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14 December 2011

Archbishop of Canterbury calls for ‘respectful diversity’ in the Middle East

Archbishop of Canterbury calls for ‘respectful diversity’ in the Middle East

The position of Christians in the Middle East is "more vulnerable than it has been for centuries" warned Dr Rowan Williams. He added that the treatment of Christian communities would be "something of a litmus test" in the success of the Arab Spring.

Dr Williams was speaking at the five-hour debate on the plight of Christians in the Middle East that was held on Friday, 9 December.

The debate was a chance for the House of Lords to reflect on the implications of the Arab Spring on Christians living in the area. Charles Reed, adviser to the Church of England on foreign policy issues, said there is "a real risk that those parts of the region commonly associated with the birth of Christ may become devoid of a living Christian presence".

The Briefing for Peers that was produced ahead of the debate acknowledged the need for western governments to be concerned about any possible infringement of religious freedom, as this is a fundamental human right. Such freedom also benefits society and acts as a buffer against tensions, it said. The report added that trying to keep track of what has happened in the Middle East is increasingly difficult: "For a range of reasons including violence, internal and external migration, lack of governmental capacity and in some cases declining levels of political will, demographic statistics vary from country to country." What is a known fact is that the amount of Christians living in Middle Eastern countries is continuing to decline.

Dr Williams said: "Many people these days have a short and skewed historical memory. It is all too easy to go along with the assumption that Christianity is an import to the Middle East rather than an export from it. Because the truth is that for two millennia the Christian presence in the Middle East has been an integral part of successive civilisations."He added: "No-one is seeking a privileged position for Christians in the Middle East, nor should they be. But what we can say, and I firmly believe that most Muslims here and in many other places would agree entirely, is that the continued presence of Christians in the region is essential to the political and social health of the countries of the Middle East."

The debate pointed out that while Christians had enjoyed a certain amount of freedom under recently overthrown regimes, now they are anxiously waiting to see what the emerging governments will be like and are understandably worried about their future.

As Dr Williams acknowledged, "there are a number of different political possibilities for governance grounded in Islamic principles". However, even with Islamic-based governments he believed it would be possible to ensure the well-being of Christians in the area. While we cannot impose our own ideals, as solutions must come from the societies themselves, he believes we should be urging new leaders to strive for the recognition and safety of peoples from all backgrounds.

"It is possible to argue, on the basis of Christian and Islamic thought alike, in favour of transparent government and a proper notion of civic equality. This is not a matter of any narrowly 'western' idea of good governance but is about basic political ethics."