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Your people are scattered on the mountains with none to gather them.
When I went to the Nineveh plains, what struck me was that there was a sense of security in those ancient, entirely Christian villages. I met many displaced people who had come up from Basra and Baghdad to settle in the Nineveh plains, and I heard some absolutely heart-rending stories. I met a young girl who had lost her parents and her sisterthey were murdered. I met a widow who had lost her husband and was now caring for a disabled son. Her husband was murdered in what can only be described as an anti-Christian pogrom. A quiet, cool and collected lady was sitting there listening to the appalling stories, and she finally came and told us her story. Her husband was a deacon. On the way back from church, he was killedhe was blown up by a bomband then her daughter disappeared. At that stage, she broke down and burst into tears, and we could not carry on the interview. We subsequently heard that she had never seen her daughter again. Imagine the anguish of that lady: she lost her husband, who was killed in a roadside bomb, and then her 18-year-old daughter, who disappeared and was probably murdered.
Those are just three of the many terrible stories told by ordinary people who have no interest, and have never shown an interest, in politics. They just wanted to get on with their lives in the suburbs of Baghdad but have had to flee to what they consider to be a kind of safe haven in the Nineveh plains.
David Simpson (Upper Bann) (DUP):
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this worthwhile debate. He has outlined some horrific stories, and he will be aware of the case of Asya Ahmad Muhammad, who was sentenced to five years imprisonment at the age of 14 after fatally stabbing her uncle while trying to defend her family, who were being attacked for converting to Christianity. Would he agree that the doctrine of treating non-Muslims as dimmysthat is the terminology
that is usedor second-class citizens is unacceptable? Does he believe that there is a duty on the Government to apply more pressure, not just on Iraq but on other Islamic countries, to end that stance in respect of their own citizens?
Mr. Leigh: It is interesting that the hon. Gentleman makes that important intervention. In a conversation with an Orthodox priest, I asked, perhaps rather naively, what would happen if somebody converted from Islam and joined his congregation. I had just attended an extraordinary, moving service at his church. The whole village turned up. These churches are entirely bare: there are no icons or ornaments. The priest gives a simple service in Aramaic, which was the language of Jesus Christ. These people are the last speakers of Aramaic.
As I said, when we were having coffee with the priest after the service, I asked, rather naively, What would happen if somebody from the local Muslim community wished to join your church? He said, They could join my church today, but tomorrow they would be dead. There was no doubt about thatit was no exaggeration. One simply cannot evangelise in Iraq or, indeed, in most Muslim countries, and if people seek to convert, they will be killed.
On the hon. Gentlemans intervention, the people who have suffered like that are genuine religious refugees. There is no way in which they could possibly be considered economic migrants. We have a duty of care to them, but our greatest duty of care is not to try to pick up the pieces when they flee, as is happening. That ancient community is fleeing to New Zealand, Greece, Australia, America and this country. Our duty is surely to help them to stay in their own country, which is what they want to do.
It was soul destroying to go around the villages and talk to the old men and women who, generation after generation, had ploughed and tilled the land. They wanted to staythey had no choice but to staybut the young people all wanted to go to America. How tragic that is. I know from my own experience, because my wife is of Russian extraction, that once someone leaves their country, they lose their roots and language. The Aramaic language would be lost for ever. This is not just a humanitarian disaster but a cultural disaster of massive proportions.
There is one thing that we can do. As I said, I had conversations with people in the mountains. I just say to the hon. Member for Castle Point (Bob Spink) that I have nothing against Kurds. They have suffered terribly, and they, too, are under huge economic pressure, but Kurdistan is, in effect, an independent state. One never sees the Iraqi army or the Americans there. The area is run by the peshmerga and is, in effect, an independent state.
There is ample evidenceI can provide the Foreign Office with all the evidence that it needsthat at least 58 villages with a Christian population have been partially or wholly expropriated by Kurds. That happens in a subtle way. It does not happen as it did under Saddam, who used bombing. It is not as cruel as that. There are no chemical attacks or anything like thatnobody is suggesting that.
