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Christians in Palestine

Crosses in Nazareth

Baroness Morris of Bolton, CMEC Chairman, made the following speech last week at a debate on Christians in the Middle East in the House of Lords.

Baroness Morris of Bolton: My Lords, with the democratic awakening of the Arab world and the attendant rise of Islamist groups, it is important not to forget the Christian minority at the heart of the Middle East. I, too, am most grateful to the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury for bringing this important debate to your Lordships’ House and for his remarkable speech in opening it.

The Arab spring defies generalisation, and each country is undergoing change in its own way. However, a common theme is the desire for dignity, which unites not just the Arab world but everyone across the world. The other common theme is the desire for economic prosperity. The changes that we are witnessing will be judged by how well they meet these expectations. They will also be judged by how well these countries treat their minorities.

As we have heard, the Christian community is disappearing from the Middle East at an alarming rate. War, oppression, occupation, persecution and low birth rates all have some part to play. Yet the strengths of the Christian community, which has so enriched the Middle East over the centuries through its contribution to science, art, culture, the economy and politics, are probably needed now more than ever. How we react to this and the steps that we take to redress it are of importance not just to a religion with its birth and roots in the region but, as the most reverend Primate said, to the stability of the region as a whole. We must encourage the moderate, mainstream majority of Muslims, whose voices we will hear today in this debate, to denounce extremism in all its forms. That is not always easy, because moderate Muslims suffer too from the hands of extreme Islamists.

The world needs to understand the true face of Islam. In an article published earlier this year in theIndependent online, in response to the killings of Christians in Iraq and Egypt, Dr Mohammed Abdel-Haq, a Muslim and the chairman of the advisory board of the Conservative Middle East Council—an organisation which I chair—wrote of the sensitivity of the Second Caliph Umar displayed to Christians when he entered Jerusalem. His declaration, known as the treaty of Umar, states that Christians will enjoy security for themselves, their money, their churches, their lowly, their innocent and the remainder of their people. Their churches are not to be taken or destroyed, and they are not to be degraded or belittled, nor are their crosses or their money, and they are not be forced to change their regions, nor are any of them to be harmed. That was in 637.

More recently—last night, in fact—I returned from Jordan, having been at a meeting of the international advisory board of the Amman Arab university. I love Jordan in December. Everywhere you go, you find Christmas trees and decorations, and Jordanian Muslims joining with their Christian neighbours to celebrate Christmas. As the noble Lord, Lord Turnberg, quite rightly said, this is a tribute to the tolerant rule of His Majesty King Abdullah and to his father King Hussein before him. These two examples— Umar and Jordan, in 637 and today—encapsulate the Muslim faith that I have always had the pleasure of encountering. This is the face of Islam that we should all encourage, because extremists of all faiths are not just a threat to other faiths but a potent threat to their own.

The Christian faith has also to be careful how it frames the tone and content of this debate. Today was an excellent start. We should embrace the values that bind the three great monotheistic religions, and others, rather than constantly looking at our differences. We should also recognise that some of the things we find uncomfortable today were acceptable in our church not long ago. I received—as I am sure all noble Lords did—research from Christian Middle East Watch. I am not sure who they are. I looked at their website, but apart from what they do they seem very shy of revealing their identity. However, in their research they submit certain texts used in Palestinian schools. I do not support the texts but I could not help remembering my husband telling me that when he was at one of the great Catholic schools, not that long ago, his knowledge of history stopped at the Reformation. We have all been guilty over time of spinning the story to suit our narrative.

In my remaining minutes I will return to Palestine. I declare an interest as the newly appointed president of Medical Aid for Palestinians. Recent research by the Applied Research Institute in Jerusalem estimates that the occupation costs the Palestinian economy 85 percent of GDP—that is, £4.4 billion a year. This impacts on the whole community, but it has a disproportionate effect on Christians. They tend to have better contacts abroad and better resources to emigrate. Therefore, instead of putting up with confiscation of land and water, curfews, roadblocks and checkpoints, the demolition of houses and restrictions on new building, and the encroachment of settlements, they take their skills and good education and move abroad.

Today, almost three-quarters of all Bethlehem Christians live abroad. As the noble Lord, Lord Storey, said, more Jerusalem Christians live in Sydney, Australia, than in Jerusalem. This is bad news not just for Palestinian Christians but for all Palestinians and all Israelis, because these are well educated, good business men and women. Above all, they are moderate and they are needed in Palestine because they are an integral part of Arab culture. Of the 2 percent of Christians who still live in Palestine, many hold seats in the legislative council. I join the noble Lord, Lord Wright, in praising the many Israelis who work tirelessly for the human rights of Palestinians.

I had the privilege last month of attending a round-table discussion at Lambeth Palace on the situation of Christians in the Middle East. It was generously hosted by the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury. It was generally agreed that we need a change of hearts and minds and that the Christian people have a heart for their country and a desire to see their countries prosper. Christians are an essential component of a safe and stable Middle East. As Karen Armstrong concludes in her excellent book, Muhammad: Prophet for Our Time, if we are to avoid catastrophe, the Muslim and western worlds must learn not merely to tolerate but to appreciate one another.

 

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