UK Representative's Address to the Holy See

«What made me feel even more confident as a British Muslim … was that my country … had a strong Christian identity»

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VATICAN CITY, FEB. 16, 2012 ( Here are the notes of the address given Tuesday by the leader of a U.K. delegation visiting the Holy See to mark the 30th anniversary of the establishment of full diplomatic relations between the two states.

The delegation was led by Baroness Sayeeda Hussain Warsi, who represented the prime minister.

The Pope received the delegation in audience on Wednesday.

* * *


Your Eminences. Excellencies. Reverend Fathers. Colleagues, Ladies and Gentlemen. It is an immense honour for me to stand here today in what is, for more than a billion people, the spiritual capital of the world. And it is a further privilege to lead the largest ever ministerial delegation from the United Kingdom to the Holy See, to celebrate the relationship between our two states, the oldest formal diplomatic relationship in my country’s history and today, one of the strongest. Our diplomatic relationship began here in 1479, only a short distance from where we now stand. For reasons we all know too well, we broke diplomatic relations only to restore them during the First World War.

This year marks 30 years since full diplomatic relations were re-established between us.

We want to build upon our bond, to show it to the rest of the world, and to let it inspire others. Because our relationship enables us to act together in the name of the common good: to promote democracy, to fight for human rights, to encourage fair, responsible trade: to tackle climate change, and to help build stable nations.

We are grateful for the superb work our Ambassador Nigel Baker is doing here, building on the tremendous tenure of his predecessor Francis Campbell. The UK recognises that, as the smallest state in the world, the Holy See has the widest global reach. We also respect each other’s differences.

Because the areas in which we agree are so vast, we can confidently acknowledge those areas where we differ. And I believe the strength of our relationship can give tremendous hope and inspiration to others across the world. This year, the United Kingdom and the Commonwealth are celebrating a person who has worked hard to bring our two great states closer: Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II.

Her Majesty’s visits here to the Vatican over a 60-year reign, and before when she came as a young Princess Elizabeth, her work to encourage harmony between Catholics and Protestants, her ground breaking visit to the people of Ireland in 2011, and her steadfast commitment to all her people are just some of the reasons her Diamond Jubilee makes this year such a special one for my country. And of course it was on her invitation that the Holy Father graced the United Kingdom with the first papal State Visit in our history.


The visit of September 2010 was historic, momentous and unforgettable, and I want to thank the Holy Father on behalf of all four nations in our country.

The hand of friendship was warmly received across our isles, reaching out to Catholics and non-Catholics, to those of faith and those of none, from the cheering crowds on the streets of Scotland, to those in silent contemplation during the Mass in Birmingham, and the many millions watching on their television screens or holding special events in school assemblies, community groups and workplaces.

It was a milestone in our relationship, a milestone in UK history – where heart truly spoke unto heart. On a personal level, I heeded the words of the Holy Father during his landmark speech in Westminster Hall. And I had the immense honour of enjoying an audience during a special event to promote interfaith relations.

It was a humbling, moving moment for me, and having made my speech at the Anglican Bishops’ Conference two days earlier on the importance of governments ‘doing God’ marking a clean break with the approach from the past, saying that our Government would be on the side of faith the Holy Father urged me to carry on making the case for faith in society.


So today I want to make one simple argument. That in order to ensure faith has a proper space in the public sphere, in order to encourage social harmony, people need to feel stronger in their religious identities, more confident in their beliefs. In practice this means individuals not diluting their faith, and nations not denying their religious heritage. If you take this thought to its conclusion then the idea you’re left with is this: Europe needs to become more confident in its Christianity.

Let us be honest: too often there is a suspicion of faith in our continent where signs of religion cannot be displayed or worn in government buildings where states won’t fund faith schools and where faith is sidelined, marginalised and downgraded. It all hinges on a basic misconception: that somehow to create equality and space for minority faiths and cultures we need to erase our majority religious heritage.

But it is my belief that the societies we are, the cultures we’ve created, the values we hold and the things we fight for stem from something we’ve argued over, dissented from, discussed and built up: Centuries of Christianity. It’s what the Holy Father called the «unrenounceable Christian roots of [our] culture and civilisation» which shine through our politics, our public life, our culture, our economics, our language and our architecture. You cannot and should not erase these Christian foundations from the evolution of our nations any more than you can or should erase the spires from our landscapes.

