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Monday, 3 June 2013
Page: 4924

Mr CRAIG KELLY (Hughes) (11:52): I rise to support this motion moved by the member for Berowra. I commend him on his leadership on Assyrian issues over many years in this House. I also acknowledge in the gallery today Hermiz Shahen, David David and other members of the Assyrian community. Thank you for being here. The motion is:

That this House:

(1) recognises that:

(a) Christian Assyrians, a minority religious and racial group in Iraq, are subject to ongoing violence, intimidation, harassment and discrimination on religious and ethnic grounds;

(b) on 31 October 2010, 58 Christian Assyrians were killed in an attack on a church in Baghdad, in an act of violent extremism targeting this minority group;

(c) Christian Assyrians are actively discriminated against by having their land illegally occupied and transferred to squatters;

(d) 600,000 Christian Assyrians have now fled Iraq, including many thousands to Australia; and

(e) Assyrians remaining in Iraq are denied many basic human rights and subject to ongoing harassment, intimidation and discrimination;

(2) condemns violence, intimidation, harassment and discrimination on religious and ethnic grounds wherever it may be found, including in Iraq; and

(3) calls upon the Australian Government to raise the significant human rights concerns of Christian Assyrians with the Iraqi Government.

Assyrians are the indigenous people of Iraq, Turkey, Iran, Syria and Lebanon. They have a history that spans over 7,000 years. Today's Assyrians are the descendants of the ancient Assyrian Empire, which was once our earliest civilisation. The majority of the Assyrian population had converted to Christianity by the second century, giving them a legitimate claim to being the first Christian nation in history. However, over the centuries, under Islamic rule and its attendant repressions, the number of Christians has been significantly reduced in the Middle East. In 1900, Christians made up 25 per cent of the population of the Middle East. By 2000, that was down to less than five per cent. Then came the Iraq War.

Undoubtedly, Saddam Hussein was a brutal tyrant. He led his people into senseless wars—the Iran-Iraq War, the invasion of Kuwait—wars which resulted in hundreds of thousands of deaths. He used chemical weapons against his own people. However, I recall a question asked at the time of the Gulf War: was Iraq the way it was because of Saddam or was Saddam the way he was because of the Iraq? History now answers that question and it seems there is truth in both, for Saddam and his Ba'athist regime did at least keep the genie of Islamic militancy in the bottle. However, since the fall of Saddam Hussein, Assyrians in Iraq have been the targets of numerous fatal attacks by Islamic terrorist groups and the new Iraq, from time to time in its liberation, has witnessed a huge exodus of Christians. In the decade since the Gulf War, more than half of Iraq's Christians have fled to refugee camps in Syria or Jordan, reducing Iraq's pre-war population of Assyrians from 1,000,000 to now around 400,000. Those remaining are experiencing one of the most pressing humanitarian crises on our planet, suffering systematic persecution which largely goes unreported in the mainstream media.

Within the last 12 years, over 65 churches have been bombed and many destroyed, and hundreds of Christians have been killed. In 2010, just a few months after the US combat troops left, militants associated with Al Qaeda, in a bloody siege of Our Lady of Deliverance Church in Baghdad, killed 58 people, including two priests, and wounded 78 more. In the attack, as detailed in the New York Times, one of the priests, Father Sabih, was pushed to the ground as he grabbed his crucifix and pleaded with the gunmen to spare his worshippers. He was then killed, his body riddled with bullets.

Today on its ancestral soil all that is left of the world's oldest Christian nation is a desperate minority. A culture which has survived centuries of hardship now stands on the verge of disappearing completely. We must use our voice on the United Nations Security Council to speak out on these issues. (Time expired)