The Unconventional Baroness

BENEDICT ROGERS

With a price on her head in Azerbaijan and a prison sentence in Sudan, Baroness Caroline Cox is always in danger. Moving illegally across borders, to see firsthand "man's inhumanity to man," has become the life business of this extraordinary crusader for Christian rights.

Lady Caroline Cox interviews
former slaves in Sudan
Courtesy of Christian Solidarity Worldwide

 

Baroness Caroline Cox is a difficult person to track down. She is just as likely to be found in jeans and a T-shirt in the bush in Sudan as she is in a smart suit in the chamber of the British House of Lords. You might see her climbing a mountain in the jungles of Burma, or in a speed boat entering the conflict-ridden Moluccas Islands of Indonesia, under fire from Islamic jihad warriors. But the next week, she may be in the dining room of Congress, meeting with American senators and representatives, on her way to speak to a group of evangelicals in Texas or Episcopalians in New York.

As a deputy speaker of the House of Lords, Lady Cox frequently sits on the "woolsack," the speaker's chair, presiding over debates in the British Parliament's Upper House. But she is no conventional parliamentarian. With a jail sentence passed in Sudan, which she jokes she is serving "in absentia," and a price on her head in Azerbaijan amounting to millions ("Rubles or dollars, I am not sure," she laughs), she is a courageous campaigner for human rights and a champion of the persecuted Church. And unusually for a politician, Lady Cox lives by one of her favorite mottos: "I believe in having open ears, open eyes, and an open mind before having an open mouth."

Lady Cox did not set out to be a politician. She regards her appointment to the House of Lords by then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in 1983 as "God's sense of humor," because she "does not like politics." She describes herself as "a nurse and social scientist by intention and a politician by astonishment." But that sense of humor has been turned to great effect. Many debates on Sudan, Indonesia, Burma, and Nigeria in the House of Lords have been initiated by Lady Cox.

Moving illegally across borders, to see firsthand "man's inhumanity to man," has become Lady Cox's life business, making her advocacy that much more effective. In debates in Parliament and in testimonies to the U.S. Congress, she does not need to quote from other reports. She is able to speak of what she has personally seen. She has entered the "no-go" areas of southern Sudan, closed to international relief agencies, at least 27 times, despite warnings from the National Islamic Front (NIF) regime in Khartoum that it will make every effort to shoot her out of the sky. Recently returned from her 54th visit to the now peaceful ancient Armenian enclave of Nagorno Karabakh, a land she visited at the height of the war with Azerbaijan, she recalls seeing "400 Grad rockets pounding down every day on the capital, Stepanakert." On at least a dozen occasions, she has crossed the border from Thailand into Burma to visit the besieged Karen ethnic people, once astonishing Karen resistance soldiers at a mountaintop outpost with her arrival. Burmese army snipers were on the opposite peak, and she had to keep her head down to avoid being shot. Her attitude is that when the laws of a land conflict with God's laws, she knows which laws she should follow. She crosses borders illegally, saying: "I do not believe they are God's laws that cut people off from aid and advocacy."

But while she is robust, bold, and prepared to put her life on the line for the defense of human rights, there are times when Lady Cox changes tactics. She believes it is important for the credibility of her advocacy to make an attempt to engage with the oppressor, and so, on occasions, she plays the official political role and enters countries legally, at the invitation of a regime. She met, for example, with Dr. Hussan al-Turabi, the driving force behind the Sudanese regime, in Khartoum. More recently, traveling with a House of Lords colleague, Catholic human-rights advocate Lord David Alton, and the British activist James Mawdsley (who once spent time in jail in Burma), she went to Pyongyang and came out more encouraged than she expected. Laying the human-rights issues firmly on the table with the North Koreans, Lady Cox and Lord Alton felt there was an opportunity for engagement with Pyongyang. "As they plunge into a deepening crisis, North Korea realizes that it is at a critical crossroads," the two parliamentarians concluded in their report. "It is our firm conclusion that they are seeking a way forward. When they say that they are seeking a peaceable outcome, they should be taken at their word and the sincerity of their claim tested through engagement." North Korea's history, they add, "suggests that mere threats will be counterproductive, inducing paranoia, isolationism, and the destabilization of the region."

