Carnage at Westminster – as parliamentarians hear from some of those who face terror every day of their lives
Link to Milton Lecture on Protecting Fundamental Freedoms Whilst Combating Hate:
Business Not Quite As Usual
Police Constable Kevin Palmer Murdered in the Westminster Precinct
In her Statement, in the aftermath of the attack at Westminster, the Prime Minister defiantly insisted that parliamentary business would today continue as usual.
The Prime Minister
During the morning sittings in both Houses, there was a united and wholly unambiguous message that those who would destroy our democracy and fundamental freedoms will not succeed. But in the sombre atmosphere that inevitably prevailed, it wasn’t quite business as usual.
And we always need to remind ourselves that this is not the first, and will not be the last attack on Westminster – both on the buildings and on the values which are its foundation stones.
Nearly forty years ago, on March 30th 1979, on the day after I was elected to the House of Commons in a by-election, Airey Neave was murdered by the Irish National Liberation Army, blown up just yards from where P.C. Keith Palmer – a father-of-two and a member of the Parliamentary and Diplomatic Protection Squad – was yesterday murdered by an Islamist terrorist.
Keith had worked at Westminster for fifteen years and he was one of our gallant band of men and women who protect us and every day greet us, and endless visitors, with great courtesy but who also know that Westminster is far more than a tourist attraction.
It is an iconic building that stands for democracy and freedom and is therefore bound to be a target for those who wish to destroy those things and impose hate driven ideologies.
P.C.Palmer’s body lay just yards from the entrance to Westminster Hall – which was subjected to Nazi bombs at the height of World War Two.
Westminster silhouetted by the light of fires caused by Nazi bombs
In 1940 a high explosive bomb fell into Old Palace Yard. In 1941 an incendiary hit the Victoria Tower and a police sergeant showed great courage when he climbed the scaffold and extinguished the burning magnesium with a sandbag. Then the western courtyard was hit and two auxiliary policemen were killed.
Next, the Commons Chamber was hit along with Westminster Hall – built by William Rufus in 1097. As the Commons burnt, firemen with axes broke down the doors of the Hall and as the medieval rafters burnt they pumped in water from the Thames to save the Hall.
Westminster was bombed by the Nazis – the House of Commons was destroyed.
P.C.Palmer stands in a long and heroic tradition of extraordinary bravery placed at the service of their country.
If the walls of Westminster Hall could speak they could tell this nation’s history – of its struggles for political and religious freedom, its belief in human rights and its belief in the rule of law.
From its construction in 1097, and the first meeting of Parliament in 1265, to the trials of William Wallace in 1305, of St.Thomas More in 1535, and Charles I in 1649, to the lying-in-state of Kings, Queens and Prime Ministers, there is little that this Hall could not tell us about who we are and what we stand for as a nation.
My first visit to Westminster Hall was as in 1965, as a school boy, when we came to pay our respects to Sir Winston Churchill whose body had been brought to the Hall – and whose leadership saw this country through its darkest hours.
Yesterday, after being locked down for several hours in Central Lobby many of us were taken into the Hall – where hundreds of people waited as events continued to unfold.
Here were Peers, MPs, secretaries, researchers, ancillary and catering staff and visitors to the House– the complete diverse mix that makes up the Westminster community on any working day.
Peers, MPs, Staff and Visitors Congregated in Westminster Hall
I wondered what some of the school children, who had been singing songs to keep up their spirits, would make of this their first visit to Westminster. Beyond the tragedy I hope they will be inspired and realise that in every generation the baton must pass to the one which follows.
As the attack was taking place I was meeting with the Egyptian Coptic Bishop, Angaelos. A few months ago he had spoken in Westminster Hall at the annual parliamentary prayer breakfast.
During our meeting we had been talking about recent attacks on his church community – many driven out by ISIS killers from the Sinai Peninsula. We talked about the Copts who had been murdered by ISIS in Libya – who went to their deaths refusing to renounce their faith. We were recalling that the last time we had been together was to stand outside Westminster Abbey at a service of remembrance to mark the deaths of 25 people at Cairo’s Cathedral of St.Mark.
Coptic Christians Executed By ISIS
Then, interrupting our conversation, one of our Doorkeepers urgently asked us to follow him – and he took us to Central Lobby. Among many we spoke to there was Lord Tebbit – who in 1984 had survived the Brighton bomb and whose dear wife Margaret had been paralysed by the attack.
