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Westminster Hall

Wednesday 14 June 2000

[Sir Alan Haselhurst in the Chair]

Christians in Egypt

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.--[Mr. Betts.]

9.30 am

Mr. Edward Leigh (Gainsborough): Last week, the first pedestrian bridge across the Thames in more than 100 years was opened. The new crossing is one of countless initiatives to mark the new millennium. While most people throughout our country continue to celebrate the start of the Christian calendar, I want to focus on pressures on the Coptic Church--the remnant of believers from the first days of Christianity. I am sad to report that while we celebrated the start of the millennium with fireworks, laughter and parties, in Egypt the new year was ushered in with a massacre of 21 Coptic believers. It was the worst episode of violence against Christians in decades.

It is easy to forget that, although Christianity started in the middle east, Christians in that region face persecution and possible extinction. While mass genocide in places such as Rwanda rightly grabs our attention, the plight of the people we are considering is important and relevant. I heard disturbing details of the persecution of the Coptic Church at a meeting organised by the Jubilee Campaign, the British human rights group. I met a Coptic bishop and Dr. Helmy Guirguis, the president of the United Kingdom Coptic Association, when they came to my home. Those men gave deeply moving accounts of atrocities against the Coptic Church in Egypt. It was strange to sit in the comfort of a Westminster home listening to quiet, impressive men, and being shown photographs of beatings inflicted on their people.

I was concerned when the two gentlemen told me that, in their view, the Government seemed unwilling to lend their full support to help the Egyptian Copts. It appears that it was difficult for a Minister--not the Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the hon. Member for Leeds, West (Mr. Battle)--to find time in his admittedly busy schedule to meet those Church leaders and hear the report of the human rights violations. I hope that the debate might lead to a meeting.

The Government were clearly ready and willing to support the concept of human rights in Egypt, but there was no direct evidence that they were prepared to make representations to the Egyptian Government. It is therefore fortunate that I have a factual and detailed report of the millennium massacre directly from Alexandria. I shall relate it shortly. I hope that it will spur the Government into action and into representing our deep anxiety about that incident and others to the Egyptian authorities in London and Cairo.

Mr. Patrick Nicholls (Teignbridge): I refer to my entry in the Register of Members' Interests and the fact

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that I visited Egypt recently as a guest of the Egyptian Government. When I was in Egypt, I spoke to the Grand Imam about the problem. He said that he believed that he and the Coptic Pope were close personal and spiritual friends. He said that whatever incidents had taken place did not reflect an aggressive attitude on the part of the Egyptian Government. He said that they were reprehensible incidents that had to be tackled. He believed that he and the Coptic Pope were as one spiritually and were personal friends. Does that give my hon. Friend any hope in the circumstances that he is about to relate?

Mr. Leigh: Yes. I am grateful for that intervention because it underlines the complexity of the matter. I am not talking about mass genocide, or the Egyptian Government overtly discriminating against Christians. We are not considering open disagreement between the Coptic Pope and the Muslim community. Enormous efforts are made to try to live together. However, we are considering a complex matter. The Coptic Church in Egypt is under great pressure. Disturbing recent incidents support the view that matters may be getting worse, despite efforts to make improvements. It is important that we do not remain silent. Silence strengthens the hand of those who persecute people from other churches.

I shall outline a little history. The Coptic Church is heir to a 2,000-year tradition of Christianity in Egypt. By tradition, it traces its origin to 42 AD and the formation of the first Church in Alexandria by St. Mark the evangelist and martyr. The Egyptian Church has an ancient heritage, and is the largest and one of the oldest Christian communities in the middle east.

Egypt was a province of the Byzantine empire. Before the Arab conquest of 640 AD, all Egyptians were known as Copts. Early Arabs called Egypt the land of the Copts. After the Arab conquest, Egyptians gradually converted to Islam, and Muslims became the majority population in Egypt. Coptic means "Egyptian" in the pre-Arabic language of the country. While opinions differ on the origins of the word "Copt", most agree that it is a derivation of the Greek term "Aegyptos", which the Greeks called Egypt and the Nile. It currently denotes the original Christians of the country who retained their faith when the majority converted to Islam.

Today, Copts comprise more than 6 million inhabitants--more than 15 per cent. of Egypt's population of 65 million. The Church in Egypt, including Protestants, Catholics, Anglicans and Orthodox denominations such as Syriac, is the largest Christian community in the Arab world. The Coptic Church has survived more than 1,000 years of petty oppression and sometimes outright persecution. Recently, it has been the target of systematic and brutal attack by extremists who try to influence the authorities to exercise their religious privilege. It has also witnessed the quiet erosion of its status in society.

Christians in Egypt are bystanders in the conflict between the Government and Islamic fundamentalists. They are frequently caught in the crossfire. They believe that the authorities do not give them adequate protection from such aggression. The difficulties that the Christian community in Egypt faces are varied, and I shall detail them. I am grateful to several sources for the

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information. They include the United Kingdom Coptic Association, the Jubilee Campaign, the Egyptian Centre for Human Rights for National Unity, Just Law International, Compass Direct, Open Doors, the office of Congressman Joseph Pitts, the head of the religious liberty taskforce of the United States Congress and Christian Solidarity Worldwide.

For years, the Government in Egypt have strictly enforced laws that date back to the Ottoman empire. They forbid the construction of new churches or the repair of existing churches. Christian churches can be built only with express permission of the President. The Hamayouni edict of 1856 requires the Head of State's approval for repairs, even mending a church toilet. In the past 10 years, few churches have been constructed. Some communities have been working for a church for 30 years.

I recently read "From the Holy Mountain" by William Dalrymple. It states:

A report published by the Committee for Fact Finding in Sectarian Incidents recorded in the People's Assembly on 28 November 1972, identified the following:

I also have many examples, which I can send to the Minister, of locations where churches have had difficulties, but I shall mention just two or three. The Church of the Virgin Mary in Ashmonein in Malawi has been closed. The Church of the Virgin Mary and Mar Girgis in Al-Ayat and the Church of Shaheed Abu-Seifein, Governorate of Al-Fayoum were burned down, and so the list goes on.