An Anglo-Catholic and a third-order Franciscan, she has a profound appreciation for the "rich tapestry" and diversity in the worldwide Church. From the Armenian Apostolic Church in Nagorno Karabakh to the Roman Catholics in Sudan, from the Baptists in Burma to the Russian Orthodox, Lady Cox has become a "voice for the voiceless," the title of her biography by journalist Andrew Boyd. She has also been an advocate for some non-Christian oppressed minorities, such as the Beja Muslims of Sudan, the Kurds in Iraq, and the Buddhist Shan in Burma. And in recent years, Nigeria and North Korea have joined the growing list of countries that have captured her heart.

A regular visitor to the United States, Lady Cox, UK president of the international human rights organization Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW), speaks not only in political circles but also to churches, raising awareness and mobilizing support. On her most recent visit, her itinerary included speeches to the Women's Bible Society of New York, the Armenia Fund, St. James Episcopal Church on Madison Avenue, Calvary Baptist Church, the clergy of the conservative Episcopal Falls Church, the "Faith & Law" group of Christian congressional staffers, Virginia Theological Seminary, and a group of wives of some of the country's leading politicians. With an appreciation for traditional liturgy and personal experiences of modern-day miracles of God, Lady Cox shows admirable dexterity in taking her message of justice into churches of all types and sizes.

When the Door Was Opened

It all started more than 20 years ago when her son Jonathan, a medical missionary at the time, told her of the desperate shortage of nurses in Sudan. People were dying by the thousands of treatable diseases and famine. A believer in the fact that if God opens a door one should go through it, Lady Cox, a qualified nurse, responded and spent several months in Sudan.

Medicine runs in her family. Her father, Robert John McNeill Love, was an eminent surgeon at the Royal Northern Hospital in London and the coauthor of the authoritative medical textbook, A Short Practice of Surgery. Born in 1937, her personal faith developed in her childhood, inspired by the biblical story of Samuel's experience of listening to God. Confirmed at age eleven, her chosen text was Joshua 1:9: "Have I not commanded thee? Be strong and of a good courage; be not afraid, neither be thou dismayed: for the Lord thy God is with thee whithersoever thou goest." She has turned to that verse many times since, in preparation for her many dangerous missions. As a child, she prayed these words: "If you want, send me where you want." As a teenager, she declined a place at university and chose nursing school instead.

After working for some years as a nurse, Lady Cox moved into academia, as a social scientist and then as head of London University's Nursing Education Research Unit at Chelsea College. She went on to be appointed a vice president of the Royal College of Nursing, an honorary fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons of England, and founder chancellor of Bournemouth University. She also became a trustee of numerous educational and charitable organizations, including the Andrei Sakharov Foundation, the Siberian Medical University, and MERLIN (Medical Emergency Relief International).

Soon after qualifying as a nurse, Caroline McNeill Love married Murray Cox, a young general practitioner. Her two sons, Robin and Jonathan, followed their parents into the health service, Robin becoming a doctor in the Royal Navy and Jonathan a nurse and a missionary. Her husband then developed a specialty in psychiatry and became a senior psychiatrist at the hospital for the criminally insane, Broadmoor. He developed a passion for the use of theater and music as therapy for the patients at Broadmoor. One of his many books before his death in 1997 was Shakespeare Comes to Broadmoor.

Lady Cox's years as a social-science lecturer at the then Polytechnic of North London led, unexpectedly, to her political career. In the late 1970s, higher education institutions in Britain were hijacked by the extreme left Marxist-Leninists, and she witnessed the consequences. Appalled by the indoctrination and intimidation deployed by extremist lecturers and students, she wrote a book called Rape of Reason, which detailed the tactics of the Trotskyites. This book came to the attention of then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who saw in Caroline Cox an ally in the battle against Communism and called her to 10 Downing Street to invite her to accept a seat in the House of Lords.

In addition to Sudan and the political battles in education on the home front, Lady Cox became deeply engaged in the Cold War. As patron of the Medical Aid for Poland Fund, she traveled across Europe in 32-ton trucks to deliver medical supplies behind the Iron Curtain. On one occasion, she took in a supply of blank computer paper, provoking the fury of her cockney truck driver. When he discovered it, he asked her if she realized they could be imprisoned for such dangerous cargo. "In a totalitarian state, blank paper is dangerous," he told her, expletives flying. "You can write ideas on it."

