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Iraq: Religious Minorities

Volume 721: debated on Thursday 4 November 2010


Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government, in the light of the recent deaths of Christians following the attack on the Our Lady of Salvation Church in Baghdad, what action they propose that the international community should take to prevent the dissolution of Christian communities and other religious minorities in Iraq.

My Lords, Her Majesty’s Government utterly condemn the attack on the Our Lady of Salvation Church in Baghdad on 31 October 2010. Both Alistair Burt, the Minister for the Middle East, and our ambassador in Baghdad released statements on the following day to that effect. The Iraqi authorities have launched an investigation into the incident, which we strongly support.

I thank the noble Lord for that comprehensive reply. Given that the recent attack on the Syrian Catholic church in Baghdad was just the latest in a series of attacks on Christian communities and other religious minorities that have caused enormous suffering, many deaths, the widespread destruction of holy places and a mass exodus of religious believers from Iraq, will Her Majesty’s Government use their current presidency of the UN Security Council to press for effective protection for all Iraqi citizens in order to prevent the complete dissolution of religious minorities?

My Lords, the House will be aware of similar attacks on the Shia community in Baghdad over the past few days—we do not have the full information, but there have been somewhere between eight and 15 attacks—so the noble Baroness is quite right to say that these are attacks on all minorities, not just on the long-established and ancient Christian minority in Iraq. We are working with the United Nations, the EU and all other authorities to bring as much pressure as we can to bear on the provisional Iraqi Government to do what they can to resolve and prevent any further attacks.

My Lords, the Question and the reply we have received from the Government today show clearly that there is concern and fear within the Christian and other minorities in Iraq. Are there any programmes in place to assist those Christians who have been displaced from Iraq into neighbouring territories? In particular, if no programmes are already in place, will the Government consider allowing talented and skilled people who are currently incarcerated in these camps in Lebanon, Jordan and other places to be accommodated in this country?

My Lords, a number of Iraqi Christians are already in this country—indeed, I have canvassed some of them in Yorkshire—so I am conscious that that accommodation has already been taking place over recent years. There is a substantial internally displaced population within Iraq as well as refugees in neighbouring countries. Some progress has been made in returning those people to Iraq, but a full return will depend on the establishment of real security within the country. We are doing everything that we can to help in that regard.

My Lords, my noble friend will recognise that, since our intervention in Iraq, ethnic cleansing by Saddam has been replaced with religious cleansing by Islam. Does this not reflect an aspect of Islam about which both Christian and secular states need to be urgently aware and, I suggest, collectively proactive? Furthermore, does not recent history suggest that force is by no means the best way of achieving progress?

That is a complex question. I would caution the noble Lord against talking about attacks by Islam. It appears that these are attacks by Sunni extremist groups, and there have been attacks on both Shia and secular Iraqis as well as on Christian and other minorities. The safety of all minority groups is at stake. We need to work in so far as we can to maintain a dialogue with moderate Muslims in order to ensure that these extremist groups do not attract more support.

My Lords, perhaps I may take that point a little further. I should like to ask the noble Lord what the Government’s view is on interfaith groups. Such groups manage to reach out to what are possibly the extremes of some faith groups. I am thinking particularly of the work of the noble and right reverend Lords, Lord Carey and Lord Harries of Pentregarth, that of the right reverend Prelates the Bishops of London and Coventry, as well as the wonderful work done by Canon Andrew White, of which the noble Lord will be well aware. Do the Government feel that these interfaith groups have an important role to play in trying to reach into those parts of faith communities in the Middle East that are perhaps operating in a way that many of us find repellent?

My Lords, I understand that Canon Andrew White has been in London and that Alistair Burt spoke to him yesterday. He is now returning to Baghdad. Of course we have to promote interfaith dialogue as actively as we can, but it is not always easy to get through to the more extreme groups. However, I trust that this is something with which many of us in this place and others outside are actively engaged.

My Lords, is the Minister aware that the killings in Baghdad were followed by a chilling statement on Tuesday by al-Qaeda in Iraq that Christians are legitimate targets and that,

“the killing sword will not be lifted”

from their necks? Will the Government now urgently review their policy in respect of Christian Iraqi refugees and inform the House when they have done so?

My Lords, this is a situation in which all of us are liberals and opposed to fundamentalism of any religion—Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu or any other. As to the situation of Christian Iraqis, the Government will take this into account. I will write to the right reverend Prelate about the current policy.

Does the Minister agree that, as Christians and Jews are defined in the Holy Koran as people of the book, and as the prophet Mohammed, peace be upon him, declared that Christians would be the best friends of his followers the Muslims, such interpretations of Islam are another misuse of the term “Islam” to cover up violence throughout the globe? Is the Minister prepared to co-operate with Prime Minister Malaki’s special committee to oppose discrimination on religious grounds, which Prime Minister Malaki set up no less than two years ago and which actively needs support?

My Lords, we are extremely happy to co-operate with the Government of Iraq. As the noble Baroness will know, they are still currently a provisional Government. There are reports that some progress might be made towards the formation of a more stable, permanent Government within the next week, and we hope that that is the case. As soon as there is a more stable Government, we will co-operate with them as well.