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Tim Farron (Westmorland and Lonsdale) (LD): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship again, Mrs. Humble. I pay tribute to the hon. Member for
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Gainsborough (Mr. Leigh) not just on securing this debate, but on the way that he has championed this cause for some time. I defer to his first-hand experience of many of the issues that we have been talking about. I will not say much that will differ from what he and the hon. Member for Stone (Mr. Cash) have said, in terms of tone and the direction that they are going with the case that is being made.

There is a strong case for self-determination and a self-governing province—a 19th province—in the Nineveh plains. That is key to supporting the survival of Iraq’s Christian community. This is about survival, rather than separatism.

It is important to acknowledge, although not exclusively, the work of the Assyrian Democratic Movement. It has already been said that the Assyrian Democratic Movement has consistently, in several elections, gained the support of more than 80 per cent. of the Iraqi Christian community, so as a voice of the Christian people of Iraq, it should be listened to by the Foreign Office. I hope that the Foreign Office will recognise that and enter into regular dialogue with the movement, especially at this time when, as we have heard, the very existence of Iraq’s Christian community is under such threat.

Article 125 of the Iraqi constitution states:

The Assyrian Chaldeans and the other nationalities living in the Nineveh plain should have their administrative rights fully recognised, as guaranteed by the Iraqi constitution, by the granting of the self-governing province in the Nineveh plain as has been requested. Another key part of the administrative rights of the Assyrian people will be the right to participate in providing security in the Nineveh plain in the relevant districts.

In the report of his visit to northern Iraq in March and April 2008, the Dutch Member of Parliament, Joel Voordewind, wrote:

The Assyrian international news agency recently published an article entitled “Kurdish Militia, Iraqi Police Terrorizing Assyrians in North Iraq”. It reported that attacks against Assyrian Christian civilians residing in the Nineveh plain had recently escalated—as we have heard—and, in some cases, at the hands of the local Iraqi police as well as paramilitary security guards. The article went on to state:

not to be a separate militia—

The police have not only failed to provide adequate security in the Nineveh plain for the local inhabitants; they have on occasion themselves directly threatened the security of the Assyrian Chaldeans and other local
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residents there. The Assyrian Democratic Movement believes that local administration and policing by residents of the Nineveh plain is the only way to reverse an intolerably precarious situation, and I support that view.

Iraq’s Christian community is a significant force for religious moderation in the country. Iraqi Christians and moderate Muslims are natural allies to oppose the rise of extremism in Iraq. Furthermore, one major argument for Iraq to have a secular rather than an Islamic Government is the Christian presence in the country; Christians are still the largest religious minority in Iraq. Supporting a self-governing 19th province in the Nineveh plain will not only greatly improve the security of Iraq’s Christians, but enhance the security of other religious minorities in Iraq, such as the Yezidis. Actively supporting a religiously pluralistic society in Iraq is surely the best counter to any calls for the establishment of a clerical or Islamic republic in that country.

It is very much in Britain’s and Iraq’s interest to strengthen the forces of religious moderation and pluralism in Iraq, which should surely include aiding Iraq’s Christian community to remain in their country by actively supporting the establishment of the self-governing province that the Assyrian Democratic Movement has consistently called for.

The British Government should also strongly urge the Kurdistan Democratic party to ensure the swift and complete return of all the Christian-owned land and houses that have been partially or completely taken from at least 58 Christian villages. The loss of such land and houses puts even more pressure on Iraq’s Christians to leave the country. The Foreign Office urgently needs to be more robust and proactive on the self-governing province and the return of misappropriated Christian-owned land and houses. Simply maintaining the status quo will be no help to Iraq’s beleaguered Christians, for it is the status quo that has already cost Iraq’s Christian community more than half its members, as we have heard.

I want to express my strong support for the call on the Foreign Office to urge the Government of Iraq to conduct a thorough and transparent investigation into the alleged involvement of members of the establishment, shall we say, in the recent assassinations of Christians in Mosul and fully to publicise the investigation’s findings.

One of the stated reasons for the British Government’s decision to invade Iraq in 2003 was to bring democracy to that country, yet many of the Assyrian Chaldeans in northern Iraq have yet to enjoy the free exercise of their basic democratic right to vote, due to repeated interference with the electoral process. For example, during the January 2005 national elections in Iraq, up to 100,000 Assyrian Chaldeans were prevented from voting in northern Iraq by the blocking of the delivery of ballot boxes and papers to their areas.

The US State Department’s 2005 human rights country report for Iraq stated:

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What measures are the British Government taking to help to ensure that there is no repeat of such activity in Iraqi elections, such as the national elections in 2009?

The mass displacement of Christians from Mosul in September and October 2008 came soon after an Iraqi parliamentary vote to drop a provision in the new provincial election law—article 50—that protected the rights of minorities by guaranteeing their representation on provincial councils. Article 50 should surely be reinstated in the new provincial election law. With Iraq’s Christian minority experiencing escalating violence, they need safeguards such as article 50 more than ever in order to help to protect their rights.