Let me get one thing very clear: I am not saying that everything done in the name of faith has been a blessing for our continent. Too much blood has been shed in the name of religion. But trying to erase this history or blind ourselves to the role of religion on our continent is wrong. We need to realise what drives us, what binds us and what inspires us is a history we are in danger of denying. I know, in a globalised world, it is easy to think that to relate to others you must water down your identity. But my point today is that being sure of who you are is the only way in which you will be more accommodating of others.

And there is a second strand to this argument: that true confidence has the power to guarantee openness, because only when you’re content in your own identity, only when you realise that the ‘Other’ does not jeopardise who you are can you truly accept and not merely tolerate the presence of difference. Just as the bully bullies because he or she is insecure, so too the state suppresses, marginalises, dictates and dismisses when it feels its identity is at stake.

In the United Kingdom, we have guarded against such fear by recognising the importance of the Established Church and our Christian heritage – our majority faith, and that is what has created religious freedom and a home for people like me, of minority faiths. Majority faiths and minority faiths – as a Muslim who was born and raised in – and now serves – a Christian country, I have experience of both. So I hope you will permit me to start by telling you a bit about my early life in the north of England in the 1970s and 80s. 


When I was growing up, as the daughter of Pakistani immigrants, the debate in my country was not about religion but race. As a teenager what shaped me was the obvious injustice of Apartheid. In my student days I campaigned for racial equality, and in the years that followed I launched campaigns to bolster race relations.

But after 9/11 I saw the debate shifting – with difference being defined not by race but by religion. My loyalty to my country was not in question because of my parents’ home country or even the colour of my skin, but because of the religion I was born into. I began to look back at my faith and the choices I made, as well as the lessons I learnt from my parents. I attended
a relatively conservative mosque. My father taught me to learn – to seek knowledge of both the history of my country and the foundation of my faith. He said that to truly understand my religion I needed to understand history as much as theology.  

He told me to think about my identity in the following way. He said that a river changes its appearance according to the bed on which it flows; the river will reflect the colour and the texture of the bed. It’s the same with religious and national identity. Like the river, your faith will reflect which nation you are a part of.

So what made me feel even more confident as a British Muslim, what truly enabled me to learn about my faith and to practice it was that my country – the bed over which the river of my faith flowed – had a strong Christian identity. This defined, shaped and gave me confidence in my own faith, which, combined with the confidence of my country’s principles, have since been evident in the decisions I’ve taken as an adult.

One decision which I think demonstrates how strongly I believe this was my choice of school for my daughter: an Anglican convent school. Many might think it is unusual for a Muslim mother to send her daughter to a Christian school, but I knew she would be free to follow her faith there, that she would not be looked down on because she believed. And as I had hoped, she found it strengthened her faith.

It also left her posing a lot of questions about religion. As she once said to me, during one of our frequent debates about religious symbols: «Mother Robina is going to get really upset about everyone being nasty about women who wear the hijab, because she wears one.»

As so often is the case, the youth shed light on situations like this and innocence brings clarity with my 9-year-old daughter bringing into sharp focus the similarities between the veil and the hijab. Summing up exactly why I don’t support the banning of religious symbols because, for me, it’s all about personal choice and the right to express one’s faith – whatever their faith. 

So with my daughter’s school, as with my own upbringing, a strong sense of Christianity didn’t threaten our Muslim identity – it actually reinforced it. It enabled me to make the case for further interfaith debate, discussion and work. It motivated me to stand up and speak out against anti-Muslim hatred, the persecution of Christians and anti-Semitism. And it inspired me to challenge the growing marginalisation of faith in my country and in Europe.


As I look around the world today, my resolve is strengthened. Where we see faith inspiring, driving and motivating good works is where certainty of conviction is at its strongest. As the Bible teaches us: «For even as the body without the spirit is dead: so also faith without works is dead.» The Quran teaches us something similar – that:

«those who believe and do good works are the best of created beings.»

We see the proof every day – globally, locally and individually, grom the Catholic Church being instrumental in toppling communism, to its key role in securing peace in Northern Ireland: from the Catholic Schools in the UK, many of which are outperforming other institutions to the domestic response to the earthquake in Haiti, the floods in Pakistan and the drought in East Africa. And where day by day, faith sustains people through their darkest, most desperate periods there is no denying the link between these positive actions and faith.

