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Nigel Baker

Ambassador to the Holy See (2011-2016)

Part of UK in Holy See

18th January 2012

Freedom of Religion or Belief

Baroness Sayeeda Warsi portrayed with Sister Berchmans during her visit to Pakistan, 13 January 2012. Photo: courtesy of UK in Pakistan

Understanding religion is fundamental to our comprehension of the world in which we live. It is especially necessary for diplomats as they seek to apply their nation’s foreign policy around the world. Globally – though Western Europe is perhaps an exception – the trend, to put it crudely, is towards “more” religion rather than less. Respect for the religious belief of others, therefore, is not only a human rights issue. It is a key element in the good management of the relations between states and peoples.

It is therefore right that governments seek to promote freedom of religion or belief not only at home, but in their foreign policies, whilst recognising local sensitivities and being respectful to local traditions. The recent visit of British Cabinet Office Minister Baroness Warsi to Pakistan showed that, contrary to more pessimistic views, it is possible to engage openly and sensitively on the issue even in the most complex of realities.

On 13 January, Baroness Warsi – who is Muslim and the first Muslim to sit in the UK Cabinet – visited a Christian school in Karachi, the Catholic Archbishop of Karachi and the Edhi Foundation. Her visit followed her promise to the late Shahbaz Bhatti, Pakistan’s former Adviser to the Prime Minister on Minorities, before his murder last year. With the Archbishop, Baroness Warsi learned that Christians encountered few difficulties in Karachi, but in other parts of the country, especially Punjab, there were problems that needed attention. Baroness Warsi also took the opportunity to praise the work and vision of Edhi Foundation founder, Abdul Sattar Edhi, who, through his faith has set up one of the largest ambulances services in the world and takes in and cares for thousands of abandoned children each year.

At the Convent School, Baroness Warsi met two of the Irish Nuns,  Sr. Berchmans and Sr. Mary. Sr Berchmans has spent the last 58 years teaching Christian, Muslim and Hindu girls, enabling many of them to go on to great things.  One of her most famous students was Benazir Bhutto, the late Prime Minister of Pakistan.  The story of Sr. Berchmans and Sr. Mary, and many more like them, is another facet of inter-faith relations in Pakistan and one we don’t hear enough about. It is about witness and the witness of one faith to another.  It has been happening for decades.

The Ministerial visit to Pakistan dealt, of course, with many “classic” foreign affairs issues, including talks with government officials and trade promotion. But the focus on inter-faith dialogue and relationships was a key element of the programme.  As a Muslim visitor to Pakistan, Baroness Warsi was able to highlight in a positive way the contribution of the Christian community and other minority groups to development within the country. Religion is an emotive and sensitive issue in many parts of the world. But by treating religious belief with respect and seeking to understand realities “on the ground”, the visit showed that it is possible to overcome ignorance and promoting the importance of dialogue in ways that unilateral declarations and ringing statements do not always achieve.

About Nigel Baker

Nigel was British Ambassador to the Holy See from 2011-2016. He presented his Credentials to Pope Benedict XVI on 9 September 2011, after serving 8 years in Latin America, as…

Nigel was British Ambassador to the Holy See from 2011-2016. He presented his Credentials to Pope Benedict XVI on 9 September 2011, after serving 8 years in Latin America, as Deputy Head of Mission in the British Embassy in Havana, Cuba (2003-6) and then as British Ambassador in La Paz, Bolivia (2007-11). In July 2016, Nigel finished his posting, and is currently back in London.

As the first British Ambassador to the Holy See ever to have a blog, Nigel provided a regular window on what the Embassy and the Ambassador does. The blogs covered a wide range of issues, from Royal and Ministerial visits to Diplomacy and Faith, freedom of religion, human trafficking and climate change.

More on Nigel’s career

Nigel was based in London between 1998 and 2003. He spent two years on European Union issues (for the UK 1998 EU Presidency and on European Security and Defence questions), before crossing St James’s Park to work for three years as The Assistant Private Secretary to His Royal Highness The Prince of Wales. At St James’s Palace, Nigel worked on international issues, including the management of The Prince of Wales’s overseas visits and tours, on the Commonwealth, interfaith issues, the arts and international development.

Nigel spent much of the early part of his FCO career in Central Europe, after an initial stint as Desk Officer for the Maghreb countries in the Near East and North Africa department (1990-91). Between 1992 and 1996, Nigel served in the British embassies in Prague and Bratislava, the latter being created in 1993 after the peaceful division of Czechoslovakia into the separate Czech and Slovak Republics.

Nigel joined the FCO (Foreign and Commonwealth Office) in September 1989. Between 1996 and 1998 he took a two year academic sabbatical to research and write about themes in 18th century European history, being based in Verona but also researching in Cambridge, Paris and Naples. The research followed from Nigel’s time as a student at Cambridge (1985-88) where he read history and was awarded a First Class Honours degree, followed by his MA in 1992.

Before joining the Foreign Office, Nigel worked briefly for the Conservative Research Department in London at the time of the 1989 European election campaign.

Nigel married Alexandra (Sasha) in 1997. They have one son, Benjamin, born in Bolivia in September 2008.

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