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Saturday, 31 December 2011

Beit Jala: Email from the Archbishop of Westminster

Archbishop Vincent Nichols, the leader of Roman Catholics in England and Wales, has replied to an email that I sent him about his Midnight Mass Homily. Both emails are below. In the homily (currently on the Archbishop's homepage at, the Archbishop said:

"That shadow falls particularly heavily on the town of Bethlehem tonight. At this moment the people of the parish of Beit Jala prepare for their legal battle to protect their land and homes from further expropriation by Israel. Over 50 families face losing their land and their homes as action is taken to complete the separation/security wall across the territory of the district of Bethlehem. We pray for them tonight."

I responded by sending the Archbishop this email (in which I repeatedly mis-spelt Beit Jala as Beit Jalal, but never mind):

Dear Archbishop

I wish you a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year. I have just read your Christmas 2011 Midnight Mass Homily, including the passage about Beit Jalal.

I have three thoughts to share with you.

One is that I am deeply hurt and disappointed by your failure to mention, alongside the plight of the Palestinians, the terrorist threat to Israelis.

Your criticisms of the route of the security barrier are well-reasoned, but surely, in making such criticisms, one should always include a line to acknowledge that the Israelis give, as their reason for building the barrier, the need to save the lives of innocent civilians?

To condemn only the barrier, without also condemning the murderous violence that arguably prompted the barrier's construction in the first place, is deeply upsetting and wrong.

Secondly, I am shocked and saddened that you would mention Beit Jalal as an instance of Christian suffering without also mentioning other instances of such suffering in the world today. Is one to infer from your only mentioning this one instance that the others are of no importance? I believe that such an inference must be mistaken, but you can presumably see how it might be drawn?

Might one not have included a line noting that, across the Middle East and the wider world, Christians face persecution and even murder on a scale that dwarfs the very serious situation of Beit Jalal?

If I was in your shoes and had been told that I had time to mention only one instance of Christian suffering today, I might have chosen the recent mass killings of Copts in Egypt, the shocking murders of Roman Catholics by the Boko Haram in Nigeria or the fearful situation faced by Christians in Syria, as they face the prospect of what might become a sectarian civil war. At least in Beit Jalal nobody is being killed.

However serious the situation is in Beit Jalal, does it really deserve to be singled out in such a way as to be the ONLY instance of Christian suffering to merit a mention, with other such suffering not mentioned at all?

Lastly, your homily says that a "shadow falls particularly heavily on the town of Bethlehem tonight". Yet the BBC ( today says: "Christian pilgrims and tourists from around the world have converged on Bethlehem for Christmas."

The BBC also today says: "About 120,000 visitors are in the Palestinian West Bank town, 30% up on last year, officials said." Is that a sign of a very heavy shadow? I rejoice at the fact that Christians in Bethlehem (and in Israel) enjoy a freedom of worship that is denied to them elsewhere in the Middle East.

Patriarch Twal, in his Midnight Mass Homily in Bethlehem itself, urged "the return of calm and reconciliation in Syria, in Egypt, in Iraq and in North Africa" - rightly focusing on the whole region, and not only on Beit Jalal.

Indeed, he said: "O Child of Bethlehem, in this New Year, we place in your hands this troubled Middle East and, above all, our youth full of legitimate aspirations, who are frustrated by the economic and political situation, and in search of a better future."

I would be interested to hear your thoughts on the points that I have raised.


Matthew Harris

To which I today received the following reply, and I assume that the Archbishop will not object to my reproducing it in full:

Dear Mr Harris,

Thank you for your email, sent on Christmas Day.

As you know my reference to Beit Jala was very brief and factual. I did not criticise the State of Israel, but simply stated that a court action was beginning, that very day, in which families were trying the defend the laqnd that they have farmed, some for 700 years. It was not a lengthy statement, simply a request for prayers.

I chose to mention that single event not only because is directly affects the district of Bethlehem but also because the court case was beginning on that day. That makes it a unique moment.

There are, of course, threats and actions against Christians in many parts of the world, and threats and actions against the State of Israel.

You will know that the position of the Holy See, and hence of the Catholic Church, is that of recognising the State of Israel and seeking a solution of two viable states. It is the pursuit of this which is most important.

