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Mr. Stephen Pound (Ealing, North) (Lab): I make no apologies for again raising the issue in the Palace of Westminster of the Chaldo-Assyrian community in Iraq. In doing so, I have three main aims: first, to discuss the specific issue of safe haven for the rapidly diminishing, brutalised, tormented Chaldo-Assyrian community in Iraq; secondly, to seek further assurances from Her Majesty's Government in their contacts with their American allies and the Iraqi Interim Government for specific protection for the persecuted Chaldo-Assyrian community; and thirdlyand, in some ways, perhaps as importantlyto raise the profile of a people who are often ignored, often neglected and often not recognised. If I repeat myself occasionally, I shall not apologise, because they are a people whose voice must be heard. They are a people whose plight must be recognised and they make up a community that deserves the attention of all civilised nations on this earth.
I pay tribute to a couple of my parliamentary colleagues who have tabled questions on the issue. I am delighted that I have been joined in this Chamber by my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew), who tabled a question to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office on 4 November, as did my hon. Friend the Member for Pendle (Mr. Prentice) on 17 November. Both questions specifically asked Her Majesty's Government to increase the support that could be given and the negotiation that could be had with their allies and the IIG on such a sensitive subject. I am also delighted to be joined by my hon. Friend the Member for Dumfries (Mr. Brown), who has been an absolute stalwart supporter of the Chaldo-Assyrian community. He has attended meetings with me and has many friends among that proud community, as I have.
It may seem odd that, when Iraq is racked by so many different internal and external dissensions, we are talking about a specific community. However, I want to speak about a community that not only suffers double discrimination but faces extinction. The community has a history that is far longer and far more proud than ours. It is under attack to such an extent that it is shrinking from 1.5 million people, to 1 million, to about 800,000. The slow-motion genocide of the Chaldo-Assyrian community in Iraq is happening in front of our eyes. I cannot understand how any person with a drop of civilised blood in their body can stand by and not do every single thing within their power to protect, support, respect and advance the interests of that community.
The media of the world are focused on Iraq. Amid the dust of bombed buildings, the crash of gunfire and the screams of the wounded is a community in even greater pain. The indigenous Chaldo-Assyrian Christians of Iraq are under siege. Their community is suffering expropriation of its land; their neighbours in northern Iraq have illegally expropriated much of the land. To make matters even worse, Islamic militants have specifically stepped up attacks and targeted the Chaldo-Assyrian community. More than 95 per cent. of Iraq's Christians are Chaldo-Assyriansotherwise known over the years as Syrians, Chaldaeans or Syriacs. As a result of persecution under Saddam Hussein and an escalating anti-Christian attack since the fall of his regime, at the best guess there are now between 800,000 and 1 million Christians left in Iraq.
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Many of us here are aware that Chaldo-Assyrians have maintained a continuous and totally separate ethnic identity, language, culture and religion that predates the Arabisation of the near east. Today, the Chaldo-Assyrians speak a distinct languagea derivative of neo-Aramaic known as Syriac. It is the language that was spoken by Christ. Aramaic is almost certainly the oldest continuously spoken and written language. Throughout all the travails, slaughter and genocide, the community has not just preserved its culture, tradition and pride, but preserved inviolate the language that Christ spoke. There are people present in the Public Gallery who speak that language.
The Chaldo-Assyrians are the direct descendants of the ancient Assyrians and Babylonians, who, as Old Testament scholars will be aware, once controlled the largest empire in the middle east. The heartland of that ancient Assyrian empire is in the geographical territory that we now call northern Iraq. The Chaldo-Assyrians were virtually the first people to accept Christianity; they did so in the 1st century AD through the apostolate of St. Mari and St. Addai.
It is widely documented that the Chaldo-Assyrians have suffered greatly in their ancestral homeland throughout the centuries. They have that great pride, courage and continuity, but they have suffered appallingly. The genocide by the Ottoman Turks from 1915 is commonly known as the Armenian genocide, but during it the Chaldo-Assyrian community lost 750,000 people, which was half its population. In addition to the loss of those men, women and children, there was the loss of land. Between 1914 and 1918, the Chaldo-Assyrians fought on the side of the allies. They incurred massive losses and earned wide respect for their courage and heroism. After the war, the British Government promised them an autonomous homeland in Iraq. I regret that that promise was never fulfilled; I do not hold my hon. Friend the Minister personally responsible, but our country once promised that.
The Chaldo-Assyrians were the first people to be massacred by the Iraq military following the Iraqi state's admission to the League of Nations in 1932. In August 1933, the Iraqi military turned their weapons on the Chaldo-Assyrian community and commenced a massacre in the villages located in the current governorates of Dohuk and Nineveh. During that massacrethe second massacre in a very short period4,000 innocent Chaldo-Assyrians, mainly women, children and the elderly, were butchered in cold blood.
The Ba'athist Government were no more sympathetic. Under Saddam Hussein, more than 200 Chaldo-Assyrian villages, including historical monasteries and churches, were destroyed. Saddam's Government denied the Chaldo-Assyrians recognition as an ethnic minority; instead, they categorised them as "Christian Arabs." They were forbidden to teach the ancient Syriac language, despite their status as Iraq's third largest ethnic group and the fact that they are the indigenous people of Iraqtheir presence in that country predates that of any other ethnic group.
In 1984, dozens of Chaldo-Assyrian activists were imprisoned. Three leaders of the Assyrian Democratic Movementthe ADMwere hanged in an attempt to
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destroy the growing movement for Chaldo-Assyrian rights. I am honoured and delighted to number among my friendsI hopeJohnny Michael of the ADM, which exists to this day despite the persecution that it has suffered over the years.
I hope that during this brief debate it will not be necessary for me to touch at length on the history of the Assyrian people. Most of us know Ashurbanipal and the epic of Gilgamesh, and of that people's many great achievements, such as the invention of writing, postal systems, dry-cell batteries, the wheel and, even, of lager. I simply wish to say that it is a very ancient community with a history that goes back to the dawn of time and that it is now in the darkest hour of its long life.
In northern Iraq, particularly after 1991 when Iraqi military operations commenced against them, Chaldo-Assyrians and Kurds fled to the borders of Turkey. The Iraqi military were prohibited from entering a safe haven established in northern Iraq above the 36th parallel. That enabled the Kurdish people to return to their villages, but many decided to resettle in Chaldo-Assyrian villages. The Chaldo-Assyrians who returned to their villages were powerless to regain their homes, many of which had been in their families for thousands and thousands of years.
