§ 11 am
§ Mr. Stephen Pound (Ealing, North) (Lab)
It is a pleasure and an honour to appear before you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and also a delight, as you are one of the few hon. Members who speak fluent demotic and classical Greek and, for all I know, Akkadian Aramaic, too. If I occasionally lapse into Aramaic, it is not as a result of watching Mel Gibson films, but a tribute to your learning, Sir.
One purpose of he debate is to place on the record some facts about the Assyrian community as it is now and will be in the future, and about its extraordinary past. It is not just as old as civilisation, it has measured civilisation. The Assyrian community may be known from the unfortunate Biblical reference to the Assyrian coming down like a wolf on the fold, but as we are in the year 6754 in the Assyrian calendar, it gives us some idea of its longevity.
Who knows when the Assyrian civilisation began, but 2400 BC was the beginning of the first golden age of Assyria, which lasted until 612 BC, followed by a dark age from 612 BC to 33 AD, a second golden age from 33 AD to 1300, a second dark age from 1300 to 1918, and then the diaspora from 1918, which is why I have raised the matter today.
People in this country know little of Assyrian culture, language and history, although we may recognise the names Sargon II. Sennacherib, Esarhaddon and Ashurbanipal, but are we aware that the Assyrian empire at its peak stretched from the Caspian to Cyprus, from Anatolia to Egypt? It was a vast civilisation, not just the cradle of the modern world and modern civilisation, but the exemplar of how a state and an empire could be run, with learning, culture and an indigenous language that survived the vicissitudes to which I have referred.
The early Assyrian civilisation gave us, today, in this country, an enormous number of gifts: its people invented locks, keys and the measurement of time—the sexagesimal system was an Assyrian invention. They were responsible for the first postal system, the first paved roads, the first use of iron, the magnifying glass, the first libraries and, more prosaically, but equally usefully, the first plumbing and flush toilets. They invented the first electric battery, the first guitars, the first aqueducts and the first arches, although they are perhaps best known for two of their most famous inventions, both of which have made a great difference to my life: the wheel and lager. Those are the extraordinary achievements of a group of people from a country that is recognised in the epic of Gilgamesh; it is the site of Noah's flood, and its civilisation is inextricably linked with our own.
For the purposes of this debate I want briefly to mention the defining moment in Assyrian history: 33 AD, when the apostle Thomas, with Thaddeus and Bartholomew, converted the Assyrian nation to Christianity; the Assyrian Church of the East is the first and oldest Christian Church. Many hundreds of years later, when Marco Polo arrived in China, he found Assyrian Christian missionaries, which had followed the silk road. The entire Assyrian nation converted to Christianity in 33 AD, held true to its tenets and beliefs, and suffered grievously for it.
203WH At the height of the golden age from 33 AD to 1300, Assyrians founded the world's first university, with departments of theology, philosophy and medicine. The school of Nisibis became the model on which early Italian universities were founded.
Rather than go through Assyria's entire history, tempting thought that may be, I shall rush forward to 1918—the age of the diaspora. From 1300 to 1918, the Assyrian Christian community in Iraq, and those in Lebanon, Turkey, Syria and surrounding areas were viciously persecuted. Genocide was a regular feature. The Islamic conquerors of that part of the world imposed a tax, and many families had no alternative but to convert to Islam out of sheer financial necessity, regardless of their own theological beliefs.
The Assyrian diaspora has spread throughout the world. Switzerland was mentioned earlier; it has 10,000 Assyrians. There are 80,000 in Brazil, 100,000 in Lebanon, 50,000 in Iran, 23,000 in Canada, 20,000 in Holland, 2,000 in Mexico and 8,000 in Greece, which was the subject of the previous debate. Particularly dear to my heart and to the business of the House is the 8,000-strong Assyrian Christian community living in this country, many of whom I am privileged to welcome to my own community in west London. It is a long way from Nineveh to north-west London, but the Assyrian culture and the belief in the language have been constant throughout.
Earlier this year, I celebrated the Assyrian new year at the Assyrian centre in South Ealing road with one of the Minister's colleagues, who was extremely well received—he is always welcome, should he wish to return. We were delighted to see evidence of the strength of this community in our part of the world—a community that has thrived and given us a great deal.
One reason why the community is so well integrated in the UK is the long tradition of service for the British, predominantly in what we call modern Iraq. I am delighted that with us in Parliament today is Awiya Khamo, the son of Rab Emma Nimrud Khamo—Rab Emma is a title roughly translatable as flight lieutenant—who served in the Royal Air Force Levies in Habbaniyah. I could happily speak for hours on the history of the Levies' contribution and the Assyrians' participation, but I doubt whether people could happily listen for hours. I will say only that during the last war, 40,000 Assyrians fought in the Levies, and the Assyrian Parachute Regiment fought hand to hand with German forces in Crete, Greece, Albania and Italy.
I am delighted that my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, Southall (Mr. Khabra), my constituency neighbour, in whose constituency the Assyrian centre is located, is here to support the debate. We speak as one on this matter. Although the centre is in his constituency, I do not begrudge him that; I welcome it.