Thank you for writing to me,

With good wishes,

+Vincent Nichols


Friday, 23 December 2011

Engrossing New Yorker piece on Guatemala

A friend recently alerted me to this utterly gripping New Yorker piece about events in Guatemala, by David Grann. It certainly puts London's "Occupy" protests in context. If you think that the word "gripping" and the word "Guatemala" might not be natural bedfellows, then I urge you to read this article and think again.

Monday, 19 December 2011

David Cameron's King James Bible Speech

I like the speech that the Prime Minister made at Oxford's Christ Church Cathedral the other day. I like it not only because I agree with it, but because I think that it is very well-written. Its references to Christian values have been most noted in the media, but it is fascinating also to see the Conservative Party's leader saying: 
Frankly, we need a lot less of the passive tolerance of recent years and a much more active, muscular liberalism.  A passively tolerant society says to its citizens, as long as you obey the law we will just leave you alone.  It stands neutral between different values. But I believe a genuinely liberal country does much more; it believes in certain values and actively promotes them.
So it's a "genuinely liberal country" to which Mr Cameron aspires in this speech, with the word "conservative" (or conservatism) not meriting a single mention. I know, incidentally, that many Lib Dems will be uncomfortable with the notion that the Prime Minister has defined Britain as a Christian country; they would have wanted him to say something like: 
Let me be clear: I am not in any way saying that to have another faith - or no faith - is somehow wrong. I know and fully respect that many people in this country do not have a religion. And I am also incredibly proud that Britain is home to many different faith communities, who do so much to make our country stronger...Faith is neither a necessary nor sufficient condition for morality. There are Christians who don’t live by a moral code. And there are atheists and agnostics who do.
Well, read the speech, because that's exactly what he did say, in those very words. I was struck also by the Prime Minister's saying: 
And when it comes to the great humanitarian crises - like the famine in Horn of Africa - again you can count on faith-based organisations like Christian Aid, Tearfund, CAFOD, Jewish Care, Islamic Relief, and Muslim Aid to be at the forefront of the action to save lives.
A terrific sentiment, but Jewish Care is actually an excellent domestic welfare charity; it would have no direct connection with action to save lives abroad and that is not what it is for. The Prime Minister perhaps rather had in mind World Jewish Relief, Tzedek or ORT

Also, Mr Cameron says that "one thing is clear: moral neutrality or passive tolerance just isn’t going to cut it any more". "Isn't going to cut it any more"? That is to imply, that, hitherto, the British had decided that moral neutrality or passive tolerance did cut it and that we are now making a change. In which case - what is to change? What, in response to the Prime Minister's having said all of this, is he now proposing to do that is any way different to what he was already doing before? Is this speech merely a rhetorical exercise aimed at pleasing voters without making any new spending commitments? By making this speech in this cathedral in the bleak mid-winter, Mr Cameron chimes with those aspects of Christianity that most resonate with Middle England - Englishness, beautiful old buildings and Christmas - while ignoring those aspects of the Christian debate that are most challenging: abortion, marriage and gay rights. Where does this speech take us? I'm not sure. I'll have to see if Sainsbury's will sell me a moral compass.


Saturday, 17 December 2011

Charmless islamophobia - or maybe Arabophobia

Imagine the outrage if someone said that the British Government is "timid" in the face of pressure from the UK's "large Jewish population". How unpleasant, then, to read identical comments about the UK's "large Arab population" ( The UK doesn't actually even have a "large Arab population"; I assume that this person was referring in confusion to my country's Muslim communities, which largely have their origins not in the Arab world, but on the Indian sub-continent. To accuse the Government of lacking the "courage" to offend the country's "large Arab population" is as offensive as it would be to accuse the Government of lacking the "courage" to offend the Jewish community.

'No' to Thatcher film debate

Tory MP Rob Wilson is quite wrong to call for a Commons debate on the film The Iron Lady ( Such a debate would be a waste of Parliamentary time and money. The House of Commons makes our laws and is not a phone-in radio show. I have not seen The Iron Lady and I accept that some people don't like its portrayal of Baroness Thatcher's later years, but what is to be achieved by debating that in Parliament? What is intended to happen as a result of such a debate?

