It is a great privilege to open what I believe will be a very important debate. I have tried to secure it in the ballot for some months, and I am delighted to have done so.
Why is this subject so important? It is important because we are talking about a massive humanitarian disaster and the fate of the Christian population in Iraq. It is one of the oldest Christian populations in the world, having been settled there for 2,000 years, and is descended in great measure from the ancient Assyrians, who had been there for thousands of years. It is an historic, settled population. Just five years ago there were 1.2 million Christians in Iraq, and now there are only 600,000 left. There has been a massive flight of Christians from Iraq and it is reckoned that although the Christian population is as low as 4 per cent., perhaps as many as 30 per cent. of the Iraqi refugees in Syria are Christians.
The terrible humanitarian disaster is continuing even as we speak. Even since September 2008, at least 14 Christians have been killed in Mosul and at least 2,000 Christian families have fled the city since 2003. It is not just about people leaving the country—at least 700 Christians have been murdered. The situation is very serious indeed.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this long-awaited and long-delayed debate. Does he agree that the half of Christians who have left Iraq have done so because of persecution, the abuse of human rights and so on? Yet when they apply for asylum in countries such as our own, they are far too often classified as economic migrants. They would love to go back to the jobs that they had and the businesses that they ran. Does he agree that something needs to happen in the upper echelons of our own Government so that people are classified correctly when they apply for asylum in this country from the awful conditions that they have had to endure in Iraq?
Of course I agree with that. I was about to say that I have some personal experience of visiting Iraq and talking to such people. They are often targeted because they are perceived as having wealth, although they are not particularly wealthy. They want to go on living in Iraq, because they have businesses there and want to get on with their lives. They are not economic migrants, because they do not want to leave Iraq. From talking to them, I have no doubt that they are genuine refugees.
I visited Iraq in September as a guest of the Assyrian Democratic Movement, which is the main party representing Christians in Iraq with about 80 per cent. of their vote. I had an opportunity to visit northern Iraq; I think that I was probably one of the first British MPs to go around the villages of the Nineveh plain, just north of Mosul, and up into northern Kurdistan to visit villages close to the Turkish border. I had many packed meetings in villages in the Nineveh plains and in the mountains south of the border. I think that I am one of the few British MPs to have penetrated into that part of Iraq, so I have a story to tell.
I do not normally give such guarantees, and conditions are not normally placed on Members when they intervene.
The hon. Gentleman said that he was perhaps the first British MP to go to those areas. I went to Iraq just after the war and was there as it was being declared. I met members of the Christian community and their political and church leaders, so I, too, have had discussions with people in Iraq. I have seen what the Kurdistan Regional Government have been doing to discriminate positively in favour of the Christian communities and to try to help them. We all know that more can be done, but let us at least acknowledge that the British Government have a duty to try to make the situation better out there and to support the KRG in their positive efforts to help people.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. That is the purpose of the debate—we are sitting here in the presence of a British Minister, and there is no doubt that we have a responsibility in the matter. I shall not go over all the arguments about whether it was right to invade Iraq. Everybody knows my views, and we shall now look to the future. The British and American Governments have a responsibility, because there is no doubt that the position of Christians in Iraq has got immeasurably worse since the invasion in 2003.
I add straight away that I am no apologist for Saddam Hussein. I have talked to many Christians who were persecuted by him or conscripted into the terrible war with Iran. I went to their villages, and as the hon. Gentleman said that he has visited northern Kurdistan, he may well have visited them himself. I saw villages that had been bombed, and I say to him that I am not pro-Kurd or anti-Kurd. The Kurds suffered terribly under Saddam and fought side by side with the Christians. They were displaced and fled into Turkey. However, I have also talked to many Christians who are still suffering in Kurdistan, and I shall turn to that point later.
My hon. Friend knows well that I supported the invasion of Iraq, which was done in order to bring about democracy. Does he not agree that democracy carries with it an absolute requirement of the protection of minority rights? It ought to carry with it the protection of the Christians, but it has been greatly abused. That seriously undermines a case that was made about the war. The authorities have an obligation to do more than just provide $900,000 to help Christian families.
That is right, and we bear a responsibility. The Christians are a very small part of the total population of Iraq, and there is absolutely no danger to the Sunni, Kurd or Shi'a populations of Iraq. The Christians have a large stake in the political process, but at the moment the Assyrian Democratic Movement, which gets 80 per cent. of their vote, has only one MP to represent them because of a bit of fiddling around with the voting system. That is a worrying denial of democracy, and we have a responsibility.
