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Christians in Iraq

Volume 519: debated on Tuesday 30 November 2010

It is a great pleasure to serve under you this afternoon, Mr Betts. I am particularly grateful to Mr Speaker for granting me this debate on the position of Christians in Iraq. It follows on from the very well informed debate initiated by my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Mr Leigh) almost exactly two years ago on 16 December 2008. At that time my hon. Friend told the House that back in 2003, there were some 1.2 million Christians in Iraq and that that number had been reduced to around 600,000 because of the persecution they had suffered. Sadly, since then things have continued to be even more difficult for Christians in Iraq.

It is worth putting on the record the fact that there have been Christians in Iraq since virtually the time of Christ, when doubting Thomas stopped off in what is now modern day Iraq. There are Christians in Iraq who still speak Aramaic, the language that Jesus himself would have spoken, and the tomb of the Old Testament Prophet Nahum is in Iraq with the inscription from Nahum chapter 3 verse 18:

“Your people are scattered on the mountains with none to gather them”—

words which, unfortunately, have an eerily accurate ring to them for Christians in and from Iraq today.

Last week I met in my office in the House of Commons an outstanding member of the Iraqi Government—the Minister for Human Rights, Mrs Wijdan, who is herself a Chaldean Catholic, and Canon Andrew White, the Anglican vicar of St George’s in Baghdad. Andrew is a long-standing friend and one of the most inspirational Christian leaders I have ever met. I learnt from Canon White that in this month alone more than 100 Christians have been killed in Iraq, and 58 were killed in one massacre during evening mass in the Syrian Catholic church of Our Lady of Salvation in Baghdad on 31 October. Since that atrocity many more Christians have also been targeted, blown up or told that they no longer belong to Iraq and should leave now or be executed. This violence has gone on for many years.

Back in August 2004 there was a series of bombings targeting five churches, and 11 people were killed. In October 2006 an Orthodox priest, Boulos Iskander, was snatched in Mosul by a group demanding ransom. Despite payment of the ransom, the priest was found beheaded, with his arms and legs cut off. In June 2007 Ragheed Ganni, a priest and secretary to Archbishop Paulos Faraj Rahh, was shot dead in his church along with three companions. In January 2008 bombs went off outside three Chaldean and Assyrian churches in Mosul, two churches in Kirkuk and four in Baghdad. In February 2008 the Chaldean Catholic Archbishop, Paulos Faraj Rahh, was kidnapped. His body was found in a shallow grave two weeks later. In April 2008 Father Adel Youssef, an Assyrian Orthodox priest, was shot dead by unknown assailants. In February 2010 at least eight Christians died in a two-week spate of attacks in the northern city of Mosul. So it is a pretty sorry state of affairs.

I am well aware that Iraq is still in the process of forming a Government, some eight and a half months after its general election earlier this year. I would request, however, that both British and American Ministers raise these issues with the newly appointed Iraqi Ministers as soon as they can after the formation of the new Government. I also hope that able Iraqi Christian MPs are not held back from Government positions merely because of their faith. When I met Mrs Wijdan last week, she told me that a lot of her requests were very practical ones to do with preventing terrorists from outside Iraq entering her country to kill and injure. She also requested help with counter-terrorism and intelligence to prevent such future atrocities.

I have concerns about aspects of the Iraqi education system regarding what is taught about minority faiths in Iraqi schools. Canon Andrew White told me last week that children in his church are being abused at school because they are Christian, and we know that when such prejudices are taught to the young, they can be very hard to shift. I am of course conscious of the recent media reports that some part-time schools in the UK have textbooks that inflame religious prejudice, so we should acknowledge these issues in our own country as well.

In the debate two years ago on this subject, there was discussion of the possible formation of a 19th province in the Nineveh plains, where there would be a Christian majority which would have control over the police and local militia. It is not for foreign countries to advise Iraq how to organise its internal affairs, but I hope that a major middle eastern country such as Iraq can do better than to opt for any form of segregation or ghettoisation of different faiths. I was impressed by the views of Yonadam Kanna, a prominent Member of the Iraqi Parliament, who is a Christian and was reported on the BBC as saying:

“This is our home, we have been together with Muslims for centuries, this is our destiny, and we will stay together”.

I obtained a debate on this subject two years ago because, as my hon. Friend knows, I visited Iraq and went to the tomb of Prophet Nahum. More importantly for the purposes of the present debate, I heard some heart-rending stories from mothers who had lost children and husbands. We have a responsibility in this country because, for all Saddam Hussein’s horrendous faults, there was some sort of protection for the Christian community in Iraq. We invaded Iraq and since then the situation for Christians has become deplorable, frightful and murderous. Our Government have some responsibility with respect to the 19th province to make representations and encourage the Government of Iraq to protect that ancient Christian community.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend who has gone one better than me in going to Iraq and seeing things for himself. I was able only to meet an Iraqi Minister last week, in Parliament. I bow to my hon. Friend’s experience, and thank him for his presence here and his continuing interest in the subject.

