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Monday, 13 February 2012
Page: 978

Mr HAYES (Fowler) (11:31): I want to draw the attention of the House to the ongoing persecution faced by a number of religious minorities in Iraq. These religious minorities include various Christian groups such as the Chaldean Catholics, the indigenous Assyrians, Sabean Mandaeans, Syriacs and other Aramaic speakers who have all called the geographic area of Iraq as home for the last 2,000 years.

There are a number of undisputed reports by global organisations such as Amnesty International, UNHCR and the Catholic Church which clearly indicate that members of these ethnic and religious minorities in Iraq are subject to continuous persecution, often to the point of death. These reports also indicate that their persecution has clearly escalated since the 2003 involvement of the coalition of the willing in Iraq. According to the US State Department, prior to 2003 Christian leaders estimated that up to 1.4 million Christians and other religious minorities were living in Iraq. The latest figures show that the numbers have decreased to less than 400,000. Although the decrease is largely due to people fleeing to neighbouring countries, there have been many instances where people have been subject to targeted killings.

I spoke in this parliament in late 2010 when Our Lady of Salvation Catholic Church in Baghdad was stormed by armed Islamic militants and 52 people were killed. The group that claimed responsibility, the Islamic State of Iraq, has publicly identified that their purpose is to rid the country of Christians and other minorities. These minorities have been declared legitimate public targets. This must cause great concern to us all as this is about ethnic cleansing.

In 2005 letters were distributed to the houses and businesses of Mandaeans demanding them to convert, leave Iraq or face death. Understandably, many fled as a result. I also understand that threatening posters have been put up on people's homes and shops demanding they leave the area within three days.

I recall the story of Nijem Abdallah, who had relatives who died in the attack on Our Lady of Salvation church in Baghdad. He previously owned a shop in Iraq but was forced to give it up and flee to Jordan due to constant harassment and threats to his and his son's life. Many, like Nijem, risk their lives all over again during the dangerous trip in search of a safe refuge. The roads of western Iraq, which lead to Syria and Jordan, have often been described as deadly dangerous—and for very, very good reasons—as people travel these roads without protection as they seek safety in neighbouring countries.

Those who are lucky enough to escape to neighbouring Syria, Jordan or Egypt often find themselves lacking basic facilities, essential human rights and the necessities of life. These countries are facing or have been subject to recent significant political unrest of their own and there is a lack of adequate resources for dealing with the growing number of refugees, not only in providing the necessities of life but also providing protection.

According to the Catholic Church, in a report that was released a little while back, as many as 1.2 million people have left Iraq since the invasion in 2003. Those who make it to a country like Syria usually stick together in what would generally be regarded as very much working-class suburbs, like Jaramanah, on the eastern outskirts of Damascus, where there is not a high prospect for the future. As a matter of fact, you would have to describe it as barely making ends meet and as barely a matter of survival. Refugees International reports that these people are being exploited and charged exorbitant prices for rent and other basic needs. The report further states that they are trapped in these miserable conditions, with little to no chance of a safe return to Iraq. They are increasingly becoming destitute, with little means of support.

For the Sabian Mandaeans the biggest threat is extinction itself. It is estimated that there are approximately 60,000 to 70,000 Mandaeans in the world today. A decade ago this was the number of Mandaeans living in Iraq alone. This number has now decreased to anywhere between 3,000 to 5,000, depending on the various reports. Mandaeans are followers of John the Baptist. They are a relatively little-known group that migrated from Palestine to the regions of southern Iraq in the 2nd century AD. They are pacifists and therefore handling of weapons is contrary to their belief. As a result, this has put them at risk and disadvantage, being in a war zone in southern Iraq.

Prior to the Iraq war, Mandaeans held a guarded yet solid position in the life of Iraq. Many were prominent lawyers, university professors and quite often successful artisans and gold and silver smiths. Like other groups in Iraq, Mandaeans have faced violence at the hands of sectarian and criminal groups. They face further discrimination and threats upon escaping to neighbouring countries. As I stated earlier, these countries have no resources to deal with the numbers of refugees fleeing Iraq. In Syria, the Mandaean religion is not recognised and there are no places of worship. They are not allowed to marry or mark their religion on the birth certificates of their newborn children. They are not allowed to legally work and are the target of forced conversion to Islam. They are also living under constant threat of deportation back to Iraq.

Mandaean refugees across the Middle East face a bleak future and inevitably extinction without the aid of the international community. Due to the small numbers of Mandaeans who are left, it is imperative that they are relocated to countries with already-established communities. The answer is not for them to be further dispersed and isolated.

There are approximately 6,500 Mandaeans residing in Australia; many live within my electorate of Fowler and Laurie Ferguson's electorate of Werriwa. I hold regular meetings with representatives of the various minority groups from Iraq. Amad Mtashar is a frequent visitor to my office and a powerful advocate for the Mandaean community. On the weekend, I met with His Excellency Mar Jabriel Kassab, the Archbishop of the Chaldean Catholic Diocese of Australia and New Zealand, and also Samir Yousif, the Secretary of the Chaldean National Congress for Australia and New Zealand. Another person who is very much involved with the issues in Iraq is Hermiz Shahen, the Secretary of the Assyrian National Alliance. He has requested that I travel to Iraq in the very near future to see for myself the conditions that Assyrians and other Christian minorities labour under.

There is a need for a more compassionate response from the international community towards the growing humanitarian crisis faced by the religious and ethnic minorities both in Iraq and escaping Iraq. We have a moral responsibility as members of the global community who are fortunate enough to live in peace and prosperity. Our obligation also comes from the fact that the situation has worsened significantly since the coalition troops entered Iraq. Because of our involvement in that operation, Australia has an added moral responsibility to do everything it can to raise awareness of the issues and to assist the global community in ensuring protection of the victims.

I think this is an issue that should be addressed by the parliament. It is regrettable that, I understand, the opposition do not intend to have a speaker in this debate. This is something we have an obligation to do, as we were members of the coalition of the willing.