At least 58 Chaldo-Assyrian villages have been partially or fully occupied by Kurds: eight are completely occupied and 50 partly occupied. All are in Dohuk province and in areas controlled by the Kurdistan Democratic party, the KDP. I am extremely grateful to Amnesty International for its continuing reports on the situation and on the relationships between the KDP and the indigenous Chaldo-Assyrian people. The KDP has refused consistently to return lands and property to the rightful owners, and, regrettably, has encouraged more Kurdsincluding Kurds from outside Iraqto settle on Chaldo-Assyrian land.
My purpose in delineating the situation is not to attack the Kurdish people, who themselves have suffered. However, it cannot be deniedand I pray in aid the work of Amnesty Internationalthat there has been land expropriation and a land-grab on a massive scale, and that that is turning the screw of pain and misery on the Chaldo-Assyrian people. During Saddam's regime, Chaldo-Assyrian lands in the Nineveh plains, their ancient homeland, were taken by force and rented at a strange function known as the annual auction. A large portion of the lands was confiscated and distributed to Iraqi military and intelligence personnel; some of the confiscated land was rented to Arabs or Kurds.
At the annual auctions, the highest Kurdish or Arab bidder was allowed to rent the land for a year. Instead of returning the land to its rightful Chaldo-Assyrian owners, the current Minister of Defence, Hazim al-Shaalan, has sent a letter to the Minister of Municipalities to instruct the Minister of the Mosul governorate to distribute Chaldo-Assyrian land to Iraqi military and intelligence service personnela continuance of the policy of the previous Ba'athist regime. The lands in question are in the following Chaldo-Assyrian districts of the Nineveh plains: Telkepeh, Baghdedea name later changed to Qaraqosh, then to HamdaniyaKaramles, Bartilla,
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Batnaye Telesqof, Alqush, Basheqe-Bahzani and Shaikhan. If I have mispronounced any of those names, I apologise.
Since the fall of Saddam Hussein, Chaldo-Assyrian organisations have recorded the killings of more than 100 Iraqi Christians, who are subjected to escalating violence. They are targeted regularly, owing to their distinctive ethnicity and faith. As I said earlier, they are a double minority in their own ancestral homeland as they are both an ethnic and a religious minority. The average Iraqi faces many risks in the unstable situation in Iraq, but Iraqi Christians are up against even more dangers. They also have to deal with the additional threat of attacks from Islamic fundamentalists who want to drive them out of Iraq, kill them or force them to convert to Islam. Iraqi Christians are perceived by Muslim extremists as allies of the west, and face additional problems from their neighbours, many of them Kurdish, some of whom have used violence against the Chaldo-Assyrians or illegally expropriated Christian villages.
The Chaldo-Assyrian Christian community is highly vulnerable and under siege. I posit that there is no danger of the Kurds or Arabs vanishing from Iraq, or of their communities there being reduced to a tiny remnant, but there isthis is not alarmista real and genuine possibility that that could happen to the Chaldo-Assyrian community unless the security situation vastly improves.
Under article 53(D) of Iraq's transitional administrative law, there is a provision for an autonomous administrative region. In fact, that is guaranteed under that article. The establishment of such an autonomous administrative region would provide a safe haven for Iraq's Christians and, desperately importantly, would encourage the tens of thousands of Christians who have fled for their lives from Iraqespecially in recent monthsto return to their ancestral homeland.
I referred earlier to the Amnesty International report. Amnesty has raised a number of cases with Massoud Barzani, the leader of the KDP, including the particularly vicious murder of Francis Shabo and many other unsolved killings. It has also stated that it has received the names of people said to be linked to the KDP's first party branch who are allegedly involved in murders, including that of Francis Shabo. Amnesty describes a great many unsolved assassinations and states:
"The security apparatus of the KDP, Rekkhistini Taybeti, and that of the PUK, Dezgay Zanyari, are said to have units akin to assassination squads, whose members receive orders from senior party officials. There is also widespread conviction that such unlawful and deliberate killings could not have been perpetrated without the knowledge, consent or acquiescence of the leaders of these two parties".
I have many examples of the slaughter of innocent Chaldo-Assyrians on their way to and from church, work and their studies. As other hon. Members wish to
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speak, I will not list them, but I assure the Chamber that this is not just a long and bloodstained list, it is, sadly, a list that grows longer by the day.
Amnesty also highlights the KDP's pressure on Chaldo-Assyrians to join the KDP or fly the Kurdish flag. That is part of a continued attempt to marginalise the Chaldo-Assyrians politically and prevent Chaldo-Assyrian organisations from getting support. As recently as July 2004 the KDP in Dohuk and Irbil prevented Chaldo-Assyrian groups and organisations, such as the Assyrian Democratic Movement, the Chaldo-Assyrian women's union, and the Chaldo-Assyrian students union in Dohuk, from being part of the special electoral committee to nominate participants to the Iraqi National Conference, the purpose of which was to elect representatives to the Iraqi National Assembly. The KDP appointed Chaldo-Assyrian representatives employed by the KDP, rather than permitting Chaldo-Assyrians to appoint their own representatives.
The situation is as violent and awful as I have described it, right up to today, which has seen gunmen bomb two Christian churches in Mosul. At least four Iraqi national guard troopers were killed in those incidents. The specific targeting of Christian churches continues, with the unimaginable consequence that a Christian is terrified to attend his or her place of Christian worship. I can imagine few things more utterly depressing in this century than the fact that one cannot pray to one's God in the company of one's co-religionists without the fear of death, especially when one is a part of a community with a history that stretches back to the period just after the death of our Lord. They cannot pray together today without that fear. We must never forget that.
As recently as 9 September 2004 a mortar attack was launched against the inhabitants of the Chaldo-Assyrian town of Baghdede in the Qaraqosh district. In that attack a 13-year-old Chaldo-Assyrian boy, Mark Louis Sheeto, who was completely innocent and whose only crime was the crucifix he wore around his neck and the faith he held true to in his heart, was killed and his mother and eight-year-old brother were critically injured. That is one of a series of attacks specifically designed to drive the community from its heartland and the area where it lives and trades.
In the same month, two 26-year-old Chaldo-Assyrians were kidnapped and beheaded. The beheading was captured on video and the video distributed not among those whose mindless perversion knows no limits and who actually buy such videos for gratification, but among members of the Chaldo-Assyrian community in northern Iraq, in order to drive fear into that community and force its members to flee their ancestral homeland.
On 2 December this year, Leith Antar Khanno, who was 29, was found dead near Mosul hospital. He had been kidnapped two weeks ago. The family could not come up with the ransom. His body was found first, and then his head. Khanno was married with a young daughter.
