Tuesday, 18 October 2016
Pakistan: Human Rights
I rise this evening to speak about a matter of great importance to me and many people in the Australian community and, I hope and believe, to many people throughout our world: that is, the persecution of Christians around the world. We hear much in the media commentariat and elsewhere about the persecution of various groups globally. Often this is warranted, and it is important to recognise that our efforts as Australians and as part of the Western world to fight against these injustices are often informed by the Judaeo-Christian values that underpin the values of our country and our civilisation more broadly.
Yet in our world today, the undeniable reality is that it is those of a Christian faith who are the most persecuted people in the world. This persecution can often be at the hands intolerant majorities of other faiths or militant groups, but it is more often than not state sponsored persecution against Christians that is becoming increasingly widespread. Of even greater concern is that this state sponsored persecution often comes at the hands of governments who receive foreign aid from Australia as well as other Western nominally Christian countries.
One shocking recent example is that of Asia Bibi, a mother of five in Pakistan who has essentially been sentenced to death for the crime of being Christian in a Muslim majority country after a recent sentence hearing on a charge of blasphemy. You may ask: What was her crime? She was alleged to have told colleagues that Jesus would have taken a different viewpoint to Mohammed when she was asked not to drink from the same water supply as the Muslim residents in her village. They believed that she would foul the water supply with her unclean Christian hands. After Asia Bibi allegedly said that Jesus would take a different view, a Muslim replied: 'How dare you question the prophet, you dirty animal.' Three other women joined in shouting, 'It's true, you're nothing but a dirty Christian.'
This is sadly just another example of the ongoing persecution and terror that Christians face in Pakistan. Christian women and girls are regularly abducted in Pakistan; some are killed, others are forced to convert and marry; and many never heard from again. This is all occurring at a time when Pakistan is a huge beneficiary of foreign aid funding from a number of Western nations. From Australia alone, Pakistan will receive more than $55 million in aid this year. Other places such as the United States and the United Kingdom give at even higher levels. Clearly, it is a grave concern that Australian taxpayer dollars would go to a country and government that carries out such egregious human rights abuses directed at a particular minority—in this case, Pakistani Christians.
If Pakistani does carry out the execution or refuses to release Bibi, Australia should cut all aid and consider further sanctions, including sporting bans which would necessarily affect the Pakistan cricket team. This would send a strong message to the world that Australia will always stand up for persecuted minorities, not least the Christian communities that the world seems to have turned its back on.
Unfortunately, this intolerable situation is not limited to Pakistan. In the Middle East the starry-eyed optimism of the Arab Spring in 2011 has long since given way to disorder and chaos, with the religious minorities of the region, including Christians, suffering the most. In those territories that have fallen under the control of the Islamic State, some of the world's oldest Christian communities have become victims of a killing spree, with savagery seldom seen since medieval times. Captured Christian and Yazidi men have been ritually beheaded on camera in obscene jihadi snuff films, while captive women are cast into a lifetime of sexual slavery. Early last year, for example, IS publicised a video featuring the choreographed decapitation of 21 Coptic Christians on a Libyan beach.
This sort of persecution is not just a problem in territory held by IS. In Egypt, since the overthrow of the Muslim Brotherhood, the government of President el-Sisi has made a genuine effort to improve the status of Egypt's besieged Coptic Christian community. But old cultural prejudices and patterns of socioeconomic oppression at the hands of its Muslim majority continue to exist and have proved to be deeply entrenched in their society. A US state department human rights report on Egypt confirms 'repeated instances of sectarian violence against Coptic Christians', detailing how a primary school teacher was dragged into court and convicted of the crime of 'insulting Islam' when teaching the history of religion.
In Lebanon, the birthplace of my father, the Maronites of that country, a successful and influential part of its society, are caught between the Shiah group Hezbollah on one side and the Sunni jihadism of IS on the other—again, an intolerable situation for that minority.
Sadly, the Christian population throughout the Middle East continues to decline due to this systematic persecution, and it has been all but wiped out in places where it was once the strongest and indeed in places where it has existed since the birth of Christianity. Over the last decade, almost 80 per cent of Iraq's Christian population have fled their own country. In Syria, a country that only a few years ago boasted a Christian population of two million people, there is only one-tenth remaining. Millions of some of the most productive and entrepreneurial members of that society have been forced to leave their homeland, and their homeland is the worse for it.
Only in Israel, where freedom of religion is guaranteed, has there been a steady increase in the Christian population in the Middle East. If it were not for the work of organisations such as the Barnabas Fund and others, the crisis which I have very, very briefly touched on this evening would be receiving even less focus. Our media do not seem interested in this issue and do not seem interested in championing the cause of these persecuted Christian minorities. That is why I am taking this step in speaking about it in our parliament tonight.
We must continue to do more through our foreign policy. We must ensure that this crisis of Christian persecution gets the attention that it deserves within the international community, let alone our own community. Where necessary, sanctions must be deployed against countries that continue to allow this systematic and state sponsored persecution to continue. Otherwise, how will we address it? Should this form of state sanctioned persecution—such as the case of Asia Bibi in Pakistan—continue, a swift response is required and, as I have said, so is a withdrawal of foreign aid.
The world is rightly concerned and appalled by the use of the death penalty for various crimes in our region. Then why do we not talk more about the death penalty that is applied to, often, Christians on trumped-up charges of blasphemy? This is one of those cases. So the question we must therefore ask ourselves is: how do we turn our backs on this barbarism meted out to those whose practice of faith is the bedrock of many of the values that we hold dear?
In concluding, I would like to commend those who have chosen to highlight these issues, including Herald Sun columnist Rita Panahi. It is not popular but she has chosen to highlight these issues, along with many other people in our community who have brought this crisis into focus. In doing so, I urge the wider Australian and international community to urgently pressure your representatives and your governments to treat this problem with the attention it so desperately needs.