Are we now Thailand, where insulting the monarch (lese-majeste) is a criminal offence? Debating the artistic merits of a film in Parliament takes us dangerously towards censorship - and this from Rob Wilson, who is Parliamentary Private Secretary to Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt. Ouch.

If Mr Wilson wishes to debate "respect, good manners and good taste" then I suggest that he goes to prop up the bar in his nearest saloon bar, where I'm sure he will find a ready audience. He wonders "why the film-makers had to go so heavily on the mental illness, the dementia side, when Baroness Thatcher has had a very important life in the politics of this country and the world". That's an interesting question for cinema-goers, but it has nothing to do with Parliament. It is ridiculous for an MP to second-guess the artistic decisions of film-makers, as if Parliament can debate how a film ought to have been made. Mr Wilson can make his own film if he wants to see a different one.

Unless The Iron Lady breaks the law in some way, then neither Mr Wilson nor Parliament is entitled to demand that it had been made as a different film - and such a demand is actually quite offensive. Mr Wilson also wonders "about the humanity of the film makers who are very subtly denigrating someone who was a great prime minister". How dare he question the "humanity" of artists who have produced a work of art that is not to his taste? By all means criticise the work, but without making spiteful personal attacks on the people who created it. Such attacks certainly have no place on the Parliamentary agenda. This debate would cost public money (do Tories think there is taxpayers' money to waste on debating a film?!) and take Parliamentary time when MPs surely have other, more urgent things to discuss at present?

Friday, 16 December 2011

Westminster Hall debate on Israel

The Conservative MP Guto Bebb secured a half-hour Parliamentary debate on Israel in Westminster Hall on Wednesday; it makes interesting reading if you want to know where the UK's Conservative/Liberal Democrat Coalition Government stands on the Israel/Palestine peace process, as a Foreign Office Minister (David Lidington) replied to Mr Bebb on behalf of the Government.

Thursday, 15 December 2011

The other occupation

Interesting to see ( that the European Parliament has voted not to extend a fishing deal with Morocco because, say MEPs, "the deal was illegal as it did not benefit the people living in the disputed Western Sahara, off which most of the fishing took place".

According to the BBC: "Morocco annexed Western Sahara in 1976 but its claims of sovereignty have not been internationally recognised. The separatist Polisario movement fought a guerrilla war against Moroccan troops until 1991 and still seeks to be recognised as an independent state."

Sounds familiar? And yet how often do we hear news of this territorial dispute (, or condemnation of Morocco for this occupation? Why is the plight of Saharawis any less significant than the plight of Palestinians? And yet while the Israeli/Palestinian conflict (or "the Middle East", as some people call it, when the Middle East is not a conflict, it's a region populated by hundreds of millions of people, of whom the Israelis and Palestinians are but a fraction) is discussed endlessly, I rarely hear anything about Western Sahara.

This habit of focusing on the few headline conflicts that we all know about, while ignoring all the others, is dangerous. It is dangerous because it means that wounds fester untended in large parts of the world, only for the conflicts concerned to suddenly explode as if from nowhere. It is dangerous because people who deserve our attention are being ignored. And it is dangerous because it means that we have only a self-reinforcingly partial world-view, as those conflicts that catch our eye remain the ones to which we constantly return in search of news, while other conflicts (in which equal or greater numbers of people are being killed) barely get reported. See also:,8599,2102098,00.html?xid=gonewsedit

Saturday, 10 December 2011

Christians in the Middle East

I have just read all of yesterday's insightful, fascinating and thoughtful House of Lords debate on the situation of Christians in the Middle East ( Initiated by the Archbishop of Canterbury, the debate comprised speeches by a wide range of peers of many faiths and of none. It also included practical suggestions of things that the British Government can actually do, as well as noting things that it is thankfully already doing.

While I do not 'agree' with some of the points that were made in some of the speeches, I overwhelmingly agree with the consensus that emerged on three principles in particular. One is that Christianity was born in the Middle East and has flourished there for centuries before and after the later birth of Islam, in contrast to suggestions that Christianity is an alien, Western import to the region. Another is that religious freedom (including being free to convert from one faith to another, and being free to have no faith) is a fundamental human right. The third is that a true democracy is one that accords as much importance to protecting minority rights as it accords to reflecting the democratically-expressed will of the majority.