Perhaps some of us have assumed a defensive carapace when faced with the horror that is modern Iraq; perhaps some of us are less sensitive today than we were a year ago; perhaps some of us, faced with a constant stream of sadistic horror, are less aware and
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concerned than we once were; perhaps we suffer almost from emotional overload when we see the nightmarish visions and the sick and repulsive videos. However, I do not think that hon. Members present will feel any less worried, concerned, horrified or sickened by such attacks than they were a year ago.
We are talking about a Christian, peaceful community that has never waged war within the boundaries of modern Iraq; a community that has been attacked but never attacks; a community whose defence has been to flee and form part of the great Chaldo-Assyrian diaspora, which now stretches to Australia, Los Angeles and this country. For that community to be attacked in such a way is particularly vicious and unforgivable.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr. Chris Mullin) : Is my hon. Friend saying that the terrible kidnappings and murders that he has described have happened to people because they are Chaldo-Assyrian, or is he saying that those things are happening to rather a lot of Iraqis, including Chaldo-Assyrians?
Mr. Pound : I thank the Minister for his question. I do not imply for a second that the sufferings of the Chaldo-Assyrian Christian community are in any way unique in Iraq; what I am sayingand what I can document and prove consistentlyis that Chaldo-Assyrians and Christians are being specifically targeted. No group in modern Iraq is being targeted in the same way. There has been one attack on a mosque in the past three months, and 18 attacks on Christian churches. Although there have been Sunni and Shi'a incidents of violence, I suggest that there has been nothing in modern Iraq remotely comparable to the current persecution of the Christian community.
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for bringing forward the issue. Does he agree that it is sad that there has been very little condemnation from the moderate Islamic community in Iraq of the way in which the Christians and the Chaldo-Assyrians have been targeted? If such condemnation were to start, at least there would be some belief that there is solidarity across religions. We know the fanatics, and what they wish to achieve, but the Muslim community, which is moderate, should condemn what is happening. I hope that my hon. Friend agrees.
Mr. Pound : I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. As I have said, I am grateful to him for the way in which he has consistently raised this issue; I pay tribute to him and give him credit for that.
One thing that I regret most is the fact that the natural allies of moderate Muslims in Iraqthe Chaldo-Assyrian communityhave never been recognised on anything other than an individual basis by the voice of moderate Arabs in Iraq. One would have thought that the community would have been regarded as natural
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allies and that moderate Muslims would have seen a unity of purpose with it. It is a great tragedy that such is the extent of the anti-Christian propaganda in Iraq, it seems even to have subsumed some of those from whom one would expect better.
Mr. Mullin : My intervention arises from the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew). Is my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, North aware that Iraq's Shi'a Muslim leader, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, called for an end to the attacks and talked about the need to respect the rights of Christians and those of other religious faiths, and about their right to live in Iraq peacefully? A number of other moderate Islamic leaders have made similar statements in recent weeks.
Mr. Pound : Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani has been a still, small, voice amid the storm, particularly since his return to Iraq from his recent operation. However, that statement was made some time ago and there has been very little indication of any diminution in the attacks on the Christian community since. I am happy to pay tribute to him; he is someone with whom one can have rational discourse. However, I do not hear that voice echoed anywhere else in Iraq. That does not make his statement any less important. Sadly, it makes it rather more isolated.
I mentioned the Iraqi transitional administrative law and I ask Her Majesty's Government to consider raising the issue of the self-governing administrative region with the United States and the Iraqi Interim Government. Such a region would provide the safe haven that is so desperately needed. It would have to be situated in and around the Nineveh plains and, specifically, in Dohuk province, not just because that is the ancestral homeland of the Chaldo-Assyrians, but because it is heavily populated by them to this day. I am sure most that hon. Members are familiar with article 53(D) of the transitional administrative law, but, for the record, it states:
The history of the Chaldo-Assyrians is both tragic and glorious. It is both proud and desperately sad. One thing that it has repeatedly demonstrated is that the community cannot depend on others to protect it and it has an urgent and vital need for autonomy, in order to protect it and enhance its security. What specific steps have Her Majesty's Government taken to bring about a self-administered region? I also ask the Minister to pressure the KDP, where possible, to ensure that violence, kidnapping and other crimes in KDP-controlled areas are punished.
Her Majesty's Government and the United States should, perhaps financially, support the redevelopment and reconstruction of Chaldo-Assyrian villages and infrastructure and the return and resettlement of Chaldo-Assyrian refugees. They should also give whatever support they can to the Christians of Iraq to
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enhance their security and protection. By doing so, the British Government would be empowering a force for moderation in Iraq.
We have mentioned moderate Muslim influence and comment earlier, but moderate Muslims, together with Chaldo-Assyrians, are the main bulwarks against the growth and spread of Islamic fundamentalism. If the Iraqi Christian community is reduced, as it might be, to a tiny remnant, it will have no power to oppose the imposition of Islamic law in Iraq. The presence of a live and vibrant Christian community in Iraq adds great strength to the ability of moderate Iraqi Muslims to oppose the spread of fundamentalism.
I cannot believe that Her Majesty's Government would view the plight of the Christian community in Iraq as merely a side issue, peripheral to the major and dramatic events that affect that country. I realise that many people take this matter seriously and I pay tribute to them. We are missing a great opportunity, however, if we cannot support non-Muslims, who are the natural allies of moderate Muslims and who are opposed to the spread of militant, extreme Islam in Iraq.
Furthermore, Iraq will utterly fail to be the leading and positive example of pluralism and democracy for other middle eastern countries to follow if it fails to give strong support to its ancient Christian Chaldo-Assyrian community. It is therefore very much in the interests of our Government and all other Governments who do not wish to see Iraq dominated by Islamic fundamentalism to give their full support to Iraq's Christians.
Her Majesty's Government have rightly claimed that human rights are an important part of foreign policy, and the situation in Iraq shows that our commitment to human rights is not theoretical but utterly practical. The Chaldo-Assyrian community may have a long history of persecution, betrayal, massacre and genocide, but it is still there. We must ensure that in months and years to come no Member stands in this Chamber and talks about the former Chaldo-Assyrian Christian community in Iraq. We also have the opportunity to right a grave historical wrong and fulfil the long-overdue promise made by Britain after the first world war to grant the Chaldo-Assyrians an autonomous homeland.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has described the situation in Iraq today as parlous, perilous and dangerous. The agency urges us not to seek the forced repatriation of those who seek asylum in this country, and in the short term I am sure that we would not wish to do so. In the medium to long term, if we are not to see the end of that ancient Christian community and force for moderation, we must act to support these people who have stood steadfast by us in this country for many years. They have, with their blood, earned themselves the right for us to support them to the utmost of our ability.
