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Plight of Christians in Middle East debated by House of Lords

Country/Region: United Kingdom, Europe

The Archbishop of Canterbury has warned that the position of Christians in the Middle East is “more vulnerable than it has been for centuries” in an important debate in the British House of Lords.

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House of Lords Chamber
CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 by UK Parliament

Dr Rowan Williams introduced and closed an almost five-hour debate on Friday 9 December about the situation of Christians in the region in light of the “Arab Spring”. Barnabas Fund had produced a briefing paper, upon request, for this debate.

The Archbishop said that the Arab Spring “began as a distinctively non-sectarian set of movements” but “has inevitably opened the door to some of those Islamic political activists who suffered repression under the old regimes”.

He spoke of the potential consequences of the revolutions for Christians and other minorities. Highlighting the examples of Iraq and Egypt, from where many Christians are fleeing as a result of violence and persecution, Dr Williams said that the eventual outcome could be that Christians in the region had to either emigrate or retreat into enclaves. He said that the latter may be the only way to guarantee the safety of Christians there, but that many rightly feel the creation of enclaves was yielding an important principle.

The Archbishop’s concerns were backed by other Lords, with Chris Patten raising an even graver prospect:

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.

Lord (David) Howell, a Foreign Office minister, told the peers that the UK government would do "everything possible" to help fledgling regimes in North Africa and the Middle East in their efforts to embrace democracy and preserve Christians' rights amid political turmoil. He said:

As countries embrace reforms and democracy to varying degrees and in varied paces and ways in the process of the Arab Spring, it is absolutely crucial that religious diversity in the Middle East is respected.

The Archbishop reminded the Lords that Christianity was not an import to the Middle East, rather an export from it, and that Christians had been present in the region for 2,000 years. He stressed that no one was “seeking a privileged position for Christians in the Middle East”, but “a general commitment to civic equality and the rule of law”.

He said that “the security and well-being of the historic Christian communities in the region are something of a litmus test”, determining “the political health of the region” following the Arab Spring.

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