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Baroness for battle

Whether speaking before Parliament or sneaking supplies across militarized borders, Baroness Caroline Cox, WORLD's Daniel of the Year, has defended the persecuted poor. "When God gives you a vacuum, you fill it"

Baroness for battle
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Most English grandmothers wouldn't know an MRE if they met one. Caroline Cox has military rations down to a science. The vacuum-packed portions from the United States are cheaper than ration packs supplied by the British Army, she admits, and preferable, anyway, because each one contains a miniature bottle of Tabasco sauce.

Spice is not what you first expect from a demure 67-year-old parliamentarian with 10 grandchildren. Mrs. Cox is a titled woman, after all: deputy speaker of the British House of Lords and a baroness. She has a flat in northwest London and a getaway in a 14th-century manor home in Dorset. She serves on boards of this and that, including vice president of the Royal College of Nursing, and has honorary academic degrees from universities on three continents. But neither resumé nor pedigree nor the wine-colored pantsuit and the black velvet headband tell the full story: Caroline Cox is more Amelia Earhart than Miss Marple and arguably has guts enough to supply a platoon of Marines.

Her first helicopter flight into the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh territory was shot down over Azerbaijan. It was "a sacramental moment," she recalls, as crew, passenger, and supplies made a soft landing in snow-but that did not stop her from making 58 more trips to the war zone, most recently six weeks ago.

Danger is a steady diet for the president of Christian Solidarity Worldwide, who regularly forsakes the gilt halls of Westminster Abbey in pursuit of persecuted Christians and other wretches. Reaching them requires-literally-crossing militarized borders, hiking forbidden mountains, and fording bridgeless rivers.

In 2004 Mrs. Cox traveled also to war-torn Nigeria three times, to Indonesia, Burma, and North Korea. Between those journeys, she spoke at churches, missions conferences, human-rights forums, and other events in the United States, Canada, and Australia. Between speaking tours she promoted a new book about Islam and the West (slated for U.S. publication next month), joined a new British panel monitoring religious freedom, advised on Muslim-Christian reconciliation in Indonesia, and founded a new humanitarian aid organization.

The list of accomplishments, the feats of daring-and the endless reservoir of energy they imply-are not the only reasons WORLD selects Mrs. Cox as its seventh Daniel of the Year. Others in this season of war have risked (and lost) their lives on battlefields. Others in this election year have staked their careers and their fortunes on bold rhetoric. Mrs. Cox, in five decades of public service from the tenement wards of central London to the peerage seats of Parliament, has with courage and boldness confronted fiery furnaces stoked for Western civilization, chiefly Marxism and now militant Islam. She has risked her reputation in their defeat, not only with rhetoric in royal courts but with literal bandages on the battlefield.

Caroline Cox likes to tell audiences that she is "a nurse by intention but a baroness by astonishment." She was born in 1937 to a prominent surgeon and a schoolteacher in London and studied to be a nurse. Working the night shift in a London hospital, she met internist Murray Cox. They courted in a nearby rhubarb patch, read poetry to one another, married, and had three children.

A stint with tuberculosis forced her into six months' convalescence; she spent the time studying for advanced degrees in economics and sociology and moved into teaching, eventually heading London University's nursing program. The academic world provided her first up-close encounter with Marxism as it flourished among the intelligentsia. In one department where she taught, 16 of 20 faculty members were communists.

For nine years, she says, she challenged the Marxist education philosophy-"hardline indoctrination with academic intimidation." The scholastic warfare led to co-authoring a book, The Rape of Reason. Published in 1975, it helped to inspire a Tory resurgence, catching the attention of Fleet Street columnists and Whitehall mavericks, including Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who in 1982 recommended Mrs. Cox to Queen Elizabeth for a lifetime seat with title in the House of Lords.

Parliamentary status, Mrs. Cox says, is evidence of God's sense of humor. "I don't really like politics," she confesses, "and I am pathologically shy." In college she was president of the debating society but claims she never said a word.

In government she found her voice by speaking for the voiceless. Having accurately characterized the problems with Marxism, she set about to help its victims behind the Iron Curtain. She signed on as a patron for the Medical Aid for Poland Fund. The work took her across Europe for weeks at a time, eating and sleeping out of delivery trucks as the relief group brought medicine and other supplies to the dispossessed in Poland, Romania, and Russia.

