House of Lords Debate on Christians in the Middle East
Friday 9th December 2011The Archbishop of Canterbury introduced and closed an almost 5-hour debate in the House of Lords on the situation of Christians in the Middle East.
Lord Wood of Anfield and Lord Howell of Guildford concluded the debate on behalf of the Opposition and the Government.
Christians in the Middle East
My Lords, many people these days have a short and skewed historical memory. 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. Because the truth is that 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. To be ignorant of this is to risk misunderstanding a whole world of political and religious interaction and interdependence and to yield to the damaging myth that, on the far side of the Mediterranean or the Bosphorus, there is a homogeneous Arab and Muslim world, a parallel universe. I do not need to elaborate for your Lordships the dangers we invite in accepting any such assumption. The Middle East is not a homogeneous region, and the presence of Christians there is a deep-rooted reality. We are not talking about a foreign body, but about people who would see their history and their destiny alike bound up with the countries where they live, and bound up in local conversations with a dominant Muslim culture, which they are likely to see in terms very different from those that might be used by western observers.
Yet at the present moment, the position of Christians in the region is more vulnerable than it has been for centuries. The flow of Christian refugees from Iraq in the wake of constant threat and attack has left a dramatically depleted Christian population there, and perhaps I can say in passing how very glad and grateful I was to have stood alongside the Grand Mufti of the al-Azhar mosque in Cairo at a press conference here in London some three years ago joining in condemnation of attacks on Christians in Iraq. Similar senior voices from al-Azhar have been heard more recently in condemnation of anti-Christian outrages in Egypt itself.
Issues in Egypt are inevitably among the most immediate in the minds of many of us just now. Of late, the Coptic community has seen levels of emigration rise to unprecedented heights, and in a way that would have been unthinkable even a very few years ago, it is anxious about sharing the fate of other Christian communities that once seemed securely embedded in their setting. Perhaps the most troubling example, as your Lordships will be well aware, is the case of the Palestinians, one of the most sophisticated and professional Christian populations in the region, but now a fast-shrinking presence as a result of the tragic situation in the West Bank. Whether in Egypt, Israel and Palestine or Syria, what were once relatively secure communities are now increasingly seen as vulnerable. In Egypt, this involves a notably significant percentage of the population, with a deeply distinguished history, and it is not surprising if the current situation is causing apprehension, despite the many excellent examples of Christian-Muslim co-operation on the ground there.
The phenomenon of the Arab spring has brought some new considerations into play, and that is why I am particularly grateful that it has been possible to have this debate in your Lordships' House today. Even as we speak, the future of the Arab spring is still deeply unclear. It has not been in any obvious sense a religious movement: the energy for change has originated with those who want to see accountable government, participatory politics, a robust definition and defence of equal citizenship for all, an end to repression of opinion, an end to rule by security agencies that are free to bully and torture, and an end to the culture of impunity. Perhaps it is worth noting in the light of all that that 9 December happens to be international Anti-Corruption Day. We need to remember too that so much of this is simply a demand that Governments in the region act on the commitments to human rights and dignities to which they have already signed up in a variety of international agreements.
The means by which this revolutionary energy has spread across the region have been the social networking media of our age and the accessibility of good reporting from many sources, not least Al-Jazeera. Yet the challenges to dictatorship have, just as in the Balkans, brought their own dangers and instabilities. What began as a distinctively non-sectarian set of movements has inevitably opened the door to some of those Islamic political activists who suffered repression under the old regimes. We wait to see exactly what agenda such groups will now want to advance as they win high levels of popular electoral support—whether this will mean new kinds of repression in which non-Muslim and, importantly, non-orthodox Muslim communities will become targets for discrimination or whether something more like the Turkish model will emerge: an openly and strongly Islamic Government with, equally, a strong commitment to practical pluralism and political transparency. This seems to be the direction in which Tunisia is moving, and we hope and pray that this may still be possible in Egypt. It is certainly not the case that we can assume that “extremists” are poised to take over the region tomorrow, but we still need to take with utmost seriousness the anxieties that are felt by communities already feeling exposed and uncertain.
The Arab spring has meant dramatically different things in different countries and, as these last remarks underline, there are a number of different political possibilities for governance grounded in Islamic principles. But against such a background we may get a clearer sense of how and why the Christian presence matters, and why its future is surrounded by so many anxieties. No one is seeking a privileged position for Christians in the Middle East, nor should they be. But what we can say—I firmly believe that most Muslims here and in many other places would agree entirely—is that the continued presence of Christians in the region is essential to the political and social health of the countries of the Middle East. Their presence challenges the assumption that the Arab world and the Muslim world are just one and the same thing, which is arguably good for Arabs and Muslims alike. They demonstrate that a predominantly Muslim polity can accommodate, positively and gratefully, non-Muslims as fellow citizens, partners in an enterprise that is not exclusively determined by religious loyalties even when rooted in specific religious principles.
