Monday, 3 June 2013
Private Members' Business
Assyrian Population of Iraq
That this House:
(1) notes that:
(a) the Assyrian population of Iraq continues to suffer persecution 10 years after the fall of Saddam Hussein; and
(b) since 2003, 600,000 Christian Assyrians have left Iraq, including many thousands to Australia; and
(2) being aware of the Assyrian aspirations for the establishment of an autonomous province, calls on the Government of Iraq to take all appropriate steps to protect the rights of minorities, including the Assyrian Christian people, and to support the continuation of their linguistic, cultural and religious traditions.
In 2005 I moved a motion in this House highlighting the plight of the Assyrian people of Iraq. It called on the Australian government to make representations to the then newly elected transitional government of Iraq to ensure that the Assyrian people, Chaldean people, Syriac people and Mandaean people of Iraq would be constitutionally recognised and guaranteed the right to freely exercise their customs, would be given the same protection by law enforcement and international security forces as other ethnic groups, and would be entitled to proper representation and participation in all levels of government. This was a motion moved those years ago which passed the House.
It pains me to say that all these years later the situation for the Assyrian people has worsened, not improved. Assyrians are tragically used to oppression. During the years of Saddam Hussein they are subject to the policies of the Ba'ath Party. They were victims, along with other groups, of the al-Anfal campaign of persecution in the late 1980s which saw many Assyrian villages in the north of Iraq destroyed and thousands of civilians killed. The Assyrian people and the Chaldean people celebrated the fall of Saddam Hussein in the hope that democracy would bring freedom—and I went to some of those celebrations here in Australia—but this has not been the case. The hopes and dreams of the Assyrian people have been dashed as the situation has worsened in Iraq.
Assyrians and Chaldeans are easy targets. As Christians they suffer violence as proxies. They are targeted as representatives for anger directed at the United States, Australia and the West. There have been many instances of this since 2003. Churches have been destroyed and Assyrian people have suffered. On Epiphany Day, 6 January 2008, five Assyrian churches were attacked in a coordinated assault and destroyed by car bombs. The deadliest attack against Assyrians since the war began was in 2010, in a Baghdad church attack which left at least 58 worshippers dead.
These are just a few instances of the persecution and violence that Assyrian and Chaldean people live under in Iraq. This has led to an exodus from Iraq as Assyrian people and Chaldean people have fled the violence and persecution. It is estimated that just 400,000 Assyrians remain in Iraq, many of them older Assyrians who have exhausted every last penny of their savings to fund the escape of their children. These are the indigenous people of Iraq. These are innocent people who have been driven from their country. They have fled to Jordan, to Lebanon, to Turkey and to Syria. Many of those who have fled to Syria over the last 10 years have since been forced to leave this haven where they were looking for at least some form of protection. These people were the primary target of the government's increase in the refugee component for the Middle East of 1,000 people affected by the Syrian crisis. I am very pleased to say that since I left the immigration portfolio I have kept in regular contact with progress in settling Assyrian, Chaldean and Mandaean people who have been affected by the Mandaean crisis. I have been very pleased to receive the updates on large numbers of people who have been resettled and given the chance of a new life in Australia.
This is the problem, but we must have a view to the solution. Having looked at this issue over many years and having worked with the Assyrian and Chaldean communities, having done much in relation to working with the Australian government and the successive foreign ministers—Smith, Rudd and Carr—on this issue, I have reached the view that the only sustainable solution is an autonomous region within Iraq, administered by Chaldeans and Assyrians.
In the north-west of Iraq lies the Nineveh plains, a 4,000 square kilometre area that is believed to have been and is the traditional heartland of the Assyrian people. The majority of its population is Christian, including many displaced Assyrians who came to the Nineveh plains to seek refuge. There have been calls for the establishment of an autonomous region in the Nineveh plains for the Assyrian people, and I support this call. This would help in establishing their own police and defence forces, such as other groups have been able to do. In 2010, 4,300 Christians fled the attacks in nearby Mosul and relocated to the Nineveh plains. They were joined in following years by Assyrians who, as I said, have left Syria because of the conflict there.