Bishop Angaelos and I spent five hours in the lockdown in Central Lobby and in Westminster Hall. Horrible, but nothing in comparison with what happened to those who were killed, maimed or wounded.
At 4.00pm I had been due to chair a meeting on North Korea and I still don’t know if anyone hoping to come into the House for that hearing was hurt but I do know that South Koreans were among the casualties on Westminster Bridge. The intended speaker, who had escaped from North Korea, and his translator, sent me a text to say that they had got safely away.
This morning I arrived at the House at 7.30 am to prepare for a meeting I was due to chair on the Committee Corridor about the plight of Christians in Erbil, and who had escaped from ISIS genocide in Iraq and Syria.
The meeting had been organised by the charity Aid to The Church In Need. They had flown over Mr Stephen Rasche, who heads the humanitarian and resettlement programmes for more than 70,000 displaced Christian families in northern Iraq.
Stephen Rasche met with Parliamentarians, Ministers and Officials
Although we were unable to get members of the public into the building we went ahead with the meeting and Mr.Rasche spoke to Peers such as Baroness (Helena) Kennedy QC, Lord Hylton, and Lord Gordon and he met the DFID Minister, Lord Bates.
Mr.Rasche’s visit comes at a critical time for Christians in the wake of the expulsion of ISIS from the Nineveh Plains, the region of northern Iraq which for centuries had been home to Catholic and Orthodox communities as well as other minorities. What sort of message would it have sent to them if that meeting had to be cancelled because of Islamist terror on the streets of London?
It’s almost a year since the House of Commons voted to declare events in Iraq and Syria to be a genocide against Christians, Yazidis and other minorities.
Stephen Rasche said that the programmes he organises on behalf of Chaldean Archbishop, Bashar Warda of Erbil, are running out of medicine, food – and hope. He described what it is like to live every day under the shadow of terror: “Christians are hanging on as a people – just barely” .
He pointed out that British aid simply doesn’t reach those we have declared to be the subject of genocide because the aid goes instead into UN camps in which the minorities would be too frightened to stay as many of those who persecuted them are in those very same camps.
Without help “medicine will run out in 40 days, food in two months.” Without help no-one from these ancient communities will be left: “we will become custodians of a caretaker culture.”
Archbishop Warda in Parliament in 2015
They are praying for the day when it will be safe to return to the Christian villages of Nineveh Plain and Mosul – but meanwhile they are a people whose story is written in mass graves, enslavement, rape and torture.
Yesterday, London had a glimpse of the brutality and unforgiving hatred that fuels this global ideology.
But, as Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury, reminded us when we assembled in the House later in the morning, hatred need not win.
Westminster has withstood far worse, and in displaying traditional British stoicism and resilience, Parliament must also inspire and encourage beleaguered communities, the world over, by displaying leadership and determination in resisting those who would destroy the values for which P.C.Palmer gave his life.
David Alton (Lord Alton of Liverpool) is an Independent Crossbench Peer.
The Houses of Parliament lit in red on “Red Wednesday”, November 2016, to commemorate all those who have died or are persecuted for their religious beliefs.
Palm Sunday and Easter Attacks On Egypt’s Copts “ISIS’s “favourite prey”
Nina Shea of the Hudson institute says the position of Egypt’s Copts “ is very serious. We did a mapping of Salafi groups and found there are scores there. Isis has a beach head in north Sinai and appeal throughout the country. The military is corrupt and incompetent, assuming it even wants to protect the Copts.
“Iraqi Church leaders now tell us there are less than 200,000, maybe as few as 100,000 Christians left in all Iraq. They’ve been decimated, down from 1.4 million. Baghdad contributes to their plight and the West has cruelly abandoned them.”
Unless the World wakes up to this the Copts will be subjected to the same genocide that has been unleased on the minorities of Iraq and Syria. In a recent video, ISIS threatens to make the targeting of that two thousand year old community its priority, chillingly calling the Copts its “favorite prey.”
Recent Questions in parliament:
Baroness Anelay of St Johns, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, has provided the following answer to your written parliamentary question (HL6512):
Question Lord Alton of Liverpool:
To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assistance they have offered the government of Egypt to protect Egypt’s Coptic population from ISIS, following reports of targeted attacks, killings, and forced conversions. (HL6512)
Tabled on: 03 April 2017
Baroness Anelay of St Johns:
We are concerned about recent attacks in both Cairo and North Sinai against the Coptic Christian community, claimed by Daesh. The Government of Egypt has reaffirmed its commitment to protecting the rights of minorities and to the need for religious tolerance. We welcome President Sisi’s consistent calls for peaceful coexistence and the Government of Egypt’s expression of support for the rights of Christians and for religious tolerance.
