilege to serve this diocese, which is complex, diverse and full of opportunities and challenges. Today, I thank everyone here who has offered me the warmest of welcomes. I am immensely grateful, in particular, for the help and support that I have received from staff and officials.
I have a deep and personal interest in the subject of this debate. Not only have I met Richard Ratcliffe and followed the story of Nazanin over the years, but I myself originally come from Iran. Born and brought up there, I left as a teenager during the Islamic Revolution, following difficult and traumatic circumstances. I was born into a Christian household, my father having been a convert from Islam to Christianity, in a small village in the centre of Iran. We were part of the tiny Anglican Church in Iran, which, when I was growing up in the 1970s, was made up primarily of converts and second- and third-generation Christians.
Our small community was hit hard when the revolution ushered in a period of unrest and chaos, and the church experienced a season of intense persecution. Properties were confiscated, financial assets were frozen and one of our clergy was murdered in his study. My father, who was by then bishop of the church, was briefly imprisoned before an attack on his life, which he survived but in which my mother was injured. In May 1980, my 24 year-old brother had his car ambushed on his way home from work. Two men got in next to him, and after a brief conversation witnessed by passers-by, he was shot in the head and died instantly. No arrests were ever made, no court case was followed and no explanation was offered for his murder. It was soon after this that I found myself in this country, originally with refugee status and eventually as a British citizen.
I have experienced first-hand the sting of injustice—injustice born of being caught up in events that are bigger than we are and in the face of which we are powerless. I remember well the chilling experience of a hand hovering over my father’s as he went to pick up the phone while our home was being raided by the authorities. It was a hand that prevented him calling for assistance as he helplessly watched the house being ransacked and his belongings destroyed. None of this, however, has left me bitter or with ill will towards my homeland or my countryfolk—far from it. I retain a deep love for Iran and her people, and a desire to work for reconciliation with those of other faiths and across all the divides that we create as human beings.
All of this brings me to today’s debate and to Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, her husband Richard, and their daughter and wider family. Resolving this situation, this great injustice, to reunite a family who are innocent pawns in power struggles that have nothing to do with them requires the best of both civilisations involved—Persian and British. Iran is a land with a rich culture. It has produced some of the greatest poets, architects, artists and scientists over its long and distinguished history. At the time of King Cyrus the Great, the Persian Empire arguably gave birth to the notion of religious tolerance. Cyrus was King of Persia in the sixth century BCE. Having conquered Babylon and liberated the Jews from captivity, he decreed that the Temple in Jerusalem be rebuilt, so that any Jews choosing to return could worship freely. Cyrus modelled a way for people of difference to live alongside one another in peace, and the Cyrus cylinder or charter still stands today as a testament to this ideal in the British Museum.
British civilisation is also built on principles of compassion, tolerance and justice. These are thoroughly British values from which I and many other refugees, immigrants and asylum seekers have benefited over the years. But, at their heart, compassion, justice and tolerance are more than words. To have their fullest meaning, they must be lived—demonstrated in deed as well as word. In the case of Nazanin, we must see these principles enacted now. We need meaningful action, which demands that both countries involved draw on the best of their traditions.
The British Government have acknowledged that this country owes a debt to Iran that is now 40 years overdue. As has already been said, this is not ransom money; it is a long-standing obligation. The payment of this debt would demonstrate something crucial about how Britain chooses to play her part in the world, with integrity and decency, honesty and trustworthiness. If Britain fulfils her obligations, Iran too must act from the best of her traditions, which exemplify beauty, honour, truth and respect.
Finally, Nazanin and other British-Persian dual nationals, among them Anoosheh Ashoori and Morad Tahbaz, are embroiled in a great injustice not of their own making, in the face of which they are utterly powerless. There are, however, powers at play that can effect change and right this terrible wrong. I urge the Minister to use what authority he has to help unlock this intractable situation by paying the debt owed, so that we
“let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”
Speaking after the Bishop of Chelmsford:
Lord Wood of Anfield (Lab): My Lords, it is a pleasure to congratulate the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chelmsford on her excellent maiden speech and to welcome her to this House. She brings an extraordinary array of talents, including, I am pleased to see, academic and musical distinction, and a unique set of experiences as a member of a persecuted church in Iran. We heard how she suffered huge family trauma at the time of the Iranian revolution, arrived in the UK as a refugee and then built a life of service in the Church here. As I am sure noble Lords agree, we will learn a lot from her contributions, and it is a privilege to follow her in today’s debate.
Lord Campbell-Savours (Lab) [V]: My Lords, what a beautiful, beautiful, moving contribution that was from the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chelmsford. It is perhaps the finest I have heard in my 20 years as Member of the House.