Funnily enough, Christians in Iraq are persecuted because they are quite wrongly considered the agents of the west. They are simply ordinary business people who want to get on with their own way of life in a settled, secure environment. They are a very small part of the population and no threat to anybody. It was emotional and moving to go into the ancient villages in the Nineveh plains and visit ancient monasteries that have been there for the best part of 2,000 years. I saw the tomb of the Old Testament prophet Nahum and read what he wrote thousands of years ago:
"Your people are scattered on the mountains with none to gather them."
How extraordinary that those words are still true today and that those people are being scattered and persecuted.
When I went to the Nineveh plains, what struck me was that there was a sense of security in those ancient, entirely Christian villages. I met many displaced people who had come up from Basra and Baghdad to settle in the Nineveh plains, and I heard some absolutely heart-rending stories. I met a young girl who had lost her parents and her sister—they were murdered. I met a widow who had lost her husband and was now caring for a disabled son. Her husband was murdered in what can only be described as an anti-Christian pogrom. A quiet, cool and collected lady was sitting there listening to the appalling stories, and she finally came and told us her story. Her husband was a deacon. On the way back from church, he was killed—he was blown up by a bomb—and then her daughter disappeared. At that stage, she broke down and burst into tears, and we could not carry on the interview. We subsequently heard that she had never seen her daughter again. Imagine the anguish of that lady: she lost her husband, who was killed in a roadside bomb, and then her 18-year-old daughter, who disappeared and was probably murdered.
Those are just three of the many terrible stories told by ordinary people who have no interest, and have never shown an interest, in politics. They just wanted to get on with their lives in the suburbs of Baghdad but have had to flee to what they consider to be a kind of safe haven in the Nineveh plains.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this worthwhile debate. He has outlined some horrific stories, and he will be aware of the case of Asya Ahmad Muhammad, who was sentenced to five years' imprisonment at the age of 14 after fatally stabbing her uncle while trying to defend her family, who were being attacked for converting to Christianity. Would he agree that the doctrine of treating non-Muslims as "dimmys"—that is the terminology that is used—or second-class citizens is unacceptable? Does he believe that there is a duty on the Government to apply more pressure, not just on Iraq but on other Islamic countries, to end that stance in respect of their own citizens?
It is interesting that the hon. Gentleman makes that important intervention. In a conversation with an Orthodox priest, I asked, perhaps rather naively, what would happen if somebody converted from Islam and joined his congregation. I had just attended an extraordinary, moving service at his church. The whole village turned up. These churches are entirely bare: there are no icons or ornaments. The priest gives a simple service in Aramaic, which was the language of Jesus Christ. These people are the last speakers of Aramaic.
As I said, when we were having coffee with the priest after the service, I asked, rather naively, "What would happen if somebody from the local Muslim community wished to join your church?" He said, "They could join my church today, but tomorrow they would be dead." There was no doubt about that—it was no exaggeration. One simply cannot evangelise in Iraq or, indeed, in most Muslim countries, and if people seek to convert, they will be killed.
On the hon. Gentleman's intervention, the people who have suffered like that are genuine religious refugees. There is no way in which they could possibly be considered economic migrants. We have a duty of care to them, but our greatest duty of care is not to try to pick up the pieces when they flee, as is happening. That ancient community is fleeing to New Zealand, Greece, Australia, America and this country. Our duty is surely to help them to stay in their own country, which is what they want to do.
It was soul destroying to go around the villages and talk to the old men and women who, generation after generation, had ploughed and tilled the land. They wanted to stay—they had no choice but to stay—but the young people all wanted to go to America. How tragic that is. I know from my own experience, because my wife is of Russian extraction, that once someone leaves their country, they lose their roots and language. The Aramaic language would be lost for ever. This is not just a humanitarian disaster but a cultural disaster of massive proportions.
There is one thing that we can do. As I said, I had conversations with people in the mountains. I just say to Bob Spink that I have nothing against Kurds. They have suffered terribly, and they, too, are under huge economic pressure, but Kurdistan is, in effect, an independent state. One never sees the Iraqi army or the Americans there. The area is run by the peshmerga and is, in effect, an independent state.
There is ample evidence—I can provide the Foreign Office with all the evidence that it needs—that at least 58 villages with a Christian population have been partially or wholly expropriated by Kurds. That happens in a subtle way. It does not happen as it did under Saddam, who used bombing. It is not as cruel as that. There are no chemical attacks or anything like that—nobody is suggesting that.
I myself saw what happens. I was with an old man in a village in an area with a dominant Kurdish population, and some kids from the next village came along. They were starting to take bits of the vineyard, and he tried to shoo them away. He told me that when he had done that a couple of months earlier, he had been beaten up.