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I shall refer to some of the problems and difficulties faced by Copts in Egypt. Under Islamic Sharia law, conversion from Islam to any other faith is punishable by death. Converts to Christianity face harassment from not only the state, but their own families. In fairness, Sharia law is not strictly enforced in Egypt, but it has been recognised as the foundation of Egyptian law. The Egyptian Government do not allow people to change their religion or the names on their identity cards and other personal papers if they convert. That regulation does not apply in the case of converts from Christianity to Islam. That difficulty is constantly faced in Egypt. Such discrimination is not overt, but it makes life very difficult, especially when it involves changes to identity cards.

The Egyptian Government have done too little to control those who provoke hatred against Christians. For example, an Egyptian newspaper reported that the nationally famous late Sheikh Muhammad Mitwalli Al-Sharawi referred to Christians as "infidels". He was also accused by a Christian leader of making extremely derogatory remarks about Christians and Christianity. On one occasion, he allegedly stated that "the Sons of Dogs call the Torah the Old Testament." His implication was that Christians are sons of dogs.

There are reported cases--I shall not read out the list--of the use of rape as a means of forced conversion. Admittedly, those events are rare and, of course, abhorrent and intolerable, but they have taken place and should be dealt with firmly. Forced conversion is illegal according to Egyptian law. Egyptian civil law number 31, 1948 sets a legal age of 21, and Egyptian child law sets the age of consent at 18 years. The Grand Sheikh, Dr. Tantawi, issued a decree in 1997, stating that no Christian girl should be forced to marry a Muslim and that Christian girls younger than 21 cannot convert to Islam without the consent of their legal guardians.

There have been complaints of inaction by Egyptian authorities in the face of such practices and of refusals to act on behalf of victims and their families. Again, under Egyptian law, a Christian must speak to a priest or pastor before converting to Islam, but that law is rarely applied and a clergyman is usually informed only after the conversion takes place.

A major reason for conversion is economic. Conversion to Islam improves Christians' economic prospects because of the widespread discrimination against employing and promoting them. Pressure to convert is also applied to Copts, with offers of material reward, money, jobs, accommodation and even a spouse.

All that is serious enough, but I shall now deal with reports of violence. In the past five years, extremists have killed more than 100 Christians. In that period, not more than one or two of the killers have been arrested, tried and convicted. In the past two decades, more than 700 Coptic Christians have been wounded in attacks; more than 700 properties and businesses of Christians have been targeted by militants; more than 120 churches have been burned or ransacked; and about 100 homes have been destroyed. On 4 May 1992, armed members of the Islamic group, Al-Gamma Al-Islamyia, conducted a co-ordinated attack that resulted in the

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killing by gunfire of 13 Christians. I have a long list of many such incidents, which I can send to the Minister, but I shall not read it out.

In August and September 1998, more than 1,000 Christians were detained in Sohag province in upper Egypt, many of whom were tortured, including 13 and 15-year-old girls. That was the incident that prompted the Coptic delegation to visit me. Bishop Wissa of Baliana and his co-priests were targeted for their part in exposing police brutality and reporting it to non-governmental organisations outside Egypt. They were interrogated and charged, but released, pending trial, after posting bail of 100 Egyptian pounds each.

One of the worst incidents was the millennium massacre. Five predominantly Christian villages in upper Egypt's Sohag province were ravaged over the new year weekend. At least 21 Christians were killed and another 34 hospitalised with injuries. More than 80 Coptic homes and businesses were destroyed, along with a village church. That was the worst sectarian violence for years and the largest massacre of Egyptian Christians for decades. Significantly, El-Koshesh is the same village where, 22 months ago, police were charged with brutality when more than 1,000 Christians were arrested.

I could go on relating such completely up-to-date information. For example, on 5 June this year, the Sohag criminal court convicted a Coptic Christian of murder and sentenced him to a maximum term of 15 years. Shaiboub William Arsal was convicted of murdering his cousin and a friend following a gambling dispute in August 1998. His defence lawyers are convinced that the verdict was a political decision and that the prosecution case was based on forced confessions extracted from two army conscripts from the same village after they were tortured. The Egyptian Organisation of Human Rights accused the police of detaining more than 1,000 Christians after the double murder at Al Kosheh and treating many of them brutally in an effort to pin the crime on a Christian to prevent tension with Muslims from occurring.

To reveal the horror of that incident, I quote a little passage from The Glastonbury Review--a journal of the British Orthodox Church within the Coptic Orthodox Patriarchate of Alexandria. It states:

Pope Shenouda has tried to take a moderate line, which is why he kept quiet after the first incident. Perhaps that prompted the intervention of my hon. Friend the Member for Teignbridge (Mr. Nicholls).

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Pope Shenouda waited three months after the first incident before issuing any public statement. I continue to quote the review, which states that

The Egyptian Government are aware of our concerns and they acknowledge that the constitution guarantees religious freedom. However, they often say that those terrible incidents are not sectarian clashes, but personal feuds. I understand the problems that they face with extremists. For example, the ruthless murder of the leading secular dissident, Farag Foda, has escalated the problem in Egypt, but Christians are dangerously exposed.

What do the Christians and Copts want? The answer is simple and can be summarised in one word--equality. The president of the United Kingdom Coptic Association has told me that they seek nothing less than equality. That is all. At the start of the 21st century, when the world considers equality and human rights as birthrights to be taken for granted, we cannot ignore such injustice. I call on the Government to place the plight of the Coptic Church at the head of the agenda in discussions with the Egyptian authorities.

Copts are not asking for special treatment or compensation for centuries of discrimination and persecution. They want to feel that Mr. Mubarak is President for Muslims and for Copts. They want him to care for them and to address their concerns. They want him to meet their religious leadership regularly and perhaps visit their churches, which other Presidents did. That would no doubt break down walls of mistrust and build bridges of tolerance and harmony between Muslims and Christians.

Copts want the abolition of the antiquated 19th century Hamayouni decree, which restricts the construction of new churches and the repair of existing ones. Copts want all Church trust lands returned to the Copts. The income generated by those lands was used to provide for needy Copts. Copts want all Egyptian citizens to have freedom of belief, including the freedom to change one's religion. Copts want religious affiliation removed from national identity cards, job applications and so on. Christians must not be identified and discriminated against.