The realization that something as apparently harmless as blank paper could be so subversive marked a new phase in Lady Cox's deepening fight against tyranny and repression. Her work took her into Romania and Russia, visiting dissidents, tailed by the KGB, and challenging the authorities on their system of child care. In the dying days of the Soviet Union, she visited state-run orphanages in Leningrad and was horrified. There she found "bright, able, articulate children" misdiagnosed as "oligophrenics" or mentally handicapped. She wrote a report, Trajectories of Despair, that sent shockwaves through the Russian system. Her damning conclusions could have ensured her a lifetime ban from visiting Russia again, but instead the Russians turned to her for help. Officials who had felt bound to silence because they were part of the system now thanked her for giving them the ammunition they needed to bring about change. With the help of a team of experts, Lady Cox was instrumental in enabling the Russians to reform their system of child care, moving from impersonal orphanages to family-style foster care and adoption.

What Keeps Her Going

Lady Caroline Cox
Courtesy of Christian Solidarity Worldwide

As the years have gone by, her travels around the world have become increasingly dangerous. But eager to dispel any image of heroism, Lady Cox, recipient of the 1995 Wilberforce Award, which recognizes "an individual who has made a difference in the face of formidable societal problems and injustices," admits to having a "fit of faithless, fearful dread" before going on her dangerous missions. "I don't want to go. Home is very comfortable, with clean water, electric light, warmth, clean clothes. To wrench yourself away and go voluntarily into a conflict zone, you recoil against it. I don't particularly want to go and get my guts blown out. I don't really want to go and get malaria." But, she adds, she goes because she knows that "I will come back receiving more than I have ever been able to give."

She recalls preparing for a trip to the tiny Armenian enclave of Nagorno Karabakh, which she has now visited 54 times, at the height of the war, "feeling dark and not wanting to go." Then she heard the passage in Mark's Gospel that says "no one who has left home or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields for me and the gospel will fail to receive a hundred times as much in this present age (homes, brothers, sisters, mothers, children and fields and with them, persecution)." That keeps her going. "I just come back so humbled and inspired by their dignity, courage, faith. I have a deep commitment to those people."

She is motivated by a number of factors. Theologically, St. Paul's letter to the church in Corinth, where he writes that when one part of the Body of Christ suffers, we all suffer, is her primary inspiration. But there is also a political motivation. "Those of us who have freedom should never take it for granted. We ought to use our freedoms on behalf of those who are denied them. We are privileged to be born into a democracy and a free society, but we need to remember that it is a privilege for those to whom much is given, much is required."

Lady Cox has a deep concern about the threats to Christianity in the world today, particularly the growing militant Islamism, which is, she believes, a "real threat to our spiritual and cultural heritage." We in the West, she says, "have an obligation to act as a watchman, to warn the rest of Christendom and the rest of the world." In her new publication, The West, Islam and Islamism: Is Ideological Islam Compatible with Liberal Democracy?, she challenges the free world, and moderate Muslims, to take the threats from the radicals more seriously and develop an appropriate response.

The threat from militant extremist Islam is typified not only by the rise of al-Qaeda terrorists but by evidence she has witnessed in Sudan, Nigeria, and Indonesia. In all three places, there is jihad taking place against Christians and moderate Muslims, and efforts are being made to introduce Sharia law. "That is really a death knell for Christianity," she argues. The international community needs to "wake up" and think about an intelligent "moral, Christian, strategic response" to these threats. "Christians out there trying to hold a frontline of faith for freedom to practice Christianity often feel very beleaguered, very unsupported, and very vulnerable."

But with the rise of Islamic extremism, it is not only Christians who suffer, Lady Cox argues. Moderate Muslims are also targets for the extremists. In Indonesia, Muslim leaders who have signed peace agreements with Christians have found their homes bombed and cars stoned. It is therefore "incumbent" on Christians "to offer a real hand of friendship to the moderate Muslims who wish to promote reconciliation and reconstruction," she says.

As part of this response, Lady Cox has helped to establish the International Islamic Christian Organization for Reconciliation and Reconstruction (IICORR), with former Indonesian President Wahid as its honorary president. "We hope to mobilize resources to help reconciliation and reconstruction, but the two have to go hand in hand. You can't have reconstruction before reconciliation because everything that has been invested may be destroyed again. But reconciliation without reconstruction could be empty words to people who have lost homes, schools, jobs, so you need to bring hope back to shattered communities."

A Woman of Great Faith

In all her travels, Lady Cox has seen some terrible things. But the worst, "in terms of sheer scale of horror and depression," was one particular visit to Bahr-el-Gazal in Sudan. Just a few days before, the National Islamic Front regime's forces had swept through the area, slaughtering civilians and burning villages. "Bodies were piled high, rotting. We went to an area of sheer carnage human bodies, cattle corpses, burned homes, scorched-earth policy," she recalls. She felt most challenged by the words of a Catholic catechist whose brother and brother-in-law had been killed and whose sister had been captured as a slave. His church had been attacked, Bibles burned, crops destroyed. He told Lady Cox that while the Sudanese regime spends $1 million a day on the war, the Christians have nothing. "Worse than that," the catechist said, "we feel completely on our own. You're the only Christians who have even visited us for years." Then came the words which, Lady Cox says, "turned that knife in my heart." The catechist asked, "Doesn't the Church want us anymore?"