Baroness Chakrabarti (Lab): I also add to the enormous congratulations to the right reverend Prelate that we have heard already. I have not been around as long as my noble friend Lord Campbell-Savours, but that was certainly the most powerful maiden speech that I have heard or read in either House of Parliament in an adult life of paying close attention to such things….The debt must be paid; every moment it is not, we continue to toxify relations when we should be offering a moral lead, as suggested by the right reverend Prelate, and obeying the rule of law.
Baroness Northover (LD): My Lords, I too start by paying tribute to the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chelmsford for her maiden speech. I appreciate her terrible loss. I was a student at Oxford with her brother, Bahram. I remember a Sunday lunch when we all gathered to wish him well before he went back to Iran after the revolution. We said that he must be careful, but he dismissed us. I can see him now. He said that it was his home and he would be fine. Soon after, we heard of his awful killing. I was astonished as the right reverend Prelate gave the most forgiving, humane speech, paying such tribute to her country of birth despite the pain that she has suffered. I also thank her for her support for Nazanin and her family.
Lord Monks (Lab): My Lords, I join all those who have congratulated the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chelmsford on a tremendous maiden speech, which moved everyone in the Chamber. We all look forward to her many future contributions, and I congratulate her.
Lord Austin of Dudley (Non-Afl): My Lords, I start by paying tribute to the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chelmsford for, as other noble Lords have said, a remarkable and moving maiden speech—a quite extraordinary speech. As the noble Lord, Lord Campbell-Savours, said, it was probably the best speech any of us has heard for a very long time.
Viscount Stansgate (Lab): I turn to the right reverend Prelate’s maiden speech. It was a very moving personal story, and you could see the reaction of the House to it. It falls to me to congratulate her on her maiden speech, as it did earlier today to congratulate her colleague, who has now left his place, on his maiden speech. I made my maiden speech only seven weeks ago today and had the occasion on a subsequent day to congratulate the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Exeter on his maiden speech, so I have now reached three maiden speeches. I do not know if there are any more Bishops due into the House—someone ought to let me know.
Baroness Donaghy (Lab): I also add my congratulations to the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chelmsford on her most moving maiden speech.
Lord Purvis of Tweed (LD): I also wish to remark on the gripping maiden speech of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chelmsford. Forgiveness is hard, in many respects, when it affects our families. Her speech was humbling and came from a very humble person. If she does not mind me saying so, her surname, Francis-Dehqani, itself suggests a duality. I ask her to forgive me if I have pronounced it incorrectly. It represents how people can come together and live together. As she indicated, this is not an issue between the British and Iranian peoples. It is a human tragedy, as the noble Baroness, Lady Donaghy, said. It clearly illustrates how Britain can be a shelter in the storm in times of trouble for individuals. It also means that our own culture and country are strengthened by them. We are grateful for the contribution of the right reverend Prelate.
The Minister of State, Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office
(Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon) (Con): My Lords, I thank all noble Lords and join in the appreciation of the noble Lord, Lord Collins, in bringing this issue to the Chamber. As ever, I have listened carefully to all the comments and contributions.
However, it would be remiss of me not to join others in welcoming the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chelmsford to your Lordships’ House. As many noble Lords said, her contribution has illustrated that the House is so much richer for her presence. I am sure that we will see such talents very much on display in future debates. I was reminded that there are some experiences that put the whole issue into perspective, perhaps not just in the challenges and the incredibly moving story that the right reverend Prelate shared with us, for which I thank her. I am sure that I speak for every noble Lord in this House and those who will read Hansard.
I was thinking: the right reverend Prelate is a Christian born in a Muslim country and I am a Muslim born in a Christian country, yet our experiences are so different. On a lighter note, I mentioned to the noble Lord, Lord Collins, at the start of this debate, thereby showing the combining of traditions, that my young son is in a nativity play this evening. I shall give my apologies to him later. Nevertheless, that brought great reflection on the incredible place that is our United Kingdom, though it is not without challenges. Therefore, having the right reverend Prelate’s contribution on this important issue, and indeed those of other noble Lords, not just causes us to listen but impacts on us to our core.
…I will end, if I may, with the words of the right reverend Prelate, and I welcome her again to the House. She talked of compassion; her story demonstrably showed that compassion and humility are the best of us. Those are enduring qualities which we all seek and today we certainly heard those in action.
Lord Collins of Highbury (Lab): My Lords, I thank all noble Lords for their contributions this afternoon. This has been an excellent and incredibly moving debate. I add my appreciation for the excellent maiden speech by the right reverend Prelate…The Minister said that it is in Iran’s gift to release the British nationals, including Nazanin, and he is absolutely right. He said that it is in Iran’s gift to do the right thing and that it is their moral obligation. Here, I come back to the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chelmsford. In her maiden speech, she said that it is about upholding international law, setting an example of integrity and doing the right thing. I hope the Minister will take that message back clearly in terms of the debt that is recognised as owed by this country to Iran.
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