Baroness Anelay of St Johns has defended the priority given to Pakistan as a recipient of British aid, despite its draconian blasphemy laws, and insisted that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is no defender of Syria’s Christians.
Speaking to The Tablet and Christian Today at the Foreign & Commonwealth Office (FCO), the Minister of State at the FCO was asked how the annual £400 million in UK aid could be justified in the light of the Pakistan Government’s refusal to repeal a law that keeps victims such as Asia Bibi, the Christian mother of five sentenced to death in 2010, incarcerated, with appeals against her conviction persistently adjourned.
“Blasphemy laws are not limited to countries that embrace Islam,” Baroness Anelay said, “and in Britain they were only fully repealed in my lifetime. What I would say is you take the first step by looking at how you can explain how blasphemy laws can be repealed in a legislative way that can be effective – but then you work with communities. The aid we provide in Pakistan works to support communities to understand changes that need to be made. Education is a powerful tool, when children in school learn that victimising people because of their difference is wrong and counterproductive. The education of girls is also key to being able to provide guidance for the family.”
Baroness Anelay was speaking during a two-day FCO conference, “Preventing Violent Extremism by building inclusive and plural societies”, which attracted representatives from 38 countries, as well as a representative from the Holy See. The day before the FCO conference, Baroness Anelay had met Metropolitan Hilarion, head of external church relations for the Moscow Patriarchate of the Russian Orthodox Church, who was visiting London with Patriarch Kirill. She was asked whether the Russian Orthodox outspoken defence of what it sees as a beleaguered Christianity in the Middle East and Europe should not be given a more sympathetic hearing. “When we look at the Middle East, birthplace of Christianity, we see a faith that feels itself under stress, but other faiths as well are discriminated against. Daesh [Islamic State] doesn’t target individuals because of their faith but to grab power. It’s [through] their perverted sense of how they want to grab power that they present themselves as jihadis. They are not.”
The minister then turned to the claims made by Lord Hylton and Baroness Cox, among others, who, after talking to Syrian minorities including Christians, reported that these minorities dread Assad’s overthrow, because they believe this will lead to a takeover by Islamist extremists. They have seen that at the time of the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 the country had 1.5 million Christians, while today there are fewer than 300,000: the West has failed to protect Iraq’s Christians.
“As far as one can see throughout Syria, Assad is not protecting minorities who are Christian. Assad is the cause of the destruction of security across the Syrian region. He is responsible for up to 400,000 deaths; 85 to 90 per cent of civilian deaths are a result of Assad and now his Russian allies.” The minister was asked if she said this to Metropolitan Hilarion. “I made it clear that Assad is the cause of the problem – and that he has not made any attempt to protect minorities. He and his allies have not provided and cannot provide protection for minorities. The International Syria Support Group (ISSG) is the group finding a way forward to protect all minorities.” ISSG members include Russia and Iran on one side, Saudi Arabia, Canada, the EU and US on the other, as well as China and the UN.
The two-day conference was “groundbreaking”, Baroness Anelay said. It was the first time anyone had been able to bring together faith leaders, security personnel, academics, and “most importantly” people in NGOs who were delivering projects that try “to build up a relationship between faiths so that differences will be respected, and people don’t discriminate because of them”.