Throughout my career as a parliamentarian I have sought to highlight the treatment of Christians and other religious communities in countries around the world where they find themselves in a minority – especially in Arab and Muslim countries, and in the communist world. I hope that the next Conservative government will not shy away from speaking out in favour of religious freedom. We can hardly expect a Conservative government to openly favour Christians – indeed, some would say that even the liberal, politically-correct bishops of the Church of England are reluctant to do that nowadays – but I hope we shall not shrink from promoting religious freedom and denouncing abuses when and where they occur.
One country in which Christians suffer widespread discrimination and persecution is Egypt. Last weekend I had the great pleasure of addressing a gathering of Copts, as Egyptian Christians are known, in my London constituency. The stories they told me about the perilous position of Christians in Egyptian society confirmed to me what I already knew from many briefings, letters and appeals that have been addressed to me by UK-based Copts over the years.
Egyptian Christian emigrés in the United Kingdom are extremely prosperous and well integrated in our society. Their success here reflects their success over two thousand years in Egypt, where between 15 and 20 per cent of the population of 80 million are Christians. According to ancient tradition, Christianity was introduced by St Mark to the city of Alexandria, which makes the Christian community in Alexandria the oldest church in Africa. Copts were fundamental to the development of the monastic, ascetic and eremitic traditions in early Christianity.
After the Arab invasion of Egypt in the seventh century Copts rapidly became a minority, but they exerted influence and enjoyed prosperity out of all proportion to their numbers. It was perhaps because of this situation, which is often a characteristic of religious minority communities around the world, that they became increasingly marginalised, discriminated against and demoted to the status of second-class citizens. Under Gamal Abdel Nasser's socialist and pan-Arab regime they were targeted ruthlessly because of their control of around half the national wealth, giving rise to a continuous wave of emigration that continues to this day.
Despite constitutional guarantees regarding religious freedom, Copts habitually face discrimination and persecution, not least from the state bureaucracy. Christians who want to convert to Islam have no problems doing so but there are many bureaucratic obstacles put in the way of Muslims seeking to convert to Christianity, such as the refusal by the authorities to allow converts to change their ID cards. Furthermore, it is in practice virtually impossible for Copts to build new churches and even to repair or extend their existing churches, whereas no such difficulties exist for the building of new mosques. To digress somewhat briefly, I was told by my Coptic hosts that they had wanted to buy a disused Anglican church in the Home Counties, which according to CoE rules should first be offered for sale to a 'faith community', but that it had been snapped up almost immediately by Saudi money and will be turned into a mosque. Apparently Saudi charities will outbid any attempts to compete in the bidding for a building which they believe should become a mosque.
The crackdown that Copts faced under Nasser has been compounded by the regime of Hosni Mubarak, who has been in power now for almost thirty years. Having been squeezed economically in the 1950s and 1960s, Copts are now increasingly facing violence fomented by Islamist jihadi radicals, whose influence in Egypt (led by the Muslim Brotherhood) is growing all the time. Mubarak is publicly committed to stamping out this extremism, which has caused huge damage to Egypt's tourism industry, but he knows that he has to accommodate the radicals to a degree, and therefore allegedly turns a blind eye to their systematic persecution of Copts.
Over the years I have raised the plight of Copts many times within the European Parliament – usually in the form of urgency debates and resolutions – and with the other EU institutions through letters and parliamentary questions. I believe firmly that the European Commission should insist that Egypt respects its own constitutional obligations on religious freedom before any further deepening of the EU-Egypt trade/aid relationship takes place. Last month the European Parliament passed a resolution on the Nag Hammadi massacre of Christians, when seven Copts were murdered while celebrating the Orthodox Christmas Eve.
I've also lobbied the Commission on particular cases, one of which in particular has left a lasting impression on me. Andrew and Mario are teenage twin brothers who grew up as Christians. Their father converted to Islam and demanded that his sons be classified as Muslims too, even going so far as to request new birth certificates to this effect. The boys' mother supported their right to remain Christians and had to make do without alimony because she refused to be classed as a second wife according to sharia law. When these brave boys were made to sit exams to test their knowledge of Islam they simply wrote 'I am a Christian' on their exam papers. Their case rightly became a cause célèbre and I was pleased to have played a very small part in helping to publicise this distressing situation.
Of course, the persecution of Copts cannot be seen in isolation. It is part of a disturbing trend of persecution of religious minorities throughout Arab and Muslim countries. Among the many such cases I have raised within the European Parliament and with the other EU institutions are: Assyrians in Iraq, Baha’is in Iran, Maronites in Lebanon and Syria, Christians and animists in South Sudan, and Christians in many other countries including Pakistan, Eritrea, Indonesia, Malaysia and Saudi Arabia. I hope that the sterling work of the Conservative Party's Human Rights Commission, led by Tony Baldry MP, will continue its work to raise awareness within the party of these and other human rights abuses. I shall be meeting Tony soon to discuss how best to put the work of Conservative MEPs in this regard at the disposal of the CPHRC.