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Monday, 3 June 2013
Page: 4925

Ms VAMVAKINOU (Calwell) (11:57): I rise today to support the motion put forward by the member for Berowra and to add my voice to the condemnation of the continued persecution of Christian Assyrians, Chaldeans and Syriacs in Iraq. I have spoken about this issue in the House on many previous occasions in the past expressing my concern at the ongoing human rights abuse of minority groups in Iraq but also in the broader Middle East. On this occasion, I would like to mention the persecution of Coptic Christians in Egypt and to speak of the Christian community now facing intense pressure in Syria. As ethnic and religious minorities in Iraq, Assyrians, Chaldeans and Syriacs have been doubly targeted during the ethnic and sectarian civil war which has gripped Iraq since the March 2003 invasion. Christian Iraqis form a disproportionate part of the millions of Iraqis displaced by the war. They have suffered from killings, bombings, kidnappings, torture, harassment, forced conversions and dispossessions. I thank the members who have spoken before me and who have detailed the accounts of the atrocities.

My seat of Calwell is home to one of the largest constituencies of Iraqi Christians in Australia. They are among the thousands who have fled Iraq as refugees, so acts of violent extremism, and discrimination on religious and ethnic grounds are matters that deeply distress members of the Assyrian, Syriac and Chaldean communities in my electorate. Their faith is unyielding and freedom to practice without fear of persecution is paramount. In fact, such is the pious devotion to their faith and church that this Christian community has already built very strong roots in my electorate.

Calwell is home to the Chaldean Cathedral of Our Lady Guardian of Plants, the St Mary's Ancient Church of the East, the Holy Apostolic Catholic Assyrian Church of the East and the Holy Spirit Syriac Catholic Church. Church attendance during mass is the highest of any Christian community in Australia. I have received much representation in my electorate from members of the Assyrian, Chaldean and Syriac communities. Of the many issues we discuss—ranging from immigration, refugees and family reunion to degree and qualification recognition—the one issue closest to their hearts and minds is the continued instability in Iraq and the persecution of their Christian brothers and sisters.

The Pope of the Syriac Catholic Church, Pope Joseph, recently visited Melbourne from Lebanon. He led the mass at our local Holy Spirit Catholic Church where he ordained five new deacons in a community made up of about 100 families. I use this as an example to show the depth of belief and reverence amongst this community.

On 12 May this year I also had the great privilege of an audience with the patriarch of the Chaldean Church, His Beatitude, Mar Louis Raphael I Sako, during his visit to Our Lady Guardian of Plants Chaldean parish in Campbellfield. My discussions with His Beatitude were wide ranging and very illuminating. Of course they centred on the plight of Christians in Iraq and the broader Middle East, but the patriarch was also keen to discuss the experience and integration progress of his flock here in Australia. He noted his delight at their progress and stressed his desire that they integrate successfully in their new home. They bring with them a profound faith that can be instructive to other Christians, myself included, as I thoroughly enjoy attending their masses.

His Beatitude also expressed his deep concern about the forced exodus of Christians from Iraq and made specific reference to the 'brain drain' effect it would have on Iraq's future development given that Christian Iraqis are the most educated of the community and are desperately needed in order to rebuild this broken and tragic country. In voicing concern about the overall future presence of Christians in Iraq as numbers dwindle because of the instability, persecution and the displacement, a new threat is emerging, one that sees a possible disappearance of Christians altogether, a matter that even Muslim Iraqis, according to the patriarch, are very concerned about because it could throw Iraq into the hands of extremists, thereby destroying any chance of a safer and stronger country. It is for this reason that this motion we are debating here today is very important.

The irony of the patriarch's observations did not escape me. As the Chair of the Joint Standing Committee on Migration, I recently tabled a report which noted the difficulty the Iraqi community were having with recognition of their skills and qualifications here in Australia, yet His Beatitude was lamenting the loss to Iraq of the highly skilled Christian population, who, subsequently when coming to Australia struggle to use their skills and educational qualifications. (Time expired)