Copts want the education curriculum to be revised to guarantee that it contains no denigrating references to Christians and Christianity. Copts want the Government to control the media to ensure that they refrain from conducting attacks against Christians.

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Copts want an end to discrimination in job appointments and promotions. Few Christians are appointed to key jobs, such as Ministers or other Government officials. At present, there are no Christian governors, mayors, chiefs of police, presidents of city council or deans of college.

Copts want the Egyptian Government to be serious about apprehending those who murder Copts, to punish them to the fullest extent of the law, and adequately to compensate the victims of such crimes. Copts want to be allowed to enrol in all schools that are publicly funded, such as the Al-Azhar university. Copts want to be treated with honour and dignity within police departments. Copts want an end to religious discrimination that prevails at all levels of the Egyptian education system. Copts want an end to the enforced conversion of Christian girls.

I hope that our Government will raise the matter of the new year massacre of 21 Christians with the Egyptian authorities in London and in Cairo, and seek assurances that it will be thoroughly investigated. I also hope that Ministers visiting Egypt will raise these matters and apply and encourage concern in international forums. When I wrote to the Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the hon. Member for Neath (Mr. Hain) about the Al-Kosheh massacre, he replied:

In a written answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman), the Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the hon. Member for Neath, said:

On 3 February 2000, the Minister of State said in reply to my hon. Friend the Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs. Gillan):

It is important to ensure fundamental rights of political representation, to end educational apartheid, to allow the building of new churches, and to prevent massacres and killings. I hope that the Government will make strong representation on all those matters.

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The Copts are a brave and quiet people. They are used to discretion. Indeed, they often have to deny in public what they say in private. They do not overstate their case in any way. William Dalrymple quotes a Copt as saying, "We Copts have always been attacked for our faith. Compared to some of those attacks these troubles are nothing." "So what sort of attacks are you thinking of?" said Dalrymple. "Oh, the massacres of Emperor Diocletian, for instance," was the reply. These matters have been going on for a long time, but that does not mean that they are not serious.

The old Ottoman empire was relatively tolerant of Christian minorities. Up to recent times, our record in Christendom was far worse than theirs. The result is that, whereas at the beginning of the 20th century there was a thriving Christian community all over the middle east, today only 14 million Christians are left out of a population of 180 million in the middle east. Istanbul is virtually cleared of Greeks, and the Syrian Orthodox Church is a dying ember in Turkey. Only in Syria has the Church survived relatively in tact, but, with the death of Assad, that may change. In Lebanon, the Maronites are in retreat. In Jerusalem, a commentator said that the last Christians could be flown out in nine jumbo jets. In Egypt, the Copts are fearful, knowing that if Mubarak falls things would probably only get worse.

I am not opposed to the Egyptian Government. I know the difficulties that they face in resisting fundamentalism. I can also understand the reticence of our Foreign Office, which is rightly anxious not to criticise a Government who are moderate by middle east standards and vital to the peace process. However, as a friend of Egypt, we have the right and duty to speak up. Christianity is, by origin, a middle eastern religion. If we remain silent, by the end of this century it will no longer be a religion practised widely in the middle east.

It is estimated that more Christians were massacred worldwide in the 20th century than in any other century of the two millenniums. The world is becoming less, not more, tolerant. We should proclaim the values of tolerance in our own society and praise Muslim values. By speaking out, we will discourage intolerance everywhere and ensure that religion unites people rather than dividing them.

9.56 am

Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Mr. Leigh) on gaining this Adjournment debate and raising a vital issue. I am vice-chairman of the all-party friends of Egypt group. As my hon. Friend stated, this country is a friend of Egypt, and it is vital that such issues are raised openly and freely.

To be true friends of Egypt, it is vital to ensure that problems and crises such as those facing the Copts in Egypt are eradicated, and to encourage a feeling of toleration and understanding in that country. It is an important country: it has a population of 63 million and sits between the middle east and Africa, both of which are strategically important regions. We have interests in both those areas, and a number of British people live in Egypt.

I recently went to Egypt with the all-party group, and we visited Cairo among other places. Last year, we managed to set up meetings with a number of Egyptian

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Ministers, including the Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee. There have also been visits by Egyptian Ministers to this country, and I and other members of the all-party group met them and raised issues, including the situation of the Copts.

We went to a factory in Sixth of October, which is an amazing, vast and growing city. We visited Unilever, which had a number of British workers. We spoke with a Copt who felt that there was no impediment to her job acceleration. She had reached quite a high position in Unilever. The issue that we are discussing and some of the events that my hon. Friend has mentioned, although ghastly and appalling atrocities and human rights violations, including violence and death, are exceptional in Egypt.

Ministers have made a number of visits to Egypt in the past three years. I hope that this issue has been paramount in their thoughts when they have spoken with their opposite numbers in Cairo. It is vital that they take every opportunity to have a constructive dialogue with Egypt.

I am involved in a number of all-party groups, including those on China and Turkey. Human rights violations not only occur, but some seem to be promoted by the Governments of those countries. Where we look to influence them, it is right to do so through constructive dialogue where possible, although, in certain examples such as Zimbabwe, constructive dialogue seems to be a complete no-no. It does not matter what we say to Mugabe--he will just carry on with his campaign of terror against the people of that country--but the Egyptian Government have not systematically carried out atrocities such as those referred to by my hon. Friend.

On our previous visit, we met the Grand Imam and spoke about the Copts and the death penalty. We had a free and frank discussion. As my hon. Friend said, the Egyptian constitution guarantees religious freedoms. We must do what we can, even when personal feuds exist, and I believe that the Government and Islam, the Muslim religion, have a role to play in ensuring that atrocities are stamped out. Egypt wants to maintain good relations with this country and although we know of the tourism atrocities in Luxor and a number of other places, the Government seem to have taken speedy action to stamp them out. I hope that they treat the atrocities in other parts of Egypt equally seriously.

