Baroness Sayeeda Warsi Addresses Crisis of Christian ‘Hemorrhaging’

U.K. Minister of Faith wants to stop global persecution

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Baroness Sayeeda Warsi

Baroness Sayeeda Warsi, the United Kingdom’s first Minister of Faith, came to Washington last week on a mission to stop the global persecution of Christians. Warsi, the first Muslim ever to serve in a British Cabinet, spoke Friday at Georgetown University about recent militant extremism in the Middle East against Catholics, Protestants, and Orthodox Christians. Her goal? Cross-faith, cross-continent unity to protect Christian minorities. “We need a new approach,” she tells TIME. “Of course there have been times when faiths have been at each other, but there are real periods in history where faiths have coexisted and have been incredibly supportive.”

Christian populations are “hemorrhaging” in the very countries that birthed the faith, Warsi said. In Syria, the Christian town of Maaloula was attacked in September. Suicide bombers in Pakistan targeted a church in Peshawar. Hundreds of Christians have been arrested in Iran, including American pastor Saeed Abedini, who has been jailed there for more than a year. “For me, rejection of another faith just reveals a weakness in your own,” Warsi said in her speech. “As Hillary Clinton put it after the tragic murder of US Ambassador Stevens in Libya last year, withstanding threats and insults are a ‘sign that one’s faith is unshakeable.’”

Warsi says she finds a lot of support for her cause in the United States, including from former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, whom she met with on Friday at a Georgetown symposium on Afghan women. Clinton told Warsi that she is in a unique position to make a difference on this issue. “I think that normal divide of us and them doesn’t really apply, because I am us and I am them,” Warsi says. (A Clinton spokesperson did not return an email regarding her conversation with Warsi.)

Warsi says religious persecution is the biggest challenge of this young century. “First of all, it is about working up the political will,” Warsi says about confronting that challenge. “It is about getting some consensus, it is about politicians being prepared to take on these difficult challenges.”

Warsi’s own story as a woman of faith is one of overcoming historic divides. The daughter of Pakistani immigrants, she grew up in a Muslim family with a blended theological background, including both Shias and Sunnis. “We were taught to respect and love other faiths as much as we loved our own, and I suppose, you know, quite strong teachings that you can only truly be a Muslim if you also are Christian and Jewish before that, that actually Islam is just an extension of the other faiths and it has been a process where various books have been revealed at various times,” she says. “I don’t see there is a collision course between people of faith, I actually do think it is instinctively based up on the same values.”