The idea of Assyrian autonomy is not new. It is not actually opposed, by all reports, by the current Iraqi government. President Jalal Talabani has said:
… there are areas where the Christians are a majority in Iraq, and we do not oppose the formation of a province …
He went on to say:
We believe that attention should be focused on healing the wounded Christians and to provide humanitarian aid … we do not want to displace a dear part of the Iraqi population, especially since the Christians are the indigenous people of Iraq, who lived in Iraq since the advent of Christianity, played a role in civilization and culture of Iraq.
This is also supported by other groups in Iraq.
While support has been expressed for this idea, action has not been forthcoming. I believe the time for talk has passed and the time for action has arrived. As I have said in this House in relation to other matters, there is an obligation on all governments to ensure the protection of all its citizens, regardless of their race or religion. That is an obligation which of course also applies in Iraq. I would foresee the situation—and it may at this point seem to be a dream or to be ambitious—where some of those Assyrians and Chaldeans could feel safe in returning to Iraq, that exodus could be reversed and the people who are living in very difficult situations in Syria, in Jordan, in Lebanon and in Turkey could return to their homeland, the nation of which they are indigenous people. If this autonomous region were developed and implemented it would not be an ambitious dream but could be the reality.
Around the world many Assyrians are working towards this, advocating for this. Many Assyrians are here in Australia. I recognise the Assyrian Universal Alliance and representatives present in the gallery tonight, Hermiz Shahen and David David, being the leaders of the delegation and being particularly forthright in representing the views of their people. The clergy, the various bishops, are represented here in Australia and around the world.
The situation facing Christian minorities in the Middle East is a crisis. It is a crisis which receives nowhere near enough attention in what is a busy and jam-packed national and international agenda. But it is a crisis which is real and which has seen good people and innocent people die, good people and innocent families leaving their homeland and facing uncertainty and desperate situations. I think it is incumbent on the nations around the world, those of us who were involved in the coalition of the willing and others, to face this issue square on and to work cooperatively with the government of Iraq and remind them of this.
This has been an issue that the Australian government has been active on. I know Foreign Minister Carr raised the issue with then Secretary of State Clinton and current Secretary of State Kerry and with Foreign Secretary Hague. He has done that in relation to the situation of Christians in the Middle East generally, the Syrian and Chaldean situations, the situation of the Copts of Egypt and others. So he, and we, should: this is an appropriate matter for the Australian parliament to be considering tonight.
We have a strong and vibrant Assyrian population, but an Assyrian population which has many sleepless nights, worried about the fate of their brothers and sisters, their cousins and, in many instances, their elderly parents who do not feel able to make the journey to safety but who live in constant fear of persecution and violence. They should live in that fear for no longer. If the measures that are proposed by the Assyrian community are adopted then that will be a reality. It is something that this House, I think, is right to consider this evening.
I rise to second the motion moved by the member for McMahon and to speak in support of it. I note that this is the second motion in the House today on Assyrian issues, following the motion moved earlier by the member for Berowra. I recognise in the gallery tonight Hermiz Shahen and David David of the Assyrian Universal Alliance and their delegation.
There are two parts to this motion. The first part, clause 1(a), states that this House notes:
(a) the Assyrian population of Iraq continues to suffer persecution 10 years after the fall of Saddam Hussein.
Saddam Hussein was the most brutal of dictators. He led his people into senseless wars—the Iran-Iraq war, the invasion of Kuwait—that resulted in hundreds of thousands of deaths. He used chemical weapons on his own people. I recall a question that was 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 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 bottled up for a time.
Since the fall of Saddam Hussein, Assyrians in Iraq have been the targets of numerous fatal attacks by Islamic terrorist groups. I will give a few examples. In August 2000 for an attack by Islamists on Iraqi Christian churches killed 11 people. In 2006 an Orthodox priest, Boulos Iskander, was snatched off the streets of Mosul by a group that demanded a ransom. Even though the ransom was paid he was beheaded; worse still, when his body was found the priest's arms and legs had also been cut off. In 2008 the Assyrian clergymen Archbishop Paulos Faraj Rahho of the Chaldean Catholic Church in Mosul died after being abducted. In January 2008 bombs exploded outside nine churches. This followed a group affiliated with al-Qaeda, calling themselves the Islamic State of Iraq, stating that Iraq's indigenous Christians were a 'legitimate target'. And on 31 October 2010 militants of al-Qaeda in Iraq laid bloody siege to 'Our Lady of Deliverance' Church in Baghdad during Sunday evening mass, killing 58 people, including two priests, and wounding 78 more. As detailed in The New York Times on 1 October 2010:
Blood still smeared the walls of Our Lady of Salvation Church on Monday. Scraps of flesh remain between the pews. It was the worst massacre of Iraqi Christians since the war began here in 2003.