My hon. Friend talked about what he wants for the Copts and spoke on behalf of us all when he mentioned tolerance, dignity and respecting the rights of people of minority religions. He also referred to churches and planning. To flip that on its head, there are planning issues for building mosques in this country. In certain areas, it is difficult for planning permission to be given and building a mosque never seems to be popular among the local population. Although they show great tolerance, their area never seems to be the right place to put a mosque. I have one in my own constituency and do not believe that it is in the right place, so perhaps similar issues are being discussed in Egypt and various other countries.

Over and above simple planning procedures, my hon. Friend mentioned a number of atrocities that give us great cause for concern. I, too, ask for those issues to be raised time and again through the British embassy in

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Cairo, when the Minister meets his opposite number and when other Ministers visit Egypt. We must work with the Egyptian Government and should perhaps suggest where we can help to ensure that the minority who perpetrate atrocities show greater tolerance and understanding. The all-party group also has a role to play in raising those issues whenever possible. My hon. Friend might think it helpful if we tried to arrange a meeting with someone from the Egyptian embassy, perhaps even the ambassador himself, to enter dialogue and discuss what progress can be made. I have met the ambassador a number of times and he has been very helpful in all sorts of areas. I am sure that this is an issue on which the all-party group may be able to facilitate progress.

I conclude as I began: we are friends of Egypt, and I believe this country to be a friend of Egypt. Being real friends means having the honesty to say where things are going wrong. When there are problems, it is only right for us, as friends, to point them out. I hope that initiating the debate will enable more progress to be made. Sweeping those issues under the carpet would only make things worse. I congratulate my hon. Friend again and hope that, through the Minister, progress can be made.

10.5 am

Mr. David Amess (Southend, West): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Mr. Leigh) on initiating the debate and endorse everything that my hon. Friend the Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans) said.

When politicians talk about Christianity, there is an audience that automatically turns off. That is well understood, but if being a politician in today's Parliament has any value, and given the significance of this particular year, we should applaud any Member who is prepared to take the time and trouble to raise the atrocities carried out against Christians throughout the world. In particular, I pay tribute to Christian Solidarity Worldwide and the Jubilee Campaign, which do marvellous work to alert people to all sorts of issues throughout the world. We should applaud the way in which those organisations conduct their lobbying, which contrasts with that of one or two other groups that tend to antagonise rather than encourage hon. Members to support their view.

Two years ago, I was privileged to be a member of the United Kingdom delegation to the Inter-Parliamentary Union annual conference in Egypt, which I had never visited, although I was only too well aware of pyramids and the Nile. However, other matters were brought to my attention that week and after, one quite graphically: the day after the UK delegation had returned home, terrorists planted a bomb by a museum. They were a day late in their activities. That incident brought all the difficulties home to us. Perhaps I should not speak for all colleagues, but the UK delegation was slightly irritated by the protection we were given throughout. We thought, "This is a lot of old nonsense; everyone seems pleased to welcome us." Of course that was not the case at all.

During that week, I saw poverty the like of which I had not seen before, whether it be in the Philippines, Pakistan or elsewhere. I was gripped by the scale of

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problems in Egypt and at a loss as to the solutions. I know that the Minister is a devout Christian and I do not want to over-criticise the Government's role and their response to the questions of hon. Members, a long list of which I have asked. However, I feel in my heart of hearts that these matters are not at the top of their agenda, although I could be completely wrong. [Interruption.] The Minister says, from a sedentary position, that that is not the case. However, although this is 2000, I feel that Christianity and trying to help people who wish to practise it--not only in this country, but throughout the world--is not the focal point of the Government's agenda.

The Government seem to think that Christians form a diminishing number of the population, so perhaps there are other priorities. That may or may not be the case and no doubt the Minister will mount a robust defence, but a number of opportunities have been missed. Hon. Members have already touched on Church property, conversion, the incitement of hatred against Christians, use of rape as a means of forcing conversion, pressure on Christians to convert to Islam and violence against Christians.

I want to focus briefly on two of those, beginning with the use of rape as a means of forcing conversion. Some people would immediately say, "That is absolute rubbish. Where is the proof?" I hope that hon. Members keep raising the issue long after the debate is forgotten and put it to the test, but the Jubilee Campaign has received reports from Christian sources in Egypt of the use of rape by Islamic extremists to coerce Christian women to convert to Islam. In Egyptian society, a girl's virginity is highly valued. Its loss through rape is often viewed by her family members as a loss of honour. That leads to their ostracising the victim, or even killing her.

It is difficult for a rape victim to find a marriage partner. Extremists use rape to pressurise Christian girls to convert. After the girl has been raped, the extremists promise that they will arrange for her to be married to a Muslim if she will convert to Islam, guaranteeing that they will provide her with a husband. Conversion offers marriage to a member of the group and "security" to the victim, whereas returning to the family after the rape would result in potentially fatal consequences. That practice is reportedly becoming more widespread.

I know that many people will be cynical and say, "That cannot happen in this day and age," just as it is completely dismissed that baby girls are culled in China. I believe the Jubilee Campaign. I believe that those atrocities are happening. It is beholden on this the mother of all Parliaments to continue to disregard the smirkers and doubters and to speak up on the issue, so that world leaders will raise the point when they meet. Let other world leaders smile at them when they do so.

There have been complaints of inaction on the part of the Egyptian authorities in the face of such practices: complaints that they refuse to act on behalf of the victims and their families. That has undoubtedly led to a change in life style among Christians in the upper part of Egypt. There is a growing reluctance to allow girls to attend schools. When girls are allowed out of the house, they are usually accompanied by a male member of the family.

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What is going on in Egypt as regards the property of the Church is of great concern. The legal foundation for the Egyptian state's control of Church property is the Ottoman decree of 1856, which was amplified by the Interior Ministry in 1934 as the Alazabi decree. That decree severely restricted the construction and repair of Christian churches by requiring Christian congregations to submit petitions for building and repairs to the head of state. The decree completely contradicts the 1971 constitution.

Regarding repairs to Church property, progress has been made over the past two years. In January 1998, an amendment was made that delegated presidential authority to issue permits for church renovation to the country's 26 provincial governors. On December 28 1999, President Mubarak decreed that church repairs no longer required presidential, a governor's or federal ministry permit. Only planning permission from the local council was required. However, the need for presidential assent in order to build a new church is still required. That is ridiculous. There can be no justification for such nonsense.

