House debates

Monday, 3 June 2013

Private Members' Business

Christian Assyrians in Iraq

11:31 am

Photo of Philip RuddockPhilip Ruddock (Berowra, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

This is not the first occasion on which I have spoken in this chamber on the plight of Christians in the Middle East. I said on the last occasion, in May 2011, that for my own purposes I have often travelled widely in the Middle East. One of the discussions I had was with the Middle East Council of Churches, because already there were numerous Christians who had fled, many from Iraq, and had settled in Syria and Jordan seeking sanctuary. Many of course were seeking to move further afield. In my discussions with the Middle East Council of Churches it made very strongly the points that Christians have been resident in the Middle East for some 2,000 years and that it did not want, essentially, to preside over Christians being driven out of the Middle East.

This motion is designed to focus on those issues. It is not the only motion that will come before the parliament—the government seems to have found reason to talk about these issues again—but I think it is very important to understand that Christian Assyrians, who are a religious and racial minority group in Iraq, have been subjected to ongoing violence, intimidation, harassment and discrimination. They have been discriminated against in many ways, including by the illegal occupation and transfer of their land. There are reports that some 600,000 Christian Assyrians have now fled Iraq, and many of those have settled in Australia. The Assyrians remaining are subjected to harassment, intimidation and discrimination. This motion condemns that violence, intimidation, harassment and discrimination and calls upon the government to raise these issues with the Iraqi government.

I do not know that these matters are pursued by government but I do know that governments have a responsibility to protect their people. When I hear suggestions that we should simply refer to reports that raise these matters I think it ignores the responsibility that government itself has to protect its own citizens and to ensure that they are not discriminated against.

I think the plight of the Assyrians, particularly in Iraq—but it is not only in Iraq; it is now occurring in Syria with the violence that is occurring there and it is also happening in other areas where there are Kurdish populations. The Assyrians face very considerable discrimination . It is not just the illegal occupation of their land and the transferring of it to squatters—which is the subject of quite comprehensive reporting, and I do not think can be put aside lightly—it also includes many attacks on Christians that have occurred and continue to occur in Iraq now. Iraq has its difficulties, but I think there is a responsibility to ensure that the people are able to get full information about what their government is doing and how they are seeking to deal with this issues.

The point I was making was that the Assyrians are unique. They have been predominantly Christian in the regions in which they live. They face discrimination which first started under the regime of Saddam Hussein and the details that I mentioned that I would give include in January of 2008, Epiphany Day, five Assyrian churches, one Armenian church and monasteries in Mosul and Baghdad were attacked with car bombs in a coordinated fashion. On 31 October 2010 at the Sayidat-al-Najat cathedral in Baghdad 58 people were left dead. There were eight attacks on churches in 2011 with more than 35 civilians and security forces wounded. These attacks were used as a tool to suppress the Christian religion in my view.

Kidnapping for ransom has been a significant problem with six abductions reported in 2011, largely around Kirkuk. Some were freed when ransoms were paid but other stories were not so positive. Ashur Issa Jacob was kidnapped by al-Qaida operatives—$61,500 was made in ransom but his body was found later mutilated in Kirkuk, including near decapitation, his eyes were gouged out and there were dog bites on his body.

These are the sorts of experiences that many have seen, and the threats and harassment which are part of daily life are very significant . It is my view that the Australian government needs to be actively pursuing these matters with the Iraqi government. We do not blame them for what is happening but we expect that they would be using all of their efforts to ensure the protection of their people. That is the responsibility of all governments and it is not a matter of treating these matters lightly when so many people have fled. The massive movement of the Assyrian population has meant that it is now about half what it was, and many of those people who continue to live there have been internally displaced.

When they are internally displaced they face very significant problems. There are hostilities. They find it difficult to find work and employment. They find it difficult to get services. They find it difficult to be able to practise their religion. These are matters that are well known when they do occur but in Iraq, in particular, they are significant and continue to be significant.