As part of our UK-funded projects and programmes in Egypt we are providing counter-terrorism assistance to the Egyptian authorities and counter-IED training for the Egyptian security forces. We are committed to supporting the Egyptian Government’s fight against terrorist groups, including those who seek to target minority groups such as Coptic Christians.
Date and time of answer: 19 Apr 2017 at 16:06.
To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of reports of Coptic Christian families in Egypt who have been forced to flee North Sinai province following a number of killings in recent weeks by suspected Islamist militants; and what representations they have made to the government of Egypt about those reports.
- Hansard source(Citation: HL Deb, 20 March 2017, cW)
We deplore all discrimination against religious minorities and constraints on their freedom to practise their faith. The Egyptian constitution contains protections for freedom of religious belief and it is important that these rights are respected.
The UK Government continues to work closely with the Egyptian authorities on security and counter-terrorism, including through training Egyptian officers who operate in areas such as North Sinai to counter improvised explosive devices used by Islamist militants.
We have regularly raised our concerns about the deterioration in the human rights situation with the Egyptian Government, including issues affecting Christians. We have also raised our broader concerns around the rights to freedom of expression, association and assembly, which are essential to improving the protection of freedom of religious belief in Egypt.
To ask Her Majesty’s Government what offers of help or advice they have made to the government of Egypt about the improvement of security of the people attending places of worship following the bombing of the Coptic Orthodox Cathedral of St Mark in Cairo; and what assessment they have made of the levels of persecution and discrimination against the Coptic minority.
- Hansard source(Citation: HL Deb, 23 December 2016, cW)
Following the attack against El-Botrosiya Church on 11 December, the Prime Minister, my Rt Hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead (Mrs May) wrote to the President of Egypt to express her deep condolences and reiterate the UK’s support for Egypt in its fight against terrorism. The Foreign Secretary, my Rt Hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge and South Ruislip (Boris Johnson), Her Majesty‘s Ambassador to Egypt, and officials in London have also expressed their condolences to the Egyptian authorities. The UK Government continues to work closely with the Egyptian authorities on security and counter-terrorism, including through training Egyptian officers in countering improvised explosive devices and close protection.
The UK Government has been clear that freedom of religious belief needs to be protected and that the ability to worship in peace is a vital component of a democratic society. We are concerned about recent reports of sectarian violence in Egypt, and welcome President Sisi’s consistent calls for peaceful coexistence and the government of Egypt’s expression of support for the rights of Christians and for religious tolerance.
Hudson Center for Religious Freedom Senior Fellow Samuel Tadros is an expert analyst on his native Egypt and Islamist extremism. A Coptic Christian, himself, he has personal experience with the persecution now being waged by ISIS against that community in Egypt, having had friends and relatives among the survivors of recent deadly church bombings, including the one earlier this week, on Palm Sunday, at St. George’s Orthodox Church, in Tanta, Egypt. In a recent video, ISIS threatens to make the targeting of that two thousand year old community its priority, calling the Copts its “favorite prey.”
Sam’s extraordinary reflection, at the bottom of this message, appears in The Atlantic and provides poignant insights into the plight of the Copts.
“If you’re a Coptic Christian in Egypt today, you’re now asking many questions,” said Samuel Tadros, a senior fellow at the Washington-based Hudson Institute who writes frequently on sectarian relations in Egypt. “What has the state done, why are we being targeted, am I safe any longer and should I leave Egypt.”
“The bombings were ‘a mixed bag’ for El-Sisi, said Samuel Tadros, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute in Washington.
‘On the one hand it reinforces his narrative that Egypt is in war against terrorism, rallying the nation around the flag and so forth,’ Tadros said. ‘At the same time the attacks send a message of incompetence of the security apparatus’ in containing the militancy, he said.
If the jihadist group proves able to operate more extensively outside of Sinai, ‘that would be a very dangerous development,’ he added.”
