Following on from his very well received guest post on abortion, I’ve asked one of God and Politics youngest writers, Edward Kendall to cover Baroness Warsi’s recent interventions highlighting the plight of many Christians around the world. Tweet @Edward_Kendall
Baroness Warsi, the first Minister for Faith is certainly keeping herself busy at the moment and ruffling plenty of feathers in the process. In the last week she has given a speech at the University of Cambridge calling for faith, and Christianity in particular, to be right at the heart of British politics. Her reminder that Churchill and Thatcher both believed that effective politics should be inspired by the Christian faith along with a passionate call to ensure that religion is given a voice at the top table didn’t go down well in some quarters. Terry Sanderson, President of the National Secular Society, wrote an angry response describing her role as the very antithesis of secularism.
Later in the week during a trip to the US, she referred to a Fox News interview with Muslim author Reza Aslan in which the presenter questioned why a Muslim would write a book about Jesus. Warsi commented: “I thought ‘how ignorant can you be?’… The fact that this is even a question shows there is a level of illiteracy. Fox News needs training on religious literacy.”
The reason for her trip though was to raise the issue of the persecution of Christians around the world. In an ardent speech at Georgetown University, Washington she warned that Christians in some parts of the world face a desperate future because of violence against them.
Prior to the speech, she spoke to BBC Radio 4’s Today programme setting out much of its content:.
“I’m concerned the birthplace of Christianity, the parts of the world where Christianity first spread, is now seeing large sections of the Christian community leaving and those that are remaining feeling persecuted.
“There are huge advantages to having pluralistic societies – everything from the economy to the way people develop educationally, and therefore we all have an interest in making sure that Christian communities do continue to feel that they belong and are not persecuted in the places where this religion was born.”
Baroness Warsi said the situation was bleak for many religious minorities, but particularly for Christians.
“One in ten Christians live in a minority situation and large numbers of those who live in a minority situation around the world are persecuted. Tragically, what’s happening is that they are being seen as newcomers, being portrayed as an ‘other’ within that society, even though they have existed there for many, many centuries.
“What we are seeing, sadly, is a sense of collective punishment meted out by local groups – sometimes states, sometimes extremists. They are seen as legitimate targets for what they perceive as actions of their co-religionists. This concept of collective punishment, about them being seen as agents of the West or agents of regimes is wrong.
“We need to speak out and raise this with the countries where this is happening.”
For the Baroness, the key is for politicians in countries with a Christian minority to speak out against discrimination.
“Politicians do have a responsibility to set the tone, to mark out legal parameters as to what will and will not be tolerated.”
Beyond speaking out, Lady Warsi urged politicians to keep their word by ensuring that their national constitutions are met and that international human rights laws are followed.
“There is much more that we can do. There’s an international consensus, in the form of a Human Rights Council resolution on the treatment of minorities and tolerance towards other faiths. But we need to build political will behind that.
“Of course there have been moments when religious communities have been in conflict, but there have also been great moments of co-existence between faiths. There isn’t an intrinsic clash between different faiths.”
Writing for Telegraph, Lady Warsi highlighted the importance of cooperation between faiths:
“I do not buy the argument that faiths are on a violent collision course, that division and sectarianism are inevitable. Yes, the battle lines have been drawn on religious divisions in the past. People are exploiting them today, finding a convenient ‘other’ – a scapegoat – in their minorities. But history shows this is not inevitable; communities can and do co-exist.
“Not only can they co-exist, they can flourish. Pluralism is not only a good in itself; it is good for society. It enables people to play a full part in society, which boosts economies.”
Also speaking on the same Today programme, Archbishop of Westminster Vincent Nichols, the leader of the Catholic Church in England and Wales, agreed that Christians in the Middle East face huge difficulties. He said:
“There are real challenges for Christians in this part of the world to support and get alongside them and also for politicians to understand that the presence of Christians is a great mediating factor, often for example between different segments of Islam.
“It’s a mix that has lasted for a thousand years and no Western government should promote a course of action in the Middle East which would end with a new government which was intolerant to its historical neighbours and colleagues within the territory.”
In the new year, Baroness Warsi will host an international summit to draw up a plan seeking to end the violence against Christians – particularly in the Middle East countries where Christianity was born and began to grow and flourish. The global crisis of religious persecution has become in her words: “the biggest challenge we face in this young century.”
Lady Warsi is the first senior British politician to draw significant attention to the suffering of Christians in the Arab world. She may be a Muslim, but she fundamentally understands both the contribution of the Christian faith to British politics and the plight of Christians around the world. More importantly she knows that with the situation many persecuted believers face around the globe, words of sympathy are not enough; the time for coordinated political action on their behalf is long overdue.