Perhaps the best example I have seen of this was on my visit to Pakistan last month, a visit I promised the late Shahbaz Bhatti, the country’s tragically assassinated minorities minister, I would undertake meeting the Christian communities of Karachi. There I met four wonderful sisters at the Convent of Jesus and Mary School, including two Irish nuns. One of them had spent 58 years of her life teaching girls in Pakistan. Sister Berchmans, a native of County Clare – one of the most westerly spots in Europe – had left rural Ireland as a young nun to go and work in Pakistan.

There in Karachi, at the age of 80, and wearing her white habit and veil, she led the morning assembly in prayer in English. And then she led the singing of the Pakistan national anthem in Urdu. It was remarkable to see and to think of the practical and silent, discreet witness that Sister Berchmans and her fellow Nuns have shown to generations of young Pakistani girls, many of them Muslim, and one of who grew up to become a Prime Minister, the first female to govern the modern Islamic world: the late Benazir Bhutto.

Sister Berchmans did not have to dilute her own faith or require others to dilute theirs. Rather she was doing what countless generations have done before her – witnessing and living side by side with other cultures and faiths. With Sister Berchmans rooted in her beliefs, and the Pakistani community she serves unwavering in its… I saw not the diminishment of faith but the ultimate enactment of the common good. 

And I want to share some news with you today. Sister Berchmans, and another person of faith who has laboured in Pakistan for over 35 years – Father Robert McCulloch of Australia, who is with us here today have just been recognised for their lifetime of services to the people and development of Pakistan. And the President of Pakistan has awarded them Pakistan’s highest civilian honour: the Nishan-e-Quaid-i-Azam.


I believe the same commitment is needed for dialogue and service between faiths to continue to succeed. Its interlocutors need to demonstrate the strength of faith shown by Sister Berchmans and the strength of appreciation and gratitude shown by the President of Pakistan. Because different faiths must realise that, just because they don’t worship together, doesn’t mean that they can’t work together. 

A great deal of this progress has been made thanks to the efforts of the Catholic Church through its educational outreach or the work of groups like Caritas International and its federation of aid agencies around the world and landmark documents like in Britain Meeting God in Friend and Stranger.

As a UK cabinet minister of the Muslim faith, representing a country with an Anglican Established Church, visiting our friends in the spiritual home of Catholicism you will find no greater champion of understanding between faiths than me.

But I believe that where interfaith dialogue does not work is where faiths are dumbed down in order to find common ground. 

Just as the European language of Esperanto, which attempted to build a new tongue, neautralises our component languages a common language between faiths risks watering down the diversity and intensity of our respective religions. Instead, interfaith dialogue works when we debate our differences, when we wear our beliefs on our sleeves. It’s not about you giving your version of God, and me giving my version of God, and us coming to some watered-down compromise, but about establishing our areas of consensus, and being firm enough in our devotion to work together. 

That’s why, when I visited the Tomb of David in Jerusalem I felt no contradiction saying my nafils, or prayers, in an alternative place of worship.  It’s why when Vatican II, whose 50thanniversary we celebrate this year, set out Nostra Aetate, its acceptance of other faiths it was not a sign of the church’s weakness of belief, but a sign of its strength. And why, when the Holy Father made his historic visit to the Blue Mosque in Istanbul, he was not weakening his own faith but reaffirming it.


The point is that in so many ways, being sure of your faith adds a layer of strength to society. Confidence in our own beliefs enables us to defend attacks on others. Faith asks you to stand up for your neighbour. As the fourth Muslim caliph Ali ibn Abi Talib said: «Every man is your brother…either your brother in faith or your brothe
r in humanity.»

This is the spirit which inspired Muslims to protect Jews during the Holocaust, which motivated Christians to support Muslims fleeing persecution in Darfur, and which led Chief Rabbi Sacks to call for action against persecution in Bosnia. 

It’s something I’ve been arguing for a long time. That persecution somewhere is persecution everywhere: that if you oppress my neighbour you are oppressing me: that an attack on a gudwara is an attack on a mosque, a church, a temple, a synagogue. 

Today I’m moving that thought on and saying that standing up for your neighbour of another faith doesn’t make you less of a Christian, less of a Jew or less of a Muslim – it makes you more of one. 

When British Jews stand up to the political factions promoting anti Muslim hatred, when Christians understand the horrors of the Holocaust and tackle anti-Semitism, when Muslims stand shoulder to shoulder with Sikhs to protect their temples it is not a betrayal of their own faith or a threat to it; it is the most powerful demonstration of security in their own faith.