I am keen to see the British Government provide humanitarian aid to the numerous displaced families in northern Iraq and to the Christian community in that region, including those in the Nineveh plain. Such aid should not be channelled through existing authorities or the regional government, but should be given through reliable non-governmental organisations with a proven track record of helping Assyrian Chaldeans in that region. That will help to ensure that any British Government aid to those people is used to benefit the community.

Scandalously, the plight of Christians in Iraq has grabbed precious few headlines, yet it is perhaps the greatest continuing outrage resulting from the war in Iraq. As Christians in this country prepare to celebrate Christmas in peace and security, Christians in Iraq do so amid dispossession, persecution and fear. With that in mind, I call on the Minister to give the matter his urgent attention.

11.48 am

Jo Swinson (East Dunbartonshire) (LD): I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for Gainsborough (Mr. Leigh) on securing the debate, which is sadly necessary. He eloquently outlined the tragic events affecting the Christian population in Iraq that have unfolded in the past few years. His personal experience of seeing the situation on the ground has greatly enhanced this morning’s debate.

The hon. Member for Stone (Mr. Cash) rightly reminded us that all minorities need protection. Other minorities in Iraq are suffering a similar plight. Indeed, this issue has sadly become a hallmark of conflicts in other areas around the world. Although this debate focuses on Iraq, it is important to remember that there are many countries where persecution on the basis of one’s religion continues.

My hon. Friend the Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron) outlined the plight of Christians living in the Nineveh plains. It was particularly useful to bring up the 2005 electoral problems—the fraud, ballot box rigging and intimidation that went on. It is abundantly clear that it is no way to build a democracy when certain sections of the population are prevented from having their voices heard.

As we have heard, there are 1 million Christians in the Iraqi population, but up to half of them have already fled, either elsewhere in Iraq or to neighbouring countries, such as Syria, Lebanon and Jordan. It is a small but significant part of the population.

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The violence that we have seen has escalated in recent years. In 2005, the Catholic Archbishop of Mosul was kidnapped and then released. In 2006, the Orthodox priest Boulos Iskander was kidnapped; a ransom was demanded and paid, yet he was beheaded, and his arms and legs chopped off. In 2007, priest Ragheed Ganni and three of his companions were shot dead in his church. At the start of this year, bombs went off simultaneously in Mosul, Kirkuk and Baghdad.

Throughout this year, the story seems to have become more and more bleak. The Archbishop of Mosul, Paulos Faraj Rahho, was killed in March. There was more in October; the numbers are difficult to verify, but more than a dozen Christians were killed and thousands of Christians fled Mosul in the wake of the attacks.

Mr. Leigh: I have an interesting example of that. The Assyrian Democratic Movement was asked to provide bodyguards for the Archbishop of Mosul, who was murdered. Only three or four bodyguards were provided. That is no use. I was told that if one goes to Mosul with three or four bodyguards, they will murder the bodyguards and then murder you. Andrew White, who was mentioned earlier, has 30 bodyguards. That is the terrible situation that people now face in Mosul.

Jo Swinson: The hon. Gentleman is right. I hope that the Minister will let us know whether the response of the Iraqi Government was adequate. We hear that they sent 1,000 troops to Mosul, but in the wake of such endemic violence that seems to be a rather small number. Does the Minister believe that that will be sufficient to restore order and security?

The situation is clearly grave, and it could be argued that it has become worse since the invasion in 2003. The hon. Member for Gainsborough said that he is not an apologist for Saddam, and I echo his comments. The previous oppressive regime might have restricted some of the violence that we now see coming to the fore, and the horrors of that regime have been well documented. However, it is worrying that when talking about the persecution of Christians in 2006 Rowan Williams should say that

That is a damning indictment of our invasion of Iraq and what has happened since. The situation for that group of individuals, who want to practise their religion, has got worse.

Hon. Members in the Chamber today will have differing views on Iraq. I initially opposed the war. Indeed, I marched against it in Glasgow, alongside tens of thousands of others. However, in some ways, worse than the initial decision to go to war was the complete lack of planning and focus, by the Americans as well as our Government, to ensure security after the war. The rule of law and the rebuilding of the country was essential, but we seemed entirely unprepared to ensure it. Democracy cannot flourish without the basic rule of law and security, but that is exactly what we see for the minorities in Iraq.