I myself saw what happens. I was with an old man in a village in an area with a dominant Kurdish population, and some kids from the next village came along. They were starting to take bits of the vineyard, and he tried to shoo them away. He told me that when he had done that a couple of months earlier, he had been beaten up.
Expropriation happens gradually. Then the case goes to court, the court agreesYes, you have the title deeds to the field, and your family has been tilling it for generationsand makes a judgment, but nothing happens. There is a process in Kurdistan of villages gradually losing a field here, a house there, yet the people have no effective representation in the Government.
There is one place in Iraq where Christians could have some kind of safe haven: the Nineveh plains. They are not the majority of the population there, but they are the single largest ethnic group. They are happy to live there with the Arabs and Yazidis. I must admit that I had never heard of the Yazidis before I went to Iraq. Again, they are a small religious ethnic group in Iraq, and we want to try to keep them there as well and to protect them.
In the Nineveh plains, the Assyrian Democratic Movement, which, as I said, has 80 per cent. of the Christian vote, is campaigning for a 19th province. There are already 18 provinces in Iraq. The Christians are not interested in breaking up Iraq, or in their province seceding. They just want one province where they can work with the local Arabs and Yazidis and have some real say in the governance of the area. That would give them a sense of security and of belonging to their own country.
As I said, I spoke to many refugees. Where did they go? They either left the country altogether, or, if they wanted to stay in the country, they went to the entirely Christian villages in the Nineveh plains. They may not stay there. They may stay for a time and then, as things easeI am sure the Minister will reassure us that things are getting better in Baghdadthey may return to Baghdad or Basra. I very much hope that when the Minister replies to this debate, he will at least keep an open mind on the creation of a 19th province around the Nineveh plains. He may say that there is divided counsel, that it is difficult to get the Baghdad Government to agree, that we do not want to ghettoise the Christiansthere are always 101 reasons for not doing somethingbut surely we should listen to the voices of the Christian people and their democratically elected representatives. My hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Mr. Cash) spoke about democracythat is what they want. They want a 19th province. We should at least make a start on it.
Mr. Cash: Does my hon. Friend agree that all the discussions about constitutional change and all his proposals, with which I entirely agree, will be completely undermined unless within the Parliament itself there is a guarantee in respect of seats for minorities? Does he agree that the very fact that there is a proposal to abolish the minority seats has, in effect, opened the door to the oppression to which he rightly referred?
Yes, I agree with that entirely. I believe that we and the Americans still have considerable influence in Iraq, and that we cannot turn our back on the problem. I spoke about a 19th province, but there are
also wider issues to do with Baghdad and Basra and minority representation in the Iraqi Parliament. We have to use all the political pressure that we can muster to try to ensure that the minorities of Iraq are protected.
One further point about the 19th province is that it is only 4,500 sq km with a population of only hundreds of thousands, compared with Kurdistan which is 60,000 sq km with a population of 3.5 million Kurds. We are discussing a modest proposal, and its only point is to give a sense of security to the remaining Christian population in Iraq.
My hon. Friend said that things are getting better in Baghdad. I apologise if he has already mentioned this, but he and I had the privilege of hearing Canon Andrew White speak in Parliament last week when he said that 93 members of his congregation at St. Georges, Baghdad, have been killed this year. What is the most effective action that the UK and US Governments can take with the Iraqi authorities to persuade them to crack down on abuse against Christians and other minorities in Iraq?
Mr. Leigh: We must make it clear, with the Americans, that such abuse is simply not acceptable. I am glad that my hon. Friend intervened, because I want to end by speaking about Canon Andrew White. A number of us heard his moving talk last week in the Speakers apartments. He is a man of enormous courage who has stuck it out in Baghdad all these years. As my hon. Friend said, we heard that no less than 93 of his congregation have been murdered in the past yearthe past yearbut his church is still growing. Wethe Foreign Office and the Americansmust make it clear to the Iraqi Government that we expect the minority populations of Iraq to be protected in Basra and Baghdad.
Canon White lived through appalling violence, and when someone asked him what kept his congregation going, he said that it was love between the members of his congregation. What an extraordinary, Christian response in a dramatically horrible and difficult situation. He may say that, but it may not be enough for the Government, who must do more, and must act. That is why this debate is so important.