No such permission is necessary for the building of mosques. In addition, churches may not be built in an Islamic locality. It is absolutely crazy. That criterion creates a loophole for the refusal of any application to build a church, as any locality may be considered Islamic. It theoretically promotes the persecution of Christians. A church may not be built within 100 m of a mosque.

In practice, the state systematically obstructs the construction of new Christian churches, halls, offices and parsonages, leaving many parishes without adequate facilities for worship and other congregational activity. The Coptic Orthodox Church has particularly suffered in that regard. Few of its applications for building permission have been accepted. Even the successful applications can take up to 30 years before presidential approval is granted.

Although the current Egyptian Government boast that, since President Mubarak has been in power, he has not denied permission for a single church to be constructed, the fact remains that many applications have never reached him. Even if an application receives presidential approval, in practice, it will often be blocked at the level of the Interior Ministry. In some cases, after permission had been given by the president for construction, Muslims quickly built a small mosque within the 100 m limit, thereby preventing the church's construction.

I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough would not wish the debate to damage our relationship with the Egyptian Government. I do not think that we are particularly bothered about our relationship with Her Majesty's Government, but we certainly would not want to damage our relationship with the Egyptian Government. As I know my hon. Friend the Member for West Suffolk (Mr. Spring), our Front-Bench spokesman, will say, the Conservative party understands all the issues involved in trade; we understand those only too well.

We recognise that people will say, "What did the Conservative Government do for 18 years with their relationship with the Egyptian Government?" No doubt all those matters will be raised, but we have come into a

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new dawn since May 1997. Her Majesty's Government has had more than three years to deliver on all their promises. Given their style, I should have thought that they would have been delighted to put Christianity at the heart of government.

The celebrations of the year 2000 have not been entirely joyous. There were many people who thought, "Never mind the hype about the dome, the millennium eye, the new bridge and all that; it should all be about Christianity". Therefore, what could be a finer tribute to the United Kingdom celebrations of the 2,000 years after the birth of Christ than the mother of all Parliaments, in raising issues concerning Christianity in this country and throughout the world, but in Egypt in particular, making a difference and stopping the persecution of those people in Egypt, who have devout beliefs in their Christianity and should be allowed to worship without any interference whatever from the Egyptian state?

10.17 am

Dr. Jenny Tonge (Richmond Park): I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for Gainsborough (Mr. Leigh) on raising the issue in debate. I am pleased to reply on behalf of the Liberal Democrats.

We have all heard about what went on in Egypt over the millennium. I say at the beginning--I have got more and more stirred to say this while listening to hon. Members--that I was raised as a Christian, I love God, but I loathe religion. I think that it is dangerous and causes immense suffering throughout the world. We need to play it down in the modern world, not up.

I have read the reports from the non-governmental organisations; we have been well briefed. The Jubilee Campaign and Christian Solidarity Worldwide have sent us briefings. We heard about those briefings in detail from the hon. Gentleman. There are sickening reports of torture; I entirely agree. There is abuse of human rights and the introduction of Sharia law by stealth, it is alleged. The hon. Member for Southend, West (Mr. Amess) has talked about rape as a means of converting Christians to Islam. Referring to my previous remarks about religion, I remind him that, in Kosovo, the Christians were raping the Muslims to destroy their lives and to ensure that they could not be proper Muslims any more. It happens on both sides all the time. That is why I loathe religion so much.

My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for North-East Fife (Mr. Campbell) wrote to the Egyptian embassy and, indeed, to the Foreign Secretary after the incidents over the millennium in Al Kosheh, and was assured that the Egyptian Government had taken the matter seriously. For what it is worth, I shall quote the embassy response:

The embassy response continues:

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The Egyptian Government come down very hard on religious groups, it would appear. We read of torture, imprisonment without trial, the imposition of the death penalty--what I must call the usual pornography of violence which takes place in countries all over the world. The treatment of people by their own police force, and their treatment when in prison, is pornography, and is perpetrated against both Christians and Muslims.

Mr. Leigh: To be fair to the Egyptian Government, they are engaged in a vicious war against an Islamic fundamentalist terrorist group. It is an ugly war, and the hon. Lady should be careful about what she says. The Egyptian Government are not persecuting Muslims in any way; they can be accused of acting very strongly, perhaps too strongly, against terrorist groups, but there is no persecution of ordinary Muslims in Egypt.

Dr. Tonge: What I am trying to illustrate is the fact that Egypt's human rights record is by no means good, as far as I can tell from the Amnesty International reports. Even if those arrested are terrorists, there is no need for the treatment that they are receiving. I am saying that there is a good deal of equality in the treatment of the groups involved. I think that the hon. Gentleman made a very biased speech.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans) on his point about planning applications. It was fair to point out that planning applications for mosques are sometimes difficult to get through in this country. I am pleased to say that there is a mosque in my constituency, which provides a useful centre for Muslims in the constituencies of Richmond Park and Kingston and Surbiton. I hold a surgery there every two months; I am always well received, and always have a good afternoon. I pay tribute to those who go to the mosque and foster such good relations in my community.

I look forward to hearing the Minister's reply. I contend that there is some brutality and abuse of human rights in Egypt, but that it is being dished out to all sections of the population, not just to Christians. There is a good deal of doubt about the way that the Egyptian police are behaving.

I must confess a love for Egypt and Egyptians, which I share with the hon. Member for Ribble Valley. I have been to Egypt twice, and I had a dear neighbour--a constituent--who was Egyptian. I sprinkled his ashes in

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Kew Gardens a few weeks ago. He loved his country, but he loved the United Kingdom equally, and I think he would be horrified if he were able to listen to this debate. Perhaps he is listening.

We need to reassure Egypt of our support. We want it to be part of the international community. However, I appeal to Government representatives from the Egyptian embassy--I am sure that they are here--to listen carefully to the debate, and to improve human rights for all their people.

10.25 am

Mr. Richard Spring (West Suffolk): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Mr. Leigh) on introducing the debate. We all recognise and applaud the fact that he genuinely tries, as a Member of Parliament, to consider some of the key moral issues of our times and the practices in our society in the light of Christian ethics, and I believe that all Members respond to his sentiments. The same can be said of my hon. Friend the Member for Southend, West (Mr. Amess).