Bob Spink (Castle Point) (Con): A community that has been attacked but has never attackedthat is what the hon. Member for Ealing, North (Mr. Pound) referred to in his eloquent, moving and persuasive speech. It is always an honour to follow him; this time, however, it is not a pleasure because of the circumstances. Indeed, it is not really acceptable for someone who uses the English language as poorly as I do even to comment on the hon. Gentleman's performance, but it was quite inspirational.
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The history of this dignified, courageous and persecuted people is worth reviewing. The Chaldo-Assyrians have suffered greatly in their ancestral homeland of northern Iraq and southern Turkey throughout the centuries, particularly during the genocide of the Ottoman Turks, which started in 1915 and was known, as the hon. Gentleman said, as the Armenian genocide.
During that genocide, the Chaldo-Assyrians lost about 750,000 peopleabout half their populationas well as a very large proportion of their land. They fought on the side of the allies and incurred heavy losses in battle in the first world war, and the British Government promised them an autonomous homeland in Iraq after the war. That promise, as we have heard, has never been fulfilled.
In August 1933, the Iraqi military turned their weapons against their own Chaldo-Assyrian Christian citizens and massacred about 4,000 of them in villages in what are now the governorates of Dohok and Nineveh. The Assyrian Democratic Movement and the Jubilee Campaign, representatives of which are here today, are calling for urgent and much stronger support for Iraq's community of about 1 million, which remains besieged to this day.
Christians are by far the largest non-Muslim minority in Iraq, and the Chaldo-Assyrians and moderate Muslims in Iraq are the main bulwarks against the growth and spread of Islamic fundamentalism in that country. That isthe Minister asked about this earlierthe key reason they are being singled out for persecution and driven out of the country. I hope that he will accept at least that fact today. If Iraq's Christian community is reduced to a very small size, it will have no power to oppose attempts to impose sharia law in Iraq. The presence of a vibrant Iraqi Christian community greatly strengthens the ability of moderate Iraqi Muslims to oppose the spread of Islamic fundamentalism. That is in the interests of not only moderate Muslims, but the rest of the world.
Attempts to Islamicise Iraq have grown bolder and stronger since the fall of Saddam Hussein's regime. In that respect, the war has been subject to the law of unintended consequences. There have, for example, been numerous reports that Iran is trying to take advantage of the instability in Iraq by exporting its brand of so-called Islamic revolution and sending large numbers of agents to support Shi'ite militias friendly to Iran and radicalise the Shi'ite population. The most notorious Shi'ite militia, the Mahdi army, which is led by Moqtada al-Sadr, is well know to have close ties with the Islamic regime in Tehran.
The Chaldo-Assyrians have been among the first and the most vulnerable victims of the Islamic extremists, although that is not to say, of course, that others have not suffered. Several Chaldo-Assyrians, who were alcohol sellers, were assassinated by Muslim militants, and numerous threatening letters have been sent to Christians telling them to adopt Islamic practices such as wearing the veil and to convert to Islam or face death.
Islamic extremists conducted lethal, co-ordinated terrorist bombings on Sunday 1 August against five churches in Baghdad and the northern city of Mosul, killing 12 people and injuring many more. In the wake of those bombings and other anti-Christian violence,
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thousands of Chaldo-Assyrians fled, further reducingsome would say decimatingIraq's Christian presence. Iraq's ancient Christian community is now in danger of extinction or, at least, of being greatly reduced.
Since those attacks, Islamic extremists have struck Christian churches again. On 16 October, Islamic extremists bombed five Chaldo-Assyrian churches in Baghdad, although nobody was injured. On 8 November, bombs exploded at two churches in Baghdad within the space of five or 10 minutes, which shows the level of co-ordination of those attacks. At least three people were killed and 40 injured. That illustrates for the Minister how the Christian community is being specifically targeted in an attempt to terrorise, destroy or drive it away so that fundamentalism can triumph. We must fight against that.
The hon. Member for Ealing, North eloquently described how two further churches in Mosul were bombed and another was stormed by gunmen only yesterday. On 4 July, two Chaldo-Assyrian children16-year-old Raneen Raad and her six-year-old brother, Raphidwere shot dead at their home by Islamic extremists while their parents were away. The hon. Gentleman also told us about beheadings.
Bishop al-Qas of Amadiya in northern Iraq said that posters had been put up urging Christians to convert to Islam or leave the country. The point we want to drive home today is that Christians need an autonomous region so that they can have security and safety. Chaldo-Assyrian Christians have received threatening letters telling them to support the Muslim rebellion against the coalition authorities and to practise Islam or suffer severe consequences. The recipients of those letters were told that if they did not follow basic rules such as wearing the veil and did not follow Islamic teachings, they would be raped, tortured, kidnapped or killed, or have their houses, along with their families, burned or bombed. Muslim extremists are calling Iraqi Christians crusaders or fifth columnists for the Christian west and the Americans. Three Christian bishops in Mosul have received letters threatening to kill one member of each Christian householda little biblical referenceas a punishment for women not wearing the Islamic veil.
The British Government and their US ally have often said that one positive outcome of the war in Iraq would be the emergence of a free, democratic country setting a good example for the whole region to follow. On that basis, I supported the Government action there. We have learned a lot since then. Yet, if the rights of the Chaldo-Assyrians, who are Iraq's second largest ethnic group, and its largest religious faction, are not respected, and their security needs are ignored, Iraq will be deprived of a major force for religious moderation, and a significant bulwark against Islamic fundamentalism. That will gravely threaten its chances of ever becoming a leading example of pluralism, freedom and democracy for the middle east.
Therefore, it is clearly in the interests of Iraq, of the British Government and of all those who do not wish to see Iraq dominated by Islamic fundamentalism and all that that entails to give their full support to Iraq's besieged Christian community. Not only have members of that community had to contend with attacks by
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Islamic extremists, but they have seen the illegal expropriation of their land and villages by neighbouring communities, depriving them of their livelihoods and shelter.
I urge the Kurdish authorities, particularly the Kurdistan Democratic party, to consider the matter carefully and to respond to what I have said, so that the international community can judge their actions. The Kurds are a great race. I deeply respect and admire them in many ways. They are the largest group in the world without their own homeland, and I have spoken in their favour a number of times in the Houseon at least one occasion in front of you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I see you nodding your assent. I want to be sure that they understand fully the plight of the Chaldo-Assyrian people, and I hope that they will want to be seen to be acting properlythereby promoting their own cause. If they do not do so, how can they expect the rest of the world to stand up for them in their persecution?