Mr. William Cash (Stone) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend on his strong stance on this issue, which is fundamental to our appreciation of where Iraq now stands after the war. I think I am right in saying that he was against the war, but some of us who were in favour of itI do not resile from my views at that timehave been dismayed at the way in which certain events have developed since. We were told afterwards by the then Prime Minister, President Bush and so on that the war was a step towards democracy in Iraq, and an enormous number of people turned out for democratic elections, but as so often in countries with a Muslim attitude to constitutional matters, we are sometimes, but not always, bound to ask ourselves what such democracy amounts to.
There are lessons to be learned in our own country about some of the things that are said about our affairs and our constitutional arrangements. Above allI am
speaking in the mother of Parliamentswe have an obligation to stand strongly by the protection of minorities. If our democracy is to be taken as a beacon for the rest of the world, and if we are contributing to constitutional change in countries where we have an interest and some influencethe United States has a similar obligationit is essential that we stand by the principles that we would apply in this country. It is with the deepest concern that I have watched what is happening to the Christian minority, and all minorities in Iraq. We must be clear about that. We cannot have a standard for democracy and insist on principle, but then say that it applies only to specific people and not to others. It is precisely because of the harrowing details of what has happened to Christians that I focus on that, which is what this debate is about, but without prejudice to my concern for other people. I go further and say that if it was a Christian country and we were exercising the sort of discrimination that has taken place historicallyfor example, during the French wars of religion, and so onwe would be bound to take a similar view today: that we have progressed and that modern democracy, which we now claim for its virtues of stable societies throughout the world, must be demonstrated by determination to maintain the standards that we expect to protect minorities, including Christians.
Mr. Gregory Campbell (East Londonderry) (DUP): The hon. Gentleman touches on an important point. Does he agree that an unfortunate by-product of the problems in Iraq and our debate today is that tolerance of Christians and other minorities in Iraq has been perceived as a perverse insistence on western values? Instead of demanding democracy in Iraq, it seems that some people are determined to supplant it by ensuring that it is perceived as being an imposition of western values, when it is far from that.
Mr. Cash: The hon. Gentleman raises an exceptionally important point because it is no good our saying that here in Westminster we represent certain democratic values if we do not understand what goes with those democratic values. They are universal, and they have brought peace and stability. One of the greatest problems that the world has faced has been lack of tolerance for and oppression against minorities. We must acknowledge that over the centuries we have been involved in some of those oppressions, but by no means does that carry with it anything other than our determination, by virtue of long-standing experience and the development of our democratic institutions, to ensure that those democratic values are in force where we have the opportunity to exert influence. It is no good having universal declarations of human rights, which we witnessed being celebrated the other day, or insisting on human rights generally, whether the European convention on human rights or whatever, if we are not prepared to observe what we are, by omission, not doing when we have the opportunity to exert influence and thereby to protect minorities in Iraq, and particularly the Christian minority.
As my hon. Friend said, it is estimated that in October 12,000 Christians fled Mosul and that, in a two-week period in October, 14 Christians were killed in that city. Although it is said that the authorities ordered more checkpoints in the Christian neighbourhoods, we have to bear it in mind that there are as many as 35,000 of the Iraqi security forces, combined with police personnel, in
Mosul city alone. One is bound to ask, when there are that number of people available, why no effective protection appears to have been given to these people.
It is also said that nobody is quite sure what has motivated the attacks. In that context, I have to say that the very fact that such attacks have taken place, and that sufficient steps were not taken to ensure that those peoplethose Christianswere protected, suggests, as far as I can see, although I do not know enough to know precisely, that not enough was being done and that people were standing by while some of this went on. I hope that I am wrong about that.
As I said in an earlier intervention on my hon. Friend, the Iraqi Presidents pledge of nearly $900,000 to help Christian families who have fled the northern Iraqi city of Mosul because of killings and threats does not do very much.