Canadian Broadcasting Corporation: Transcript of Radio Interview
Excerpt: “ [The Copts] face discriminatory policies at the hands of the government. Discrimination in laws and government appointments. Restrictions in building churches and they face exclusion and discrimination in society at large and incitement against them by Islamists as well as these attacks. Copts have special place in Islamist doctrines. Perhaps this is a reflection of the fact that they are more than 50 percent of the Christian presence in the Middle East as a whole. Perhaps it’s a reflection of the disproportionate number of Egyptians that plays an instrumental role in the formation of Islamist groups or the Islamist narrative. I mean it’s a war. Why they’re targeted? It is for who they are. Islamic State has released a 30 minute video after the December bombing of the cathedral complex in Cairo where they collaborated. It’s not about anything that individuals Copts have done. They basically call them the Worshipers of the Cross. These are by their very existence warriors against Islam. And thus every single Copt is a possible target.”
FoxNew.com: Quoted by Judith Miller:
“Samuel Tadros, of Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom, estimates that there have been at least 100 major attacks on Christians and their churches since [Pres. Sisi] came to power.”
“Samuel Tadros, scholar of Middle Eastern Studies at the Hudson Institute, has written “Motherland Lost: The Egyptian and Coptic quest for modernity” (Hoover Institution Press, 2013). He explains in an interview that 90 percent of his Facebook friends ask him how they can leave the country. ‘Not everyone will leave, but everyone is contemplating it,’ says Samuel Tadros. ‘My parents have nobody left to take care of them’. Out of his own Coptic family, half of them live outside of Egypt. There were two Coptic churches in the US in 1970. In 2012, the number had increased to 202. That speaks volumes.
What Palm Sunday Means to Egypt’s Copts
Christianity was born in pain in the country. An attack on a holy day is another bloody symbol of its beginnings.
O-sana va-sili too Esraeel
At Saint George Church, a Coptic church in Tanta, Egypt, the deacons were finishing the final vowels in Evlogimenos (the Hosanna to the King of Israel), when the bomb exploded, leaving 28 worshipers dead and many others wounded. Shortly afterwards, a suicide bomber, failing to enter Saint Mark’s Cathedral in Alexandria, where the Coptic Pope was leading the liturgy, detonated his bomb outside the church, leaving 17 people dead. A joyful day, one where Coptic children compete to turn their palm fronds into the most beautiful of shapes, suddenly became the deadliest day of attacks on this ancient community.
The twin bombings were hardly the first attacks against Egypt’s Coptic Christians. Nor are they likely to be the last. In recent years, Copts, who constitute more than half of all Christians in the Middle East, have been setting the grisliest of records, with each new attack claiming more victims than the one before. The Islamic State has claimed credit for the recent bombings. Following its bombing in December of the Coptic Cathedral complex in Cairo, the group released a message promising more to come for the “worshipers of the cross,” the group’s name for the Copts. A week-long murder spree targeting Copts by ISIS in Northern Sinai in February nearly emptied the region of Christians. Bombing Coptic Churches just before Christmas and Easter, ISIS seemed to take particular delight in targeting Copts during their most joyful celebrations.
* * *
Blessed is the man You choose, and cause to approach You, that he may dwell in Your courts.
— Psalms 65:4
Palm Sunday is a day of contradictions in the Coptic calendar—a day of joy as the Lord enters Jerusalem, a day of preparation for a week of sorrows as the faithful follow Christ’s every step on the road to the cross. But the most extraordinary event occurs immediately after the liturgy. The deacons replace the red stoles on their tunics with darker ones, and the rite suddenly shifts from the joyful sha’aneen, (or, Hosanna), to a general funeral for all living Copts. The verses from Psalms 65 are followed by the Pauline Epistle from 1 Corinthians 15, which promises resurrection of the believers. As the Church fixes its gaze on the death of its savior, no funerals are held for Copts during Holy Week; the general funeral prayers on Palm Sunday are meant to bless all those who die.
Christianity was born in pain in Egypt, its message of hope bathed in blood. Fleeing persecution in Israel, the young Jesus found refuge in the country. Yet suffering and martyrdom would become the central features of the Church his disciples would found. Saint Mark the Evangelist, who introduced Christianity to Egypt, shed his blood on the streets of Alexandria, and countless Copts followed him as they clung to their faith in their redeemer in the face of endless persecution. That initial blow, struck by Roman Emperors, was the first of many. The names of rulers may have changed, from Roman and Byzantine emperors to Muslim caliphs and governors, discriminatory laws changed from the Muslim rules of Dhimmitude, to the exacting, oppressive laws of Egypt’s present-day rulers, but the nature of the Coptic plight has not.
