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As my hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Mr. Cash) was the first to point out, we are right, too, to remember that the persecution in Iraq is directed not only at Christians, but other religious minorities—the Yazidis have been mentioned. Furthermore, my understanding
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is that more than 90 per cent. of the small Mandaean community has been driven out of Iraq since the fall of Saddam Hussein.

I hope that the Minister will acknowledge the gravity of what is happening. I can understand the Government’s temptation—I am not pointing a finger or making a great party political point—to take the easy line: to say that things are getting better and that the forthcoming withdrawal of British troops will set the seal on our achievement. For example, the Government have been reluctant to describe what has been happening in Iraq as ethnic cleansing. Yet the characteristics of what has been described in this debate are eerily reminiscent of what happened in Bosnia and Kosovo on our own continent.

Some important points have emerged from this debate, both for the British Government and the Governments in Baghdad and the Kurdish region. I shall deal first with the British Government’s position. I understand that later today the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom will publish a detailed report on the state of religious minorities in Iraq. That document is not yet public, but in a press release—I saw it this morning—from the commission, which is a statutory body, it described the situation of Iraq’s Christian communities as “dire”.

When setting foreign policy objectives and judging asylum cases, the Government risk relying on out-of-date information for their assessment of what is happening in Iraq. The Government are relying on two main sources of information: an August report by the Central Office of Information and an operational guidance note for the UK Border Agency from October. According to the footnotes, however, those two assessments refer back to studies of, and visits to, Iraq carried out at least 12 months earlier. For example, they refer to UNHCR guidelines on the treatment of Iraqi asylum seekers published as long ago as August 2007, which will have relied on information collated earlier, and on a Finnish Government report from October and November 2007.

Ensuring that the information to hand is up to date is particularly important when dealing with the situation in the northern governorate, because all the information from the media, the UNHCR, and the anecdotal evidence given to Members by those from the Iraqi Christian community suggests that the situation in the north has worsened dramatically this year. I question whether the verdict of the 2007 Finnish report, on which this Government’s publications have relied, that the Kurdish regional autonomous area is a “safe haven” for Christians can still be relied on. I noted too that the case law cited in the operational guidance note from the Home Office refers to cases involving the north of Iraq in 2004 and 2005.

When assessing asylum claims and deciding British foreign policy, we must take account of the most recent—and worrying—developments. On our relations with the Iraqi Government, the British Government need to urge several things: first, the need for the Baghdad Government to conduct, so far as they are able, a thorough and transparent investigation into what has happened. I urge that they bring in international agencies—United Nations agencies, perhaps—to ensure that that task is carried out impartially.

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I was pleased to see that the Iraqi Parliament, in November, reinserted article 50 into the draft legislation on provincial elections. That article, which will guarantee the rights of minorities, to some extent, had been struck out earlier in the legislative process. I hope that that principle of representation for Iraq’s minorities is respected properly.

What do the Government think of the proposal for a separate province centred around the Nineveh plain? As my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough pointed out, it would not give Christians a majority, but it would give Christians, Shabaks and Yazidis acting together a majority and governance of a local police force. Arguably, the persecution of Christians has been made possible partly because they lack a militia to protect their interests, unlike Sunnis and Shi’as. I do not know, sitting in London, whether the creation of such a province would work and be politically acceptable in Baghdad, given that it would require a change to legislation or, even, the Iraqi constitution. I can understand why Iraqi politicians feel sensitive about foreign Governments coming in and publicly telling them how to organise the internal administration of their own country. I hope that the British Government will give their attention to the issue and discuss it with their Iraqi counterparts.

Mr. Cash: Does my hon. Friend agree that it is no good using United Nations resolutions to invade and then not to insist on the implicit guarantees of democracy that go with the United Nations declaration of human rights?

Mr. Lidington: If one had to sum up the political challenge of addressing the persecution it would be to ensure that the guarantees and the admirable fine language contained in the United Nations resolutions and the Iraqi constitution are translated into reality on the ground for families living in all parts of Iraq.

There are important questions for the Kurdish regional authorities. Repeated allegations have been made—they have been mentioned during the debate—that Kurdish authorities and militias have been actively involved in acts of persecution against Christians in the northern governorates around Kirkuk and Mosul. Prime Minister Maliki himself was reported in Gulf News as saying that Kurdish militias were involved. I am interested to know whether the British Government share that reported assessment. There are allegations that the Kurdistan Democratic Party has been consistently implicated in persecution. Does the British Government have any evidence that that is the case?

Our involvement in the protection of the Kurdish autonomous region goes back a long time before 2003. I hope that that will enable British Ministers and officials to raise very frankly with their Kurdish regional counterparts the concerns that have been voiced during this debate. It is important that we see a change in the northern governorates ahead of the delayed provincial elections in that part of Iraq. Such elections will not take place at the same time as the elections in the central and southern governorates.

There seems to be a contest between Kurdish and Sunni Arab interests for control over disputed areas in northern Iraq, and it is the Christians and the other minorities who are caught in the middle. It is right that the international community should give voice to those
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who are powerless. When those elections are called, we must ensure that there is adequate international scrutiny and supervision so that the failures in providing completely free and fair elections, which were alluded to earlier in this debate, are not repeated.

