Alistair Burt is MP for North East Bedfordshire and is a former Foreign Office Minister.
What is the best answer for the persecuted Christians of the Middle East? During the recent debate on Syrian refugees in the Commons, the issue of the pressurised Christian communities of the Middle East was raised once again, in the context of whether or not this country’s policy ought to be one of finding a home for Christians seeking refuge.
As Minister for the Middle East and South Asia recently, this issue was a significant one for me. Not only am I a professed and public Christian believer, but my portfolio area covered countries where this is now a serious and worsening feature.
Let me dispel a couple of myths – that the FCO does not raise the issue abroad because it is difficult for our hosts, nor does it specifically address the issue at all because of “political correctness”.
These are both untrue. Not only did I, and others, take this up in bi-lateral discussions, but my interest as a Minister could hardly be mistaken. I counted the brave and murdered politician in Pakistan, Shabbaz Bhati, as a frien who I spoke to frequently. I worshipped with Canon Andrew White in Baghdad, and a prison letter from Pastor Farshid Fathi in Iran is on my wall to this day.
But it is true that we did not – and nor do I think we should – pick out and identify Christian communities as a “special case” as far as the UK is concerned.
Why should a believer hold such a contentious and seemingly counter-intuitive point of view?
First, religious extremists abroad like to portray Christianity as a Western religion, with all the bad stories of the past as proof of how the faith has been used for oppression. This is of course nonsense, as Christian communities have been rooted in the Middle East since the time of Christ. But they never let facts disrupt a good story. Western countries singling out the Christian communities would give fuel to the extremist fire.
Second, in many places a Christian community is not the only minority being targeted. Any group or sect not of a majority is threatened with violence and persecution, if the rule of law is lacking. The right response is therefore to support a strong rule of law which protects all, which has the added advantage of giving the UK a powerful voice amongst all communities we encourage to be protected. To neglect violence against others would soon be noticed.
Third, suggesting that Christians find a home in the UK and the West denies their birthright to remain where they have been indigenous for generations, and offers another ‘push factor’, if one were needed, to the extremists.
These are not just my views. When I took up my post in May 2010, I asked to see Christian groups working with the persecuted overseas which I had been involved with for many years. I took their view on FCO policy. Did we have it right, as far as they, with their specialised knowledge, believed?
They said we did. They are working in difficult areas, at the grass roots with Christians at risk. I think they are worth listening to.
This does not mean a downgrading of Christians or Christianity. Nor does it prevent the UK from making clear, as Baroness Warsi and other Ministers have done, that the persecution of Christians in certain places exceeds the persecution of others, and that it is now a relentless and significant factor in some of the misery of the region. And there is no reason not to keep saying it.
But talk is cheap. Are there answers? King Abdullah of Jordan convened a conference of Muslim leaders last September specifically to discuss the persecution of Christians in the region. This has led to the engagement of HRH Prince of Wales with the work, and I am sure that the Government here will be following it up. This presents a greater opportunity for collective action, and possible success, than anything I have previously seen. It was Canon White who told me that talking to other Governments’ ministers was often pointless on this issue – they have no sway with the people. But religious leaders command millions; this is where we should place our emphasis.
If we work with this grain, emphasising the need for religious tolerance everywhere, and continue to raise, unremittingly, Christian persecution in this context, then we might begin to see much-needed progress in ending this scourge.