These three principles are central to any consideration of the highly worrying situation of Christians across the Middle East and North Africa after the 'Arab Spring'. At stake are not the specific rights of Christians, but the rights of all people who live in the region, including Muslims. Many Christian Arabs are living in dire circumstances that reflect the plight of everyone who lives in the countries concerned; it is in the interest of all of those people (of all faiths and of none) for the region to become one in which there is equality before the law, pluralism and religious freedom.

Friday, 9 December 2011

Transaction tax question

If there was an EU-wide transactions tax, the money would be collected and retained by national governments, right? Calling it EU-wide, etc, leaves open the inference that money collected in France, the UK or Portugal would not go into the national coffers in Paris, London or Lisbon, but would instead go to Brussels, to be spent by the EU on straightening bananas, banning sausages and rigging the Eurovision Song Contest. And that inference is mistaken, right? The money raised on transactions in the City of London would actually go to the British Treasury? My perception of the issues at stake on this has been clouded by what I believe is a mistaken inference - a mistaken inference that has loomed large in much media coverage of the issue.

I don't know whether or not a Tobin tax or other transaction tax is a good idea. That is a technical area of taxation about which I know not much. I do know that I would not especially favour a transactions tax that was cobbled together in the middle of the night at a summit that's supposed to be about resolving the eurozone's sovereign debt crisis. In what other field is it considered sensible to sit up all night arguing in an atmosphere of crisis?

As a Liberal Democrat, I agree with Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg ( that David Cameron had no choice but to use the veto, although I note that Mr Clegg has further developed his thoughts on this matter since I first wrote this post ( I think it was the right decision, given the political circumstances in which Mr Cameron appears to have found himself. Lord (Matthew) Oakeshott is mistaken to link this to the Conservatives' not being part of the centre-right European People's Party (EPP). I too opposed the Tories' decision to move from the EPP to another grouping that is to the EPP's right and which includes some highly dodgy right-wing parties. But that's got nothing to with this week's crisis. If Nick Clegg was Prime Minister, he wouldn't be in the EPP with Merkel and Sarkozy either - he'd instead be in the European Liberal group, just as Ed Miliband would be in the Socialist group. Mr Cameron's perfectly good relations with the French and German leaders has nothing to do with the Tories having left the EPP.

Also, if one of the things that we were reportedly seeking at this summit was the right for the UK Government "to strengthen UK banks' capital ratios in line with the Vickers commission report", then the UK is surely arguing for more (not less) regulation of British banks, so how can Chris Davies MEP accuse Mr Cameron of using the veto "to protect bankers from regulation"? What Mr Cameron was actually doing was maintaining the UK's ability to impose tough measures on banks.

Do some Lib Dems wrongly think that our party's pro-European history means that we are uncritical of all European institutions and would never sanction the use of Britain's veto? The Liberals called for the UK to join the Common Market before any other party. The SDP's founders included pro-European Labour rebels at a time when Labour wanted to pull Britain out of the EEC. We therefore have a proud history of believing that the UK gains a lot from being in the EU (which it does). That doesn't, however, mean that we will always agree with all of the other countries that are in the EU. It's not anti-European to say No sometimes, and if we're supposed never to use our veto, then why do we have a veto in the first place?

What Nick Clegg is saying today is consistent with what he was saying as long ago as July:

Thursday, 8 December 2011

If the roles were reversed...

Israel's Attorney General, Yehuda Weinstein, has reportedly said ( that the so-called NGO bill is unconstitutional and restricts freedom of expression.

This bill (which comes not from the government, but from a couple of backbenchers) has been much exercising the minds of those of my friends who still read the Guardian. It basically seeks to restrict foreign government funding for various Israeli NGOs, some of which receive a lot of their income from foreign governments - including the British Government. A just, peaceful resolution of the Israeli/Arab conflict is a key aim of UK foreign policy, so our government funds Israeli NGOs that it sees as working to bring such a resolution about. Some of this funding is given in concert with some British Jewish and pro-Israeli groups.

What's interesting is that many people (myself included) often take it for granted that it is reasonable for the UK to work towards ending other people's conflicts. Should we take it for granted? How would we feel if foreign governments were funding MigrationWatch? Or the Taxpayers Alliance? Or if Iran had a Department for International Development that funded the Stop the War Coalition? It is surely worth asking ourselves that question.