"I'm a great believer in the authenticity of firsthand experience," she told an audience in Australia recently. "It's important to be able to say, 'I've been, I've seen, I know how it is.'"

What she saw under Soviet domination offended both her medical sensibilities and Christian sense of justice. She returned from visiting state-run orphanages in Leningrad to write a report, "Trajectories of Despair," about bright and able orphans shunned and misdiagnosed as mentally handicapped. She lobbied openly for Soviet regime change from the upper house of Parliament at the height of the arms race, when fashionable Europeans were agitating not for an end to Soviet hegemony but for dismantling U.S. missiles based on the continent. As the Soviet Union crumbled over the next decade, Russian medical and social service officials, once bound to silence, welcomed her report. She joined with a panel of experts to reform foster-care and adoption procedures.

Such experiences prepared Mrs. Cox for the next global war-against militant Islam-long before al-Qaeda struck directly at the United States. As Soviet-led oppression gave way to ethnic cleansing, Mrs. Cox was ready with relief aid and public advocacy. When Muslim-Christian tensions flared into war between the former Soviet republics of Armenia and Azerbaijan over a disputed region known as Nagorno-Karabakh, Mrs. Cox went to see for herself.

Muslim Azerbaijan annexed the region, historically home to 150,000 Armenians. A systematic campaign, backed by Soviet-made missiles and air defenses, sought to rid the region of the Christian Armenians, a tiny minority long persecuted by Turks in the east and now at the mercy of 7 million Azerbaijanis to the west.

Moscow implicitly sided with Azerbaijanis and used its veto power on the UN Security Council to keep international intervention at bay. It was the start of an ongoing battle for Mrs. Cox and her allies against rogue states using international legitimacy not only to oppress stateless minorities (in many cases Christians) but also to starve them of outside aid.

The UN declared Nagorno-Karabakh a "no-go" area for aid. Turkey and Azerbaijan closed borders. Hearing of besieged Armenians hiding in root cellars, Mrs. Cox made the first of dozens of sorties to the remote enclave, setting out from England in cargo planes, then switching to smaller craft in Armenia to skirt radar across Azerbaijani airspace and the Caucasus. Throughout a conflict much of the world ignored, she smuggled cigarettes for the pilots, food for Armenians, and needed drugs for doctors performing surgery by candlelight and without anesthetics. She counted 17 pilots among her friends killed during that period. Still, she kept up steady jaunts to the region, often hunkering with families in bomb shelters. Today the medical-supply runs have turned into a full-service healthcare center in Stepanakert, the capital, with a training center that in the last year graduated its first healthcare workers.

Nagorno-Karabakh taught the baroness to beware of other "no-go" areas: southern Sudan, northern Nigeria, East Timor, and refugee camps along the Burma-Thai border. Other parliamentarians, she could see, were content to read reports about faraway conflicts and give speeches about them. Some aid workers, on the other hand, were content to transport a plane or two of emergency supplies into a conflict zone, easing temporary needs and pricks of conscience but accomplishing little toward lasting transformation. The baroness recognized her unique position: She could do both.

In Nigeria this year she put the combo to work, successfully embarrassing local authorities into reinstating jobs for 11 nurses fired by Muslim hospital administrators in Bauchi state. The nurses would not renounce Christianity and wear Islamic dress. When Mrs. Cox learned of their cases, she dragged other parliamentarians to Nigeria and lobbied endlessly on their behalf.

Mrs. Cox has made at least 28 trips to southern Sudan to regions where the Islamic government forbids UN aid to predominantly Christian tribes. She learned from villagers and saw firsthand slave raids, villages burned, crops destroyed, and forced Islamicization. She met Christians whose first aid request was for Bibles, and rebel commanders who walked all night, fording swollen rivers on foot during the rainy season, just to meet her.

On one trip to Eastern Upper Nile she and a relief team discovered newly displaced Sudanese. "Mothers had babies dying on their breasts," she recalls. "Even an immediate supply of food would be too late for them. They were just sitting and dying in huge numbers." The nurse quickly recognized that thousands of the children had whooping cough, but "we had nothing but erythromycin." She watched many of them die.

