Lord Alton: 'Never Forget Who You Are'

British Member of the House of Lords focuses on defending life at both ends, embattled Christians in the Middle East.

Lord David Alton
Lord David Alton (photo: Ray Farley/ Raymond Farley Photography, Merseyside)

David Alton, Baron Alton of Liverpool, is a British politician and pro-life leader. A former Liberal Party and later Liberal Democrat member of Parliament, he was made a Life peer and is a member of the House of Lords.

A lifelong Catholic, he has spoken out against the legalization of abortion, embryonic stem-cell research and, most recently, euthanasia. In 1987, he established the British human-rights lobby Jubilee Campaign, and he now serves as the honorary president of the U.K. Copts Association.

He recently spoke with Register senior editor Joan Frawley Desmond while visiting Washington, where he addressed a conference on the plight of Egypt’s Copts, who fear that the recent election of an Islamist candidate for president could result in religious persecution of Christians in that nation. His trip, scheduled during the Fortnight for Freedom, also served as an opportunity to promote a promising new project: the establishment of the Christian Heritage Centre, a proposed museum and interactive educational and retreat center. He hopes the center will inspire young British children, their parents and scholars to delve into the storied history of Christianity in the United Kingdom.


On July 11 in London, the Gates Foundation is co-sponsoring an international conference with the goal of raising $4 billion to promote contraception in the developing world. The foundation has done a lot of good in the public health field, but are they missing the unintended consequences of focusing on birth control?

The conference comes within days of the BBC reporting yet another consequence of the population-control policies which the West has promoted and the East has enacted. The BBC has reported that Chinese authorities have broken up two major child-trafficking gangs, freeing almost 200 children. In a statement, the Ministry of Public Security said that more than 800 suspects had also been arrested. The BBC reported that “some parents were selling the newborns, as they could not afford to bring up a child; others were seeking to get rid of unwanted baby girls.”


You’re the president of the U.K. Copts Association and a British Roman Catholic. How did you get involved in this issue?

Once the Berlin Wall fell, I started to focus the Jubilee Campaign’s work on the persecuted Church in the Near and Far East and visited Turkey and Egypt. We published a report on religious minorities in the early 1990s. Some British Copts asked me to get involved because they wanted a British parliamentarian and not many have advocated [for them].

Coptic Christians hold to doctrines and beliefs very similar to our own. They are strongly pro-life and cleave to the ancient formulation of the Christian faith.

But they have been isolated.

The world is unable to focus on very many issues simultaneously. Everything in the media right now is about Syria. But think, also: What has happened in South Sudan? And in Nigeria, in late June alone, hundreds of Christians were killed.

This administration and most European governments are generally indifferent to the plight of the persecuted Church. There weren’t any questions about this during the presidential debate.

Failure to link foreign aid to human rights, to deal with anything other than security situations, is shortsighted, because our security will be affected by these developments. If these governments will not allow people to practice their beliefs freely, or change them, it will affect us all.


Cardinal Christoph Schönborn of Vienna was just in Washington to address a conference on religious freedom that drew representatives of religious minorities from Iraq, Egypt, Pakistan and Nigeria. He said the rapid decline in Iraq’s Christian population since the 2003 invasion should be a warning to U.S. policymakers not to repeat Washington’s mistakes in Egypt and Syria.

Cardinal Schönborn’s message is the right one: Iraq was once a vibrant community of Christians, a land associated with many stories of the Old Testament, speaking the mother tongue of Jesus himself. Iraq should remind us that this region is a crucial part of our own story, but its Christian community has fled.

Many of them have gone to Syria, and now they may be driven from there. Where will they go next?

One hundred-thousand Copts have left Egypt in the last year alone. If this continues, an ancient Church will disappear from the region.


You have been a pro-life leader in Britain for many decades. Recently, who have spoken out against attempts to legalize euthanasia.

We legalized abortion in 1967, and 7 million abortions have been performed since then. The law allows abortion until birth in the case of a disabled child, and many of us would regard that as eugenics. We have experimented on more that 2 million embryos, and, with the full support of British law, we’ve also created animal-human hybrid entities in laboratories.

What we have done in the early stages of life — the industrial scale of destruction of life at its earliest stages — is paving the way for changes at the end of life. In the House of Lords, we have opposed any changes in this law. Doctors, nurses and disability-rights groups are with us.


While in the U.S., you have promoted a new initiative to establish a Christian Heritage Centre on the grounds at Stonyhurst, the Jesuit school in Lancaster. That’s a region strongly associated with Catholic England and the recusants who were persecuted and martyred for refusing to turn against the the Pope after Henry VIII broke with Rome.

Stonyhurst holds many relics and other precious things concealed during the Reformation. These things were taken by Catholic families and held in trust for when they could be made available to Catholics again. They are a crucial part of our story.