Expropriation happens gradually. Then the case goes to court, the court agrees—"Yes, you have the title deeds to the field, and your family has been tilling it for generations"—and makes a judgment, but nothing happens. There is a process in Kurdistan of villages gradually losing a field here, a house there, yet the people have no effective representation in the Government.
There is one place in Iraq where Christians could have some kind of safe haven: the Nineveh plains. They are not the majority of the population there, but they are the single largest ethnic group. They are happy to live there with the Arabs and Yazidis. I must admit that I had never heard of the Yazidis before I went to Iraq. Again, they are a small religious ethnic group in Iraq, and we want to try to keep them there as well and to protect them.
In the Nineveh plains, the Assyrian Democratic Movement, which, as I said, has 80 per cent. of the Christian vote, is campaigning for a 19th province. There are already 18 provinces in Iraq. The Christians are not interested in breaking up Iraq, or in their province seceding. They just want one province where they can work with the local Arabs and Yazidis and have some real say in the governance of the area. That would give them a sense of security and of belonging to their own country.
As I said, I spoke to many refugees. Where did they go? They either left the country altogether, or, if they wanted to stay in the country, they went to the entirely Christian villages in the Nineveh plains. They may not stay there. They may stay for a time and then, as things ease—I am sure the Minister will reassure us that things are getting better in Baghdad—they may return to Baghdad or Basra. I very much hope that when the Minister replies to this debate, he will at least keep an open mind on the creation of a 19th province around the Nineveh plains. He may say that there is divided counsel, that it is difficult to get the Baghdad Government to agree, that we do not want to ghettoise the Christians—there are always 101 reasons for not doing something—but surely we should listen to the voices of the Christian people and their democratically elected representatives. My hon. Friend Mr. Cash spoke about democracy—that is what they want. They want a 19th province. We should at least make a start on it.
Does my hon. Friend agree that all the discussions about constitutional change and all his proposals, with which I entirely agree, will be completely undermined unless within the Parliament itself there is a guarantee in respect of seats for minorities? Does he agree that the very fact that there is a proposal to abolish the minority seats has, in effect, opened the door to the oppression to which he rightly referred?
Yes, I agree with that entirely. I believe that we and the Americans still have considerable influence in Iraq, and that we cannot turn our back on the problem. I spoke about a 19th province, but there are also wider issues to do with Baghdad and Basra and minority representation in the Iraqi Parliament. We have to use all the political pressure that we can muster to try to ensure that the minorities of Iraq are protected.
One further point about the 19th province is that it is only 4,500 sq km with a population of only hundreds of thousands, compared with Kurdistan which is 60,000 sq km with a population of 3.5 million Kurds. We are discussing a modest proposal, and its only point is to give a sense of security to the remaining Christian population in Iraq.
I apologise for not being here at the start of my hon. Friend's debate, but I was speaking in a Statutory Instrument Committee.
My hon. Friend said that things are getting better in Baghdad. I apologise if he has already mentioned this, but he and I had the privilege of hearing Canon Andrew White speak in Parliament last week when he said that 93 members of his congregation at St. George's, Baghdad, have been killed this year. What is the most effective action that the UK and US Governments can take with the Iraqi authorities to persuade them to crack down on abuse against Christians and other minorities in Iraq?
We must make it clear, with the Americans, that such abuse is simply not acceptable. I am glad that my hon. Friend intervened, because I want to end by speaking about Canon Andrew White. A number of us heard his moving talk last week in the Speaker's apartments. He is a man of enormous courage who has stuck it out in Baghdad all these years. As my hon. Friend said, we heard that no less than 93 of his congregation have been murdered in the past year—the past year—but his church is still growing. We—the Foreign Office and the Americans—must make it clear to the Iraqi Government that we expect the minority populations of Iraq to be protected in Basra and Baghdad.
Canon White lived through appalling violence, and when someone asked him what kept his congregation going, he said that it was love between the members of his congregation. What an extraordinary, Christian response in a dramatically horrible and difficult situation. He may say that, but it may not be enough for the Government, who must do more, and must act. That is why this debate is so important.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on his strong stance on this issue, which is fundamental to our appreciation of where Iraq now stands after the war. I think I am right in saying that he was against the war, but some of us who were in favour of it—I do not resile from my views at that time—have been dismayed at the way in which certain events have developed since. We were told afterwards by the then Prime Minister, President Bush and so on that the war was a step towards democracy in Iraq, and an enormous number of people turned out for democratic elections, but as so often in countries with a Muslim attitude to constitutional matters, we are sometimes, but not always, bound to ask ourselves what such democracy amounts to.