The United Kingdom will inevitably continue to carry a sense of responsibility for what happens in Iraq, even after the last of our soldiers have left. I hope that the Government accept that responsibility and will act on it.

12.14 pm

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Bill Rammell): It is a pleasure to be sitting under your chairmanship, Mr. Martlew. May I start by genuinely congratulating the hon. Member for Gainsborough (Mr. Leigh) on securing this debate? He clearly has real passion and conviction for the issue. I know that he has taken an extraordinary degree of interest in it and has visited the country himself and has looked at the issues at first hand. That was very clear from his remarks. At this time of year, when major faiths are engaging in both reflection and celebration, this subject has particular relevance, and the hon. Gentleman is right to raise the issue and his concerns here.

I know that many hon. Members from all parties and noble Lords in another place have also strived to bring this issue into sharper focus, notably my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew), Lord Alton of Liverpool and Baroness Cox whom I met last month to discuss the issue. I also welcome the links between churches in the UK and Iraq that have helped to highlight this issue.

We have had a constructive and informative debate this morning, with hon. Members expressing their deeply held convictions and concerns. I echo the concern for Iraq’s diverse communities, which have all suffered in Iraq over the past five years since the fall of Saddam Hussein, and under his vicious regime before that.

It is difficult to separate this issue from the broader picture in Iraq which, as a result of improving security and progress towards reconciliation, is a far brighter one than we have seen for several years—certainly brighter than it was a year ago. Before I get on to the specific subject of Iraqi Christians, I should like to say a little about that progress. A month or so ago, I made my first visit to Iraq since taking on this ministerial post. My strong sense is that Iraq is a country which is steadily getting back on its feet. The progress that has been made since 2003 has given the Iraqi Government the chance to extend their focus from security issues to the wider range of social and economic issues and to allow them to rebuild a prosperous country offering the Iraqi people greater access to well functioning public services, such as hospitals, schools and social services.

Improvements to security have enabled coalition troops to hand back responsibility for security to the Iraqis. Attacks are down 85 per cent. compared with 2006. The Iraqi-led Operation Charge of the Knights in Basra in March 2008 has done a great deal to improve the security situation there. That trend is positive, but I acknowledge that there is still a long way to go, as last Thursday’s appalling suicide bombing on the outskirts of Kirkuk reminds us.

The Government firmly believe that all Iraqis deserve to live free from the threat of violence or intimidation. Ultimately, the key to securing that will be in achieving
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national reconciliation, and in building the capacity of Iraqi institutions to enforce the rule of law, and fulfil the commitments set out in Iraq’s historic constitution of 2005.

In my response to the comments of the hon. Member for Gainsborough, I will try to outline the action that the Government and our international partners are taking and, more importantly, the action that Iraq is taking to protect its citizens. Fundamentally, that is the route to securing the situation for Christians and others within Iraq. Minority communities in Iraq, including Assyrian Christians, Yezidis, Mandaean Sabeans and Shabaks, have undoubtedly suffered a great deal, and many hon. Members have commented on that this morning. The concern is real and needs to be addressed.

In Iraq, the complex internal conflict has meant that communities have suffered for a variety of reasons. Since 2003, extremist and often al-Qaeda affiliated groups have continually tried to undermine the efforts of ordinary Iraqis to go about their lives. They have used appalling acts of violence, threats of violence, and used perverted misinterpretations of the Koran to justify their actions. We should remember that according to Islam, Christians and Jews are known as Ahl al-kitab, or people of the book, and should be treated with tolerance and protected in society. That is a message that needs to go out very clearly.

As Iraqi security forces continue to develop and Awakening movements turn their backs on the insurgency, the space for such groups to operate in is running out. I do not want to overstate that, but progress is being made. However, we are still seeing minority communities intimidated for economic reasons. Foreign Office officials met the Latin-rite Archbishop of Baghdad, Jean Sleiman, in November, and he explained that Christian families in Baghdad had received demands, as “infidels”, to leave their homes, which was enormously concerning. In most cases, it was not religiously motivated persecution, but opportunistic criminals taking advantage of families’ fear to steal their homes and property. That does not make the situation any better, but it is an explanation of what is happening. Iraq’s developing police and security services are increasingly enforcing the rule of law, and our training missions—there has been a lot of comment and many questions about our role—will continue their support.

Iraq’s communities have suffered for political reasons too, and have been caught up as others fight for control over Iraq’s disputed territories, as the hon. Member for Gainsborough said. Ultimately, open and fair resolution of such issues by Iraq’s leaders will be key. I spoke to Stefan Di Mistura in Baghdad a month or so ago, and I welcome the important role that his UN mission in Iraq has played. We and others eagerly await his report, which we expect early in the new year.

On the action that the Government of Iraq taking to protect their minority communities, including Christians, first, there is continuing commitment to developing the Iraqi security forces to enforce the rule of law. Violence throughout Iraq is now at a four-and-a-half-year low. The Government of Iraq have also signalled their commitment to developing a culture in which respect for human rights is embedded in institutions. In November, the Council of Representatives passed legislation to establish a national human rights commission, for which we expressed strong support through lobbying.

