Asked By Baroness Cox
To ask Her Majesty’s Government what is their assessment of the situation of religious minorities in Egypt since the Arab Spring.
Lord Wallace of Saltaire: My Lords, Egypt has witnessed an upsurge in sectarian violence during the transition period. Foreign Office Ministers have been clear throughout the events in Egypt that have taken place since the revolution that the freedom of religious belief needs to be protected and that the ability to worship in peace is a vital component of a democratic society. We continue to urge the Egyptian authorities to promote religious tolerance and to revisit policies that discriminate against anyone on the basis of their religion. We are also in contact with representatives of the Coptic Church and other religious groups.
Baroness Cox: My Lords, I thank the Minister for his sympathetic reply. Is he aware that since the downfall of President Mubarak there have been attacks on Sufi shrines, the marginalisation of the Baha’is, hostility towards Muslim secularists and a massive escalation of assaults on Christian communities, including the Coptic cathedral, when security forces stood by doing nothing to deter the violence? In what specific ways have Her Majesty’s Government encouraged the Egyptian Government to create an environment of social cohesion, reduce tensions and promote mutual respect between adherents of different faiths so that they can live together as equal citizens in a nation that recognises their rights and values their citizenship?
Lord Wallace of Saltaire: My Lords, as we all know, it has not been an easy transition, and one could add to the noble Baroness’s list new laws that limit the role of NGOs and their ability to accept foreign funding, arrests of bloggers and restrictions on the freedom of the media. It is a messy transition, which is not entirely surprising given how long the authoritarian Government of Egypt had been in effect and given also the internal divide between a relatively liberal urban elite and a much more conservative peasant class from outside Cairo. We have intervened on a number of occasions. My noble friend Lady Warsi made a major speech at the organisation of Islamic states conference on the importance of freedom of religion and belief, and my honourable friend and colleague, Alistair Burt, has spoken to the Egyptian Government several times in Cairo and elsewhere on the importance of respect for minority rights of all sorts.
Lord Boateng: How are the lessons from Egypt being applied to Syria? Given the plight of Christian refugees in the region since the rebellion in that country, it is not clear how the removal of the arms embargo actually assists the development of a free and multifaith, tolerant Middle East.
Lord Wallace of Saltaire: That is a huge question. A free and tolerant Middle East is something that we would all love to have. At present, in Iraq as well as in Syria and a number of other countries, the question of religious minorities, be they Muslim or non-Muslim, is very much in play. We know that the conflict between what one might call moderate Sunnis and Sadaqua Sunnis is also acute. We do what we can, and I have to say that Muslim leaders in this country also do what they can, to influence the debate, but we recognise that the Middle East is in turmoil. Coming out of this very long period of authoritarian regimes does not make it easy to change habits immediately.
Baroness Hussein-Ece: My Lords, in Egypt the use of defamation laws to lock up people on supposed religious grounds has increased, and Article 44 of the constitution bans blasphemy. What actions are Her Majesty’s Government taking in the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva to ask the Egyptians to look again at these provisions?
Lord Wallace of Saltaire: My Lords, we are working through a number of multilateral and bilateral channels to argue to the Egyptian Government that they need to have a much more open attitude towards minority opinion of all sorts. Article 44, as the noble Baroness rightly says, prohibits blasphemy, but Article 45 advocates freedom of speech. Given the continuing conflict about the role of the judiciary in Egypt, it will take some time for the new Egyptian constitution to be applied in full.
The Lord Bishop of Ripon and Leeds: My Lords, will the Minister confirm that 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? How far are the Government able to put pressure on countries to ensure that blasphemy laws do not prevent that happening?
Lord Wallace of Saltaire: My Lords, religious tolerance is something that we in the United Kingdom learnt about the hard way through religious persecution. We have to argue as vigorously as we can to all other countries that religious tolerance between a whole range of different religions is highly desirable in the development of an open and stable society.
Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: My Lords, the Government are about to host the G8 conference and much of it will be focused on the Deauville partnership about Arab countries in transition. To revert to the specific question raised by my noble friend Lady Cox, in hosting the G8, will the Government take any specific initiatives to progress religious tolerance?
Lord Wallace of Saltaire: At the moment, I am not aware of the Government’s preparations for the G8 in this area. I shall feed that back to the Government and see what they can do.
Baroness Afshar: My Lords, is not the real problem that by focusing on faith as a means of the political arrangement in the Middle East—in Israel, in Egypt and in all areas—we are coming to the dangerous point of fanaticism taking over? People are doing things in the name of faith. Would it not be a good idea to demand of nations not to take their faith as a parameter of government? I speak about Iran as well as Israel and other countries.Lord Wallace of Saltaire: One has to demand that of people as well as of nations. As we know, there are moderate people of faith and extremist people of faith in almost all religions one can think of, sadly, including Buddhism. We all have to work actively to promote a moderate version of faith. I am a member of the Church of England and as a Christian I have always regarded St Thomas as my favourite saint because he doubted.