Christians in the Middle East are very sensitive to being described as “minorities”. For them, never mind the statistics, this can imply that they are somehow necessarily alien or marginal, rather than being both indigenous to their countries and historically bound up in the fabric of their societies. One of their real grievances is what they experience as the twofold undermining of their identity that comes from a new generation of Muslim enthusiasts treating them as pawns of the West and, on the other hand, from a western political rhetoric that either ignores them totally or thoughtlessly puts them at risk by casting military conflict in religious terms. Talk of crusading comes to mind. They are looking at the prospect of centuries of coexistence being jeopardised in a new, polarised global politics. They have no illusions about the problems that have characterised their history and the record of Arab and Turkish rule is not an entirely rosy picture. Memories are still vivid of segregation in various kinds under the Ottomans. Yet, the Christians of the region will obstinately insist that this is a history in which they have been agents, not simply anonymous extras. Their absence from the region would entail a massive and damaging collective amnesia.
Many of the Christian communities face a painful dilemma at the moment. Under some of the discredited regimes of recent years, they have enjoyed a certain degree of freedom from aggression or discrimination. The first tremors of political change were felt by some Christians as a bit of a threat to a status quo that, while anything but ideal, was a bit more bearable than some alternatives. Yet many of them felt equally that the popular pressure for accountable government and clear principles of civil liberty for all was a welcome development—indeed, a development of exactly the kind that so many Arab Christian intellectuals of the early and mid-20th century had eloquently argued for. The role of Arab Christian intellectuals in helping to galvanise several important movements across the region is still a story too little known in the West. At the moment, most of these communities urgently want to know whether the Arab spring will be good or bad news for them, and for other non-Muslim or non-majority presences. Once again, it is worth insisting that concern for Christian communities in the region is inseparable from a concern for the overall good of the societies of which they are part.
Are there steps that can be taken or at least priorities to be identified for us in this very varied and complex situation? I trust that today’s debate will bring to light some of the specifics on which people wish to concentrate. One obvious overall point is that solutions can come only from within the societies of the region. The task of those outside is not to impose their own agenda and certainly not to do anything that adds colouring to the false and pernicious idea that indigenous Christians are somehow natural allies of a foreign government or an alien culture. But, that being said, it is important that we affirm as strongly as we can the importance of a political settlement in the region that will genuinely secure the good of all and be properly accountable to the peoples of the countries involved. Whether or not such a settlement involves a government conducted on Islamic principles matters less for these purposes than whether such a government are prepared to recognise an authentic status of citizenship for non-Muslims.
This is not about the creation—let me repeat once again—of a special status for Christians or others but about a general commitment to civic equality and the rule of law. This is why, incidentally, there is deep reluctance in Iraq to accept the idea of Christian enclaves as a solution to the situation there. Many recognise, with heavy hearts, that things may come to such a pass that there are few, if any, other options that will guarantee the safety of Christians. But they still feel, surely rightly, that the creation of enclaves would be the yielding of an important principle.
It is possible to argue, on the basis of Christian and Islamic thought alike, in favour of transparent government and a proper notion of civic equality. This is not a matter of any narrowly “western” idea of good governance but is about basic political ethics. That is the sort of argument about good governance as such that needs to be pursued if Christian communities are going to be secure in the future; not any sort of case for special treatment but a strong argument for justice, honesty and respectful diversity in the societies of the region.
There is one other point worth making that brings the argument closer to home. Our long-term hope, as I have insisted in these remarks, must be that the communities of which I have spoken will have a guaranteed place in their historic homelands and in the political life and discourse of their societies. Meanwhile, though, many are still forced from their homes and many end up on our own shores. One thing that often deeply intensifies the sense of being ignored and misunderstood is an attitude here towards Christian migrants or refugees from the region which assumes that they must be Muslim because they are Arab. I am sorry to say this, but in the past I have heard such sentiments even from some in government. It is an attitude that can sometimes also assume that they are converts whose faith depends on western missions and therefore in some way they are responsible, by their own choice, for their situation. A Palestinian Christian friend of mine was wont to say when asked by westerners, “When did your family become Christians?” “About 2,000 years ago”. We need some crystal clear guidance and education on these things if we are to avoid what is both a ludicrous and an insulting outcome. Syrian Orthodox children, for example—this is a real instance—were told by teachers in a British school that they should not attend a Christian assembly because they must be Muslims if they are Syrians. We can do something about this in short order, and I trust that government and public bodies will do it.