Through it all, Copts clung to their church. As everything from employment opportunities to roster spots on soccer teams were closed to them, the church became more than a house of worship, providing health care, private education, even sports venues. A Coptic nation exists today—but it does not seek independence. Membership is based not on race, nor, after the loss of the Coptic tongue, on a distinct language or even purely on religion. Instead, Copts are bound by the unique history of a church, a history of suffering. Holy Week may be focused on the pain of Christ, but for the Copts, their pain is seen and felt through His. They have carried their redeemer’s cross on the way to Golgotha, just as they carry a tattooed cross on their arms.
* * *
Thok te ti-gom, nem pi-o-oo nem pi-esmo, nem pi-amahee sha eneh amen, Emmano-eel pen-nouti pen-oroo
This is perhaps the most beautiful of the Coptic hymns; the translation: “Thine is the power, the glory, the blessing, and the majesty, forever Amen. Emmanuel our God and our King.”
During Holy Week, as the Coptic Church’s congregation walks the Via Dolorosa (or, the Way of Suffering), weeping as lashes land on Christ’s back and his body is nailed to the cross, it reminds the faithful of His power and divinity. The cross was carried not in weakness, but in strength; it was not forced, but chosen. In His acceptance of pain, Copts see their own. Over the centuries, many non-believers have ridiculed them for their perceived weakness, wondering why they have not taken up arms or sought revenge.
But like its savior, the Coptic Church carries its cross with pride. The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church, as Tertullian, the second-century theologian, proclaimed centuries ago. The years have taken their toll: Christianity was largely wiped out of North Africa; the places where Saint Augustine once walked no longer remember his name. Only in Egypt did it survive, the Church of Alexandria, the founding church of Copts, shining alone through Christianity’s early centuries. In Egypt’s deserts, monasticism was born at the hands of Saint Antony the Great, and it was Coptic Popes, from Athanasius to Cyril, who shaped the Christian creed and faith for the whole world.
During the Easter liturgy, a beautiful hymn is chanted, remarkably one of the few that are always recited in Arabic:
* * *
Ya kol al sofoof al sama-eyeen, ratelo le-eelahena be naghamat el-tasbeeh, wabe-tahegoo ma’na al-yowma fareheen, be-keyamat El-Sayed El-Maseeh
This hymn translates to, “All you heavenly orders, Sing to our God with the melody of praise, Rejoice with us today with gladness, In the Resurrection of the Lord Christ.” Death on the cross is followed by resurrection.
Such is the story of the Copts. While their church faces tremendous challenges in Egypt, it is flourishing abroad. In 1970, there were two Coptic Churches in the United States. Today there are 250. In sub-Saharan Africa, more than half a million Africans have joined the church, which is untainted by the legacy of colonialism, and prides itself as an African Church. There is a future for the Copts.
* * *
And it came to pass at the end of the four hundred and thirty years, even the selfsame day it came to pass, that all the hosts of the Lord went out from the land of Egypt.
I woke up early on Palm Sunday to the news of the bombings in Egypt. I entered my daughters’ room, hugged and kissed them and thanked God that they were born in America. I called my parents in Cairo to check on them. A distant relative was praying in the Alexandria Cathedral and had just left the church as the suicide bomber detonated his vest. His car windows were destroyed, but he was unharmed.
As we made our way to our local Coptic church in Fairfax Virginia, I noticed a police car parked out front. My moment of alarm was short-lived. I reminded myself that the local police were there not because of a bomb threat, but to organize traffic as Copts flock to the church during Holy Week. If the Coptic Church is suffering in its homeland, in America it is struggling to cope with the wave of immigration that has brought over half a million of us here and will continue to bring more.
The service was a very painful one. There were no happy faces in church. The deacon could barely continue reading the Bible through his tears. The priest reminded us of the blessings we enjoy in America as we prayed for our brethren back in Egypt. My wife’s sister sent us a nice picture of her son, a deacon, at the Palm Sunday service in Cairo. I saw a picture of a similarly aged boy, also a deacon, who people on social media said was one of the victims. For the rest of the day, I could not shake the picture from my mind. On Facebook, a friend in Cairo shared how, during the liturgy, before hearing the news, she thought it was a blessing that her daughter hadn’t made it to church that day. In case there was a bomb, at least her daughter would live.
It may well be time for Copts to pack their bags, close their churches, and bid farewell to 2,000 years of Christianity in Egypt. Will the Copts follow the Jews, both ancient and modern, kicked out of Egypt at the hands of Gamal Abdel Nasser? Where would they go? Who would take them? These are depressing questions, ones that Coptic parents in Egypt are confronting. Leaving, it seems, is inevitable.