Some foreign countries, and Iraqis in exile, have called for greater provision to be made for Christians in Iraq to leave and settle overseas. Again, the view of Canon Andrew White and his congregation at St George’s, Baghdad, is that they wish

“to stay and to be safe”

where they are. That should not be too much to ask for. One issue of concern is the fact that traditionally, churches have been protected by Christian police and military personnel in Iraq. As the persecution of Christians has intensified there have been fewer Christian police and military personnel, at a time when they are most needed. The new Iraqi Government will need to examine that issue, to ensure that all minority communities can be protected, even when there are dwindling numbers of police and military personnel from the faith concerned.

An initiative that has done a lot of good in recent years in promoting tolerance and dialogue between the different faiths in Iraq is the High Council of Religious Leaders in Iraq. It was funded by the United States but I understand that the funding has been stopped. Denmark has now agreed to continue funding the group. Parliament should pay tribute to the Government of Denmark for stepping in to provide funding for that organisation. One of the fatwas produced by the group said:

“Therefore religious and ethical duty calls us as Shia and Sunni religious leaders to announce that all killing must be stopped now whatever the reasons and the cause and the motives between Muslims. We must start reconciliation and tolerance and make them the only way to solve the conflicts between the brothers in our country.”

It goes on to urge all people of faith in Iraq

“to reject and forsake all violence, killing and provocation”

and furthermore says,

“achieving peace and living together under the rule of law is the demand on all Iraqi people and is the religious and ethical duty of everybody to abandon all violence.”

I am sure we would all say amen to that.

In the debate two years ago concern was also expressed about Christian-owned land being taken in the Kurdish north of Iraq. The then Minister of State at the Foreign Office said that he would

“endeavour to discuss it with him”—

the Kurdish regional Government Minister for extra-regional affairs—

“at the earliest opportunity.”—[Official Report, 16 December 2008; Vol. 485, c. 44WH.]

It is excellent that my hon. Friend has secured the debate today. Does he agree that it was a very brave commitment by the coalition Government to maintain levels of funding for overseas aid? Does he also agree that the stated intention of helping post-conflict areas of the world to build tolerant, sustainable communities is a vital aim, and that the Government could be looking at the situation in Iraq with a view to investing resources to ensure the safety of the Christian community there and help them in their larger role of building a peaceful and sustainable Iraq?

I thank my hon. Friend, who makes an excellent point; I hope my hon. Friend the Minister will take it back to his colleagues at the Department for International Development to see what can be done. I would be grateful to hear from him whether such conversations with his predecessor took place, and what the result of them was. It would be good to understand how the British Government intend to handle the future protection of all minorities, including that of Christians in Iraq.

We who sit in this Parliament have the immense privilege of having a voice in the mother of Parliaments. It is our duty to use our voices to speak for those who are suffering for their faith in Iraq.

Has the hon. Gentleman had any discussions with the British Council, which has done similar work in other conflict areas in promoting tolerance and trying to get a greater understanding of diversity, about what it can do in Iraq? Would he welcome that mechanism as a way in to Iraq to promote Christianity?

I am grateful for that intervention, which builds very helpfully on the point that was made earlier. I do not know the exact position of the British Council in Iraq. I raised that question with Canon Andrew White when I met him last week. I will leave the hon. Gentleman’s question on the table, as it were, and if the Minister can pick it up in his response, that would be helpful. The hon. Gentleman is right to pursue that line of argument and I am glad the Minister has heard what he had to say.

Whatever our views on the war in Iraq—there are people in this Chamber today from both sides of that debate—there is no question but that this country has an ongoing responsibility and obligation to the people of Iraq and the Christian minority within it. They need to know that they are not alone. Even though our forces on the ground have stopped fighting, we must show that we have not forgotten them and that we have a continuing obligation. I am incredibly grateful to colleagues today for supporting this debate. We have made it clear to our Christian brothers and sisters in Iraq that we stand with them, and that we will continue to ask these questions of our own Government and of the international community.

In its quest to improve human rights around the world, the United Nations has produced for Governments, in relation to the suffering of their own peoples, a new doctrine of responsibility to protect. What engagement have the British Government had with the United Nations and other international organisations to undertake the hard and difficult work of reconciliation and of instilling tolerance, to ensure that these ancient peoples who have lived together in peace for many centuries can do so again, and that Christians are not forced to flee Iraq and many other parts of the middle east? I look forward to the Minister’s reply and thank him for his time this afternoon.

