Alistair Burt is MP for North East Bedfordshire and is a former Foreign Office Minister.
Easter brought a timely flurry of interest and comment from the political press about religious matters, related to the expected quarters of the sermons of Christian leaders and to the less expected interventions of the Prime Minister at his own Easter reception and in the Church Times.
Away from the domestic observations on poverty and the economy, which inevitably become party political pretty quickly, concern for persecuted Christians abroad is high amongst many. Whether you take a view that Christians are particularly singled out, or believe that the outrageous intolerance of extremists affects more faiths and sects than followers of Christ alone, few dispute the awful evidence of Christian flight across the Middle East, and attacks elsewhere in recent times.
All Christians welcome wider appreciation of this issue, but the debate about what to do has tended to be mostly about what the UK itself can do, and how best to deploy quite limited options to assist, not hamper, the efforts of some extraordinary organisations and people who actually work directly with the persecuted in the most difficult of countries.
If we are to catch this Easter drift, perhaps we could try a different tack?
Rather unnoticed here, the likely next President of Egypt, former military leader Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi, paid an Easter visit to Pope Tawadros 11, the head of the Coptic Church in Egypt. It was his first public appearance since the unsurprising announcement that he would run for the office. Electorally, he had little need to do so. He is pretty much a shoo-in, and most of the Coptic vote will go to him anyway after their experience with the Muslim Brotherhood.
But he went, very publicly to visit the most significant Christian leader in the land, where Christians have experienced much pain recently. Could there be a glimmer of light in this? For what the persecuted Church needs, more than the genuine heartbreak expressed by the UK and the West, is outright, sustained, condemnation of such persecution from Muslim leaders, secular and religious. No ifs, buts or qualifications. Just a reassertion of the importance of tolerance. And a Muslim country to lead such a response.
With all the doubts which still surround where Egypt may go next, (and I’m not attempting to minimise complex issues affecting the judicial and political treatment of the Brotherhood), this is one area where the perception of El-Sisi as a man open to more moderation and tolerance than others, and therefore able to lead such a sentiment in his country, might be tested.
The more secular population of Egypt is prepared to stand up; the powerful and moderate theological and intellectual influence of Al Azhar University continues to hold significant sway, and there is a Christian community which is no ‘minority’, but an absorbed contributor to the past and future of Egypt. If the Egypt to come has, as one of its founding principles, a position on tolerance generally, and a rejection of persecution of Christians in particular, then it is posible we may have something new to build on. The possibility of spin off into other areas where tolerance might be helpful is not incidental in the region either.
The UK could work to support these developments. The support of the King of Jordan, who held another underreported but highly significant conference in September last year of Muslim clerics and leaders specifically aimed at the horror of the persecution of Christians, would be valuable. The Prince of Wales’s efforts to a similar end, following the visit of Prince Ghazi of Jordan last December, has importance too. The heroic Canon Andrew White of Baghdad reminds us regularly of the influence in the region not of political figures, but of other, particularly spiritual leaders. His experience is worth hearing.
So let’s see the Government follow up Easter, and actively pursue a policy to encourage such a response. It’s worth a go.