Survivors said one of the priests, Father Sahib:
… was pushed to the ground as he grasped a crucifix and pleaded with the gunmen to spare the worshippers.
He was then killed, his body riddled with bullets.
The motivation behind these attacks on Iraqi Christians is religious. It is aimed at driving the minority out of Iraq. What is happening today in Iraq is ethnic cleansing. Assyrians are being killed in a deliberate and strategic way. This brings me to clause 1(b) of this motion which notes the fall in the number of Christians in Iraq since 2003. At that time there were nearly 1.4 million Christians in Iraq, but due to deaths and forced emigration the figure has fallen to around 500,000.
The new Iraq, from the time of its liberation from the Ba'athist regime, has witnessed a huge exodus of Christians. In the decade since the invasion by the coalition of the willing, more than half of Iraq's Christians have fled to refugee camps in Syria or Jordan, reducing a pre-war population of more than a million to 500,000 or maybe fewer, maybe only 400,000, most of whom survive today in Iraqi Kurdistan. Those remaining are experiencing one of the world's most pressing humanitarian crises, with systematic persecution largely unreported in the mainstream media. Today, on their ancestral soil, all that is left of the world's oldest Christian nation is a small and desperate minority. A culture that survived centuries of hardship now stands on the verge of disappearing completely. If nothing is done, the Christian community in Iraq, after more than 2,000 years as a significant presence, may disappear altogether.
The second clause of this motion sets up what the international community must do to ensure this never happens. The motion calls for the government of Iraq to establish an autonomous province in the Nineveh plains region to provide a haven for Assyrians and all other historically Christian people, for the continuation of their linguistic, cultural and religious traditions.
In considering this motion, it is important to understand that Iraq is a nation artificially created out of the ruins of the old Ottoman Empire. It is composed of multiple ethnicities and religious sects. Iraq's modern borders were mostly demarcated in 1922, not by the Iraqi people but by the League of Nations when the Ottoman Empire was divided. It placed Iraq under the authority of the United Kingdom as the British Mandate of Mesopotamia. A monarchy was established in 1921, and the Kingdom of Iraq gained independence from Britain in 1932.
In 1958 the monarchy was overthrown and the Republic of Iraq was created. It has been controlled by the Ba'ath Party from 1968 until 2003 when the Ba'ath Party was removed from power after an invasion by coalition forces. The coalition presence in Iraq ended in 2011.
Iraq has never known a functioning democracy. Its different groups were only held together by Saddam's use of political terror, and this worked to keep Iraq together until the invasion of 2003. So we cannot look at Iraq through rose-coloured Western glasses, assuming that multiculturalism will just work out fine. Just look at the overall chaos in Iraq today: more than 1,000 people were killed in violence in Iraq in May this year, making it the deadliest month since the sectarian slaughter of 2006-07. And on Saturday the United Nations reported that the fear is raised of a return to civil war. Today we read reports of five men being arrested in Iraq after three laboratories designed to produce sarin and mustard gas were uncovered. Also recovered were model helicopters, flown by remote control, which were designed to distribute the chemical agents. It seems clear that the terror plot of al-Qaeda planned to strike targets not only within Iraq but also in Europe and the US, using chemical weapons and model aircraft.
Amongst this chaos the new authorities in Baghdad are simply unable to protect their Christian minority. So the only way forward is what is known as the 'Nineveh plains solution': the establishment of an autonomous province in the Nineveh plains region at the centre of the ancestral Assyrian homeland, to provide a safe haven for Assyrian and all other historically Christian people. In those plains, where the Bible places the Garden of Eden, there already exists a compact Christian population. For the Assyrian Christian, including the Chaldean-Syriac community, the only effective solution is for the Assyrian people to remain in Iraq in the creation of a new province in the Nineveh plains—the heart of the ancestral Assyrian homeland.
