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31 Jan 2003 : Column 1187—continued

2.44 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr. Bill Rammell): I should certainly like to take this opportunity to congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Mrs. Ellman) on raising this serious and important subject and on the way in which she has articulated her case. This subject is important not only in the United Kingdom, but in the wider world.

The Government's approach to anti-Semitism in the Arab world is in line with our policy of tolerance to people of all faiths, societies and cultures in the United Kingdom. In Britain, we very firmly wish to encourage people of all faiths, cultures and traditions to play a full part in British society. I recognise that, for different reasons, not everyone shares that view of tolerance. I should like to offer the House just a few examples of the actions that the Government have taken to encourage that aim both in Britain and internationally. I shall adopt that approach to assure my hon. Friend about the seriousness with which we view the subject, rather than to make any suggestion that the real and perceived problems to which she refers are resolved, because that is far from the case.

It is a fact that the Government are vigilant to the threat of rising racism and are committed to tackling anti-Semitism in Britain, wherever it exists. For example, we have taken significant action to tackle anti-Semitism in two ways. First, we have strengthened the criminal law to ensure that the police and courts have effective legislation to deal with those who seek to stir up racial and religious hatred. The Anti-Terrorism, Crime and Security Act 2001 increased the maximum penalty for inciting racial hatred, and that has been widely welcomed. Secondly, by ensuring that the police work closely with the Jewish community, we have sought to reinforce the security of Britain's Jewish communities.

My hon. Friend referred to the fact that at the very least there has been a perceived increase in anti-Semitic activity in the United Kingdom following the atrocities of 11 September. The Government share her concern about attacks on Jewish people and Jewish property. For example, I am well aware of the strength of feeling especially, but by no means only, in the Jewish community about holocaust denial. I firmly deplore the sentiments expressed by the exponents of holocaust revisionism. Those views are offensive and repugnant, and I do not in any sense underestimate the hurt, offence and distress that they cause. All hon. Members would wish to be associated with saying that strongly and clearly.

It needs to be said that British Jews have a strong and inspiring history of academic, scientific and cultural achievement. It is particularly important that we celebrate and value the contribution made by the Jewish

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community in Britain—economically, socially and culturally—to the stability and prosperity of British society as a whole. Certainly, the Government's relations with the Jewish community are extremely important to us, and we will continue to do everything possible to strive to improve them.

The Government also welcome all moves intended to break down barriers between people—irrespective of whether those barriers are due to religion, faith, race, culture or tradition. We most certainly wish to encourage people of all faiths, cultures and traditions to play a full part in British society. We most certainly view interfaith dialogue as being most important, and we are keen to facilitate that dialogue to ensure that the good relations between faith communities in Britain are maintained and enhanced. Ministers rightly continue to meet representatives of the Jewish and Muslim communities regularly to take that process forward.

Following those approaches in the United Kingdom—in many senses this is what my hon. Friend was referring to—our activities overseas are consistent with the overall aim of promoting religious tolerance. We certainly condemn all instances where individuals are persecuted because of their faith or belief, and we are committed to tackling anti-Semitism in all its forms.

Ministers and officials take every opportunity, including with our European Union partners, to urge states to pursue laws and practices that foster tolerance and mutual respect and to protect religious minorities against discrimination, intimidation and attacks. We have sought opportunities to deal with that issue in international forums. For example, the UK co-sponsored a resolution at the United Nations General Assembly in New York in November 2002, to work to eliminate all forms of religious intolerance. We are committed to that aim and we will continue to pursue it.

Rightly, we also raise regularly specific cases of religious persecution with the Governments concerned, and have done that in cases of persecution against Jewish people and communities in Arab countries. We have done that for other religions in the Arab world, and for Jews in other parts of the world, too. For example, the issue of anti-Semitism in the media in the Arab world was raised in May 2002 during a meeting between Foreign Office officials and leaders of the British Jewish community. Following that meeting, which I feel was important, some of our ambassadors in the middle east were again asked to raise our concerns with the relevant authorities, which happened. I am pleased to say that we were able to report back in generally positive terms on the attitudes of the Governments concerned.

The attitudes of individual commentators and media outlets, however, continue to cause concern. Many of my hon. Friend's comments referred to that. We take the matter seriously and we continue to monitor the situation closely. She also mentioned the recent publicity surrounding the Egyptian television series "Horseman without a Horse", which was shown in Egypt in November and December 2002. We were concerned about that, and we raised the issue formally in November 2002 with the Egyptian Government, and received an understanding that all the episodes had been reviewed and amendments made to ensure that the programme did not contain anti-Semitic material. That was an important step.