In conclusion, let me say how very grateful I am for the opportunity to raise these issues today in your Lordships’ House at a time when they could hardly be more pressing. The potential for a radical political renewal throughout the Middle East and north Africa is immense, as are the risks. My contention has been that the security and well-being of the historic Christian communities in the region are something of a litmus test in relation to these wider issues of the political health of the region. I hope that our discussion today will constantly keep those broad political and ethical hopes in focus. I expect some distinguished contributions to the debate. Perhaps I may take this opportunity in particular of acknowledging with gratitude the presence of the noble Lord, Lord Sacks, in the Chamber and look forward to his contribution to our deliberations. I am particularly aware that the observance of Shabbat will oblige him to leave the Chamber early so I am all the more appreciative of his support. I beg to move.
My Lords, I am deeply grateful for a debate that in both variety and quality has not disappointed expectations. Despite that variety, a number of unifying factors have emerged in the discussion, some of which have already been enumerated by the Minister. Not the least among those was the admiration widely expressed for the work of Canon Andrew White in Baghdad, and I am happy to associate myself with that admiration.
Wider points have emerged, and I shall touch on one or two. The definition of religious liberty, we have been reminded, is not always a simple matter. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Exeter pointed out that we are speaking not simply of the liberty to worship but a liberty of conscience—a mental liberty. That includes asking some difficult questions about the rights of conversion, which many noble Lords have raised in their contributions today.
I was delighted to hear the noble Lord, Lord Sacks, quote the late Lord Acton on the test of liberty being the treatment of minorities. It was the same Lord Acton who observed that a coherent doctrine of religious liberty was at the foundation of all serious talk about political liberties. We have a number of issues there worth taking up and holding in our minds.
We have also been reminded by a number of noble Lords about the significance of education and adequate communication in this field. Points have been made about the poisonous effect of certain kinds of school textbook, for example. I wonder whether that is something which we might not think about more practically as we move forward. Mention has been made of the British Council. Mention might also be made of educational partnerships of different kinds which exist between educational institutions here and in the region. I ask what possibility there is of using those partnerships to challenge some of the most unhelpful and destructive tendencies among educational circles in the region that we have been discussing. Your Lordships will be interested to know, I am sure, that in the conversations that have been held regularly between the Church of England and the Chief Rabbinate in Jerusalem, the issue of school textbooks has been raised repeatedly as affecting all the communities involved in the region. In addition to our thinking about religious and political liberty, I add as a necessary corollary some serious thinking about how we stimulate the best in education across the region as it moves forward.
I was grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Boateng, for his remarks about what I would call the need to address human problems in a three-dimensional way—that three-dimensionality including, inevitably, the dimension of faith. “God is back” is indeed rather a strange slogan. Those of us who profess a faith will of course believe that he has never been away, not even in Europe in recent years. However, the point made is a significant one. We are in an age where, in the north Atlantic culture, it is easy and fashionable to suppose that, somehow, the religious account of human life is thinner or narrower than others. The opposite, of course, is what I believe to be true, as do many other Members of your Lordships’ House. Whether or not that is something that you believe, it is quite clearly an impossibility to take a realistic approach to human issues by cutting out that enormous area of human motivation and inspiration which is represented by religion. That is, perhaps, also why a proper understanding of religious liberty is indeed at the foundation of a proper, full and robust account of political liberties more widely.
That may be a justification for moving on, in conclusion, to what is, in a sense, a slightly more personal observation; I hope that your Lordships will indulge me here. I spoke in my introductory remarks about the way in which the decline or threatened absence of Christianity in the communities and nations of the Middle East would impoverish those nations—would impoverish the future possibilities even for majority Islamic states and societies. Such a disappearance would also impoverish us as a civilisation, and us a church; I speak for myself here. Like some of my right reverend brethren here, I have some experience of what the noble Lord, Lord Patten, referred to as the spiritual depths of the communities that we were speaking about. It is now over 30 years since I made my first visit to one of the Coptic monasteries in Wadi Al Natrun, between Cairo and Alexandria, an experience which remains with me to this day as a formative time. I have been privileged in recent years to revisit some of those communities, always with enormous profit and enormous challenge. To lose the contemplative, reflective and imaginative spirit represented in those monasteries and the communities that support and sustain them would be for us to lose great depth from our Christian identity. If our Christian identity in the West becomes thinner and duller, so does our political and cultural identity overall. I cannot sit down without paying that particular personal debt to one community in the Middle East, but I believe that the debt is not just mine but ours—a debt we ought to discharge by the kind of serious, sustained, generous and careful discussion which your Lordships’ House has given to this subject today. Thank you.