I am grateful to have this opportunity to respond to this important debate. I pay tribute to the many Members who have attended and contributed. By so doing, they have indicated and demonstrated their interest in this important matter. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for South West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) on securing this debate. He raises an important issue that enables me to set out not only the Government’s policy towards the protection of Christians in Iraq but our firm position against religious persecution worldwide.

Let me start by saying that the Government utterly condemn all attacks against Iraqi citizens, including Christians and other minority communities. We were appalled at the attack on the Our Lady of Salvation church in Baghdad on 31 October, which killed more than 50 people. The further attacks on 10 November targeted mainly Christian areas across Baghdad, killing six and wounding more than 30 people.

On 1 November, the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for North East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt), spoke to Canon Andrew White, the vicar of the Anglican church in Baghdad, St George’s, to express his sadness about the attacks on Christians and the need for all religious minorities to be resilient in the face of such violence. He also issued a statement on behalf of the Government, which I think is worth briefly quoting from. He said:

“I utterly condemn the attack against Our Lady of Salvation Church in Baghdad. My thoughts are with the families and friends of all those that have been killed or injured in this tragic event. I urge the Iraqi authorities to do all they can to bring to justice those who are responsible for this attack on innocent worshippers, and all Iraq’s politicians and diverse communities to work together to tackle the threat of violent extremism.”

That is the position of the British Government. We remain in close contact with the Iraqi Government and we are committed to doing all we can to support them where possible.

On 10 November, my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary met the visiting Iraqi Minister of Foreign Affairs, Mr Zebari, and he specifically raised the issue of Iraqi Christians with him. Mr Zebari acknowledged that the protection of Christians was the Iraqi Government’s responsibility.

My right hon. Friend and colleague the Prime Minister also discussed the attacks on Christians in Iraq, as well as the wider security situation, in a phone call to Iraqi Prime Minister al-Maliki on 15 November, just two weeks ago. The Prime Minister made it clear that the Iraqis had the UK’s full support and in turn Mr al-Maliki expressed his concern at recent developments in his country. Mr al-Maliki said that the Iraqi Government were doing everything possible to tackle the terrorist threat and that UK support—including support for efforts to persuade Christian minority groups to remain in Iraq, which is an issue that has been raised in this debate—would be most welcome.

During a visit to the Our Lady of Salvation church on 9 November, Mr al-Maliki said his Government worked for

“justice and equality among all citizens, noting that Christians are part and parcel of a civilization all Iraqis are proud of.”

I was encouraged by the emphatic nature of the Iraqi Prime Minister’s statement with regard to Christians in Iraq and the part that they have to play.

I noted the comments by my hon. Friend the Member for South West Bedfordshire regarding the dwindling number of Christian police and security guards in Iraq. The Iraqi police service plays a fundamental role in ensuring that Iraq has a strong rule of law that protects all Iraqis regardless of their religious affiliation. We will continue to encourage the Iraqi Government to improve the professionalism of their police and security forces.

My hon. Friend may be aware that the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, who is the Minister with responsibility for Iraq, visited Iraq between 22 and 25 November. On that visit, he met a number of senior Christian figures and he raised the plight of the Christian community with the Foreign Minister, the new Speaker of the Council of Representatives, and the President and the Prime Minister of the Kurdistan regional government. The central Government in Iraq are taking responsibility for improving security for Christians, while the Kurdish leadership offered protection to Christians coming to the Kurdistan region from elsewhere in Iraq.

It is not only the appalling violence against Christians in Iraq that is of concern but the constant intimidation and encroachment that they face. I must say that a lot of the problems in northern Iraq come from the Kurdish community. I hope that the Minister, before he sits down, will say something about this “19th province”. I know that he probably cannot give a commitment one way or another, but the reason the campaign for a 19th province has arisen is that the Christian community in Iraq feels that it is the only way that it can have some sort of protection, including its own militia and its own legal system.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his intervention and for his long-standing interest in the subject. I hope that he is reassured by the very hands-on interest that the Minister with responsibility for Iraq is taking in this matter, including, as I have said, the number of meetings that he held only a week ago in Iraq to discuss it specifically.

The concern that the Government have about going down the track that my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Mr Leigh) suggests is that we would not wish to see Iraq divided up into provinces based on religious affiliation. We want Iraq as a whole to be a hospitable country for people of all faiths, which is why my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary made a particular point of meeting representatives of the Kurdistan regional government when he was in Iraq a week ago—it was not with a view to segregating Iraq into different religion-based districts.

My hon. Friend the Member for South West Bedfordshire may know that the Iraqi authorities are carrying out a thorough investigation into the attacks, which has, we believe, led to the arrest in the past few days of individuals who may be linked to attacks against Christians. The Iraqi Prime Minister has called on the armed forces and the security forces to be on maximum alert and to secure mosques, churches and other places of worship.

