The Guardian home 

British Christians are making a stand against persecution

A Lords debate has highlighted widespread concern among British Christians for their co-religionists in the Middle East

There was a remarkable debate in the House of Lords on Friday, which I don't think was widely reported. But it showed that Christians are coming together in a new way to try to influence foreign policy.

John Patten said: "We are facing religious cleansing in parts of the Middle East and may be entering what might be thought of as an Arab winter for Christians, Jews and other minority groups alike on a scale that we have not hitherto seen."

He suggested that the American government would never tolerate a government which persecuted homosexuals the way that Christians are persecuted across the Middle East: "We must persuade our rulers to treat religious freedoms as being just as basic as other, much vaunted human rights."

He urged the government also to stand up for the rights of Turkish Christians, which he said they had repeatedly refused to do. Even though Turkey is regarded as a model of secularised and liberal Islam, Christian congregations there complain of harassment and worse, and the British government, said Patten, will not stand up for them.

The archbishop of Canterbury, who launched the debate, said: "It is all too easy to go along with the assumption that Christianity is an import to the Middle East rather than an export from it. [But] for two millennia the Christian presence in the Middle East has been an integral part of successive civilisations – a dominant presence in the Byzantine era, a culturally very active partner in the early Muslim centuries, a patient and long-suffering element, like the historic Jewish communities of the Maghreb and the Middle East, in the complex mosaic of ethnic jurisdictions within the Ottoman empire and, more recently, a political catalyst and nursery of radical thinking in the dawn of Arab nationalism."

The remarkable fact about this debate was that it showed that there is very widespread concern among all kinds of British Christians for their co-religionists in the Middle East. This isn't just theoretical. When religious people travel they make personal bonds abroad, and these are deeper than those produced by tourism. Normally, Rowan Williams and Caroline Cox would be regarded as very different in their approach. But both spoke in apparent amity on Friday. She too brought up her worries about the situation in Turkey, but also talked about the more promising developments in Indonesia.

The response of the foreign office minister, Lord Howell, was mostly awe-inspiring waffle: "Unlike Mr Richard Dawkins, I have faith in the faiths. We as a government are committed to promoting all religious groups, including Christians, around the world. We will continue to highlight and condemn all instances of violence and discrimination against individuals because of their beliefs, wherever they occur."

But he did say one or two things that seemed interesting. He talked about "the civil war within Islam" and the possibility that violence between Shia and Sunni was a larger threat to peace than the persecution of outsiders. "The civil war within Islam could lead to – indeed, is leading to – more destruction and more deaths than the ugly attacks on Christianity about which we have been so concerned in this debate." I don't know how realistic this is, but it's a fascinating glimpse of government thinking.

Will anything come of this? The bureaucratic answer, suggested by several voices, was to demand a yearly audit of religious freedom in the countries where British diplomats operate. I don't know what difference that will make. It's absolutely clear that the government will do nothing to offend oil-producing countries, which now (as the minister said) also lend us the money we need. So there will be no serious demands for reciprocal religious freedom in places like Saudi Arabia. But the debate is also a sign of a growing determination among Christians in Britain to be treated as a minority that must be respected.

2014 united copts .org
Copyright © 2023 United Copts. All Rights Reserved.
Website Maintenance by: