House debates

Monday, 21 June 2021

Private Members' Business

Assyrian People

11:09 am

Photo of Chris BowenChris Bowen (McMahon, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Climate Change and Energy) Share this | | Hansard source

I move:

That this House:

(1) recognises that the Assyrian people, who are Christian by religion, are an original and Indigenous people of Iraq and encourages the Iraqi Government to reflect this in the Constitution of Iraq;

(2) notes the aspirations of the Assyrian and Chaldean people for the establishment of an autonomous region in the Nineveh Plains and welcomes the in-principle agreement of the Iraqi Government to this request in 2016;

(3) being aware of the Assyrian aspirations for the establishment of an autonomous province, calls on the Iraqi Government to take all appropriate steps to protect the human rights of minorities, including the Assyrian Christian people, and to support the continuation of their linguistic, cultural and religious traditions;

(4) reaffirms the rights of Christian and other minorities of Iraq to live in peace and freedom and calls for all steps to be taken to ensure that members of the affected communities can live in freedom in Iraq; and

(5) calls on the Turkish Government to immediately cease its military campaign in civilian areas of northern Iraq which has resulted in the evacuation of dozens of Assyrian villages and the displacement of thousands of Assyrians.

This House has heard before about the plight of the world's Assyrian people—the plight that has had generations of violence, of oppression and, indeed, of attempted genocide. This situation worsened following the fall of Saddam Hussein. I remember celebrating with our local Assyrian people after the fall of Hussein, because it was felt that brighter days might be ahead. But, alas, that was not to be the case. There were, it is estimated, one million Christians in Iraq in the year 2000. There are now 150,000.

That oppression and violence, which has lasted for generations, continues beyond 2003 to 2010, with the massacre at the Our Lady of Salvation church, which was a terrible, terrible event, and there have been ongoing attempts by the Assyrian diaspora around the world to get attention for the plight of the Assyrian people and to get a homeland for the Assyrian people in Iraq. Again we celebrated in 2016, when the Iraqi government agreed in principle to a homeland for the Assyrian people, but, alas, it has not yet occurred.

Today I want to bring the attention of the House in particular to the plight of those Assyrians in north-west Iraq, who have fled ISIS inspired violence in the past and are now being subject to bombings by Turkey in relation to the dispute between Turkey and the PKK. Those Assyrians who live in the Duhok province and in villages like Zakho and Bersivy are people who have been driven out of other towns and cities in Iraq, particularly around 2014 with the rise of ISIS. The Arabic letter 'nun' was put on the doors of the homes of Assyrian people and they were told to convert or face murder, and they had to flee. Accordingly they fled to villages where they are now being bombed.

Regardless of the rights and wrongs of the dispute between Turkey and the PKK, it is not the fault of the Assyrian people. This motion calls on the Turkish government to cease the indiscriminate bombing of civilian areas, because it is the Assyrian people who are paying the price in that dispute. This motion does call for that to occur, and it is urgent that it does occur. For too long the Assyrian people have been a footnote. They have not been thought of in disputes in the Middle East, whether internal in Iraq or between countries in the Middle East. That must come to an end. The Assyrian people, the Indigenous people of Iraq, the people who have given the world so much, deserve better.

In the brief time remaining I want to touch on a few other elements. I want to take this opportunity—I think it's appropriate in the House—to pay tribute to the patriarch of the Assyrian Church of the East, Mar Gewargis III. He has been the patriarch since 2015. He is a much-loved figure by Assyrians around the world, including in Australia. I met him on his first visit to Australia as patriarch. I met him more recently when he came to Australia to consecrate Mar Benyamin, the bishop of Melbourne, and Mar Awraham, the bishop of Western Europe. He is a good friend of Australia and a wonderful leader of Assyrians around the world. I was particularly honoured and pleased to meet him on my visit to Iraq, in Erbil, and to have lunch with him—as was my adviser, Ninos Aaron—and to talk about the plight of Assyrians in Iraq. I pay tribute to him because he has announced, rather unusually for a patriarch, his retirement from the office due to ill health. The election of a new patriarch will occur later in the year, and we look forward to welcoming that new patriarch to Australia after their election—I have no doubt fairly early in their reign.

I also want to take this opportunity to pay tribute to Assyrian leaders in Australia, particularly Hermiz Shahen and David David, who lead the Assyrian National Council. They join us in the chamber today, together with other leaders of the Australian Assyrian community. It does not matter what the organisation is called or what letters go into the organisation; what matters is what's in their heart, and what's in their heart is leadership of the Assyrian people. I welcome them and thank them for their generations of leadership of the Assyrian people.

I also want to thank the member for Fowler, who will second this motion, and his longstanding commitment to the Assyrian people in his time in this House, which will, as he has announced, soon come to an end. I know the Assyrian people would want me to thank him for his leadership. I thank in advance those honourable members opposite for what I expect to be their support of the Assyrian people as well.

Photo of Trent ZimmermanTrent Zimmerman (North Sydney, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Is the motion seconded?

11:15 am

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

I second the motion. I thank my colleague the member for McMahon for moving this motion and I welcome all our Assyrian constituents who are here today. The simple fact is that Assyrian and Chaldean families have long made their home in my electorate of Fowler and in the electorate of McMahon. Since the 1980s, they've been coming to Australia in greater numbers under various humanitarian, refugee and family reunion visas. The Australian Assyrian community has made a significant contribution to our nation. That's because they are some of the most hardworking, industrious and dedicated people to migrate to this great country of ours.

Despite migrating to Australia, this vibrant Assyrian community have not forgotten where they came from, their homeland, and particularly not the struggles of their people. The Assyrian community of Iraq, as we've just heard, have shown great strength and resilience in the face of extraordinary tyranny and adversity. I commend the Australian Assyrian community for their campaigning and tireless efforts in support of the Assyrian people facing such a terrible plight in the Middle East. I take the opportunity of acknowledging Hermiz Shahen and David David and all the members of the Assyrian National Council of Australia. I want to refer particularly to Ms Carmen Lazar and the Assyrian Resource Centre for their ongoing advocacy and the extraordinary role that they play every day for the Assyrian community settling in this country.

It was only last week that David and Hermiz, together with Carmen, met with the Minister for Immigration, Citizenship, Migrant Services and Multicultural Affairs to discuss the ongoing and pressing issues facing the Assyrian people of Iraq. During the meeting, they raised the possibility of Australia playing a bigger role in the settlement of Assyrians and other religious minorities from Iraq in this country. I know this approach is particularly supported by His Beatitude Archbishop Mar Meelis Zaia, as well as His Grace Archbishop Nona of the Chaldean Catholic Church. My community in Western Sydney has played a very constructive and welcoming role in settling refugees in this country, particularly with a majority of refugees coming from the Middle East now calling our area home. I must acknowledge the great work of Carmen Lazar and the Assyrian Resource Centre and thank Carmen for her extraordinary efforts and assistance in settling migrants and refugees from the Middle East.

Over the past decade, the Assyrian people have been forced to abandon the region in Iraq where their culture and traditions have flourished for over 6,000 years. Many Assyrians have been forced to flee from their homes in cities into remote villages, where unfortunately there's limited access to health, education and other essential services. These families are living in very harsh conditions with few available resources and certainly no hope of returning to their homes. The recent attacks on Assyrian villages in Iraq, which have threatened the lives of many and left places of religious and cultural significance in ruins, demonstrate that the survival of the Assyrian culture and identity is clearly under threat. There are reports that the situation is so dire that the Assyrians of Iraq have declined in number by a staggering 90 per cent over the past decade. From an estimated 1.5 million in 2003, they are now just over 150,000. We can only pray that those remaining in Iraq do get the opportunity for a new start in life, free from the threat of persecution and free to practise their religion and cultural identity.

The ongoing political turmoil in Iraq leaves me with great fear for the plight of the Assyrians and other religious minorities living there. While the threat of ISIS may have been removed, the Assyrians, Christians and other religious minorities unfortunately continue to live in fear under increasing threat from various militias controlling local areas, particularly throughout the Nineveh Plains. We hear reports of curfews being imposed upon them as well as harassment and abuse. Like many, I welcomed the statement by the Iraqi government in 2016 to recognise the aspirations of the indigenous Assyrians, leading to an in-principle agreement to establish an autonomous region. I call on the Iraqi government to give effect to that decision of 2016 and provide a safe haven for the Assyrian people. We cannot abandon people to whom our civilisation owes so much.

11:19 am

Photo of Tim WilsonTim Wilson (Goldstein, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I'd like to begin by thanking the member for McMahon for moving this motion. Respectfully, as far as I'm aware, there isn't a very large Assyrian population—in fact, I suspect there is virtually no Assyrian population—in the federal electorate of Goldstein. But I'm standing here to support this motion from a position of principle—the principle that all people have a place on this earth and have a right to the basic tenets of freedom and security in live their lives. This is a considered position, based on the principle that if you wish to have a society which is cohesive and sustainable then decentralisation of governance and control, and self-determination are critical for all people. This principle is to make sure we all understand that it doesn't matter who you are—the basis of your ethnicity or your social, religious, sexual orientation or gender identity—everybody has a place in this world and the right to be treated with decency and respect, and everybody has a right to a place to call home.

That's the basis on which I support this motion. The spirit of it is quite clear: the Assyrian people, particularly those who are living in Iraq, have experienced discrimination and violence, and they deserve a place which they can call home and to be safe and secure in their lives. The reality is that that hasn't been their recent history. As a consequence of that, we have people who have felt persecuted and discriminated against simply on the basis of who they are—both because of their heritage and, more critically, because of their religious beliefs. There's no place for that in this world—I'm sure you also share that view, Deputy Speaker Zimmerman—and there is certainly no place for it in this country.

When you are the custodians of a lived heritage which extends for thousands of years—in Iraq for 6,000 years—it isn't just the custodianship of a heritage and culture which you want to keep alive but it's one that we as a common people and humanity should wish to keep alive. Survival of culture, traditions and history rests so much in the continued living of culture, particularly around languages. When people are isolated or separated from their country or land and don't have the capacity to coexist peacefully then that language, tradition and culture diminishes progressively. That makes humanity worse off, not just the custodians who lose their identity and their sense of cultural significance.

Deputy Speaker, as you know, this comes from a position of principle, as well as my Armenian heritage and some of the tragedies which befell them as a minority group in some communities—with consequences that have befallen them throughout history because of isolation, discrimination and persecution of them because of their history and traditions. Of course, coming from the Goldstein electorate I represent the third-largest Jewish community in Australia. There is another community which knows very well the lived experience of people being treated like that—used, abused and persecuted—because of their religion, ethnic heritage and identity.

This goes to the heart of a speech I gave in this parliament only last week, extending on the recent speech by the Prime Minister to the United Israel Appeal. He talked specifically about the horrors of identity politics. That's when we cease to see people through their common humanity and start to identify them through their identity. That can be used both to bolster or to persecute, and we can lose sight of what brings us together as a people. Of course it's our common humanity that builds the bridge between us when we sometimes have differences in our history and our traditions—that's to build a more perfect humanity for all.

It starts with acknowledging and understanding people's basic right to live out their lives. It's that sense of commonality and equality between all people, regardless of their background; their right to safety and security; their right to be free to exercise their conscience as they see fit; and, of course, to manifest that consistently with respect for the rights and freedoms of others. When those principles are violated, it isn't just those who are the victims of it individually but it's a violence that's perpetrated on all of us. That's the basis on which there's validation of harm that can be done to any person, simply because of who they are, their background and their right to exist. That's why we must always stand up on these important issues—we must stand up for a common sense of humanity—particularly for the Assyrian people and Christian minorities in Iraq. That is why we stand with them today.

11:25 am

Photo of Steve GeorganasSteve Georganas (Adelaide, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I too rise to speak on and support this motion. I thank the member for McMahon for raising such an important issue, an issue we should speak out on, and I acknowledge his commitment to the vibrant, diverse community that he represents, which is very similar the community in my electorate of Adelaide. I would also like to welcome the Assyrian leaders and community from around Australia who are here today. What happens around the world directly affects us and our communities here in Australia. That is why advocating for peaceful resolutions in other countries is also good for us here in Australia. This is precisely the purpose of this motion.

Assyrians in Iraq are an ethnic and linguistic minority group. They are the indigenous peoples of Upper Mesopotamia. Most of the world's two to four million Assyrians live around their traditional homeland, which comprises parts of northern Iraq, Syria, Turkey and Iran. According to a report by the Centre for the Study of Genocide and Human Rights at Rutgers University:

The Assyrian people have been repeatedly victimized by genocidal assaults over the past century… Massacres, rapes, plundering, cultural desecrations, and forced deportations were all endemic. Around 750,000 Assyrians died during the genocide, amounting to nearly three quarters of its pre-war population. The rest were dispersed elsewhere, mostly in the Middle East

but all around the world. When we think of the Middle East and the conflicts that have taken place over the past few years, we have to remember that the Christian minorities in the Middle East are some of the oldest Christian religions, ongoing, since the birth of Christ—some of the oldest Christian religions in the world—and that population has been diminished, gradually, slowly and systematically.

So today I join members on both sides of the House in calling on the Turkish government to immediately cease its military campaign in civilian areas of northern Iraq, which has resulted in the evacuation of dozens of Assyrian villages and the displacement of thousands of Assyrians. This is something that has gone on for too long and must stop.

It is estimated that 60,000 Assyrians, and maybe more, have settled here in Australia. I know that our Australians of Assyrian descent are desperate, as all of us are, to see peace for their people. Everyone has the right to live in peace and to live in harmony. We must speak out for the fundamental human rights of all people, including minorities, such as the Assyrian Christians. That includes their freedom to practise their linguistic, cultural and religious traditions. That is why I too call for a protected enclave, as we have heard, in the Nineveh Plain for the Assyrian people. As we heard previously from members, this could take a number of forms, including an independent state or autonomous region of a city state. However, it must guarantee a safe haven, and stop the annihilation of the Assyrian people. Governments of all persuasions here in Australia must speak out on human rights violations, and today we need our government here as well to speak out for the Assyrian people and other persecuted minorities.

I would also like to talk about our aid budget, which has been assisting people in the Middle East. Australia's aid budget has shrunk under this current government. In 1995 Australia was ranked ninth in the list of OECD countries; in 2020, we were ranked 21st. So more aid is needed to assist these people. We have a moral obligation to help countries and to help people around the world, such as the Assyrian people, who have suffered immensely through wars, destruction and the displacement of people—things that are unacceptable today, in a modern world. We need to stop this, we need to speak out and we need to ensure that these people have the same rights as everyone else to practise their linguistic, cultural and religious traditions, and to live in peace.

11:30 am

Photo of Russell BroadbentRussell Broadbent (Monash, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I thank the member for McMahon for bringing this motion forward and those members who have supported this motion. The 60,000 Assyrian Christians have been taken into the bosom of this nation. Mesopotamian history goes back thousands of years. This country's history goes back thousands of years. We know there are paintings that are some 60,000 years old in this country. You also have an enormously long history in the Middle East. So, you've come into the bosom of a country that has a long history. The Assyrians in this country are not only making a great contribution; they are also leaders throughout our communities, which we appreciate very much. This nation loves its multicultural being.

This motion also recognises the oppression of Christians around the world, especially, in this case, in the Middle East. I have never been dispossessed. I live in this country that has freedom of movement and freedom of religion. While our values, our relationships with one another and the respect we have for one another are sometimes tested, we live in a world that has not suffered the dispossession and the attacks that this community has suffered in Iraq. I want to recognise that today. I don't come from a place where I have stood in your shoes, because I can't. It comes from my heart. I've grown up in this country and have only observed and heard and cared about what was happening to my fellow Christians around the world, especially in Iraq.

You have stood the test of time. You still exist today. You are part of hundreds of generations. We need to send a message to those we can. Australia has reasonable influence. We're not without influence. You're a part of that influence. You, as a community—and I'm talking about the Assyrian Australians—are very important. Australians with an Assyrian heritage are extremely important to the families within the Assyrian community because you are all connected back to your homeland, even though you're in the bosom of this great south land.

As members of parliament we are saying to you that we actually care about what is happening. The member for McMahon didn't bring this to the table in this green part of the parliament for no good reason. He brought it to the table because there's an issue here that we as a nation recognise needs to be addressed. When you're in pain, we're in pain. When you're suffering, we're suffering. We're recognising that. If a part of our community is suffering, it means we're all suffering. You are very much a part of the Australian community, and I talked about our having taken you into the bosom of this nation.

I am honoured to have had these few moments to address this issue, to support the member for McMahon and to say to Christians around the world: 'We're on your side. You stand with the authority of your maker, and we stand with you.'

Photo of Steve GeorganasSteve Georganas (Adelaide, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

There being no further speakers, the debate is adjourned and the resumption of the debate will be made an order of the day for the next sitting.