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Sayeeda Warsi: Britain must be a country where people can be proud of their religion

Rt Hon Baroness Warsi , Friday, October 28 2011

Sayeeda Warsi

Earlier this year, people across the world were shocked and appalled when Shahbaz Bhatti, the only Christian in the Pakistani cabinet, was assassinated.

I met him a week before he was murdered; last week, I saw his brother, Dr Paul Bhatti - a trained surgeon who has now become minorities adviser to the Pakistani prime minister, and helped set up a new Ministry of Harmony - and spoke to him about the plans Shahbaz and I had been discussing.

Back in March, when Shahbaz was murdered, I said that the soul of Pakistan was not in these attacks. There is nothing in the vision laid out by Pakistan's founding father, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, that creates the space for such acts of hatred. The idea of unity through diversity runs through Pakistan's history and helps to define its society today.

In the last 18 months, I have made four visits to Pakistan, and I have seen for myself the moments of hope among the tragedies. It is heartening, for example, that for the first time in Pakistan's history, a number of seats are to be allocated for minorities in the senate.

But two things struck me that are as relevant to us as they are to Pakistan. First, it is a mistake to assume that you compromise your identity the more you try to understand others. The stronger your understanding of your neighbour, the stronger your own religious identity becomes. For many years, I have been saying that the stronger we are as a Christian nation, the more understanding we will be of other faiths. That is why, a year ago, I went to a bishops' conference and said that this Government would "do God". It is why the Pope's visit was so important for our country. And it is why I am proud that this year, for the first time, the Prime Minister held an Easter reception in Downing Street.

We need to create a country in which people can be unashamedly proud of their faith - where they don't feel that they have to leave religion at the door. That means being proud of Christianity, not downgrading it. It means encouraging people to say that their faith inspires what they do. It means supporting religious charities in delivering public services in schools, hospices and rehabilitation.

Second, we need to address head-on the supposed conflict of loyalty that exists between faiths. Time and again, we encounter the assumption that some people of some faiths can be trusted while others cannot. Today, for example, we see some in the Muslim world questioning whether Christians can be trusted. In the Western world, we see some doubting the loyalty of some Muslims.

But as a proud British, Muslim, Conservative woman - one who has the privilege of serving her country as the first Muslim in full Cabinet - take it from me: there is nothing incompatible about a world of many religions and one of strong, vibrant nation states.

Here in Britain, we have a proud history of pluralism and inter-faith dialogue. Now we need to go further: beyond the photo calls outside the mosque, beyond hosting the local imam for tea in a draughty church hall. This dialogue needs to be congregation to congregation, community to community. That is why we are working with the Church of England on the Near Neighbours programme, building up multi-faith social action using the existing parish infrastructure.

We also need to take the lead internationally. That means pressing other governments to safeguard religious minorities - be it the Copts in Egypt or Christians and other minorities in Pakistan. It means raising problems of persecution at the highest level, as the Archbishop of Canterbury recently did in Zimbabwe. Above all, it means all of us - as communities and individuals, believers and non-believers - taking inspiration from Shahbaz and Paul Bhatti, and giving all minorities in every country the courage and freedom to believe and worship in peace.

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