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My hon. Friend also referred to articles of an anti-Semitic nature that have appeared in newspapers in the middle east. One of our actions in response to that, to promote religious tolerance, is to build up links with newspaper editors so that we can maintain a dialogue on this issue. That is particularly important.

It would be wrong, however, to view the whole Arab world as at variance with our approach on religious tolerance, which a stereotypical view might suggest. In Morocco, for example, official announcements on issues connected with the Jewish community are very different from the stereotyped view. The Moroccan Government are proud of their country's tradition of diversity and value the long and distinguished history of its Jewish people. They rightly take care to draw a distinction between the role of the Moroccan Jewish community and the difficulties experienced in Palestine between Arab and Jewish people. In a warning to radical Muslim fundamentalists over actions against the country's 6,000 Jews, who live in Morocco's main cities, King Mohammed VI said in 2000 that

He said that in a televised speech, and we welcome such statements and actions.

My hon. Friend also talked about these concerns within the context of the situation in the middle east. I and the Government are gravely concerned about the situation in the middle east at the moment. There has been too much violence and loss of life, and neither side can achieve lasting security through force. We want to see a complete cessation of all acts of violence, withdrawal of Israeli forces from Palestinian cities, and action by the Palestinian Authority to bring those responsible for terrorist acts to justice, as called for in United Nations Security Council resolution 1435. We played a key role in the adoption of that resolution.

We continue in our efforts to advance the cause of peace in the region. As will be well known, the Foreign Secretary hosted a meeting on Palestinian reform and nation building on 14 January. Discussion in that meeting was wide-ranging and constructive and recognised the Palestinians' clear commitment to the reform of their institutions. It secured a welcome and clear Palestinian declaration against violence and terrorism and an acceptance that there must be practical action to implement it.

The participants applauded the work that the Palestinian Authority has done on financial accountability and recognised that the Palestinians need to do more on the judiciary. We warmly welcomed the conference as a significant step forward and see the reform efforts on both sides in the region as consistent with our policy of tolerance to people of all different faiths, societies and cultures.

My hon. Friend expressed concern about Palestinian school textbooks. There has been concern about the European Union funding of text books with anti-Semitic content for the Palestinians. We have investigated that and concluded that the quotations that are claimed to be taken from Palestinian textbooks have not been found in the new books funded by some EU member states.

The European Commission has also rightly looked into the allegations and confirmed them to be baseless. European aid is not provided for projects intended to

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seek to influence internal politics in the Palestinian Authority or Israel. The Commission, rightly again, will always be ready to investigate specific allegations of misappropriation or misuse of funds that it provides. Textbooks provided as part of an EU programme to re-equip Palestinian schools are free from negative content or any content that is likely to incite religious hatred, and are a major improvement on the books that they are replacing. We believe that the Palestinian Authority should be encouraged and supported to complete the replacement of the earlier textbooks as soon as possible.

My hon. Friend mentioned some detailed concerns about Iran. UK policy in the area mirrors the EU's twin-track approach: encouraging the changes under way in Iran while maintaining pressure to improve Iranian policies that cause us concern. We welcomed the re-election of President Khatami in June 2001 with an increased share of the vote, which demonstrated the Iranian people's clear will for reform and gave him a strong fresh mandate. We hope that he will be able to push through his policies of political and economic reform. It is important that he should do so. We strongly support his stated objective of an Islamic civil society based on the rule of law.

The resumption of high-level contacts in recent years does not mean that we have forgotten all our concerns about the situation in Iran. We and our EU partners want positive movement by the Iranians in our long-standing areas of concern, and in particular human rights and religious tolerance. Despite some improvements, especially in the area of freedom of expression, we still have major concerns. We shall continue to tackle those through our bilateral contacts and through the EU-Iran dialogue.

My hon. Friend specifically raised the matter of our ambassador to Iran. The Iranians' decision to reject David Reddaway as ambassador reflected negatively on their attitude to relations with the UK and had an impact on the conduct of our bilateral relations. Following our decision to give the Iranian ambassador in London the same level of access as our chargé in Tehran, there were signs that the Iranians did not want to jeopardise the dialogue that we had started. In response, we proposed another nominee as ambassador, and we are pleased that Iran has agreed to the appointment of Richard Dalton, who took up his post on 1 December. I reject the reported reasons for Iran's rejection of David Reddaway, which we have found to be without foundation.

We have concerns about the statements on behalf of representatives of the Syrian Government, and we will continue to raise those.

My hon. Friend has raised serious concerns about this important subject. There are problems of anti-Semitism, religious intolerance and racism throughout the world, and it is crucial that we do everything possible to combat the malign forces. That is certainly something that the British Government are committed to and that the Foreign Office will pursue very actively indeed.

Question put and agreed to.

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