There are lessons to be learned in our own country about some of the things that are said about our affairs and our constitutional arrangements. Above all—I am speaking in the mother of Parliaments—we have an obligation to stand strongly by the protection of minorities. If our democracy is to be taken as a beacon for the rest of the world, and if we are contributing to constitutional change in countries where we have an interest and some influence—the United States has a similar obligation—it is essential that we stand by the principles that we would apply in this country. It is with the deepest concern that I have watched what is happening to the Christian minority, and all minorities in Iraq. We must be clear about that. We cannot have a standard for democracy and insist on principle, but then say that it applies only to specific people and not to others. It is precisely because of the harrowing details of what has happened to Christians that I focus on that, which is what this debate is about, but without prejudice to my concern for other people. I go further and say that if it was a Christian country and we were exercising the sort of discrimination that has taken place historically—for example, during the French wars of religion, and so on—we would be bound to take a similar view today: that we have progressed and that modern democracy, which we now claim for its virtues of stable societies throughout the world, must be demonstrated by determination to maintain the standards that we expect to protect minorities, including Christians.
The hon. Gentleman touches on an important point. Does he agree that an unfortunate by-product of the problems in Iraq and our debate today is that tolerance of Christians and other minorities in Iraq has been perceived as a perverse insistence on western values? Instead of demanding democracy in Iraq, it seems that some people are determined to supplant it by ensuring that it is perceived as being an imposition of western values, when it is far from that.
The hon. Gentleman raises an exceptionally important point because it is no good our saying that here in Westminster we represent certain democratic values if we do not understand what goes with those democratic values. They are universal, and they have brought peace and stability. One of the greatest problems that the world has faced has been lack of tolerance for and oppression against minorities. We must acknowledge that over the centuries we have been involved in some of those oppressions, but by no means does that carry with it anything other than our determination, by virtue of long-standing experience and the development of our democratic institutions, to ensure that those democratic values are in force where we have the opportunity to exert influence. It is no good having universal declarations of human rights, which we witnessed being celebrated the other day, or insisting on human rights generally, whether the European convention on human rights or whatever, if we are not prepared to observe what we are, by omission, not doing when we have the opportunity to exert influence and thereby to protect minorities in Iraq, and particularly the Christian minority.
As my hon. Friend said, it is estimated that in October 12,000 Christians fled Mosul and that, in a two-week period in October, 14 Christians were killed in that city. Although it is said that the authorities ordered more checkpoints in the Christian neighbourhoods, we have to bear it in mind that there are as many as 35,000 of the Iraqi security forces, combined with police personnel, in Mosul city alone. One is bound to ask, when there are that number of people available, why no effective protection appears to have been given to these people.
It is also said that nobody is quite sure what has motivated the attacks. In that context, I have to say that the very fact that such attacks have taken place, and that sufficient steps were not taken to ensure that those people—those Christians—were protected, suggests, as far as I can see, although I do not know enough to know precisely, that not enough was being done and that people were standing by while some of this went on. I hope that I am wrong about that.
As I said in an earlier intervention on my hon. Friend, the Iraqi President's pledge of nearly $900,000 to help Christian families who have fled the northern Iraqi city of Mosul because of killings and threats does not do very much.
One of the problems, as I saw, is that the writ for the Baghdad Government does not seem to apply in northern Iraq. It was only when I was in the Nineveh plains that I saw that many of the checkpoints were held not by Christians, who seem to have no weaponry at all, or have very little, and not by the Iraqi army—I never saw any of the Iraqi army—but by the peshmerga and the Kurds. In fact, the Iraqi Prime Minister has said publicly that he suspects that Kurdish militias were involved in some of the killings in Mosul. I do not know whether that is right, but clearly there is a state of chaos in Mosul and no proper control. The Christians there feel that they are utterly unprotected, which is why they are fleeing Mosul and going to their own villages in the Nineveh plains.
I am grateful for my hon. Friend's helpful intervention. If some of this is attributed to the attitudes of certain Kurdish people, they should remember that they are a minority in relation to Turkey, for example, which could easily raise the question of double standards being applied. Those hon. Members who have taken a great interest in what has been going on in Turkey will know about the rights and obligations on the Turkish people and the Turkish Government and how that gets tied up with the subject of their application to the European Union. However, the reality is that the situation regarding the Kurdish people and their connections in northern Iraq cannot be conducted on the basis of double standards.