But the confident affirmation of religion which I have spoken of is under threat. It is what the Holy Father called ‘the increasing marginalisation of religion’ during his speech in Westminster Hall. I see it in United Kingdom and I see it in Europe: spirituality, suppressed: divinity, downgraded.

Where, in the words of the Archbishop of Canterbury, faith is looked down on as the hobby of ‘oddities, foreigners and minorities’: where religion is dismissed as an eccentricity because it’s infused with tradition: where we undermine people who attribute good works to their belief and require them to deny it as their motivation. And where faith is overlooked in the public sphere with not even a word about Christianity in the preface of the «European Constitution.»

When I pledged that the new government in the United Kingdom would ‘do God,’ in some quarters there was uproar. More telling were the countless comments I received of quiet support a relief that finally someone had said what they had been thinking. This fact alone shows the extent to which religion has been sidelined by some.

Because in parts of Europe there have been misguided beliefs that in order to accommodate people from other backgrounds, we must somehow become less religious or less Christian. That somehow society must level itself out so that faith becomes something that is marginalised and limited to the private confines of one’s home or even one’s mind. But those calls are not coming from other faith communities. They are coming from two types of people. First, the well-intentioned liberal elite who, conversely, are trying to create equality by marginalising faith in society who think that the route to religious pluralism is by creating a path of faith-neutrality, who downgrade religion to a mere subcategory in public life.

But look at their supposed level playing field. Its terrain is all but impassable to anyone of belief. One of the arguments of the liberal elite is that faith and reason are incompatible. But they don’t realise, as the Holy Father has argued for many years, that faith and reason go hand in hand. As he said to us in Westminster Hall: «…the world of secular rationality and the world of religious belief…need one another and should not be afraid to enter into a profound and ongoing dialogue, for the good of our civilisation. 

In other words, just as reason should not be excluded from debates about faith, so too spirituality should not be excluded when we look at worldly matters. Second, there are the anti-religionists, the faith deniers. The people who dine out on free-flowing media and sustain a vocabulary of secularist intolerance attempting to remove all trace of religion from culture, history and public discourse. While ignoring the fact that people of faith give more to charity and that the number of people going to a place of worship is globally on the up.

My theory is that we are so afraid – and rightly so – of going backwards in history to the bad days when religion was imposed on people by despotic regimes that we have got to the stage where aggressive secularism is being imposed by stealth. Leaving us with the ironic situation where, to stave off intolerance against minorities we end up being intolerant towards religion itself.

For me, one of the most worrying aspects about this militant secularisation is that at its core and in its instincts it is deeply intolerant. It demonstrates similar traits to totalitarian regimes – denying people the right to a religious identity and failing to understand the relationship between religious loyalty and loyalty to the state. That’s why in the 20thCentury, one of the first acts of totalitarian regimes was the targeting of organised religion.

Why? Because, to them, a religious identity struck at the heart of their totalitarian ideology. In a free market of ideas, they knew their ideology was weak. And with the strength of religions, established over many years, followed by many billions their totalitarian regimes would be jeopardised. Our response to militant secularisation today has to be simple: holding firm in our faiths: holding back intolerance.

Reaffirming the religious foundations on which our societies are built and reasserting the fact that, for centuries, Christianity in Europe has been inspiring, motivating, strengthening and improving our societies: in public life – driving people to do great things, like setting up schools, creating public services, leading the way in charitable acts: in politics – inspiring parties on both the left and the right: in economics – providing many of the foundations for our market economy and capitalism: in culture – influencing our monuments, our music, our paintings, and our engravings. 

I’m delighted that the UK Government understands this from supporting faith schools and faith charities at home and abroad to helping religious groups to deliver vital public services and, most powerfully, when our Prime Minister spoke out unequivocally about the lasting impact of the King James Bible on our country.


But we must take this confident, open faith and apply it beyond the present. I see a growing problem in some parts of our world today with governments dictating what is a church and what isn’t: where people can build a place of worship and where they cannot: which faith they can belong to and which they cannot: and whether they can display their beliefs in public or not. 

I believe this is a misguided attempt at shoring up majority religions. These governments need to realise that pluralism is not a threat to tradition. Closer to home we see a similar suspicion. For example, from the politicians who say that inviting Turkey to join the European Union is a threat to the roots of Europe and its Christian heritage. Because they worry that the inclusion of a Muslim-majority country would diminish the Christianity of other countries. They are mistaken.

The solution is not to shut the door on people of other faiths, but to strengthen our continent’s identity. Just as German Chancellor Angela Merkel said of her country: «The problem is not that we have too much Islam, it’s that we have too little Christianity and too few discussions about the Christian view of mankind.»