At least 58 Chaldo-Assyrian villages have been occupiedeight completely and 50 partiallyby the Kurds. All of them are in Dohuk province in areas controlled by the KDP. A list of the villages is available from the Jubilee Campaign. It is claimed that the KDP has not yet properly responded to numerous appeals from the Chaldo-Assyrians, requesting that it relocate the Kurdish squatters out of the villages. I await its response.
I apologise for the repetition in this speech. Other hon. Members will have received the same briefing as I have, and many are more expert than I am on the subject, but I will always take the trouble to stand up and fight for religious freedom and against persecution around the world. As I am a good friend of the Kurds, I hope that they and the KDP will listen to me. I have supported them on many occasions.
Under Saddam Hussein's regime, Chaldo-Assyrian lands in the plains of Nineveh were taken by force and distributed to members of the military and intelligence services, or rented to Arabs or Kurds after the annual auction, as we have heard. Instead of returning those lands to their rightful owners, the current Minister of Defence, Hazim Al-Shalan, has given instructions for the confiscated Chaldo-Assyrian land to be distributed to Iraqi military intelligence service personnel. That is not acceptable. It replicates the odious Ba'athist regime policies that we are supposed to be eradicating.
The Chaldo-Assyrian Christians are highly vulnerablethey are a community under siege. While the average Iraqi faces many risks in common with them in that unstable situation, the Iraqi Christians are up against even more danger: they have to deal also with attacks from the Islamic extremists from Iran and, for reasons that I have already explained, from those who want to drag them out of Iraq and kill them or force them to convert to Islam.
Those Islamic extremists view the Christians as an obstacle to their dream of Islamicising Iraq, and they wrongly perceive them as close allies of the coalition forces. I urge the allies, particularly Britain and America, seriously to consider setting up an autonomous administrative region, as requested by the hon. Member for Ealing, Northand as promised in article 53(D) of Iraq's transitional administrative law.
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I want the British to push hard for the return of the Chaldo-Assyrian land and villages in northern Iraq that were illegally expropriated.
An autonomous administrative region for the Chaldo-Assyrians would provide them with a safe haven. That would significantly enhance their security; and the British and American Governments should help bring it about as a matter of urgency in the Nineveh plains and Dohuk province. I would like the Minister to sayor he can write if necessarythat the British Government have taken and will take specific steps to help set up that autonomous administrative region, in line with their promises and with the transitional administrative law.
Now that Britain has influence in Iraq, it should be used fully to protect the human rights of the Chaldo-Assyrians, whose history has been a long succession of persecution, betrayal, massacre and even genocide. The Kurds have suffered similarly, and I hope that they will be especially sensitive to the needs of that severely oppressed minority. The Kurds, above all, should feel the pain of the Chaldo-Assyrians; they should know that they are not a blight against them that needs to be removed.
The Government also have the opportunity to right a grave historic wrong by granting the Chaldo-Assyrians an autonomous homeland. The Government and their US ally also have a duty to enable financial support for the reconstruction of Chaldo-Assyrian villages, schools, clinics and infrastructure in order to allow for the return and resettlement of Chaldo-Assyrian refugees. They should also give whatever support they can to the Christians of Iraq to enhance their security and protection. So far as I am awarethe Minister may correct me if I am wrongBritain has not yet given direct bilateral aid to those people. I have mentioned before that money may still be available from the oil-for-food programme. I do not know if that is so, but if it is we have a good use for it.
Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. I apologise to the hon. Member for Dumfries (Mr. Brown), but we have had two very long speeches and we need to start the winding-up speeches so that the hon. Member who opened the debate has the chance of a reply from the Minister.
John Barrett (Edinburgh, West) (LD): One of the issues raised by my constituents when I was elected to the House was the persecution of Christians in Indonesia. Some months ago, we held a debate on the Christian community in Africa. Today's debate will not be the last on the subject. The only question is: where next?
The hon. Member for Ealing, North (Mr. Pound) opened a debate on the subject earlier this year. I pay tribute to him today for his eloquent speech, in which he spoke of suffering, pride and courage. Unfortunately, there are too many examples. We heard several examples today of Christians suffering in Iraq, and the hon.
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Gentleman said that he believed that there was a campaign of murder and harassment against Christians in Iraq. When one listens to those examples, one is left in no doubt. The list is long, but if time permits I will add one or two examples.
This is the right time for such a debateit is the right debate at the right time. Christmas is only a couple of weeks away, and the proposed elections in Iraq should happen next month. We should be optimistic that we are moving toward better times for people of all religions in Iraq.
Before this debate, I was contacted by ministers from two of my local churches, the Rev. Dr. Russell Barr and the Rev. Roger Wiles, who gave me their contributions. One of them raised a question that I will ask the Minister.
Although I am normally optimistic, and this should be an optimistic time, the reality of life on the ground not only sends a chill down the spine, but stretches my capacity for optimism to breaking point. In Iraq we see, on a daily basis, the toll of eventsdeath, destruction, car bombs, military deaths, civilian deaths, kidnapping, abduction and tortureon many people of all religions and of none. The level of suffering and the number of dead due to religion one can only guess, but the Christian community is clearly suffering badly. People are acting in the most despicable ways, and claiming that it is in the name of their God, and that they know that God is on their side. This may not be a religious war, but many impartial observers now see two fundamentalist movements taking up potentially hostile positions.
It is too simple to say that in a world with one superpower, the USA, and with a moral majority on the rise, religion is at the heart of the conflict, but it is foolish not to see the USA's position in relation to the rest of the world as something without a religious and Christian dimension. When any group is so powerful, it should come as no surprise that others feel threatened by a force that was unleashed at a time when we in this House were told that there was a clear and present danger, and that chemical or biological weapons could be unleashed on us within 45 minutes. Unfortunately, we rushed to war when there were no weapons of mass destruction and we were not under a direct threat.
However, those things have happened, and we are where we arebut where is that? How many people have suffered and are suffering? There is no doubt that we are better off without Saddam Hussein in power, but the world is undoubtedly less safe than it was. One only has to look at this building, which has armed guards and is surrounded by concrete blocks, to see that we are not in a safer society.
How many people have died in Iraq? It is difficult for anyone to agree on figures: one body count on the web says that between 14,000 and 16,000 civiliansmostly Muslimshave died, but there may be more. There are also military fatalities, most of whom are Christian. Deaths are now regularly reported in our media in order of importance: we get great detail about the deaths of British and American soldiers, British civilians, individual hostages and contractors; slightly lower down the pecking order come security and police officers; and at the bottom of the heap, we get a list of insurgents.
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We rarely hear about the many civiliansmen, women, Christians and others. Their religion is sometimes mentioned, but sometimes not. It is shameful how the value of certain lives registers, while others are hardly even counted. It is important to consider how we view the lives of others. Today we are discussing the Christian community in Iraq, which many people feel is as our own, but expressing our views for one community should not diminish our concerns for all people, whether they are of any or no religion.