Although there are no clear figures relating to the size of the Christian minority in Egypt, it is undoubtedly significant, and 90 per cent. of the Christian community belongs to the Coptic Orthodox tradition. Many years ago, I stumbled into a church in Luxor where a mass was taking place, and was very moved by the ceremony.

In our country, we believe in religious diversity, and think that it should be accommodated in any pluralistic society. There is no doubt that Christians in Egypt have suffered significant difficulties, especially at the hands of Islamic groups, in a number of ways.

The jizya tax originated in the seventh century, and involved the defeated Jews of Khaybar paying a tribute to their Muslim conquerors. Some Islamic groups are trying to revive the tax, claiming that Christians and Jews accorded a separate and subordinate status under Sharia law must pay a special tribute to secure their own protection. The Egyptian human rights lawyer Moris Sadek says that the tax is nothing more than

The extent to which some Islamic groups are prepared to go to reinstate the tax is of considerable concern. In an interview with Al Ahram Weekly in 1997, Mustafa Mashhour, head of the Islamic group Muslim Brotherhood, publicly called on Muslims to impose the tax, saying:

Coptic Orthodox leaders describe the practice as akin to a "religious mafia". It is reported that at least 40 Copts have been killed for refusing to pay the tax in recent years. Some Christians are too afraid to inform the police of the pressures. There is a widespread belief among Christians that pressure is being put on the Christian minority, either directly or indirectly, to convert to Islam.

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The hon. Member for Richmond Park (Dr. Tonge) spoke of her loathing of religion. She talked of the violence of rape, but she was really talking about human failings and human weaknesses, however detestable. That is the antithesis of what religion is about. To equate feelings about those terrible human failings and weaknesses with a loathing of religion is a quantum leap that I would not wish to make.

The Christian community is vulnerable to many kinds of pressure because of its economic situation. There is a widespread belief that there is discrimination against Christians in terms of employment and promotion, and that conversion to Islam is the only way of improving their economic position. There are reports of constant intimidation and persecution, to which my hon. Friends have alluded. Let me describe the problem affecting one family.

In March 1997, 13-year-old Teresa Shakir, a Coptic Christian in the eighth grade at school, was taken by her teacher--believed to be an Islamic extremist--to a police station. The police and the teacher tried to force her to convert to Islam, it has been alleged. Her family were able to obtain a form from the chief of police, instructing that the young girl be returned to her father, but it is reported that the local police refused to release her. Only after the family had contacted human rights organisations, Pope Shenouda and the office of the President was the girl finally released. The police had held her incommunicado for nine days.

In November 1997, Teresa's older brother returned home late one night to discover that his parents and younger brother had been shot to death, and another sister wounded. Teresa was also dead. Her brother ran to the police station to report the incident, and was arrested and accused of murder. To cut a long story short, a retrial is due to take place, at which I hope that justice will be done.

The case that I have described has been a major source of anxiety in the Christian community, whose members do not consider the Shakirs' family history to be unique. Egyptian Christians feel threatened by Islamic groups. Rightly or wrongly, they do not feel adequately protected by the police.

I hope that the Minister will say what recent representations he and the Foreign Secretary have made to the Egyptian Government about the problems of the Christian community and their human rights. What measures can he take to seek to improve the human rights of Egyptian Christians?

Egypt is, of course, the jewel in the crown of Islam. Its unique history, beauty, and intellectual and spiritual life have exerted an influence on the whole Islamic family of nations. Britain has close and friendly relations with Egypt, and it is also worth noting that the Egyptian Government have had their own significant problems with Islamic fundamentalists. They have reacted vigorously against such violence and extremism, as my hon. Friend the Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans) noted.

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham): I declare an interest in that I recently took part in a visit to Egypt, courtesy of the Gulf Centre for Strategic Studies. In the course of it, I raised the subject of the death penalty. Does my hon. Friend agree that the existence on the Egyptian

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parliamentary statute book of the death penalty is undesirable, as is the fact that conversion from Islam to any other faith is punishable by death? Do not those factors effectively act as a spur to private citizens in Egypt, who think that it is both legitimate and desirable to mete out violence to people who are Christians or who are in the process of converting from Islam to Christianity?

Mr. Spring: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for making that point. I hope that the Minister will take it on board, and that he will consider it in the light of Egypt's human rights obligations.

No one is suggesting that the Egyptian Government promote any calculated persecution of the country's Christian citizens. Traditionally, there has been greater religious tolerance in Egypt than in many other parts of the world. However, I urge the Minister to bring to the attention of the Egyptian Government the important questions of religious freedom and human rights set out so graphically by my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough.

Egypt is a member of the United Nations. It is a signatory to the international covenants on civil and political rights and on economic, social and cultural rights. The attempts by Islamic groups to reinstate the tax that I described, the planning difficulties alluded to so powerfully by my hon. Friends, and the ordeal of the Shakir family that I set out illustrate the pressures on Egypt's Christian minority. These concerns have been raised frequently by Egyptian Christians, most recently after the tragic incident in January described by my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough, when 21 Christians were killed. I therefore urge the Government to raise the issues of justice and equality for all Egyptian citizens, in practice as well as in the law.

10.35 am

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Mr. John Battle): It is routine to congratulate hon. Members on securing a debate such as this, but I shall go further and say that the Government are grateful to the hon. Member for Gainsborough (Mr. Leigh) for introducing this topic.

The hon. Gentleman has a track record in such matters, and his interest in the welfare of Christians worldwide is well known, in this Chamber and beyond. He has led several delegations on behalf of Christians to my office in recent months, the last time on behalf of Christians in Burma, and he is respected for the consistent rigour with which he campaigns. Raising this important subject in the Chamber, as other hon. Members have noted, helps maintain a spotlight on it, as our deliberations go far beyond this quiet Westminster Hall.

I also welcome the tolerant tone of the debate, which has been well balanced. The hon. Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans) called for constructive dialogue, and that has been evident in the spirit of the debate. I agree that what the hon. Member for Gainsborough called the plight of people is important and relevant, and that we should regularly discuss such matters. Violence and abuse are unacceptable, and the House's opposition to them should present a seamless robe.