Such incidents have convinced Mrs. Cox that she never wants to show up in a war zone empty-handed. Documenting atrocities and speaking out against them for her go hand-in-glove with tangible aid. That burden led her this year to help launch the new U.K.-based Humanitarian Aid Relief Trust, or HART.

Success is sweet but no mission is without controversy. During her most recent trip to Nagorno-Karabakh, Azeri state television fumed about "the separatist baroness," and the foreign ministry sent a note of protest via its embassy in London.

And her own government is not necessarily pleased with her causes. "None of the British governments-Conservative or Labor-have supported our work in Nagorno-Karabakh," she says, due to British Petroleum (BP) oil interests in Azerbaijan. One cabinet minister once told her, "No country has an 'interest' in other countries; only 'interests.'" Her response: "I am not naive and can understand commercial interests; I can understand strategic interests; however, I do not think it is in the interest of any nation to let these 'interests' override concern for human rights."

"Plenty of groups go to record the event of persecution, then they leave when the persecution ends," said Dennis Bennett, president of U.S. relief group Servant's Heart. "But persecution is not an event. It takes decades to recover from the physical loss and economic devastation. That is why Caroline Cox goes back over and over. She's building relationships and trust. She's not interested in Band-Aids, not interested in creating a Christian welfare state out of persecuted people." Besides drawing attention to the fact of persecution, Mrs. Cox has changed the way the church in the West thinks about it, Mr. Bennett said. "The Christian church has to recognize you don't repair overnight and the problems are not answered only by prayer. You have to be interested in long-term infrastructure, in making friendships that will be there for eternity."

With upcoming U.S. publication of the book, The 'West', Islam and Islamism (published in London by Civitas, due out from The American Foreign Policy Council, January 2005), Mrs. Cox (with colleague and co-author John Marks) turns to what she now hopes can be a "redemptive aspect" to the war on terror and her own experiences. With the 9/11 attacks, "suddenly the tragedy of the suffering that we see in Islamic countries is not on another planet," she says. "This is a wakeup call to stop neglecting the suffering at the hands of militant Islam." She believes Christians and other non-Muslims are not the only victims of jihadist regimes; so are most Muslims. The Islamic regime in Khartoum, for instance, represents less than 5 percent of Sudan's population.

"Islam is not inherently a religion of peace," she said. Nonetheless, "we have to give the hand of friendship to moderate Muslims." Putting that into practice for the baroness meant joining a commission on reconciliation in Indonesia headed by former president Abdurrahman Wahid. The group is bringing once coexisting Muslims and Christians together from embattled parts of Indonesia.

Like much of Mrs. Cox's work, that mission is charged with tension and risk. Mrs. Cox is cautious about family and other personal details for fear of exposing her family to threats. A prison sentence in Khartoum and death threats in several parts of the world hang over her. Asked if her own family worries about her, she says, "Sometimes I call them when I am back."

Returning to England does include time for children and grandchildren, and for worship. An Anglo-Catholic and Third Order Franciscan, she attends services once a week no matter where she is "if at all possible." At home that means the Anglican St. John's church in Middlesex. She also finds time for "recuperative exercise" like tennis and long walks, even though, as Mrs. Cox describes it, she receives much more than she gives on any harrowing journey.

Each step in her career, she says, has been less about premeditated ambition and more about walking through the next door that opens. That helps to explain why she not only endures but enjoys long days on the field or floor of Parliament where little sleep and inferior tea out of Styrofoam cups are the norm. And why, when her husband died in 1997, she found even more time for missions and speaking abroad. "When God gives you a vacuum, you fill it."

For her the overall pursuit has changed little since age 11, when she chose Joshua 1:9 as her confirmation verse: "Be strong and courageous. Do not be frightened, and do not be dismayed, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go."

Mindy Belz

Mindy is a former senior editor for WORLD Magazine and wrote the publication’s first cover story in 1986. She has covered wars in Syria, Afghanistan, Africa, and the Balkans, and she recounts some of her experiences in They Say We Are Infidels: On the Run From ISIS With Persecuted Christians in the Middle East. Mindy resides with her husband, Nat, in Asheville, N.C.



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