The Iraqi Parliament—the Council of Representatives —has also been active in calling for the Government to do more. It has formally requested the Prime Minister to issue a statement condemning the attacks and to dedicate more resources to stopping them. It has called for the increased recruitment of Christians into the Iraqi security forces. A parliamentary committee, under the leadership of a Christian MP, has been set up to address the official reaction to the attacks. The British Government regard all those as promising steps in the right direction.

I reassure my hon. Friend that the Government will continue to urge the Iraqi Government to protect all communities, especially vulnerable minority groups, and to prosecute those who are found responsible for any acts of violence and intimidation that are carried out against people because of their political, ethnic or religious affiliation. As my hon. Friend will know, the UK has also discussed the current security situation in Iraq with EU partners, including at the Foreign Affairs Council on 22 November.

We are encouraged by responses from the Iraqi authorities suggesting that they take this matter very seriously, and we are pleased to see the renewed commitment to protecting all Iraqi citizens, including Christians. Prime Minister al-Maliki has said that his Government are ready to take whatever measures are viewed as necessary by Christian leaders

“to assure all citizens in general and the Christians of Iraq in particular so that everyone enjoys stability and safety”.

Some Members attending the debate may feel that it is one thing to express those good intentions, but another to deliver on them, and I accept that. However, the fact that they have been expressed in such emphatic terms is an encouraging development. I also hope that I have been able to indicate to those attending the debate that concrete actions are being taken, and we will continue to try to ensure that they go as far as possible and lead to desirable consequences.

We are aware of requests made by the Iraqi Human Rights Minister, Mrs Wijdan Salim, for support in developing some of Iraq’s counter-terrorism capabilities. Where appropriate, we will work with the Iraqi authorities to consider where our support is best applied. However, Prime Minister al-Maliki has publically committed to improving the security situation.

My hon. Friend may be aware of comments from the exiled archbishop of the Syriac Orthodox Church suggesting that Christians should leave Iraq. The Iraqi Christian community has made it clear that emigration is not the answer, and the British Government agree. Christians are one of Iraq’s indigenous populations, and all the religious leaders we have spoken with have reiterated that driving Christians from their homes is the goal of terrorists and not one that we should facilitate with offers of asylum.

During his recent trip to Iraq, my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary, who has responsibility for the middle east, met a number of senior Iraqi Christian figures. The clear sense was of a community that was vulnerable and under threat but determined not to allow the attacks to threaten the continued existence of Christians in Iraq. Prime Minister al-Maliki has commented that

“The countries that have welcomed the victims...of this attack”—

the attack on the Church—

“have done a noble thing, but that should not encourage emigration”.

At this point, I would like to pay tribute to the work of Canon Andrew White, who has been mentioned in the debate, and other religious leaders. We support initiatives that bring together different faith groups to promote tolerance, and I am pleased to hear that Denmark is supporting such initiatives with funding. I join my hon. Friend the Member for South West Bedfordshire in paying tribute to the Danes for their commitment in that regard.

It is important to remember that Iraq has made a long-standing commitment to protect all its minorities. During the universal periodic review of Iraq carried out by the UN Human Rights Council in February 2010, the Iraqi authorities revealed that minorities, including Christians, had been subjected to grave violations at the hands of terrorist groups and militias. The Iraqi Government made a commitment to support the rights and freedoms of all minorities, in keeping with the guarantees set out in their constitution, and they restated their commitment to protect religious institutions and places of worship.

I am most grateful for the support that the Government are showing on this issue. Does the Minister agree that, in some ways, the actions and words of the Iraqi Government set an example to other surrounding countries about the way that religious minorities should be treated?

I do up to a point. The level of willingness to respond to the problem, rather than to conceal it, is encouraging. We all share the concerns. There will be hon. Members who are not Christians but who nevertheless share the concerns about the persecution of Christians and other religious minorities in Iraq. We want a country where people are free to practise their faith without interference, and we are keen to work towards that. We are encouraged that the Iraqi Government, and other senior figures within the Iraqi political environment, share that ambition. It would be extremely worrying were that not the case. There are Christians who hold prominent positions in Iraq, including, as I have said, roles in Parliament chairing a relevant committee. The fact that Christians are institutionalised in Iraq and not pushed to the fringes should encourage us. However, as other hon. Members have said, the situation remains far from desirable, and I hope that the progress is in the right direction.

The UK recognises the importance of protecting and defending the rights of religious minorities, not just in Iraq but worldwide. I will conclude the debate with a quote from the Foreign Secretary, which I hope will provide a wider context to our deliberations. During a recent speech in London on the subject of values he said,

“religious persecution is unacceptable to us at any time in any place.”

That is the position of the British Government. It applies to Christians just as much as to any other religious group, and it applies to Iraq just as to any other country. We will pursue a foreign policy in line with those objectives.