On that trip Lady Cox was accompanied by an experienced television journalist. But after what they had witnessed, all they could do was weep. "He sat by the river and wept, and I sat under a tree and wept. It challenged my faith deeply. If we believe in a God of love, why such carnage?" She reflected on "the eternal and indescribable symbolism of Calvary," but she also contemplated the birth of Christ. "While we in the West keep comfortable Christmas, with presents and Christmas-tree lights, we, most of the time, choose to forget the massacre of the innocents. At the time when Mary was beginning to care for her son, the Christ child, the other mothers were weeping for the deaths of their sons. And why? The slaughter of innocents really challenges one's faith."

But amid such suffering, Lady Cox has countless inspirational stories of faith and courage. On one visit to the Moluccas Islands of Indonesia, she witnessed the aftermath of an Islamic jihad warrior attack. She talked to Christian boys in their early teens who had been in a classroom with their teacher when the jihad warriors struck. The militants killed the teacher and then lined the boys up. "Who do you say you are?" they asked. One boy spoke up: "I am one of Christ's soldiers." With a machete, the jihad warrior sliced off the boy's right arm. "Now who do you say you are?" The boy repeated: "I am one of Christ's soldiers." The warrior sliced off the other arm. Once again, he asked the boy who he was, and once more the boy spoke of his allegiance to Christ. The warrior eviscerated him there and then. He turned to the other boys and asked: "Now who of you dare stand firm?" All stood firm, none flinched, and the warriors left.

Similarly, she tells the story of an Armenian farmer in Nagorno Karabakh. In the aftermath of a big and brutal Azeri attack, this farmer went into the mountains. As he climbed up a hill, he approached an apricot tree. But as he got closer, he saw hanging from the tree the body of a five-year-old Armenian girl, cut in two. He vowed revenge. As he told his story, however, he confessed that he had not kept his vow because when he was faced with the Azeris, he could not bring himself to harm an Azeri child. An American colleague of Lady Cox took off his baseball cap and said: "Thank you, sir. Now I know what it means when it says in the Bible 'Vengeance is mine, says the Lord,' and thank you for your dignity." To which this farmer responded simply: "Dignity is a crown of thorns."

Lady Cox refers to her friend, exiled Sudanese Catholic Bishop Macram Gassis, and his words spoken under the shade of a tamarind tree in southern Sudan:

This most beautiful cathedral, not built with human hands, but by nature and by God, is filled with the people of God. We must tell our brothers and sisters that the people here are still full of hope and that they still smile, in spite of suffering and persecution. Your people have suffered slavery, but you are not slaves to the world but children of God who has told us we can call him "Abba, Father." Christianity gives us liberty; therefore we are no longer slaves, but free: children of liberty, freedom, and truth. But we live in a bad world. Many of your people have been sold into slavery. But that is not to become a slave. . .. The real slave is a slave to sin; who does injustice to brothers and sisters; who kills them. Some people feel naked because they have no clothes and they try to cover themselves because of their embarrassment. But this is not real nakedness. True nakedness is to be without love. Therefore be clothed in love. This is Christianity.

With people like that in the persecuted church, it is not difficult to see why Lady Cox keeps going. And at 66, she shows no sign of retiring. "While God gives me strength, I hope to fulfill His call," she says. "I don't relish the thought of being shot out of the sky or put in prison in Khartoum, but I believe in praying the Gethsemane prayer 'Not my will, but Yours be done' and taking it a day at a time."

ACKNOWLEDGEMENT

Benedict Rogers. "The Unconventional Baroness." Crisis 22, no. 2 (February 2003): 32-37.

This article is reprinted with permission from the Morley Institute a non-profit education organization. To subscribe to Crisis magazine call 1-800-852-9962.

THE AUTHOR

Benedict Rogers is a freelance journalist and human rights campaigner. He is an international consultant to Christian Solidarity Worldwide, based in Washington, D.C., and London. He is also the author of a new book on Burma, A Land Without Evil, to be published by Monarch Books this year.

Copyright 2004 Crisis


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