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House of Lords

Monday, 8 May 2006.

The House met at half-past two of the clock: the LORD CHANCELLOR on the Woolsack.

Prayers—Read by the Lord Bishop of Chester.

Egypt: Coptic Christians

Baroness Cox asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they will make representations to the Government of Egypt about the recent attacks on Coptic Christians.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Lord Triesman): My Lords, the Government share the noble Baroness's concern about recent incidents in Egypt. Following the events in Alexandria between 14 and 16 April, our embassy in Cairo discussed the matter with the Egyptian Government on 22 April. The Egyptian Government have confirmed that an investigation into the events is being conducted. Some arrests have been made.

Coptic Christians form a large minority in Egypt. Since the events in Alexandria, the Egyptian Government have publicly reaffirmed the importance that they attach to promoting tolerance and understanding between the Coptic and Muslim communities.

Baroness Cox: My Lords, I thank the Minister for that encouraging and sympathetic response. Is he aware that the attacks on the churches in Alexandria to which he referred were not isolated incidents but part of a trajectory of increasing violence and discrimination against Christian and other religious minorities in Egypt? Will Her Majesty's Government urge the Egyptian Government to ensure freedom of religious practice for all their citizens in accordance with their obligations as a signatory to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights?

Lord Triesman: My Lords, I can confirm the facts that the noble Baroness has mentioned. There were also attacks on 19 and 21 October last year. The Egyptian constitution states that all Egyptian citizens should be treated equally, regardless of religion. It is therefore important that provision is made for all Egyptian citizens to receive exactly equal treatment in all social and political respects, and we will of course urge that.

Lord Renton: My Lords, will the Government explain to the Egyptian Government that in this country we pride ourselves on being open-minded towards people of other religions and that we tolerate their existence here?
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Lord Triesman: My Lords, I hope that this country sets a good example for religious tolerance without any of us having to go round wagging our finger at others. However, in areas where the traditions and the history are different, we try to bring about the fullest engagement in human rights in religious matters, as in others, because we believe that there should be full equality of citizenship in that respect.

The Lord Bishop of Norwich: My Lords, is the Minister aware that Egyptian identity cards have a section on religion that is often used as a basis for discrimination? Not just Christians but the Baha'is and converts from Islam either find it difficult to register or, having done so, find that they are subject to discrimination as a result of that declaration. Will the Government urge the Egyptian Government to remove that section from their ID card, always assuming that the Government do not intend to introduce such a novelty here?

Lord Triesman: My Lords, the right reverend Prelate is right to point out that one impact of the new Egyptian identity card system is that citizens who are not Muslim, Christian or Jewish will not be entitled to an identity card and may therefore suffer from a lack of access to public services. For that reason, it is important that provision is made for all Egyptian citizens to receive an identity card. We urge that on the Egyptian Government. We have no plans for such a designation in the United Kingdom, and I take it that the point was made in jest.

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: My Lords, although the attacks are deplorable, does my noble friend agree that the Egyptian Government have made some efforts with regard to the position of Coptic Christians? In the past two years, we have seen the elevation of Coptic Christians to positions of real influence in the Egyptian Government. I am thinking in particular of the finance minister—the counterpart of our own Chancellor of the Exchequer—who is a Coptic Christian.

Lord Triesman: My Lords, I confirm that, and I confirm that the Government of Egypt and the police have intervened when attacks have taken place. To add to the information that my noble friend has just provided, the president has the right to appoint 10 additional Members to Parliament and has recently used that power to appoint five more Coptic Christians, thus improving the overall ratio of Coptic Christians in the Egyptian Parliament.

Lord Howell of Guildford: My Lords, does the Minister agree that attacks on Christians for being Christians are deplorable anywhere—not only in Egypt but in any country where intolerance towards religious beliefs is shown? As my noble friend Lord Renton reminded us, we would take the same view about attacks on Muslims here for being followers of Islam. Will the Minister convey to the Egyptian Government, and, indeed, other Islamic
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governments, that if we are to see the treasured, co-operative and valued side of Islam—many people want to see the gentler side of it—their governments and the religious leaders of Islam should pay much more attention to preventing attacks on Christian people for being Christians anywhere in the world?

Lord Triesman: My Lords, I know that not just the Government but all opposition parties in your Lordships' House deplore attacks on people because of their religious beliefs; I take that as a given. The point is made widely, and it must concentrate our attention and resources on the outreach work between different religious communities that we can promote as a department and a government. That is very important. Mutual understanding comes as a result of a dialogue in which I suspect no religion should claim that it makes no attacks on members of other religions. Were that to be the case, we would be in a much better world.

Baroness Williams of Crosby: My Lords, the drift of the questioning suggests that there may be non-recognised forces that are making life hard for the Coptic Christians, who are a crucial part of Egypt's heritage. Given the extraordinary control that President Mubarak exercises over his country, is the Minister persuaded that the Government of Egypt are doing everything that they can not only to stop the attacks but to ensure that no private group of militia or other people mount attacks that are not then immediately stopped by the highly trained, very effective and tough Egyptian police?

Lord Triesman: My Lords, we have encouraged the Egyptian Government to ensure that they take every step to arrest the perpetrators of attacks and bring them to proper justice. There is some evidence that a big effort is being made to do that. For my part, I do not accept that it is wholly convincing that the most recent attacks were the acts of "one psychologically deranged individual". For those reasons, we must carry on pressing the point.

EU: Economic and Financial Affairs Council

2.44 pm

Lord Dykes asked Her Majesty's Government:

What principal subjects they raised at the European Union ECOFIN council on 5 May.

Lord McKenzie of Luton: My Lords, the council adopted conclusions on three financial services items, adopted a contribution to the review of the EU sustainable development strategy, and heard presentations by the Commission on the preliminary draft general budget 2007 and the action plan for an integrated internal control framework. Ministers discussed a package of measures relating to VAT,
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including on place of supply. The council will return to that topic at the June ECOFIN. The Paymaster General, Dawn Primarolo, represented the UK.

Lord Dykes: My Lords, I thank the Minister for that detailed reply. Could the Government not have made more effort despite their present disarray to take a decisive lead as the only oil producer in the EU and take forward the draft proposal tentatively put forward by the Luxembourg Prime Minister on taking action on the windfall profits of oil companies? Is it not time for the Government to take a lead in the EU as well as nationally to ease the pain of hard-pressed motorists and of families dealing with ever-rising heating oil costs?

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