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A number of hon. Members commented on events in Mosul. The Iraqi Ministry of Human Rights reported that 13 Christians in the Mosul area were killed from 31 August to 12 October, and that 2,423 families were displaced from the city—20 per cent. because of direct threats, and 80 per cent. because of fear of attack. Those are fundamentally terrible statistics, but the Government of Iraq took strong and immediate action, condemning the violence in the strongest terms, dispatching additional forces to secure security in the city, and establishing a high-level investigatory committee to look into the violence. In the meantime, the swift action taken by the Government of Iraq to address the security situation in Mosul has allowed increasing numbers of Iraqis to return to their homes, as we hear in reports from UNHCR. Although this cannot compensate for the trauma that families have been through, the Government have also offered grants of $851 for Christian families to help them as they return.

The hon. Member for Gainsborough said that the British Government and this country have considerable influence in Iraq, which is true. As he said, we rightly expect the rights of minorities to be upheld, and for the Government of Iraq to take action in that regard. However, it needs to recognised and understood that that is not a simple matter of our saying it and the Government of Iraq doing it. We are dealing with a developing country and a developing democracy. As we go forward, there is a range of issues to deal with, including the status for forces agreements, election laws and the relationship between the regions and Baghdad, as hon. Members have said. We are dealing with a democratic country and Government, and we must take account of that.

Bob Spink: The Minister is making a lot of sense. Has he had any discussions with the Kurdish Regional Government about the positive discrimination that they employed so that Christian communities could overcome the prejudice under which they live in northern Iraq? Although the Minister will admit, as we all would, that the KRG have much further to go, will he congratulate them on the fact that they have at least begun the journey?

Bill Rammell: I agree with the hon. Gentleman and it is important that we recognise that process. That was one of the things that I discussed with the KRG when I visited Irbil a month or so ago, and it will continue to be a feature of our discussions.

The hon. Member for Stone (Mr. Cash) called for constitutional guarantees, but part of the problem is that there are already such guarantees in the constitution, article 41 of which sets out a commitment to freedom of religion for followers of all religions and sects, ensuring that they are free to practise their religious faith and their rights. The challenge is ensuring that that constitution’s writ runs large. That is a challenge to the Iraqi Government, and we will press them on it and support them.

The hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron) and another hon. Member said something with which I take issue. I do not want to go over the reasons why we went to war, but the hon. Gentleman said that a fundamental reason why we invaded Iraq
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was installing democracy. That was not the case. The invasion was about non-compliance with resolution 1441, so whether or not he agreed with our position, the invasion of Iraq was not about installing democracy.

The hon. Member for Gainsborough and others asked whether there should be a 19th province. That will be a matter for the Iraqi Government and their people, but I think that there are significant concerns about how it can be achieved, given that there is an enormous intermingling of communities and people of different faiths within the same area. Additionally, it is not clear to me that there is a consistency of view within Christian communities in Iraq—there are a variety of views, for and against. Many of the local groups with which we meet, including Archbishop Sleiman of Baghdad, are actually against a 19th province, believing that it is not sustainable and that it is against the values of reconciliation, which have to be part of the overall solution in Iraq.

Mr. Cash: Does the Minister agree that if there is a problem enforcing constitutional guarantees—this is my main concern in this context—it is essential to offer protection by allowing Christians in Iraq to come into this country? Will he tell me how many Christians have sought asylum in this country and been refused entry compared with the number of Muslims and Kurds who have applied and got in?

Bill Rammell: We rightly judge each asylum claim on its merits, but there is a procedure outside the immigration rules for those who have been displaced within a region to come and settle within this country. We have increased our numbers for the coming year to 750—that is an international figure—500 of whom will be people from Iraq. To take issue with something that the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson), who leads for the Liberal Democrats, said, a majority of nations do not commit to that approach, and our figures compare favourably with Sweden.

I was also asked about the allegations and counter-allegations about events in the border areas between the KRG and the rest of Iraq. I was planning to meet the KRG Minister for Extra Regional Affairs last month and I hoped very much to discuss the issue but, unfortunately, his trip to the UK was cancelled. I shall nevertheless endeavour to discuss it with him at the earliest opportunity.

On the measures and steps that we are taking to support the electoral process, we are supporting the United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq and the Iraqi electoral commission to co-ordinate things. We pressed for a system of election observers, and there is now a process by which they will go into Iraq, which we support.

The hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire asked whether 1,000 troops was enough for Mosul. Those troops were dispatched to Mosul as an initial effort to restabilise security. At the time, Iraqi security forces were focused on major security operations elsewhere but, since then, security has improved, as has been reflected in the reports that we have received of families returning to their houses.

Hon. Members are right to express their profound concerns on this issue. Progress is being made, and I welcome the fact that Christians are able to return to their homes, but there is much more to do. We will focus
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on that in our discussions and dialogue with the Government of Iraq. We understand our responsibilities, but the fundamental solution over the long term must be for that Government of Iraq to ensure that the writ of their constitution is carried forward in respect of Christians in the country.

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