Estimates of the size of the Christian community vary, but most settle at around 700,000, which is half the figure counted in the 1987 census, so 50 per cent. of them have gone. They now make up about 3 per cent. of the population. The one point on which there is agreement regarding numbers is that people are fleeing on a regular basis. All forms of medianewspapers, magazines and TVhave covered what that community has suffered. Some of the claims are too gruesome to repeat today, but in the past we have heard about villages being destroyed, churches and monasteries being razed, and Christians being deported to Baghdad.
Christians were often victims of the growing abduction industry because they were seen as being wealthy. There have been a number of horrific stories, but one that stuck in my mind was that of a 70-year-old Catholic nun who was murdered in her convent in central Baghdad. She was stripped naked and cruelly tortured before her throat was cut and she was beheaded. There are many other horrifying stories, and I do not think that we need to dwell on them now.
A large number of Christians were kidnapped in Baghdad between April 2003 and last month. Naturally, people are terrified of even going to prayof coming out as a Christian. When they see a leaflet saying "Convert or Die", as we heard about from the hon. Member for Castle Point (Bob Spink), moderate people who just want to pray feel that they have to keep their head down and not be noticed. What hope do they have in the face of such extreme views?
We also have to ask whether the American-British intervention has made things worse than before. A number of leading Muslim scholars issued a religious edict that said that anyone who aided the US and British forces would be "condemned to hell." The flight of the Christians mirrors the flight of the Jews. We have an oppressed minority in Iraq and the situation is getting worse instead of getting better.
We hopewe have to have some hopethat the future rests on basic human rights returning to all citizens of Iraq. Some legislation is now encapsulated in chapter 2 of the transitional administrative law, and that is a good start. The current proposals are the way forward. My party and I did not support the military intervention at the time, but, as I said, we are where we are and we have to move forward. We have to use the proposals to provide a framework to be built on for the future. The framework must show that all Iraqis must be equal before the law and that any discrimination on the grounds of ethnicity, gender or religion will be illegal.
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Mr. Russell Brown : The hon. Gentleman mentioned human rights. Does he believe that it was right for the KDP to appoint Chaldo-Assyrian representatives to the Iraqi National Conference? Should it not have been up to those people to appoint who they wanted and not who the KDP wanted?
John Barrett : The hon. Gentleman raises an important point, because although we are urging individual groups to select their own representatives, we have an interim authority right now and hopefully once the constitution is in place and there are elections, people's representatives will be the just and right representatives for that group. I honestly do not know whether they ended up with the right representatives, preaching in the right direction. However, that is one of the points that must be taken into consideration when we are considering the way forward in Iraq, so that we have a true democracy. It is not only who votes and who counts the votes that is important, but the system that will be in place. That point is well made.
The current framework can be built on and discrimination can be eradicated. The next step should see the elections in January establish a transitional Government. After that, we should get a permanent constitution and a referendum, with elections by the end of 2005 on the basis of the new constitution. I hope that any problems that arise now will be eradicated then. All being well, Iraq should be in the home straight next year, heading towards peaceful democracy and with the troops possibly even on their way home.
What do the people of Iraq see now? They see continual killing of innocent civilians. They see reports of torture in Abu Ghraib prison. Many have little hope for the future. Although some services are returning, basic supplies and utilities are intermittent. Fear is part of daily life for communities. For the Christian community there is another dimension: they are linked to the coalition forces by religion, because of their ethnicity and their faith. Christians are also seen as well-to-do, with some attacks on them because they are Christian but others possibly because they are seen as a relatively wealthy section of society.
Iraq's Christian community has been heavily targeted in the unrest that has swept Iraq following the invasions, and some have packed up and left. At the start of August, there were attacks on Christian targets in Baghdad and others in Mosul, which have been mentioned by other speakers. As brevity is required, I will leave them out. Will the Minister deal with the issue of people seeking asylum because of their religious beliefs and asylum seekers who genuinely convert to Christianity while in the UK? What position do the Government take on that?
A constituent of mine converted to Christianity, then fled to the UK and feared that he could not return. The local church in my constituency agreed that he was a practising Christian, but the immigration authorities would not accept it. Who makes the decision about whether Her Majesty's Government believe that someone has converted to Christianity?
Tragic events are unfolding in Iraq and some fundamentalists have led a systematic campaign against the Christian community, but all groupsof all religions
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or no religionare suffering persecution in Iraq. We can only hope that 2005 will move the game towards an end, and that we can be optimistic for the future of people in Iraq.
Mr. Gary Streeter (South-West Devon) (Con): The hon. Member for Ealing, North (Mr. Pound) has done the House a great service in raising an important issue. The House should be a place where we can champion the cause of persecuted minorities all over the world. In his hands, this Chamber is becoming precisely that, and I pay warm tribute to him for the vivid and articulate way in which he put his case. It is what we have come to expect from him. I pay tribute, too, to my hon. Friend the Member for Castle Point (Bob Spink) for making a powerful case for more support for the Christian community. I shall talk about that community shortly, but I want to pick up a couple of points that were made.
The hon. Member for Edinburgh, West (John Barrett) described what we are considering as a war of religion, or at least as being fundamentally to do with religion. Religion often gets a bad press, and we should not lose sight of the fact that all over the world, because of their religion, Christians, Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs, Jews or people of other faiths are going about doing goodbuilding families and communities, and doing acts of kindness, self-sacrifice and courage. Sometimes peoplenotably John Lennon in his song "Imagine"consider that the world would be a better place without religion. I do not believe that. The acts of terrorism that are being carried out in Iraq are done by bad people. If religion is used as a motivation, that is an abuse of their religion and is not excused by it.
There is a particular problem with the Christian Church in Iraq, which I shall discuss. However, we must recognise that what is happening is partly a reflection of the post-conflict insurgency in Iraq. The Minister will probably agree with almost everything that I will say, but one thing that he probably will not like nevertheless needs to be repeated: what is happening is partly a reflection of the lack of proper preparation for post-conflict Iraq and putting the country back together again. I have said that four or five times and will go on saying it, because it is essential that the Government learn the lesson. I know that the intervention was American led, but if Britain were to become involved in other interventions in the lifetime of this Parliament or in our parliamentary lifetimesI very much hope that it will not bewe should learn the lessons of Iraq: we need to ensure that we know what the outcome will be; we need an exit strategy; and we need to ensure that we know how to put a country back together if we take it apart, bit by bit, with bombs, planes and missiles.