When I read that the President of Iraq has said that the money that I have already mentioned would help to safeguard the
"rights and freedoms of Christians",
I see a recognition of my point, which is that the Iraqi Government are only prepared to put a small amount of money in, in comparison with the nature of the problem. However, what is really needed are parliamentary, constitutional and democratic guarantees. That is the way forward. It is no good throwing money—not even the limited amount that is being provided—if there is no acknowledgement of the need to recognise that the problem is much deeper and that there is an absolute obligation, in the light of the invasion and the subsequent behaviour of the coalition, to insist on constitutional guarantees.
There is talk of withdrawal. General Petraeus has said that the situation in Iraq is fragile. We know that, but we also know that there are still opportunities to ensure that the constitutional arrangements work properly and it is clear, from what we have heard, that those are not working properly in relation to the Christian people, whom I believe must be protected.
From a purely cultural point of view, it is true that, as my hon. Friend mentioned, in Nineveh the people speak Aramaic, which is the language of Christ. For the record, many people regard that as important. I am glad that my hon. Friend drew attention to that.
The Christians have been given the most terrible time in Nineveh. I am told that their numbers throughout the country are down from 800,000 in 2003 to 250,000 today. Of course, we remember the dreadful murder of the archbishop of the ancient Chaldean church, who was abducted in Mosul and murdered. In October, as I have mentioned already, 10,000 Christians got away. But the fact is that they should not have to get away; they should be able to remain. I endorse my hon. Friend's suggestion that there should be a 19th province to protect the Christians, although that should not be thought of as a ghetto—I hope that we do not hear the Minister use that word, because that would be quite offensive—but as a safe haven. That is the difference. If we look across Europe, at the issues relating to Kosovo and Ossetia, for example, the protection of minorities is a fundamental problem with a universal character. It also applies in Africa, for instance. The arguments for ensuring that there is a safe haven, as part of a constitutional arrangement in a new province, are and remain important.
I mentioned earlier that the Iraqi Parliament's abolition of a guaranteed quota of seats for minorities in the past month or two—I understand that that looks set to be amended—sparked protests by Christians. However, that was no reason whatsoever for the killings that ensued. This is a parliamentary, a constitutional and a democratic issue. I hope that the Minister, on behalf of the Government, and that we Members of Parliament, too, will make it crystal clear that pressure will be exerted to ensure constitutional protection for the Christians, together with all others, because the protection of minorities is implicit and essential.
By way of conclusion, I thank my hon. Friend for his excellent initiative in securing this debate. I look forward with interest, but also with some concern, to what the Minister has to say. If he has no clear policy to guarantee that we will exert all the necessary pressure, what is the point in universal declarations of human rights, what is the point in having a Westminster democracy and what is the point of our calling ourselves the mother of Parliaments? Are we to engage in double standards or will we ensure that the Christian minority in Iraq, in common with all minorities who are persecuted, is protected under the constitutional arrangements of our democratic system? If we do nothing, those people will die. If we do not provide guarantees—I look to the Government to ensure this—I think that our Government would stand condemned for not having done what is open to them while we are still in Iraq.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship again, Mrs. Humble. I pay tribute to 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 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:
"This Constitution shall guarantee the administrative, political, cultural, and educational rights of the various nationalities, such as Turkomen, Chaldeans, Assyrians, and all other constituents, and this shall be regulated by law."
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.
"Until now, the Iraqi government has not been able to provide the necessary security for the Assyrian Christians living in the Nineveh Plains. Therefore in this area the Assyrian Christians would like to see more possibilities to protect themselves against the violence. In 2005 and 2006 two attempts by the Assyrians to organise a protective police force by themselves on the Nineveh Plains were frustrated".
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:
"Local Assyrians, Shabaks, and Yezidis have formally submitted the names of 800 local police to join the Iraqi Police force"— not to be a separate militia—
"in order to provide local police and security for the Nineveh Plain. The request has been formally granted and approved by the Iraqi government in Baghdad. However, the...Lieutenant Governor...has repeatedly blocked implementation of the proposal."
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 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:
"In the January elections, many of the mostly non-Muslim residents on the Ninewah Plain were unable to vote. Some polling places did not open, ballot boxes were not delivered, and incidents of voter fraud and intimidation occurred. These problems resulted from administrative breakdowns on voting day and the refusal of...security forces to allow ballot boxes to pass to predominantly Christian villages."
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.
I, too, congratulate 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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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
"The situation has got worse since Saddam fell."
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. 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.
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]
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? 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 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.
I congratulate my hon. Friend 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.
As my hon. Friend 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 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.
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.
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?
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 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.
It is a pleasure to be sitting under your chairmanship, Mr. Martlew. May I start by genuinely congratulating 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 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 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.
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
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.
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?
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.
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.
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 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.
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?
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 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 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.