We hold relics of those lost during penal times. But we also hold thousands of manuscripts and archives secretly hidden by Catholic families. We have Communion cups and chalices going back to medieval times and the rope that dragged St. Edmund Campion through the streets before he was hung, drawn and quartered. We have the letter he wrote before he came back to England, where he knew he would face death.


Here in the United States, we have been celebrating the Fortnight for Freedom, a time of prayer, study and action to preserve our “first freedom.” Do British Catholics need an opportunity to strengthen their commitment to the defense of religious liberty, too?

From the time that St. Augustine arrived to the present day, there are reminders that our religious freedom didn’t come about easily and that many paid with their lives for the liberties we enjoy today.

During his state visit to Britain, Pope Benedict said that we shouldn’t forget who we are. He made that statement during an address at Westminster Hall, where St. Thomas More once stood trial and famously said, “I am the king’s good servant, but God’s first.”

I can imagine Campion looking down with amazement. In those historic surroundings, Pope Benedict said, “Don’t forget your story; retain the vestiges of Judeo-Christian society.”

With the Christian Heritage Centre, we have taken him at his word — his appeal for us not to forget our Christian identity. We have 800,000 children in Catholic schools, as many children in Anglican schools, and others who are interested in the faith who will have a place to go and be told the story.


On a personal level, what was your reaction to the Pope’s appearance at Westminster?

It was a great moment of healing, beginning with Her Majesty, the Queen’s invitation. Both are remarkable people. Yet it was a monarch who sent Edmund Campion to his death.

At Westminster, I sensed the Pope was saying that if we don’t stand together as Christians everything will be lost. We are confronted by angry atheism on one hand and radical Islam on the other. The Pope’s visit encouraged us to be quietly confident and not be frightened to say what we believe and why. Invoking Thomas More, he reminded us that the Catholic laity have a duty to be involved in public life. My work on pro-life issues was affirmed.

In fact, the Queen’s recent visit to Northern Ireland was rather like that moment in Westminster Hall, a moment of healing.


You mean Queen Elizabeth’s recent meeting with ex-IRA chief Martin McGuinness? You have both British and Irish citizenship, and, while in Parliament, you served as the minister for Northern Ireland, is that correct?

Yes. My late mother came form Ireland. As a boy, I came back to the west of Ireland and saw the ravaged countryside, where a million people had died, and saw the shacks and hovels where people had lived. I was brought up on the stories of the famine. Later, during our own times, 3,000 people would die during the troubles.

When the Queen met with Martin McGuinness, a former commander in the IRA, which murdered Lord Louis Mountbatten, her cousin, that meeting showed her deep Christianity and willingness to overcome considerable personal pain to help bring about the reconciliation that Northern Ireland has been desperate for.


Back in the 1990s, you decided not to run as a member of Parliament for the Liberal Party in part because of its decision to make legal abortion part of its platform. Was it a difficult decision?

Up until then my party had held that issues like abortion should be individual conscience questions. When they made support for it an official policy, there was an inevitable parting of the ways. Since 1997, I have served as an Independent. It was a difficult and painful decision, but it’s very easy to let politics become your church. You hold on, thinking you can change things, but you are more likely to be changed. Holding on to your core beliefs is incredibly difficult.

By various providential acts, as the years went by, I found myself elected to Parliament and assumed there was some reason for it. I am more interested in right and wrong than left or right. I am interested in the impact politics has on the issues that I care about: family, the unborn, people whose human rights are abused. My faith is not an “add on” — it brought me into public life.


How did you receive such a strong faith?

My mother had a deep Irish faith. She was brought up under the formula of “The family that prays together stays together.” My father was not Catholic, but he totally supported everything I did.

I thought of becoming an African missionary, and, at age 12, I wrote off to the Mill Hill Missionaries. Unfortunately, I didn’t tell my parents or mention my age, so everyone got a surprise when they showed up at my parents’ house. The Church experienced a near escape.

Later, I had met my wife through pro-life and political work. She was chairman of the Liberals for Life group. We got married and had four children.


You decided not to run again for a seat in Parliament almost two decades ago now, yet you have remained very much in the public eye.

I stumbled into politics. One of my great heroes was [William] Wilberforce, a Christian who battled for 40 years against the slave trade. He never held political office. He did something more important and is celebrated to this day for his role in the fight against slavery. Those of us in politics should look at people like Wilberforce and More. They remind us that while you should compromise and try to resolve problems, you cannot abandon truth. Maximilian Kolbe was offered a chance by the Nazis to carry on publishing his magazine, but he was told that he would have to stick to pietistic niceties and say nothing about the world around him. Kolbe responded with an editorial the next day that began with the words — I’m paraphrasing — “What use are the victories on the battlefield if we are defeated in our innermost selves?” Kolbe would ultimately give up his life for another prisoner. He laid down his life for the pursuit of truth, and that is required for each of us, whatever our calling.

Joan Frawley Desmond is the Register’s senior editor.