I am concerned about the state of the Chaldo-Assyrians in Iraq. We have had two powerful history lessons today about their proud and long history and their contribution to society generally. A good friend of mine, Canon Andrew White, works in the middle east and Iraq and stays in e-mail contact with me. I have been following some of the recent attacks on churches through his reports on the ground. The matter is very serious, and I am concerned about the numbers who have fled. I hope that it is a temporary flight and that there will be repatriation when the country is safer. I am, of course, also concerned about the many who have
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been killed or kidnapped, the churches that have been attacked and the people who are scared to practise their religions by going to church. In a recent e-mail, Canon White wrote:
"There was further bad news regarding the Christians in Iraq yesterday. A mass leafleting to all the Churches and individual Christians took place telling them to leave the country or convert to Islam."
We have heard from hon. Members about specific atrocities that have been committed. Such things are happening right nowthey are real and genuine. Being a practical politician, I ask myself what our response should be and what we should hope to hear from the Minister in his windingup speech. Wherever possible, wethe British and Americansmust ensure that we provide as much security as we can on the ground for the Christians who are suffering in Iraq. We must not turn a blind eye to the persecution of that faith minority.
Sometimes, I think that it is not politically correct to be a Christian. There are signs sometimes that we give more space and support to people from other faiths. I want the Minister to confirmI know that he will be able tothat we are not turning a blind eye simply because it is a Christian community that is involved rather than a community of another faith that might be more attractive in terms of the current British point of view. I think the Minister knows what I am sayingand here comes the rebuttal.
The hon. Member for Ealing, North and my hon. Friend the Member for Castle Point have proposed a specific policy, namely that there should be an autonomous or semi-autonomous region for the Chaldean Christians in Iraq. At this stage, the Conservative Front Bench cannot positively support such a policy, but we are always open to persuasion and ready to listen and learn. I was going to say "open to higher office", but that is not quite true. The reason why such a policy would not be choice No. 1 is that if we were to make provision for a semi-autonomous region in Iraq for the Christians, pressures would come upon us from the Kurds, the Sunnis and the Shi'as for the country to be broken down into a series of autonomous or semi-autonomous regions. We would all have to describe such a result as a sub-optimal outcome. We would not want such a situation for two reasons. First, we want Iraq to function as a proper, multi-faith, multicultural and multi-ethnic society. We want the country to be put back together with every community learning to live together, for the sake, I believe, of the Iraqi people. Secondly, what kind of signal would making such
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provision in Iraq send to the many other countries around the world where there are ethnic and religious tensions between different groupings?
I sometimes look at the history of the history of the world and wonder whether we have ever been able to live together successfully when we espouse strong religious beliefs that are different from those of the people in the next-door community or when there are racial and ethnic divides. However, in this globalising world there is no choice but to make things work, or else the world will simply break down into myriad cantons and become virtually ungovernable. I understand the reason for calling for such a policy, but at this stage I cannot support it.
I wish to ask the Minister some questions before he deals with the many issues raised in the debate. What steps are the Government taking to ensure that the new Iraqi constitution will genuinely guarantee the rights of Christians and other religious minorities to full and equal citizenship? Will his ambassador be able to extract a commitment from Iraq's principal Sunni and Shi'a leaders to that effect? Do the Government accept that there is a need to accelerate the rate at which Iraq's indigenous security forces are trained and brought on stream, so that they can offer security on the ground in respect of the killings, persecution and unacceptable behaviour that we have heard about today? What space will there be for the Christian communityfor the Chaldo-Assyriansin the forthcoming election? What particular provision, if any, is being made for them in the assembly that will come out of the elections that, we hope, will take place on 30 January?
I am sure that the Minister will agree that this country, rightly, is a tolerant nation and that we give equal space to people from all faiths. Freedom of religion is one of our fundamental principles and tenets, and that is right and proper. When dealing with the Iraqi situation or with any other nation in the world, when entering into diplomatic relations, when applying diplomatic or trade pressure, and when considering aid provision for any country, should it not also be a fundamental part of our foreign policy to insist on the same freedom of religious expression and worship in each country with which we are dealing that we rightly grant in our own?
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr. Chris Mullin) : My hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, North (Mr. Pound) set out his case powerfully and vividly. He has described the tragic history of the Chaldo-Assyrian people. Having said that, my understanding of the situation today is somewhat different from his, as I hope to set out. We all know that Iraq is suffering general lawlessness and that many people of all faiths and political persuasions, including many of European extraction, have paid a high price for that. It is also true that, in some parts of Iraq, notably in the Sunni-Arab area, west of the Tigris river, attacks have been specifically directed at Christians and churches, as my hon. Friend and others described.
We have recently consulted fairly widely with a range of leading Christians in northern Iraq, however, and we can find no significant support for autonomy; indeed,
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we found significant opposition to it. One of the Christian leaders in northern Iraq to whom we spoke said that the idea seemed to have come from members of the Chaldo-Assyrian community in exile rather than those who live in Iraq.
One or two hon. Memberstwo, I thinkreferred to the position of Britain in relation to Iraq in the 1920s. All I can say is that Iraq's position was different in the 1920s from that which exists today. At that time, Iraq was a League of Nations protectorate, whereas we are now dealing with a sovereign Government, and there can be no read-across from the 1920s to the 21st century.
The hon. Member for South-West Devon (Mr. Streeter) asked whether Christians would be represented in the Parliament after the election. Well, the Independent Elections Commission in Iraq is certifying 240 political parties that are hoping to register, so it is probably fair to say that no school of thought will be unrepresented in the electionsalthough it will be for the electorate to decide which will be elected. There have been requests to register from parties representing a broad range of Iraqi society, including Assyrians.
The hon. Member for Edinburgh, West (John Barrett) asked about the position of people who applied for asylum on the basis that they had come here and converted to Christianity and therefore felt that they would be at risk if they returned; I am unsure whether he was talking only about Iraq, or about other places as well. All asylum cases are dealt with on a case-by-case basis, and if someone can demonstrate that their fear of persecution is genuine, their case will be considered very seriously. However, I want to draw the hon. Gentleman's attention to a phenomenon that certainly occurs among refugees of my acquaintance, so I will be surprised if it does not occur in other parts of the country: there is a tendency for them to convert at the last moment when all other options have run out. Naturally, asylum adjudicators and Home Office officials tend to be sceptical about that kind of conversions.
Many of the problems that have been outlined, and certainly the more recent ones, are a legacy of what happened under Saddam Hussein's regime. There were decades of oppression of Kurds, Turkomans, Assyrians and many others. They were forcibly driven from their homes, and many thousands were forced into exile.