The purpose of the motion I have moved is to bring these matters to notice to ensure that Australians are aware of the plight of Assyrians and to know what is being experienced by the families of many of their neighbours who live here in Australia. I make the point again that we need to be generous, as we have been over decades, in assisting those people who are refugees and who are forced to flee and we ought to be providing for placements in our own programs to assist.

The Special Humanitarian Program has always been one that has been available for that purpose. Previously, when I was minister, I was pleased that we were able to accommodate many Assyrian Christians in those programs. I regret that today the possibility of being able to assist is so much more limited because of the failure to be able to adequately manage our borders. That has meant that the program places are assigned to others who come and pay people smugglers and those who have real needs end up being very significantly disadvantaged.

I make the point, as I did earlier, that there are some who would suggest that the Australian government has done all that it should and that we should support their efforts. Let me make it clear: I think there is a lot more advocacy to be done. Governments do have a responsibility to protect their own people and I think the Assyrian Christians are entitled to that protection, whether they are in Iraq, whether they are in Syria or whether they are in Turkey.

11:41 am

Photo of Michael DanbyMichael Danby (Melbourne Ports, Australian Labor Party, Parliamentary Secretary for Arts) Share this | | Hansard source

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.

11:52 am

Photo of Craig KellyCraig Kelly (Hughes, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

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)

11:57 am

Photo of Maria VamvakinouMaria Vamvakinou (Calwell, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

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)

12:02 pm

Photo of Alex HawkeAlex Hawke (Mitchell, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I want to commend the member for Berowra for an excellent motion in relation to this matter and, indeed, all members of this place, including the member for Melbourne Ports and the member for Hughes, for excellent contributions in recognition of this serious issue and problem. I think it is a good idea for us in this place to call for the Australian government to raise the ongoing concern of significant human rights abuses of Christian Assyrians with the Iraqi government of today. Given the record of Australia in assisting Iraq and the people of Iraq with their needs over the years, it is a good chance for us to represent our ongoing concern about the serious situation that minority Christian groups are facing in Iraq today.

I also want to say that it has been my privilege to work with the Australian Assyrian community and get to meet and get to know many of its fantastic members and the contribution that they are making. We certainly see in Australia today people entering parliaments in this country like Ninos Khoshaba but also a good friend of mine in the New South Wales Liberal Party, Andy Rohan, the member for Smithfield, who is doing a fantastic job as an Australian with Assyrian background. I also want to acknowledge the contribution of His Beatitude Mar Meelis Zaia, the Archbishop of the Assyrian Church of the East, Australia and New Zealand, who has received the Order of Australia medal in recognition of this contribution.

It is an ongoing concern that even recently, in May this year, we have seen minority Christians amongst those suffering. Up to 140 people died in four consecutive days of violence in Iraq. This ongoing concern is added to records and reports of up to 1,000 Assyrian Christians having lost their lives in the time since the fall of Saddam Hussein. That is a very sobering statistic, indeed. It is sobering to read that if these attacks take place in a Christian neighbourhood or a Christian village you can assume that they are targeted especially against the Christian populations of the neighbourhoods and villages. That is, these attacks are deliberately targeting Christians in Iraq today.

When you read the Human rights report on Assyrians in Iraq: The exodus from Iraq, put out by the Assyria Council of Europe, you find some really sobering information about what is going on and why we need a motion such as this today. The member for Berowra has highlighted the 600,000 Christian Assyrians who have now fled Iraq in fear of this ongoing persecution and human rights abuses. We have seen saw the huge exodus of minorities and continuing threats and violence. While this report notes a general decrease in violence, that is coming from a level which is completely unacceptable to any civilised country.

Assyrians and other minorities are constantly experiencing targeted violence, threats and intimidation. It is disturbing to read that, because of the continuing displacement processes, many Assyrians are now not able to sustain themselves, lacking a regular source of income, opportunities and education, and neither the central Iraqi government nor the Kurdistan regional government is adequately dealing with these problems.