Those discussions will only come about if Europe is more confident in its Christianity. So our continent needs the zeal of a convert not from discovering something new but rediscovering something which has underpinned our civilisations for centuries.


At the same time, politicians need to give faith a seat at the table in public life. Not the privileged position of a theocracy, but that of an equal informer of our public debate. So we are not afraid to acknowledge when the debate derives from a religious basis and not afraid to take onboard – and take on
– the solutions offered up by religion.

Politicians must also not be afraid to speak out when we think people who speak in the name of faith have got it wrong. For example, in the UK today, Bishops in the House of Lords, the chamber in which I sit, are opposing the government’s reforms to welfare where the government is trying to restore the dignity of work by putting responsibility back at the heart of religion.

I welcome the role of the Bishops in scrutinising the legislation. I support their right to bring their view to the table. But I reserve the right to disagree. I am not saying that faith leaders should have a monopoly on morality. Because, of course, as our Prime Minister David Cameron said, there are Christians who don’t live by a moral code and there are atheists and agnostics who do. But for people who do have a faith, their faith can be a helpful prod in the right direction.

Therefore, I’m arguing that religion needs a role when we look at the problems today. And that even the most committed atheist can find that those who are committed to religion have something to offer and that faith can be good for society, good for communities and good for those who choose to follow a faith.

When religion has a role in public life, it enables us to look at our economy and refer to the Christian principles on which our markets were founded. It means we can take solace from teachings such a Rerum Novarum and Caritas in Veritate, which offer up answers for creating moral markets.

It means we can look at our social problems and be inspired by Catholic Social Teaching, looking at our welfare system and thinking, how does this impact on human dignity? Looking at social breakdown and thinking, are we reinforcing responsibility between citizens? Looking at governance and thinking, are we relying on large organisations to do what smaller units could achieve? All the while thinking and remembering that many of our values – loving our neighbours, acting as the Good Samaritan would, supporting and championing the family unit doing to others as you would be done by – are Biblical, spiritual and religious in their origin.


This action at a national and at a political level should have an impact at a social level. Where individuals’ stronger rooting in their own religion will inspire a stronger understanding of faith. And there is no better remedy to the distortion of our respective faiths. As the Holy Father said last year in Assisi: «[Violence] is not the true nature of religion. It is the antithesis of religion and contributes to its destruction.»

Yet it remains a sad fact that in the modern world we see faith hijacked in the name of evil acts, utterly contrary to the teachings of the mainstream religions of the world. Perhaps if states were more rooted in their religious heritages then faiths would be less prone to being distorted and hijacked for political gains.

At the same time it is this distortion which leads to believers being victimised for the actions of their co-religionists. So Christians in Pakistan, Muslims in the USA, and even Jews in Britain, are targeted, victimised and feel the backlash of actions by their co-religionists. It’s unacceptable and it must stop.


I started today by talking about the bond between the UK and the Holy See about how we have overcome our differences to form our oldest formal diplomatic relationship. I established that appreciating these differences was a sign of our strength, not weakness. And this strength of identity has shone through in our actions in the name of the common good, in the Holy Father’s State Visit to the UK in 2010, and, I trust, in our visit today. 

Today I am urging individuals and nations to take the same approach when it comes to faith, and saying that in order to create harmony, people need to strengthen their own identity being sure of their nation’s religious foundations, and secure in their own beliefs.

At a time of great change taking place throughout the Muslim world, particularly during the Arab awakening. Many countries, political parties and individuals are redefining their identity. They are looking to their faith as source of inspiration to define the values by which they want to govern. This is a great opportunity for them to show that their countries are a home for all people, to demonstrate that defending your neighbour, whatever their faith, is an obligation and to prove to the world the true, peaceful spirit of religion.

For Europe this means becoming more confident in its Christianity and with that confidence, becoming more open. People need to realise that, in our continent and beyond, Christianity’s teachings and values are as permanent as Westminster Abbey, as indelible as Da Vinci’s Last Supper, and as solid as Christ the Redeemer. And that Christianity is as vital to our future as it is to our past. 

For the wider world this means recognising that defending another faith does not diminish your own, being sure of your foundations and protecting minorities, preventing faith from being undermined and creating a space for faith – any faith – to thrive. Our two states have lots to learn, and much to teach and I have hope – and, yes, faith – that others will continue with us on this path. 

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