Mr. Leigh: One of the problems, as I saw, is that the writ for the Baghdad Government does not seem to apply in northern Iraq. It was only when I was in the Nineveh plains that I saw that many of the checkpoints were held not by Christians, who seem to have no weaponry at all, or have very little, and not by the Iraqi armyI never saw any of the Iraqi armybut by the peshmerga and the Kurds. In fact, the Iraqi Prime Minister has said publicly that he suspects that Kurdish militias were involved in some of the killings in Mosul. I do not know whether that is right, but clearly there is a state of chaos in Mosul and no proper control. The Christians there feel that they are utterly unprotected, which is why they are fleeing Mosul and going to their own villages in the Nineveh plains.
Mr. Cash: I am grateful for my hon. Friends helpful intervention. If some of this is attributed to the attitudes of certain Kurdish people, they should remember that they are a minority in relation to Turkey, for example, which could easily raise the question of double standards being applied. Those hon. Members who have taken a great interest in what has been going on in Turkey will know about the rights and obligations on the Turkish people and the Turkish Government and how that gets tied up with the subject of their application to the European Union. However, the reality is that the situation regarding the Kurdish people and their connections in northern Iraq cannot be conducted on the basis of double standards.
rights and freedoms of Christians,
I see a recognition of my point, which is that the Iraqi Government are only prepared to put a small amount of money in, in comparison with the nature of the problem. However, what is really needed are parliamentary, constitutional and democratic guarantees. That is the way forward. It is no good throwing moneynot even the limited amount that is being providedif there is no acknowledgement of the need to recognise that the problem is much deeper and that there is an absolute obligation, in the light of the invasion and the subsequent behaviour of the coalition, to insist on constitutional guarantees.
There is talk of withdrawal. General Petraeus has said that the situation in Iraq is fragile. We know that, but we also know that there are still opportunities to ensure that the constitutional arrangements work properly and it is clear, from what we have heard, that those are not working properly in relation to the Christian people, whom I believe must be protected.
From a purely cultural point of view, it is true that, as my hon. Friend mentioned, in Nineveh the people speak Aramaic, which is the language of Christ. For the record, many people regard that as important. I am glad that my hon. Friend drew attention to that.
The Christians have been given the most terrible time in Nineveh. I am told that their numbers throughout the country are down from 800,000 in 2003 to 250,000 today. Of course, we remember the dreadful murder of the archbishop of the ancient Chaldean church, who was abducted in Mosul and murdered. In October, as I have mentioned already, 10,000 Christians got away. But the fact is that they should not have to get away; they should be able to remain. I endorse my hon. Friends suggestion that there should be a 19th province to protect the Christians, although that should not be thought of as a ghettoI hope that we do not hear the Minister use that word, because that would be quite offensivebut as a safe haven. That is the difference. If we look across Europe, at the issues relating to Kosovo and Ossetia, for example, the protection of minorities is a fundamental problem with a universal character. It also applies in Africa, for instance. The arguments for ensuring that there is a safe haven, as part of a constitutional arrangement in a new province, are and remain important.
I mentioned earlier that the Iraqi Parliaments abolition of a guaranteed quota of seats for minorities in the past month or twoI understand that that looks set to be amendedsparked protests by Christians. However, that was no reason whatsoever for the killings that ensued. This is a parliamentary, a constitutional and a democratic issue. I hope that the Minister, on behalf of the Government, and that we Members of Parliament, too, will make it crystal clear that pressure will be exerted to ensure constitutional protection for the Christians, together with all others, because the protection of minorities is implicit and essential.
By way of conclusion, I thank my hon. Friend for his excellent initiative in securing this debate. I look forward with interest, but also with some concern, to what the Minister has to say. If he has no clear policy to guarantee that we will exert all the necessary pressure, what is the point in universal declarations of human rights, what is the point in having a Westminster democracy and what is the point of our calling ourselves the mother of Parliaments? Are we to engage in double standards or will we ensure that the Christian minority in Iraq, in common with all minorities who are persecuted, is protected under the constitutional arrangements of our democratic system? If we do nothing, those people will die. If we do not provide guaranteesI look to the Government to ensure thisI think that our Government would stand condemned for not having done what is open to them while we are still in Iraq.
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