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Lord Rea: My Lords, I am very pleased that the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, has asked this Question as I too have become aware of the dangerous situation facing the Iraqi Assyrians. He has described their ancient lineage and some of their long and often tragic history. They backed the allies during the First World War and helped the UK greatly during the protectorate period in Iraq in the 1920s which made them very unpopular with some Iraqis and Kurds. In return we promised them an autonomous homeland when we left, but it never materialised.
Since the first Gulf War they have been oppressed both by the Kurds of north Iraq and by fundamentalist Islamists in the south. That has escalated since the second Gulf war, as the noble Lord pointed out. I also have the list of atrocities committed against the Assyrians that he described to us.
There has been relentless pressure by Kurds on Assyrians in the Nineveh plains near Mosultheir traditional homelandto move out. A block has been imposed on Assyrians returning to their homes and land from which they were evicted by Saddam. Crimes
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against Assyrian people in KDP-controlled northern Iraq have not been investigated. There appears to be a climate of impunity. It seems that the Kurds, themselves victims of oppression, are now oppressing the indigenous minority in their midst. Unfortunately that appears to be a common human trait, both within families and with tribes and nations.
"KDP deprives Iraqi Christians of right to vote. The Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) . . . has prevented voting by Chaldo Assyrian Christians of the Nineveh Plains . . . during elections for the Iraqi National Assembly on January 30. The KDP effectively blocked the delivery of ballot boxes to at least six major Chaldo Assyrian towns and villages in the Nineveh Plains around Mosul. . . . The resulting unavailability of ballot boxes prevented up to 100,000 Chaldo Assyrian voters from casting their votes and affected tens of thousands of Yesidis, Shabak, and Turkman voters".
I suggest that there are two main ways in which the UK could honour its historical debt to the Assyrian people: first, through helping to ensure that the new draft Iraqi constitution, due to be agreed in about five weeks, contains specific provisions that ensure that the Assyrians are recognised as a national minority with a right to representation and the right to live peacefully in the land of their ancestors. That should include the right to return to their land and homes from which they have been illegally evicted. I understand that on this very day the European Parliament is requesting its representative in Iraq to make just such a recommendation. Perhaps my noble friend can outline the role that the UK would play during its presidency of the EU to back up that request.
The second way is through our contacts in Iraq with the United States, the senior coalition partner, responsible for the Kurdish areas of Iraq, asking them to put pressure on the Kurds, especially the KDP, to respect the rights of indigenous minorities to the peaceful occupation of their rightful land and property.
Many Assyrians feel that they are so vulnerable in the present state of Iraq, that they should be granted a semi-autonomous region, as described by the noble Lord, in the Nineveh plains, where they can administer the law and provide education in their own Syriac language. That is near to what we offered them in the 1920s but did not grant before we left Iraq.
It would be wrong to pretend that Assyrians are the only people in Iraq who are suffering; far from it, as anyone who pays attention to the media knows. There is, however, a case to be made that we owe the Assyrians a special historical debt of gratitude and that there are some possible lines of action, as the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, and I have indicated.
As a footnote, I would like to point out that it is of importance to some Assyrians that the term "Chaldo-Assyrian" may be confusing since it implies that it only includes the Chaldean-Assyrians, who are Catholics. Using the single word "Assyrian" in any official document would be more clearly inclusive of both the Catholic and Orthodox branches of Assyrian Christianity.
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The Lord Bishop of Rochester: My Lords, I also am very glad that the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, has obtained time for this debate; it is not just timely but urgent. Indigenous Christian and other communities have been so often betrayed by the powers playing the "great game" in the Middle East and south-west Asia. We must make sure that the Chaldean-Assyrian and, indeed, other communities are not sold for 30 pieces of silver yet again.
On the one hand, these communities have enjoyed a high level of autonomy as so-called "millets" under the Ottoman Empire and, indeed, before then. They are used to ordering their own affairs, having their own religious, political, legal and social leaders and contributing to the prosperity of their country as a whole.
On the other hand, as the noble Lords, Lord Hylton, and Lord Rea, pointed out, along with the Armenians, they have been subjected to almost unparalleled brutality, not least in our own timesbut not only in our own times. The figures speak for themselves. During the genocide which followed the beginning of the First World War, 750,000 were killed and their lands confiscated, mainly because they supported the Allies against the central powers. In the 1930s again, the Assyrians were targeted by the Iraqi Army and the Baathists refused even to recognise them as a legitimate religious, ethnic and linguistic minority. The teaching of their language, Syriac, which is of course a form of the language spoken by Jesus himself, suffered grievously at that time.
The story of oppression has continued to this day. They are now threatened by the Islamist insurgents with forced conversion, kidnapping, assassination and the destruction of their property. The Kurds, however, also regard them, as has been said, as a thorn in the side of a greater Kurdistan. Once again, their land has been expropriated, their villages occupied and their very survival as a community threatened.
Christians in Iraq number only about 3 or 4 per cent. Other non-Muslim communities, some of which have been mentioned already this evening, add up to very little more. It is very easy, therefore, to overlook, ignore or neglect such minorities when nations and politicians are playing with numbersand yet the safety and security of non-Muslim communities is hugely important to the goal of a tolerant and democratic Iraq.
It is not encouraging, therefore, to hear that they have been forcibly prevented from exercising their franchise and from participation in the emerging democratic process, even while coalition forces have been present in Iraq. What will happen when they leave? The Kurds must be made to see that what they have aspired for themselves is also legitimate for other communities in Iraq. The smaller communities cannot simply be sacrificed on the altars of self-interest of the bigger ones.
I have said before in this House that the future of Iraq cannot be unitary. Its legacyand those of other territories with an Ottoman pastpoints to a
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federalist structure in which the identity, autonomy and even territory of each community will be recognised. Happily, the Transitional Administrative Law (or TAL) seems to hint at this and specifically guarantees the "administrative, cultural and political rights" of the Chaldean-Assyrian and other communities. Such an aspiration must, however, be given practical form. It is true that since the Nahda, or the Arab renaissance, Christians in Arab lands have contributed, out of all proportion to their number, to the emergence of a national identity, and not only in Iraq of course. Such a contribution must be acknowledged and allowed to continue.
The security situation is such, and the history is so bad, however, that these communities will only have the confidence to contribute more widely if they have some sort of safe havens of their own. The recent call of the Chaldean-Assyrian-Syriac Conference in Baghdad for an administrative region on the Nineveh plains is an attempt to articulate such a need. It should be noted that even now, the communities are not demanding an exclusively Christian enclave but one which can be shared with others. Such an arrangement would be in keeping with history and with the present security needs of these communities.
Her Majesty's Government must make sure that a future Iraqi constitution not only recognises the existence of different communities in the country but also provides for full freedom of belief, expression and worship. If that does not happen, the sacrifice of thousands of Iraqi lives and the lives of our own soldiers will have been in vain. As they say in Arabic Ncud billahwe seek refuge in God, may it not happen!
In spite of huge difficulties, the Christian communities of Iraq have been described by Canon Andrew White as full of faith and hope. They are experiencing significant renewal in their lives together. This must be allowed to continue, indeed, to flourish and not be snuffed out by religious or ethnic extremism.
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