The purpose of this motion is to highlight the dozens of attacks and the revealed patterns of structural discrimination against Assyrians and their organisations during the past few years. We have seen continuing violence. We have seen people wounded. We have seen people killed. We have seen people abducted. We have seen the bombing of churches and parishioners being killed. All of these things, in the world's eyes, are completely unacceptable in any country, particularly in a new state which has been supported by so many countries, like Australia.

We learnt from the report that since 2011 a considerable movement amongst Assyrians has been taking place because of the highly dangerous situation. Women have been especially targeted and have been forced to take on the garments of a faith they do not support. Assyrian women, in particular, face constant threats of physical violence and danger. This is completely unacceptable to the international community and unacceptable to Australia. It is unacceptable that the marginalisation of minorities is partly incorporated into the new constitution of Iraq. I have to say that we do not want to see institutionalised discrimination in the constitution of any new country that is supported by a free society like Australia.

It is vital that we pass this motion today and recognise that the Christian Assyrian community, a minority religious and racial group in Iraq, are subject to ongoing violence and intimidation, that the contribution that they are making here in Australia is to be admired and praised and that we need to do more to raise this issue with the Iraqi government to ensure that all minorities within Iraq are treated fairly.

12:07 pm

Photo of Chris HayesChris Hayes (Fowler, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I also join in strongly commending the member for Berowra in putting this matter before the parliament today, and I welcome representatives from the Assyrian Universal Alliance, Mr David David, Hermiz Shahen and all the members who are here today. As members would be aware, I have spoken on this matter many a time in this parliament. I agree with the member for Berowra that there is an urgent need for a compassionate response by the international community to what is truly a humanitarian crisis in Iraq.

The member for Berowra quoted a figure of 600,000 people who have left Iraq since 2003. I would like to quote a figure provided to me by the Catholic Church. They say that one million indigenous Assyrians, Mandaeans and other Christian minorities have exited Iraq since 2003. They have been forced to flee and have been subjected to forced conversions and physical violence. According to the Catholic Church, over a million people have left and they will not be returning to Iraq.

Australia was a willing participant in the military engagement in 2003 that saw a dramatic restructuring of the infrastructure and forces that operated to influence the outcomes within Iraq. The invasion resulted in a dramatic escalation of disputes between the Sunni and the Shia Iraqis, with the indigenous Assyrians and Christian minorities very much caught in the middle. Over the last 10 years, over a million indigenous Assyrians, Mandaeans and other Christian minorities have been forced to flee the region—a region which they have called home for the last 2,000 years. These Aramaic speakers—the same language that was spoken by Jesus Christ—were in that region well before the British and the French decided to put lines on a map and call it Iraq. These people were truly indigenous to that region and that has now failed to be accepted.

Back in 2010 I spoke of the horrific attack at Our Lady of Salvation Church in Baghdad, where 56 Christians were murdered. People often go to churches, temples, mosques or whatever place of worship it may be to find spirituality, safety and solace. It is pretty heartbreaking to imagine families—young people with children—being murdered at what they would have considered to be the most sacred of locations, their place of worship. The location of the attacks sends a very strong message about religion being the focal point of violence and persecution in the Middle East today. The attack was carried out by members of the Islamic State of Iraq, a group aligned to al-Qaeda, who have made it their mission to rid Iraq of Christian minority groups, including Assyrians, and therefore Christians in Iraq—men, women and children—have been made legitimate targets by these radical organisations.

