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Monday, 3 June 2013
Page: 4928

Ms O'DWYER (Higgins) (12:12): I rise to add my contribution to the very excellent contributions made both across the chamber and on this side of the chamber on this wonderful motion put forward by my good friend and colleague the member for Berowra. Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states:

Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.

Tragically, in some parts of the world this fundamental right is not observed. It is not being observed in the case of the Assyrian people in Iraq and Syria. The Assyrian people have a proud and rich history that spans more than 5,000 years. Their foundations can be found in the Middle East—largely Iraq Syria—and they are a people of predominantly Christian faith. There is an estimated population of around three million Assyrians worldwide, with one million in Iraq and around 700,000 in Syria. In what can only be described as a cruel twist of fate, it is because of their rich culture that the Assyrians have faced violence, intimidation and harassment and discrimination.

Under Saddam Hussein they faced significant persecution. Unfortunately, since the removal of that dictator the situation has not markedly improved. On 31 October 2010, 58 Assyrian Christians were killed in a coordinated and deliberate attack on a church designed to terrorise and intimidate those Assyrians and their families. They were targeted on the basis of their religion. There have been, unfortunately, many other forms of persecution and violence. For the record of this House, I place on the record a number of those examples. On Epiphany Day, 6 January 2008, five Assyrian churches, one Armenian church and monasteries in Mosul and Baghdad were attacked with car bombs. In 2011, 35 civilians and members of security forces were wounded in eight separate attacks. Kidnapping and ransom have become significant tools of terror, with six abductions reported in 2011, largely around Kirkuk. Some were freed by ransom and others were killed. Threats and low-level harassment are expected as part of everyday life, including now threats by text message. Work opportunities and other basic human rights are also denied, especially in the Kurdish region.

The result of this persecution has been the dislocation of around 600,000 Assyrian Christians in Iraq alone. Happily for us in Australia, many Assyrians have chosen to make Australia their home and make a very valuable and worthwhile contribution.

The Arab Spring, which promised so much in the way of hope and expectation, already seems to be turning to winter, and there is ever-increasing concern in the Middle East that the religious freedoms of the minority Christian and Jewish people are being diminished over time. Those of us with a voice must remain ever vigilant to ensure that we speak out against violence, harassment and intimidation. We have a duty. We call upon the Australian government to raise the significant human rights concerns of the Christian Assyrians with the Iraqi government. I commend this excellent motion to the House.