APPG on International Religious Freedom Parliamentary Monitoring June 11th
Ø Lord Wallace has responded to an Oral Question tabled by Crossbench Peer and member of the APPG on International Religious Freedom, Baroness Cox, who asked what assessment the Government have made of the situation of religious minorities in Egypt since the Arab Spring.
In his reply, Lord Wallace stated that since the upsurge in sectarian violence, the Foreign Office have been clear about the need to protect freedom of religious belief as the ability to worship in peace is a “vital component of a democratic society.” After stating that the Government will continue to urge the Egyptian authorities to “promote religious tolerance” and “revisit policies that discriminate against anyone on the basis of their religion,” Lord Wallace highlighted the Government’s contact with representatives of the Coptic Church and other religious groups in Egypt.
Baroness Cox followed up by highlighting the attacks on Sufi shrines, the marginalisation of the Baha’is, the hostility towards Muslim secularists and the “massive escalation” of assaults on Christian communities, before asking what specific measures the Government encourage the Egyptian authorities to take to create an environment of social cohesion. In his reply, Lord Wallace highlighted that the Government has already and mentioned recent efforts by Baroness Warsi and Alistair Burt.
Labour Peer Lord Boateng briefly intervened asking how the lessons of Egypt are being applied to Syria. In his reply, Lord Wallace stated that the question of religious minorities in the Middle East “is very much in play,” and mentioned that the Foreign Office are doing what they can.
Liberal Democrat Peer Baroness Hussein-Ece intervened in the debate stating that the use of defamation laws “to lock up people on supposed religious grounds” has increased, and asking what action the Government is taking in the UN Human Rights Council to ask the Egyptians to look again at these provisions. In his reply, Lord Wallace stated that through a number of multilateral and bilateral channels, the Government has made of representations to the Egyptian authorities about developing a much more open attitude towards minority opinion,.
The Lord Bishop of Ripon and Leeds was next to intervene, asking if the Government will confirm if freedom of religion involves the right to change one’s religious beliefs and that Egypt and other nations need to be pressed to ensure that those who change their religious affiliations are defended in doing so. Lord Wallace said in response that the Government “have to argue as vigorously as we can” that religious tolerance “is highly desirable in the development of an open and stable society”.
Labour Peer Baroness Symons asked whether the Government, when hosting the forthcoming G8 meeting, will take any specific initiatives to progress religious tolerance. Lord Wallace said he was not aware of the Government’s preparations for the G8 in this area.
The last to intervene was Crossbench Peer Baroness Afshar who asked whether it would not be a good idea to demand of nations not to take their faith as a parameter of government. In his reply, Lord Wallace stated that “we all have to work actively to promote a moderate version of faith”.
Ø The Chair and Vice-Chair of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) have published a joint article focussing on how, after a year since the election of President Morsi, Egypt is failing to meet international religious-freedom standards. According to the article, one of the greatest concerns are Egypt’s new constitution, a code forbidding blasphemy, an impunity problem, restrictions on building places of worship and problems regarding religious identification and conversion. While the constitution affirms religious freedom, this is limited to the three main religions.
Taking into account that the constitution also backs anti-blasphemy legislation, the authors argue that these laws fuel Egypt’s impunity problem by provoking hateful attacks against Copts and other religious minorities. To overcome this situation, USCIRF contends that Egypt should be encouraged to repeal its “contempt-of-religion” laws and discriminatory decrees against religious minorities.