The report entitled Incipient genocide: the ethnic cleansing of Assyrians in Iraq outlines the detail of systemic and persistent persecution of Assyrians in Iraq, including these gruesome murders, extortion and violence. Looking at the images of the victims, including the children, and putting a face to each of these tragic stories is truly confronting and sobering. Assyrians and other religious minorities in Iraq face the most dire circumstances of any group of people in the modern world. Australia is a nation that is fortunate enough to enjoy political and economic stability and, as a leading member of the global community, has a responsibility to do all it can to improve these conditions. However, we have an additional moral responsibility to assist in Iraq because we were part of the coalition of the willing, which set in motion the chain of events resulting in the persecution of religious minorities in Iraq. Once again, I thank the member for Berowra for bringing this matter to the attention of the House. (Time expired)

12:12 pm

Photo of Kelly O'DwyerKelly O'Dwyer (Higgins, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

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.

12:16 pm

Photo of Laurie FergusonLaurie Ferguson (Werriwa, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I have pleasure in joining with the member for Berowra in relation to this matter. He has a very consistent record in regard to human rights around the globe. The point I want to make is that this is about universality of human rights; it is not about particular religions in particular countries. Tonight I and the member for Melbourne Ports will speak on a resolution in regard to Shiah rights in Bahrain because of their suppression there. Similarly, around the world, we see the Sri Lankan Buddhist community attacking Muslim businesses, and we know about what is happening to the Rohingyas in Burma. Similarly, we deplore actions by extremist Islamic forces in Bangladesh in regard to Christian, Buddhist and Hindu minorities there. These are matters on which this parliament quite rightly acts, and it is good to see the Assyrian Universal Alliance as representatives here lobbying in their country where they live, where they have been accepted as refugees, in regard to human rights in Iraq.

We are talking essentially about the indigenous people of that land. We are talking about people who have been there since at least 5,000 BC. In Iraq, they have become the scapegoats for extremist elements in the country without much protection from the government authorities and in fact with studied neglect of their rights to protection. Often these attacks are contrived around events happening around the world. We see an upsurge of attacks on Assyrians, Chaldeans and Syriac Orthodox people that respond to some comment by the Pope, then we see other attacks because of publications in Danish newspapers et cetera. They become the scapegoats for some of these groups' concerns with events around the world.

We are seeing a very strong flight from Iraq post the overthrow of Saddam Hussein. We are talking about half or more of Assyrians fleeing to other nations in the Middle East and, of course, to Sweden and Australia. In Sweden it is so strong that they have their own first division soccer team there. That is symptomatic of the protection in that country. This is, as I say, a series of orchestrated attacks which, in some sense, are basically about making the country homogeneous by getting all minorities expelled from the country by systematic violence. We see that the community also suffer from unemployment, financial hardship, difficulties in education and growing general religious intolerance, shaping the daily life that they suffer. There is no future for their children. There are grave doubts about practising religion, about keeping institutions going and about preserving language and culture in general. These were things that occurred under the previous Ba'athist regime. There might have been some hope with the Western intrusion that things would improve, but, as we have seen, the power of militias in the country has been such that this violence has actually escalated.

Figures in the publication Incipient genocidethe ethnic cleansing of the Assyrians of Iraq, indicate that, in the years 1995 to 2002, 19 Assyrians and other Christians were murdered. From 2003 to 2012, that figure escalated to over 41 a year. We have seen bombings of religious events and targeted assassinations of religious leaders and priests. A two-month-old infant has been kidnapped, beheaded, roasted and returned to his parents. A 14-year-old child has been decapitated.

Regardless of political beliefs across this parliament, members abhor what is occurring. It is important that Australia joins the European parliaments that have condemned these actions and that the message is given to the government of Iraq. Forces from other countries died in the belief that democracy would be restored and that there would be no more attacks on various minorities in the country. An alarming development is that Kurdistan, at one stage, appeared to offer more protection. On balance, that is probably true, but the situation has been deteriorating there as well.

I strongly commend this motion to the House. It is important that this country is vocal on human rights and that we do stand up for minorities regardless of who they are, particularly those whose language, culture and religion face possible extinction if measures are not taken to protect them.

Debate adjourned.