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Monday, 3 June 2013
Page: 4919

Mr RUDDOCK (Berowra) (11:31): This is not the first occasion on which I have spoken in this chamber on the plight of Christians in the Middle East. I said on the last occasion, in May 2011, that for my own purposes I have often travelled widely in the Middle East. One of the discussions I had was with the Middle East Council of Churches, because already there were numerous Christians who had fled, many from Iraq, and had settled in Syria and Jordan seeking sanctuary. Many of course were seeking to move further afield. In my discussions with the Middle East Council of Churches it made very strongly the points that Christians have been resident in the Middle East for some 2,000 years and that it did not want, essentially, to preside over Christians being driven out of the Middle East.

This motion is designed to focus on those issues. It is not the only motion that will come before the parliament—the government seems to have found reason to talk about these issues again—but I think it is very important to understand that Christian Assyrians, who are a religious and racial minority group in Iraq, have been subjected to ongoing violence, intimidation, harassment and discrimination. They have been discriminated against in many ways, including by the illegal occupation and transfer of their land. There are reports that some 600,000 Christian Assyrians have now fled Iraq, and many of those have settled in Australia. The Assyrians remaining are subjected to harassment, intimidation and discrimination. This motion condemns that violence, intimidation, harassment and discrimination and calls upon the government to raise these issues with the Iraqi government.

I do not know that these matters are pursued by government but I do know that governments have a responsibility to protect their people. When I hear suggestions that we should simply refer to reports that raise these matters I think it ignores the responsibility that government itself has to protect its own citizens and to ensure that they are not discriminated against.

I think the plight of the Assyrians, particularly in Iraq—but it is not only in Iraq; it is now occurring in Syria with the violence that is occurring there and it is also happening in other areas where there are Kurdish populations. The Assyrians face very considerable discrimination . It is not just the illegal occupation of their land and the transferring of it to squatters—which is the subject of quite comprehensive reporting, and I do not think can be put aside lightly—it also includes many attacks on Christians that have occurred and continue to occur in Iraq now. Iraq has its difficulties, but I think there is a responsibility to ensure that the people are able to get full information about what their government is doing and how they are seeking to deal with this issues.

The point I was making was that the Assyrians are unique. They have been predominantly Christian in the regions in which they live. They face discrimination which first started under the regime of Saddam Hussein and the details that I mentioned that I would give include in January of 2008, Epiphany Day, five Assyrian churches, one Armenian church and monasteries in Mosul and Baghdad were attacked with car bombs in a coordinated fashion. On 31 October 2010 at the Sayidat-al-Najat cathedral in Baghdad 58 people were left dead. There were eight attacks on churches in 2011 with more than 35 civilians and security forces wounded. These attacks were used as a tool to suppress the Christian religion in my view.

Kidnapping for ransom has been a significant problem with six abductions reported in 2011, largely around Kirkuk. Some were freed when ransoms were paid but other stories were not so positive. Ashur Issa Jacob was kidnapped by al-Qaida operatives—$61,500 was made in ransom but his body was found later mutilated in Kirkuk, including near decapitation, his eyes were gouged out and there were dog bites on his body.

These are the sorts of experiences that many have seen, and the threats and harassment which are part of daily life are very significant . It is my view that the Australian government needs to be actively pursuing these matters with the Iraqi government. We do not blame them for what is happening but we expect that they would be using all of their efforts to ensure the protection of their people. That is the responsibility of all governments and it is not a matter of treating these matters lightly when so many people have fled. The massive movement of the Assyrian population has meant that it is now about half what it was, and many of those people who continue to live there have been internally displaced.

When they are internally displaced they face very significant problems. There are hostilities. They find it difficult to find work and employment. They find it difficult to get services. They find it difficult to be able to practise their religion. These are matters that are well known when they do occur but in Iraq, in particular, they are significant and continue to be significant.

The purpose of the motion I have moved is to bring these matters to notice to ensure that Australians are aware of the plight of Assyrians and to know what is being experienced by the families of many of their neighbours who live here in Australia. I make the point again that we need to be generous, as we have been over decades, in assisting those people who are refugees and who are forced to flee and we ought to be providing for placements in our own programs to assist.

The Special Humanitarian Program has always been one that has been available for that purpose. Previously, when I was minister, I was pleased that we were able to accommodate many Assyrian Christians in those programs. I regret that today the possibility of being able to assist is so much more limited because of the failure to be able to adequately manage our borders. That has meant that the program places are assigned to others who come and pay people smugglers and those who have real needs end up being very significantly disadvantaged.

I make the point, as I did earlier, that there are some who would suggest that the Australian government has done all that it should and that we should support their efforts. Let me make it clear: I think there is a lot more advocacy to be done. Governments do have a responsibility to protect their own people and I think the Assyrian Christians are entitled to that protection, whether they are in Iraq, whether they are in Syria or whether they are in Turkey.