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Monday, 13 February 2012
Page: 980

Mr LAURIE FERGUSON (Werriwa) (11:42): There are many by-products of the allied intervention in Iraq. On a positive front there was the establishment of Kurdish autonomy and a movement towards more democratic institutions. But there are also multiple and very serious downsides: rampant malnutrition, a very high rate of death of young children and the destruction of the country's electricity and sanitation infrastructure—particularly in Baghdad. Another by-product, which the previous speaker touched upon and which I am pleased to say gained a bit more national coverage through the ABC's religious program in the last year, is the situation of the Mandaeans and other Christian groups in Iraq.

There is some conjecture about the derivation of the Mandaeans. On one side there are indications from their marriage rituals that they do stem from Judaism. They speak a dialect of Aramaic. Importantly, they do not believe in proselytising, so the point made about their very survival is crucial, because they do not recruit new members and so there is no real sense of growth potential. Importantly, as noted previously, they are also pacifists. They are a monotheistic group with their own particular religious documents. They heavily emphasise ritual—most crucially, the question of baptism. Baptism accompanies many other ceremonies, such as marriage. It is important for them in Australia and internationally. I have to say that I believe we have been more liberal than the United States with regard to access to clean waterways for baptism, which is a very central part of their core.

Australia has joined Sweden as a recipient nation for the various Christian groups from the Middle East. I had the privilege in a delegation recently to visit Sodertalje in Sweden, which is well known internationally for the high prevalence of Iraqi Christians, most particularly Syriacs, Chaldeans and Assyrians, but also Mandaeans. When I came back I provided some material to the Mayor of Fairfield about activities in Sodertalje. As alluded to earlier, this group is so small internationally and so dispersed that there is a challenge to their continued existence. This brings up a debate, when they contact us, as to whether Australia should actually take all of them. That is, of course, a challenging concept in an intake of only 13½ thousand a year. On the one hand we have a group that is struggling for its very existence but on the other hand we have the competing demands of so many other areas around the world.

The program on the ABC highlighted the very strong inclination of this group to retain their culture whilst, particularly in the case of children, integrating into Australia. The member for Fowler and I have attended many New Year events and other similar festivities. One thing that strikes you, and it was demonstrated by the ABC program, is the degree to which the children are part of the Australian education system. If you go to these events, the music is in a disco style for young Australians. The very strong message from Ahmed Mutasha and others is that they are very much here to stay; they are integrated into society and they are participating in our civic life.

Obviously the intervention by Allied forces meant that, in many cases, the already existing underlying bigotry in Iraqi society, which was perhaps smashed down by the Saddam Hussein regime, was basically allowed to escape. Additionally, these groups were, in a sense, blamed for being part of the intervention. You might have had Tariq Ali and other Christians in some prominent positions in society but, once the Allies intervened, many people saw the Christian groups as Western oriented and aligned with the West and therefore partly responsible for the destruction of Iraqi society. That increased the fervent hostility and discrimination towards them. This has taken many forms, including kidnappings and extortion. Extortions are not confined to them but, because of their previous concentration in the occupations of goldsmithing and silversmithing, they are perceived to be people with money, so extortion obviously concentrates disproportionally upon them. They are also subjected to attempts at forced conversion to Islam—and this is not confined to them in the Middle East or Africa—and restrictions in society, discrimination et cetera.

An added problem in recent months has been the situation in Syria. Syria, for its many faults, has provided a degree of protection for Iraqi Christians fleeing in the Middle East region. Obviously the Assad regime, being an ally, tries to continue an alliance with Christian groups against the Sunni majority. That is why they have been quite liberal in allowing access to that country for this purpose. I note that the UNHCR has commented of their situation:

Once prominent goldsmiths, lawyers and doctors in Iraq, Mendaeans continue to be forced to convert to Islam or to leave the country, according to Mendaean sources in Damascus.

They go on to note that women without headscarves are currently major targets in the society, and others are forced to marry Muslim men et cetera.

We are facing a situation where dispersal means that the community is very threatened. Unless you have a concentration of numbers then it is hard to keep up practices, hard to retain culture and language. This is a crucial challenge to countries such as the United States, Sweden and Australia, which have been the countries most inclined to provide some protection. In 2002 the United States granted the Mendaeans protected status, but the situation in the United States in the interim has been very up and down in regard to the degree to which they have given access.

We in Australia have a very strong Mendaean community in the Western Sydney region from Liverpool outwards. I see many cases from this community about individuals who are in very strange circumstances in Syria, people who have had family members targeted and murdered. We are saying today that this situation should be recognised and that, when we consider Australia's humanitarian refugee intake under our immigration policy, we should continue to recognise the plight of these people. As I say, it is going to be intensified if the regime in Syria is indeed replaced. One negative aspect of that, and it is very difficult to see that it will be otherwise, is that there will be an increase in Sunni fundamentalism and hostility towards minorities. I hope otherwise, but it certainly is a possible outcome.

I join with the member for Fowler in expressing some concern that this important matter has not occasioned much interest from the opposition. I would have thought that historically there were people who had taken an interest in this region and who had ties with the Mandaeans in Sydney. I commend the resolution.