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Freedom of religious worship is a basic human right, and must be respected. All hon. Members should work together to ensure that it is respected fully, and we have a duty and responsibility to raise such matters in debate.

I know that many hon. Members have read troubling reports in the press and have received direct accounts about violence between Christians and Muslims in Egypt. They have also come across allegations of police brutality and of other harm to members of the Christian Churches in Egypt. The hon. Members who have contributed to the debate have presented a detailed and worrying catalogue of charges this morning. I shall try to respond to the points that have been raised, and to set out what the Government have done. I shall be happy to receive more details from hon. Members who want to take matters further, and to act on them. I assure hon. Members that the Jubilee Campaign's representations continue to be welcome and respected, and that the Government take them seriously.

I shall begin with the incidents in upper Egypt to which some hon. Members have referred. The first Al Kosheh incident in August-September 1998 resulted in the murder of two Christian villagers. That was followed by numerous arrests and there were allegations that many of those arrested were tortured in police custody.

The Government have made clear to the Egyptian authorities our concern that the allegations--in particular those of police brutality--must be fully and effectively investigated. Soon after his appointment last year, the new Egyptian prosecutor general reopened the investigation. It remains open, due to the number of matters under investigation. The Government will keep a close eye on developments.

The hon. Member for Teignbridge (Mr. Nicholls) is no longer present, but I can say, in response to his intervention earlier, that people do not believe that the Egyptian Government are systematically persecuting people. Independent human rights organisations have stated that more than 80 per cent. of the Al Kosheh villagers are Copts. They point out that it is, therefore, not surprising that, when arrests are made after an incident, some or most of those arrested will be Copts.

However, that inevitable effect of the numbers involved in no way excuses any torture that may have taken place--one case of the torture of a human being is one too many. Although what has happened does not necessarily add up to organised religious persecution, that does not mean that the Government do not take the matter seriously.

The hon. Member for Gainsborough drew attention to the case of William Shaiboob, the Copt who has now been found guilty of the two murders and sentenced to 15 years hard labour. We are following his case with close attention, as two of the main witnesses at his trial withdrew their evidence and claimed to have been tortured.

I understand that, on Monday, Mr. Shaiboob's defence lawyers put a request for an appeal to the Court of Cassation, Egypt's highest appeal court. That case is now being heard. It is, therefore, technically sub judice so we cannot comment further as that would prejudice it. However, our embassy in Cairo is following the case closely, and will keep Ministers informed. I shall be

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happy to keep right hon. and hon. Members who have raised these points and others informed as we receive information.

The second incident took place in and around Al Kosheh in January this year, when violence and rioting left some 20 Christians and one Muslim dead, and 19 Muslims and 14 Christians injured. As with the first Al Kosheh incident, our embassy in Cairo has been keeping us up to date with regular reports. We have discussed the incident on several occasions with the Egyptian authorities; we are not afraid to raise these difficult issues with Egypt, because our strong relationship enables us to have a tough conversation occasionally, and that is as it should be. We have a good, open and free dialogue with the Egyptian Government on these matters. We have discussed them on several occasions, and have stressed the need to investigate them fully and bring wrongdoers who commit crimes to trial. That is exactly what we are monitoring now.

Given the intense interest that there has been, and in order to hear from the villagers first hand, a member of our embassy staff in Cairo visited Al Kosheh in May. He was the first and only embassy official from any country to visit so far. He talked to members of the village council as well as to individual Muslim and Christian villagers, including some of those whose relatives had been killed. He found that the atmosphere in the village was stable--there is now a strong security presence to ensure law and order and calm.

It was clear that the authorities had also made some real efforts to encourage reconciliation between the communities. Whether those efforts are successful will become clear only with time. Obviously, given the feelings of animosity and mistrust in that poor, traditional and divided rural community, in which more than 80 per cent. of the population is Christian, it remains to be seen whether reconciliation and tolerance work at a local level, but it is a project to work at.

We understand that when the Egyptian authorities set up their investigation into the second Al Kosheh incident, they consulted religious leaders and co-ordinated their efforts closely with them. On 11 March, the public prosecutor announced that he had completed his investigation into the events, and that 97 Muslims and 38 Copts would be charged in connection with the murders and the events leading up to them. I understand that five Copts have been charged with attempted murder, and that the rest have been charged with illegal assembly, damage to property and ownership of firearms without licence. No religious leaders, it might be noted, have been charged.

Two trials opened on 3 and 4 June, in a normal criminal court. One was for those accused from Al Kosheh and the other was for those accused from a nearby village. Both trials were adjourned until 7 August and 3 July respectively. Our embassy in Cairo will continue to monitor both trials. In other words, where there is criminal activity, the due course of law and order in bringing people to trial should take place. We like to insist that it does, and we are monitoring the fact that it is. That should be on the record, and part of the account of these events.

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Other questions have been raised, of a rather wider nature. The hon. Member for Gainsborough listed a number of tragic attacks on Christians by Muslims, including acts of terrorism. All people should deplore murder, and terrorism in particular, wherever it occurs. The hon. Gentleman spoke of a systematic and brutal attack by extremists. I would simply add that systematic and brutal attacks by extremists are extremely difficult for any society to defend itself against, as we have seen recently in other countries, without the state taking an over-secure approach, as it were, to tackle the possibility of problems.

Sadly, the problem of terrorist attacks is not confined to Egypt and nor, within Egypt, has it been confined to Copts. Foreign tourists, including British citizens, have also suffered at the hands of fundamentalist terrorists. The Egyptian authorities have expressed their determination to prevent such attacks and to increase security for all. We fully support their attempts to increase security for all. The difficulty, as the hon. Member for Southend, West (Mr. Amess) pointed out, is that that can lead to a kind of over-protection to defend people against possible terrorist attacks. Getting the balance right is extremely difficult in individual circumstances.

Acts of fundamentalist terrorism must be the most difficult threat that any society can face. It does not necessarily mean that there is something wrong or corrupt at the heart of a state if there are terrorist activities within it.