Local control would allow these indigenous people to gain a stable foothold within their own country, where they could sustain, develop and grow a base population in a secure and stable environment. Christian autonomy in the region would protect Assyrian communities and also work as a buffer zone between warring sides. This solution is also consistent with the United Nations Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
We now have a nonpermanent seat on the United Nations Security Council—one that came at great expense to the Australian taxpayer, and we only hold it for two short years. This should not just be a trophy that sits on our mantelpiece gathering dust. We must use our voice to promote freedom, democracy, human rights and religious liberty, and to raise the significant human rights concerns of the Christian Assyrians with the Iraqi government.
There is no other alternative other than to see the ongoing Christian Assyrian genocide—the second of this century. We have a moral obligation to see that this cultural extinction will not happen.
I would like to thank the member for McMahon for bringing this important motion to the House tonight. Could I also acknowledge his great contribution in his ministerial portfolio in increasing Australia's refugee intake to 20,000 and, specifically in identifying an additional thousand positions to be focused on refugees from the Middle East, with this particular situation in mind. So, Chris, thank you for what you have done and what you have done for the community.
His electorate in McMahon, like my electorate of Fowler, has a high proportion of refugees from the Middle East, and particularly from Iraq. These refugees represent a small proportion, however, of the million Christians who have fled Iraq since the invasion of 2003. A much larger proportion of individuals who were lucky enough to escape death now find themselves in refugee camps in Syria, Jordan, Turkey, Egypt and Lebanon, and they certainly lack basic human rights and living conditions. Many others escaped to other regions of northern Iraq, where their futures are still uncertain but they are somewhat safer from harassment and persecution.
I join the member for McMahon in calling for the government of Iraq to establish an autonomous province in the Nineveh plains of northern Iraq, where Assyrian and other Christian minorities can live in peace and free of threat to their lives, their livelihoods, their cultural traditions and, most importantly, their religion.
The Nineveh plains hold a high level of importance for the Assyrian people, and certainly for those of the Assyrian Church of the East—the Syriacs and Chaldeans. It is a location which is very much at the heartland of Assyrian ancestry, and you will find many of the Assyrian ruins in that vicinity. It is also a province where the majority of the population is drawn from a group of minorities, around half of them being Assyrians.
Unfortunately, life is difficult for the citizens in that region particularly given the lack of infrastructure to aid the displaced population. There is certainly a grave lack of funding going into health, education, roads and other things that make this a viable region, ensuring the survival and prosperity of the population there. There is also growing struggle for political influence in the area between the various Assyrian entities, including the Assyrian Democratic Movement and sections of the Kurdistan Regional Government.
The situation that Christians face in Iraq, including northern Iraq, and in the various refugee camps in neighbouring countries, is very alarming to all responsible members of the international community. The internally displaced people and refugees nevertheless are fortunate to at least have a dedicated group of representatives around the world who are advocating on their behalf and making sure that the global community is well aware of their struggle. We have with us tonight representatives from the Assyrian Universal Alliance, an organisation which has a very strong presence in my local community and across Australia and New Zealand. I have met a number of times with their representatives Hermiz Shahen, the organisation's regional secretary, and David David, as well as with other representatives of the community, including Ninos Aaron, James Jacob, Joseph Joseph, Redmon Zomaya and Sankhairo Zomaya. I would very much like to thank the Assyrian Universal Alliance for the work that they do. Only recently, I had the opportunity to present them with a community service award for the work that they do looking after the wellbeing and settlement needs of the local Assyrian community.
An individual who has provided me with significant insight into the issues facing the Assyrian population in Iraq is His Beatitude Mar Meelis Zaia, the Metropolitan of the Archdiocese of Australia, New Zealand and Lebanon. He has been the leader of the Assyrian Church of the East in the Oceania region for the last 25 years. During our discussions, we shared common views on the importance of education among displaced people, particularly those in northern Iraq and particularly the younger generations.