All Iraqis, including Chaldo-Assyrians and other Christians, now benefit from the transitional administrative law, which safeguards their fundamental rights, including freedom of religion, freedom of expression, and other basic civil and political rights. The transitional law will continue to apply until the adoption of Iraq's permanent constitution next year. Of course, Iraqis had no such rights under the regime of Saddam Hussein.
Mr. Russell Brown : We are all looking to the future for all the different groupings, especially ethnic groupings and those based on faith, which we have been talking about today. The Minister mentioned Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, and fine words have been spoken,
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but what we need to hear in the Chamber today is whether what those fine words describe will be delivered in the future. That is what the Chaldo-Assyrians want to hear; they wish to have a future in the new Iraq and, despite the difficulties that we face, they could have had a better start towards that future than they have had so far.
Mr. Mullin : On that last point, my hon. Friend may well be right. All I can say is that everyone of good will of all political persuasions and beliefs is working towards the same end. That end was outlined by the hon. Member for South-West Devon; it is a multicultural, multi-faith and democratic society in Iraq.
My hon. Friend the Member for Dumfries (Mr. Brown) was a bit dismissive about the fine words, but my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, North was asking for some words. He wanted to hear from representatives of moderate Islam and other sections of society that they, too, condemned the attacks on Christians. The only point that I was making is that some people, including the Grand Ayatollah, have made such statements. It is right that we hope that they make such statements not just once but regularly, and loudly, too, so that everyone, and especially their own followers, can hear and understand the message. However, I think that we have been a little unfair to some of the moderate Islamic leaders who have repeatedly made clear their position on attacking Christians and, indeed, people of other religious faiths.
Reference was made to article 53(D) of the transitional law, which guarantees the administrative, cultural and political rights of the Turkomans, the Chaldo-Assyrians and all other citizens, but contrary to what my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, North suggested, it does not include a reference to a self-governing region. Ultimately it is for the Iraqi authorities to determine the proper interpretation of the transitional administrative law; however, in our view, article 53(D) does not imply the right to an autonomous administrative region for one particular group.
As I said at the outset, as far as I am aware, Christian leaders in northern Iraqand we do talk to themhave rejected the idea of an autonomous region, saying that it is more popular among Assyrians living outside Iraq than among those who live inside. They fear that such a proposal would make their community more, not less, vulnerable to attack, and I know that that is not my hon. Friend's intention. One leading member of the community recently described the proposal as "very wrong and dangerous".
Mr. Pound : The point that the Minister touches onthe assertion that the community in exile may be making a statement not in keeping with one made by the community in northern Iraqis of the greatest and gravest significance. Will the Minister give us some suggestion as to who exactly made that statement in northern Iraq? What statement from what group would convince him that the feeling is more widespread that a safe zone is the only way to preserve not just the culture and community but the very lives of the people whom we are discussing?
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Mr. Mullin : If my hon. Friend will forgive me, I cannot say who made such a statement, because they did so in off-the-record conversations. I have not been back to check the sources, but I know the identity of the people concerned, and they are extremely prominent. They would probably be well known to many in the exiled Chaldo-Assyrian community in this country. There may well be some people in the Christian community in Iraq who would like such an autonomous region; all I can say is that we have not been able to detect them so far. If any group does hold such an opinion it is, in our viewand it is only our viewa rather small one.
Christian Iraqis are well integrated in the autonomous area of Kurdistan, the Kurdistan regional government in Kirkuk and most parts of Mosul, but not of course in the western side of the city, where the situation is difficult and dangerous. In Irbil, some Christians occupy senior Government positions. One is Deputy Prime Minister, another is Minister of Finance. They have a representative in the interim Iraqi Government in Baghdad, who is Minister of Displacement and Migration. A committee has been set up in Ankawa, a Christian village just outside Irbil, to help the resettlement of Christians from elsewhere in Iraq. So far, about 1,000 Christian families have resettled in the areas around Irbil and Dohuk provinces. Another 50 Christian families, mainly from the south of Iraq, have resettled in the Sulaymaniyah province. A further 1,000 Christians took temporary shelter in Sulaymaniyah from Mosul during fighting there in early November, but we understand that most, if not all, of them have returned to their homes in Mosul.
Progress continues to be made, and I am pleased to report that on 6 and 7 December, the first 70 of 170 Assyrian families that had fled to Baghdad in the 1980s returned to their homes in the Faysh Khabur area along the Syrian border. Some 120 Kurdish families who lived there have left, and we expect the remainder of the Assyrians who fled in the 1980s to return, if they wish to, shortly.
We remain concerned by reports that Christians are suffering discrimination in other parts of Iraq. Earlier this summer, we joined Christian and Muslim leaders in condemning the appalling attacks on churches, which, as hon. Members have described, resulted in a number of deaths and injuries to dozens more. We have welcomed the statement from Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani that called for an end to the attacks and indicated the need to respect the rights of Christians and those of other religious faiths, and their right to live peacefully in Iraq. I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, North will join me in condemning the bombing of the two churches in Mosul yesterday, which was obviously the work of those seeking to divide Iraq's diverse communities and divert the political process.
Our officials in Iraq regularly meet members of the Christian communities and raise their concerns with the Iraqi authorities. The Iraqi Human Rights Minister, Bakhtiar Amin, who recently met my noble Friend Baroness Symons, is particularly concerned about the issue and we have asked our missions in Iraq to continue to monitor the situation closely.
United Nations Security Council resolution 1546 welcomed the commitment of the interim Iraqi Government to move towards a federal, democratic,
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pluralist and unified Iraq, in which there is full respect for political and human rights. The immediate goal for the interim Government is free and fair national elections across Iraq on 30 Januarythe date recently announced by the Independent Elections Commission of Iraq. The elections for a Transitional National Assembly will give Iraq's minority groups an opportunity to be represented at all levels of Government in Iraq and we believe that the Assyrians will play their part in the elections. Recent opinion polls make it clear that the majority of Iraqis want to vote.
Members of the Iraqi community in the UK will also be able to vote. The International Organisation for Migration has been tasked with arranging out-of-country voting on behalf of the Independent Elections Commission and preparations, which are still at an early stage, are being finalised.
Iraq's future constitution and state structure remain a matter for Iraqis to debate and to decide in the Transitional National Assembly, which will draft the permanent constitution in 2005, so all Iraqis, including Assyrians, will be able to identify with the values and institutions enshrined in the constitution. We will continue to urge Iraqis to ensure that the fundamental rights of all citizens are protected, regardless of their sect or ethnicity.
The Iraqi people are now set on a course that offers them the best chance to overcome present challenges and the hope for a better future of a free, democratic, stable Iraq. That is the future that all of Iraq's communities, including the Assyrians, richly deserve.
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