Monday, 5 December 2011

The Prime Minister's priorities

David Cameron's people allowed it to be said on the BBC today that the Prime Minister's top concern is to increase competitiveness in the eurozone. That is like suggesting that Ilsa's main concern at the end of Casablanca is whether or not the plane serves salted peanuts. I believe that the Prime Minister gets that the top concern re:- the eurozone is not increased competitiveness (nice though that would be) but the possibility of total and utter doom if the whole thing collapses. I say "I believe that the Prime Minister gets..." because Mr Cameron today said, re:- this other thing with the life sciences: "We get that the game has changed...We're going to be more flexible, more competitive, more hungry for business than ever before," so we clearly 'get' things today (with or without a mid-Atlantic Blairite glottal stop, as the PM actually said 'combedidive'). Grr! Hungry for business! Does he rehearse in front of the mirror like Gareth Cheeseman? Does he play Eye of the Tiger in his head? Were his comms today being handled by some kids who'd written in to Jim'll Fix It? Although actually I too am hungry for British business and I'm sure he's right about the life sciences.

BBC: 'Castro the libertarian'

On teletext (or whatever we're now calling it in the new millennium) and presumably also online, the BBC has an obituary of the Brazilian footballer Socrates that includes the following line: "But Socrates' heroes included famous libertarians Fidel Castro and Che Guevara...". A libertarian is "a person who believes that people should be free to think and behave as they want and should not have limits put on them by governments". In what conceivable sense are Castro or Che Guevara libertarians? They weren't 'libertarians', they were communist revolutionaries. Why this matters beyond mere semantics (not that I am anti-semantic) is that the Castro regime in Cuba is actually a grotesquely anti-democratic one. To call Castro a 'libertarian', when his family's regime is one which makes it illegal for Cubans to say "I'd like someone else to be my country's president", is not only stupid, but also genuinely offensive - offensive not only to me, but to all the Cuban people whose human rights are being abused by the disgusting Castro government (

Saturday, 3 December 2011

Leon Panetta on Israel and Iran

If I was an American and was active in politics, I think I'd be a Clinton Democrat. I still strongly admire President Clinton and his steadfast, near-miss attempts to broker an Israeli/Palestinian peace deal. Leon Panetta, who was Clinton's Chief of Staff and who is now President Obama's Defense Secretary, made this fascinating speech yesterday: If you want to know what the grown-ups are saying about Israel and Iran, then read this speech and read it carefully, including the Q&A at the end.

The BBC's reporting of the speech has focused on Mr Panetta's call for Israel to mend fences with Egypt and Turkey. Is that the most interesting bit of this speech? I would argue not. Read the whole thing. It's not very long. I was struck also by Mr Panetta saying that Israel and the Palestinians should:

"Just get to the damn table.  Just get to the table.  The problem right now is we can't get them to the damn table to at least sit down and begin to discuss their differences – you know, we all know what the pieces are here for a potential agreement.  We've talked it out, worked through, we understand the concerns, we understand the concerns of Israel, understand the concerns of the Palestinians.  If they sit at a table and work through those concerns, and the United States can be of assistance in that process, then I think you have the beginning of what could be a process that would lead to a peace agreement.  

"But if they aren't there – if they aren't at the table, this will never happen.  So first and foremost, get to the damn table."

I could point out that Israel keeps saying that it wants immediate direct talks with the Palestinians. Israel is arguably already at the table, looking at its watch and eating a bread stick while the waitress hovers with a menu.

The Palestinians say they won't come unless Israel resumes a 'settlement freeze' (even though when there WAS a settlement freeze, the Palestinians still refused to come to talks for most of the time that the freeze was on, even though that was supposedly their condition for coming. It's like if you invited me to dinner, and I said I'd come if you don't mind meeting me in Finchley, and you said yes you'd come to Finchley, and I said I still wasn't coming, even though you'd agreed to what I'd asked. So you then forget about Finchley and ask me if I will just please come to dinner anyway as we need to talk, and I say 'only if we can meet in Finchley' and we repeat the whole cycle and never get to dinner).

If you were the Palestinian President, would you not go into talks and discuss settlements there, instead of using settlements as an excuse for not talking?