Whatever our views on the war, we are obviously united in our condemnation of the violence and persecution in Iraq. Freedom of religion and belief has to be one of the most basic human rights. I try to put myself in the shoes of some Christians in Iraq. The country had an incredibly oppressive regime, torture and horrors being its hallmarks. Many families had already suffered dreadfully.
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Then we had the war in 2003, which obviously caused what is termed collateral damage—religion aside, we know that tens of thousands, or even hundreds of thousands, of Iraqis were killed as a result. Many families have seen a family member or members killed. Many have become homeless because they had to flee. It must be one of the lowest and most difficult times that they have had to face. At such times, people have only their faith to help them get through. When the opportunity to seek solace in the Christian faith is denied, it is a grave and desperate situation.

Mr. Cash: I hope that the hon. Lady is not saying that, somehow or other, these problems are the consequence of the invasion of Iraq. After all, the Kurds were being dreadfully and tragically oppressed by Saddam Hussein—and so on. The hope is that we can elevate the debate to the question of whether we have proper democratic constitutional guarantees rather than dwelling on the question of whether it was right to invade Iraq.

[Mr. Eric Martlew in the Chair]

Jo Swinson: I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. I have indeed moved on from whether it was right to invade. However, I would say that wherever there is conflict—this applies also to Afghanistan, where my party supported invasion—it is vital that the rule of law and security should be guaranteed. Nothing else can be built without those basics. We found it to be true in Afghanistan, and we are finding it to be true also in Iraq. Some of the tensions were certainly to be found under the surface, and some even came out into the open under the previous regime. When there is a breakdown in the rule of law, things get worse and become entirely out of hand. That is what we see in Iraq.

I turn to the role of the UK Government. What is it that we should be doing? The hon. Member for North-West Leicestershire (David Taylor), who is no longer in his place, spoke of asylum seekers—an important point, because the Government can have a direct impact.

I read yesterday in a Birmingham newspaper of a 76-year-old, Niala Melki, and her daughter, Salma Haddad. They have been living in the UK for the last five years. They fled Iraq when the conflict started. Sadly, Salma’s father died before they came here, and being on their own the two women found protection difficult, given that they were both of the Christian faith. They came to the UK and have lived here for five years, but their latest appeal to stay has just been turned down. If the Government accept what is happening to Christians in Iraq, I wonder what their rationale is for saying that it is safe to deport people back to such a country, especially when they are at risk of being tortured or killed for their religion.

It is interesting to look at the figures for the period 2003-07. For example, Sweden has taken 25,000 refugees from Iraq. For the same period, the UK has taken in 260, and a further 2,680 have been given leave to remain. If we cannot improve security and guarantee the safety of Christians and other minorities in Iraq, we should not deny the clearly genuine case being made by those who seek asylum here. I wonder whether the Minister believes that it is safe at the moment to deport Christians to Iraq.

I turn to what the Government can do in Iraq. It is vital that we use our influence and lobbying power. The change in the law brought about by article 50 in October
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has been mentioned; it was about guaranteeing political representation for minorities. Surely the Government should be playing a role, and lobbying for it to be reinstated. Given what we have seen happening to minority communities, it is more important than ever that they have representation within the democratic structure.

I echo the call made by my hon. Friend the Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale, and ask the Government to do everything in their power to ensure that the upcoming elections are as free and fair as possible. We do not want to see a repeat of the intimidation and electoral fraud that happened in 2005. I hope that the Minister will consider the idea raised today by several hon. Members of creating a special province; it may be one way to provide the security and protection needed by the Christians and other minorities in Iraq.

I shall draw my remarks to a conclusion, as I want to ensure that the Minister has enough time—especially as the Government have plenty of questions to answer. The appalling attacks that we have seen in Iraq amount to persecution of the gravest kind. I have nothing but admiration for the courage of those Christians in Iraq, who continue to worship and follow their faith despite the risk of death. However, it is unacceptable for that to continue, so their protection is essential. The Government must look both at how they can influence the Iraqi Government’s response and how they assess the claims of Christians fleeing Iraq and seeking refuge on our shores.

11.59 am

Mr. David Lidington (Aylesbury) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Mr. Leigh) on securing this debate on an issue that, as he said, he has been campaigning on for some time. It is appropriate that we should be debating the appalling persecution of Iraq’s Christian minority as we approach the festival of Christmas. However Members voted in the original decision to intervene in Iraq, in 2003, everyone ought to feel a sense of anger and shame at the fact that, as Government sources indicate the imminent withdrawal of British troops from that country, part of the coalition’s legacy will sadly be the desperate plight of Christian and other minorities. I hope very much that when the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary meet the Iraqi leaders they will press home the importance that Members on both sides of the House place on the treatment of minorities in a country on behalf of which a large number of British lives have been given in the past five years.

As my hon. Friend said, Christians constitute a small proportion of the Iraqi population. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, however, about two fifths of refugees from Iraq are Christian. As several hon. Members said, although today’s debate has focused mostly on the situation in the northern governorate, we must not forget what has happened to Christians in Basra and Baghdad, of which the testimony of that immensely brave man, Canon Andrew White, reminded us.

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