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Monday, 3 June 2013
Page: 4921

Mr DANBY (Melbourne PortsParliamentary Secretary for the Arts) (11:41): I would like to make some comments about the grave situation faced by the Assyrian Christian minority in Iraq. I genuinely share the excellent motion and sentiments of the member for Berowra.

The Assyrians are an ethnic minority who have lived in Iraq since before the Arab conquest. The Assyrian Christians, officially known as the Holy Apostolic Catholic Assyrian Church of the East, are an ancient Christian denomination. They trace their origins back to the Apostle Thomas who is believed to have visited Babylon and founded a church there. The Assyrian Christians are not affiliated with any other denomination although they do have friendly relations with the Vatican, the Greek and Syrian Orthodox churches and the Chaldean Catholics. At one time the church had millions of followers in the wide arc from Egypt to China and India.

The Assyrians, along with the Armenians, suffered greatly at the hands of the Ottoman regime during World War I with somewhere between 250,000 and 700,000 killed. Today, the church has been reduced to a following of about half a million, concentrated in northern Iraq. It has diaspora churches in many countries, including the United States and Australia. During the days of Saddam Hussein's dictatorship in Iraq, the Assyrians, like other Christian minorities, enjoyed a certain amount of protection from the secular state although they suffered from the same political repression and restrictions on freedom of speech as other Iraqis. I genuinely share the view of the member for Berowra that it is the duty of the modern state of Iraq to protect its religious minorities. It is something that those of us in the rest of the world look at very ominously in the Middle East—the apparent driving out of Christians of all denominations from that region. In 1987 there were 1.4 million Christians officially recorded in Iraq. Today there are about 400,000.

The fall of Saddam brought many benefits to Iraq but unfortunately it unleashed the forces of religious hatred, particularly between the Shi'a and Sunni aspects of Islam, and also between the Arab majority and the Kurdish areas in the north. Iraq's Christians have been amongst the many victims of this sectarian conflict which has been deliberately exploited by al-Qaeda and other similar extremists as well as by elements within the Shi'a dominated government of Iraq.

Since 2003, Assyrian Christians in Iraq have been the targets of numerous fatal attacks by Islamist groups. Over 65 churches have been bombed and destroyed, hundreds of Christians have been killed and there has been a wave of kidnappings targeting Christian children and teenagers. As a result, there has been a huge exodus of Christians, including Assyrians from Iraq. The member for Berowra said the figure was something close to 600,000.

Generally, we view the Arab Spring uprisings over the last three years as a natural response to repression by the dictators and monarchs who have rules these countries for so long. I travelled to Tunisia and met the so-called moderate Islamist party, led by Rachid Ghannouchi. I hope those in Tunisia stay true to their word of cleaving to democracy. In other places, such as Egypt, the Arab Spring has brought to power Islamist regimes which do not seem to protect their Christian minorities. I have spoken out many times previously about the ill-treatment of the Coptic church in Egypt. I pay tribute to the former minister for resources, the member for Batman, Mr Ferguson, who led a delegation with me that met some of the local Coptic holy fathers, together with Bishop Suriel, in Melbourne after some of the particularly egregious attacks on the Christian community in Egypt.

Sadly, Assyrian Christians seem to be facing persecution in the Kurdish enclave in northern Iraq. It has been reported that Assyrians in various villages have been illegally forced out of their homes and off their land. They are being constantly pressured to convert to Islam in exchange for guarantees of their safety from the Kurdish Muslim majority. Islamic militancy in Iraqi Kurdistan is growing and it is the minorities who suffer the most. This is particularly sad for democrats across the world who admired Kurdistan as a place slightly independent of Iraq—even before the time of Saddam Hussein—and a place where there is economic growth and progress. It is a shame that its Christian minority is not being treated better.

In Baghdad, Mosul and Nineveh, there have been repeated home invasions, beatings and murders of Christians by Islamist gunmen. Christian families have been forced to flee for their lives and have been robbed of their property. There have been numerous attacks on Assyrian Christians in both northern Iraq and Iraqi Kurdistan over the past three years. In the disputed city of Kirkuk, where ethnic and religious tensions are very acute, Christians were forbidden to celebrate Christmas in 2010—surely that is something that the government of Iraq could have taken a stronger stand on—on the grounds that Christmas would be an insult to the Muslim majority. In Kirkuk, in 2011, so-called insurgents killed and mutilated a Christian construction worker whom they had kidnapped over the weekend and had demanded $100,000 in ransom for. Human Rights Watch has warned that northern Iraq's minority Christians are the collateral victims of a conflict between Arabs and Kurds over control of disputed oil-rich provinces in northern Iraq.

In one of the worst incidents, in October 2010 in Baghdad, Islamist terrorists held about 120 Christians hostage for nearly four hours in a church before security forces stormed the building. That is the incident that the member for Berowra was referring to, where the shootout left 58 people dead. Hundreds of thousands of Iraqi Christians have fled the country since 2003. Many of them went to Syria, but, now that civil war has broken out there, they are no longer safe. They are not welcome in Turkey, although many have gone there anyway. Many have found their way to the West. We know that many of them are already in Jordan before the current wave of Syrian refugees.

In the 1940s and 1950s, a million Jews were expelled from the Arab countries and from Iran. They were relatively lucky. They had a place in the Jewish state of Israel ready and willing to take them in. Today there are still millions of Christians in the Arab world, with perhaps as many as 15 million in Egypt. Their position is increasingly insecure as the wave of Islamist militancy spreads across the region. If they are driven out of the countries where they have lived for centuries, who will take them in?

It is incumbent upon all of us in Western societies who believe in religious freedom to speak up and make their voices heard on behalf of the persecuted Christians of the Middle East, whether it is in Egypt or Iraq; whether it is Syrian Christians in the north of Iraq, or anywhere. The situation of an ancient religious minority, with their very interesting traditions, their long-held traditions, their centuries-held traditions, is not something that the rest of the world should allow to be abandoned.

When the famous Buddhas of Bamiyan were blown up by the Islamists in Afghanistan, the whole world was offended. When France led an expedition in Mali to expel the Islamists from that country, to preserve the Muslim shrines and artefacts of Timbuktu, the world cheered the French, and Australia was very strong in France's support, giving $10 million in aid. I know the ambassador of Mali flew specially from Tokyo—we do not have a resident Malinese ambassador in Australia—to thank Australia for its participation in saving his country. The Malinese ambassador was a Muslim and represented the Muslim moderate majority in that country.

It is incumbent on all of us in Western societies to speak up for religious freedom in the Middle East. Australia played a major role in the liberation of Iraq from Saddam Hussein. It is therefore our right as a country to ask our Iraqi friends, the Iraqi government, to take measures to preserve the safety of the Assyrian Christian minority and other Christians in Iraq.

I particularly express my disappointment to Kurdish friends in the north of Iraq, whom many people in democratic movements across the world have held in such high esteem, that this persecution of the Christian minority in the north of Iraq continues to take place. I call on the Kurdish political parties and the Kurdish autonomous area in the north of Iraq to pay higher attention to and preserve the religious freedom of the Christian minority in the north of Iraq.