I rise to speak in support of the motion put by the member for McMahon and commend the member for bringing the motion to this House. I note that a motion of very similar intent was brought before the Federation Chamber today by the member for Berowra, the Father of the House. That was an equally worthy measure that should be considered by this place.
It is important we signal our solidarity to those who are forced to endure great suffering on account of their race and religion. It is important we extend our support to those who have been able to escape to build a new life here in Australia, by proper methods, but are never quite free from the horror as they pray daily for friends and family left behind. It is even more important we make known to their oppressors that Australia will not sit silently and tolerate the abuse of their fundamental human rights.
On 31 October 2010, 58 lives were taken in an attack on a Baghdad cathedral. This act of violent extremism was sadly not the first or last against the Christian Assyrian people. On 6 January 2008, Epiphany Day, five Assyrian churches, one Armenian church and monasteries in Baghdad and Mosul were attacked with coordinated car bombs. In 2011, there were eight attacks on churches, with more than 35 people wounded, both civilians and security forces.
Christian Assyrians continue to suffer severe and barbaric persecution in Iraq and also in Syria. They are actively discriminated against. Their land has been illegally occupied. Kidnapping for ransom is an all-too-common occurrence. Harassment is commonplace. Since 2003, 600,000 Christian Assyrians have fled their homes in Iraq. Thousands have come here to Australia and to Sydney to start a new life. But I know their brothers and sisters who remained behind are foremost in their thoughts.
There are an estimated three million Assyrians around the world, one million of them living in Iraq and 700,000 in Syria. Under Saddam Hussein, they faced great discrimination, but, though that regime of terror has come to an end, 10 years on their plight still has not. In Iraq, minorities still do not have adequate protection from the state. We call on the Iraqi government to change that.
This morning, the member for Berowra said we need to be generous, as we have been in the past, in assisting those refugees who are forced to flee. He was absolutely right, and that is what our humanitarian and refugee program is for. Australia runs—and did so even before the change in the level of intake—the most generous humanitarian and refugee resettlement program per capita in the world. We should never forget that these places are extremely precious: they mean the difference between life and death for those who are genuinely seeking the protection of those programs. In any one year, less than one per cent of the world's 10 million refugees will be resettled. In any one year, 9.9 million people will miss out. These places are precious. That is why it is crucial that we decide who comes to this country and the circumstances under which they come. That is why it is crucial that Australia runs our immigration program—not people smugglers who gamble with lives and sell hope to the highest bidder.
The commitment of the former minister for immigration, who brings this motion as a private member, put in place a program that would ensure 1,000 places for Assyrians in this situation. Those Assyrians go across a range of nationalities. They are Armenians; they are in other places. That was a worthy measure and it is one that the coalition has supported. I hope, if the coalition is elected to government, it is one that we can continue for some time—supporting Assyrians who are placed in this situation. We are in a situation to work with the local Assyrian community here in Australia to better identify those whom we are able to help. That population obviously also includes the Armenians who find themselves in this conflict.
Just the weekend before last, I found myself in Lebanon and was in a situation to observe at a little closer quarters the conflict that is occurring in Syria. This is a very real situation that has no obvious conclusion, although we can all assume that there will be hardship, there will be great brutality and there will be significant humanitarian consequences. A coalition government, if we are elected, will stand ready to assist with supporting the families of Assyrians here in Australia with being able to ensure that the refugee and humanitarian program is available to those who come through the appropriate method.
I rise to support this motion brought forward by the member for McMahon, because it is a very important motion. I would like to draw attention to the plight of the Assyrian people in Syria who have been caught up in the civil war. Syrian Assyrians are very aware of the persecution of Christians in Iraq following the removal of Saddam over the past 10 years. Many of the Assyrians in Syria actually fled Iraq over the last 10 years and sought haven in Syria and are now being forced to flee Syria as well.
The Assyrian communities in Syria have had a complex relationship with the Assad regime, as was the case with the Assyrians in Saddam Hussein's Iraq. Violence against Assyrians is escalating in north-eastern Syria, which is home to tens of thousands of Christians, many from my community. With government forces, Arab rebels of the Free Syrian Army and Kurdish fighters locked in a three-way struggle for control, the area's Christian population has found itself caught in the middle. The Assyrians have become a target for criminals and terrorists. They are fleeing en masse. About half a million Assyrians have already escaped Syria. As well, the region has succumbed to lawlessness. Christians have become the target of armed rebel gangs which are kidnapping people and holding them to ransom. All sides are perpetrating terrible injustices on the local population, and this is adding to the mass exodus.