Some hon. Members have claimed that there is systematic state discrimination against Copts that amounts to persecution. We maintain a regular dialogue with many Coptic Christians, from the Coptic Pope, to bishops and clergy, and to ordinary members of local communities in Egypt and elsewhere. We listen to their views and opinions--we take readings of their interpretation of the situation. Not surprisingly, as in all human situations, we hear a range of different opinions, not least on discrimination. While some Copts do indeed talk of persecution, other leading Copts tell us that they do not believe that there is a general Egyptian Government policy of discrimination against Christians; nor do they talk of persecution. We need to take that range of views into account in working towards that agenda. Building an atmosphere of tolerance and respect has been mentioned in this debate.

The Copts are deeply concerned, as are we, about any cases of violence, allegations of police brutality and other reports that raise human rights concerns. Such matters are always of concern, regardless of the ethnic or religious background of the person or group concerned. However, that does not necessarily mean that there is active state persecution in Egypt.

The Egyptian constitution provides for equal public rights and duties without discrimination due to religion or creed. Forced conversion, to which hon. Members have referred, is illegal under the constitution. The President has been very clear on such issues, stating publicly that he wants to see more Christians in the next People's Assembly after the elections this autumn. Ensuring that assemblies, Parliaments and Governments are properly balanced according to the population is not always easy, as we know from our experience in this place when it comes to getting the

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balance right between the genders. However, that is on the agenda of the Egyptian President, which is encouraging.

We have also seen positive changes on another issue that the hon. Gentleman raised--the difficulties that Christian communities in Egypt have faced in building and maintaining their places of worship. It is just a few years since William Dalrymple's book came out. I suggest that matters have improved slightly since then. The difficulty that Christian communities face in this respect is on the agenda.

In 1998, authority for granting permission for church repairs was devolved from the President to the regional governors. I am not opposed to that. The hon. Member for Ribble Valley--I nearly said upper Ribble, but it is more like the valley of the Ribble--made a telling intervention about linking that to events here, as did the hon. Member for Richmond Park (Dr. Tonge). When planning permission is sought in this country, reconciling local communities of Christians, non-Christians and Muslims in not easy. I know that from my own constituency.

Negotiations for a community centre to have a minaret on it so that it can become a mosque can turn into an enormous argument and conflict about religious histories and traditions. I am waiting to see what happens when the application is made for the call to prayer five times a day to begin at sunrise, not at 7 am every morning, given that sunrise is currently at 4.28 am. I am simply saying that we have not reconciled those conflicts in our society either, so we need to work together internationally on the agendas of tolerance.

I prefer such decisions to be taken locally, rather than that the Prime Minister should decide whether a mosque should be sited in my constituency. To devolve such decisions to local areas is not a bad thing. It should be a stimulus for people to work together to build communities, instead of being antagonistic and oppositional, and not seeking reconciliation.

Mr. Bercow rose--

Mr. Battle: The hon. Gentleman is itching to intervene, so I gladly give way.

Mr. Bercow: Notwithstanding the Minister's remarks about the Egyptian constitution, will he comment on the fact, about which the Jubilee Campaign--among others--is most concerned, that, under Sharia law, conversion from Islam to another faith is punishable by death? There seems to be something of a tension between the constitution and the practice of the Islamic faith.

Mr. Battle: There appears to be a tension, but I made it clear that forced conversion is illegal. The question remains: does it happen? The practice in local communities may not always comply with the law and then the state has to act to ensure that the local community conforms. I accept that there is tension--just as there are tensions in this country over similar issues. However, we do not have time to spell them out, and this may not be an appropriate debate in which to do so.

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I welcome the hon. Gentleman's use of the word "tension", as that suggests that we should address the matter. There is conflict, but it does not need to degenerate into violence and personal abuse; we should look for ways to reconcile such conflict locally, so that people can live together, tolerating each other's activities, behaviour and practices--respecting one another as human beings. That should be the challenge for all religious traditions; it should be at the heart of their theological practice. I make that point because there is no easy reconciliation between the law and practice in any context.

As I pointed out, the authority for granting permission for church repairs was devolved, in 1998, from the President to the regional governors, but, in December 1999, it was decreed that all places of worship would be subject to the 1976 civil construction code--putting mosques and churches on an equal footing. Permission for new church buildings remained in the hands of the President, but, as hon. Members will be aware--from correspondence with my Department and with the Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, my hon. Friend the Member for Neath (Mr. Hain)--President Mubarak has agreed all applications put to him since he came into office in 1981. When such matters were referred nationally, there was agreement; that brought about reconciliation locally, including over planning permission. If we consider planning permission in our own country, there are also some question marks; we can understand the tensions involved in that process.

We shall continue to follow these matters closely; we take them seriously. We raise them regularly--not merely through nods and hints in passing conversations, but to point out that they are important matters. We have strong back-up evidence and research, and we need to act on them. We discuss them with the Egyptian Government and religious leaders.

When my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary visited Cairo in January, he met a wide range of people from many communities, including Sheikh Al Azhar, the leading Egyptian Muslim cleric, and Bishop Daniel, a Coptic bishop, as well as President Mubarak and other members of the Government. He discussed inter-faith issues and the importance of dialogue and tolerance. He pointed out that, even though all our societies have not resolved such matters, we could none the less work together on a common agenda.

That conversation and those representations were not a one-off. We shall maintain our dialogue with the Egyptian Government; we shall welcome positive change when we see it; we shall encourage the authorities to bring to justice anyone who has committed a crime or violated international human rights standards; but we shall not be afraid to raise human rights concerns. At the same time, we need to try to remain in touch with a wide range of Egyptian Christians so that we receive first-hand reports of matters that affect Christian communities in Egypt--cases of discrimination, for example.

While balancing the evidence, we must continue to raise such matters and to campaign for an increase in tolerance. The way in which we do so can either contribute to the spirit of tolerance or can undermine it.

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This morning's debate could help, in a small way, towards generating a stronger atmosphere of tolerance--the tone of the debate is to be welcomed.

The debate will not be confined to this Chamber; these matters will be taken further--by the Government and by the Egyptian authorities. We thank the hon. Member for Gainsborough again for raising the issue, as well as for his introduction and presentation of the debate--it was a model to all of us.

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