The Assyrian community of my electorate desperately want to help their relatives in Syria, but they feel helpless. They have been trying their best to support their families in Syria by collecting money every month to send to help provide food, shelter and support. But this has now become impossible due to Western Union closing its branches, leaving many of my constituents with no way to transfer funds to support their families. The community still collects money and banks it here in the hope they will soon find another way to transfer this much-needed support.
In recent months the priest from Tal Hamas—a town many of my constituents come from—was shot dead in front of the community. The rebels went on to occupy the town, taking over the school, council buildings and many other amenities, which they are still occupying today. This has led to more than 300 families fleeing to parts of Turkey, Lebanon and Iraq. Another village near Hasakah was recently bombed by regime forces on the grounds that rebels were believed to be hiding there. The local church and several homes were destroyed and one student was killed.
Trying to reach a refugee camp over the border gives no guarantee of safety, and many Assyrians are now bypassing refugee camps on the border and heading to monasteries and towns further inland. They are too afraid to stay in the refugee camps. The situation in Syria has gone from bad to worse and it seems it will only get worse before it gets any better. It has been two years already and more than 70,000 people have lost their lives. We all hope the Syrian crisis will be resolved very soon and peacefully.
I would like to thank the member for McMahon for his work and compassion. As immigration minister and as member for McMahon, he has developed responses and allocated an extra 1,000 places in the refugee program to people affected by the Syrian crisis to be resettled in Australia. This included Syrian nationals and members of the Iraqi community, many of whom had family links to Australia. When I sit in the lounge rooms of local Assyrians in my community and hear their stories, it is a plight that, as humans, we have to take very seriously. We have to see what is going on and understand the issues that they face locally. Anyone with a family would know that you always worry about your relatives when they are in harm's way, and many Assyrians are not having the opportunity to talk to their families and their loved ones overseas because of the issues of getting through. I think the member for McMahon should be congratulated for bringing this motion to the House. It is an important one. We hope that Assyrians are able to have a better life that is free from persecution and gives them the opportunities that they so deserve.
I would also like to thank the member for McMahon for bringing this motion forward. If I have any Assyrians in my electorate I am not aware of it, but in all these cases where there are Christians in the world that are being persecuted—and that takes place across the whole world, in many places in many nations—I would like to take the opportunity to speak about it. It is a sad reality that in places around the world—in Iraq, in Syria particularly and in Egypt—it is usual that groups such as Christians are targeted by Islamicist extremists. That is the case most definitely in Iraq. When you look back upon what happened under the Ba'athist regime of Saddam Hussein, things were bad then, but things have only got worse since then.
These days we like to look upon the great term 'Arab Spring' as somehow leading to a great future—a pluralist, secular future where democracy reigns supreme. Yet in many ways it seems as if Iraq is the example that should have indicated to us for the future that that was not the case at all and that what replaces these autocratic regimes in the Middle East is so often extremist in its views. Always in the background is this Islamicist view—the Wahhabiism or Salafism that hearkens back to what some holding Islamicist views might call the 'golden age' of Islam. In any case, it always relates to persecuting, finding fault with and blaming minorities.
That is definitely the case in Iraq and Syria. As other members have alluded to, so often what has happened is that people who have fled the persecutions of Christians in Iraq have gone across the border into Syria only to find themselves now trapped between the Alawite regime of President Assad and the increasingly Islamicist opposition. The Islamicists blame the Christians for being on the government side, and the government blame the Christians for not being sufficiently supportive, and all the while the Christians have to make the decision, 'What are we going to do now?' Many have fled from Iraq into Syria and now have to flee again. At the heart of it is always the persecution of Christians.
Shortly I will also take the opportunity of tabling a petition from the Barnabas Fund which highlights the cause of Christians persecuted in the world, and I thank them for that. But when I saw that this motion was coming up I thought I would take this opportunity as well. I also congratulate the member for McMahon and all members that have—