Today, we have a desperately unhappy and tragic situation. I am referring specifically to the situation in Iraq, to which the title of this brief debate refers. Article 7 of the constitution of Iraq states that Islam shall be the official religion of the state. One consequence of that and of the large amount of Islamic cultural and social material that is played on radio stations and is in the newspapers has been a marginalisation of the Christian community. In addition—I do not say that this is a result of article 7, because it has lasted for many 204WH thousands of years—there is a campaign of murder and harassment against Christians in Iraq, which I deeply regret. An exodus on the scale of the 1918 diaspora is taking place. A recent message from a deacon at a church in Iraq states that its people are spending more time filling out the baptismal forms needed to leave the country than on arranging Christian services.
It is a desperately difficult situation, and harassment of Assyrians, principally—but not solely—by Muslims is now so serious that people are talking about whether article 54 of the transitional administrative law could include some sort of protected homeland for the Assyrian Christian minority. I shall mention that again in a moment.
Last month, two Assyrian sisters, Janet and Shatha, who were working for Bechtel, were killed just outside Basra in a drive-by shooting. They were identifiable Assyrian Christians, slaughtered for no discernible reason. Why would two young women be killed on the streets in that way? The family are quite convinced that the murder took place because of their religion. In the new year, several bombs exploded specifically in Christian areas.
The loss of Bashir Toma Elias, who was slaughtered on Christmas eve, just outside Basra, is a matter of grave concern to many people in the Christian community. Bombs exploded outside Christian churches and in the Christian district of Baghdad, and it is felt that some of the militia groups, who have names like "God's Vengeance", have stated that they will not rest until all Christians have left Basra or converted to Islam—that information comes from the well-authenticated and respected Barnabas Fund—and 2,000 Christian families have already fled.
On 7 June, four masked men drove into the Christian Assyrian quarter—Hay Al-Athuryeen—of the Dora district of Baghdad and opened fire on Assyrians on their way to work. Three men and one woman were killed immediately. It was a specifically targeted attack by masked gangsters on the Assyrian Christian community. We have now reached the stage where the Holy Apostolic Catholic Assyrian Church of the East, in the form of the Diocesan Bishop of Europe, Mar Odisho Oraham, has actually written to the Foreign Office, calling attention to the present plight of the Assyrian Christians. With the charity for which he is known, he recognises that the previous dictatorial regime in Iraq has gone, but he asserts that security and stability have not yet been established.
For many Assyrian Christians, the UK is a country for which their fathers and their families have fought. It has welcomed them and seen them grow into a stable, hard-working, law-abiding community, which has made an enormous contribution. My hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, Southall and I can point to many examples of the contribution that it has made locally. The concern is that many of the Assyrian Christian community who have followed a well-trodden path to the United Kingdom will be forcibly repatriated to Iraq without the specific pressures and the condition of the Christian community in Iraq being considered.
Mar Odisho Oraham has urged the Foreign Office, not to give a blanket exemption to all Assyrian Christian asylum seekers from Iraq from any repatriation—that would be unreasonable—but to take into account their 205WH specific circumstances. I ask for that today. When decisions are made, the long history of genocide against the Assyrian people—the continuing and contemporary slaughter of Assyrians for no other reason than their Christianity—should be taken into consideration. I have spoken this morning to one of the leading members of the community, Andy Darmoo, whose father served for 31 years in the RAF. Speaking for the Assyrian community in the UK, he lists a long, bloody and heartbreaking catalogue of murders, attacks, assaults, land confiscation and denial of human rights currently taking place.
Andy Darmoo said to me this morning that, in addition to the historical linkage between the Assyrian Christian community and the United Kingdom, there has been a long-lasting relationship of mutual respect and support. He referred to the participation of the British forces after the great war and how virtually everyone in the Assyrian centre has some relationship with the British armed forces. He also referred to the positive contribution that they have made to this country.
My hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, Southall can speak for himself, but I hope that he will allow me to say that he and I come from a part of north-west London that has many communities. Many different streams of people come together to make up what we relish and cherish as our multiracial and multicultural community. One cannot say that one community is better, stronger or weaker than another, but of all the dozens, if not scores, of communities among whom I live and work, few have made as great a contribution in such a positive, community-conscious and law-abiding way as the Assyrian Christian community. The fact that half the referees in the Middlesex FA are Assyrians is neither here nor there—I can forgive them for that. That community makes an enormous contribution.
I asked for this debate because I am concerned about the fear in the Iraqi Christian community of the consequences of article 7 of the constitution for the temporary administration in Iraq and of the possibility of forced repatriation, and about the effect that that is having on that community, which, to coin a phrase, has stood shoulder to shoulder with us for many centuries. While we cannot repay such loyalty, we can acknowledge and respect it.
I call on my hon. Friend the Minister, who is well known and widely respected in the Assyrian community, simply to accept the realities of life in Iraq when any decision is made. I am sure that he will do so. If I apologise for placing this matter on the record and for taking parliamentary time to do it, I do so in recognition of the fact that it is important that the voice of our Assyrian brothers and sisters is heard in this place, that some of their history is placed on the record and, more importantly, that their present and future are made safer and more secure by the actions of this House.
§ The Minister for Trade and Investment (Mr. Mike O'Brien)
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, North (Mr. Pound) for raising this subject for debate today. I also thank my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, Southall (Mr. Khabra) for coming along to listen to the debate.
206WH I begin by assuring my hon. Friends that the Government intend to take into account the circumstances of the Assyrian Christians in Iraq when we make asylum decisions. I shall pass on their concerns to the Home Office and the Foreign Office.
My hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, North is right to say that the roots of the Assyrian Christians in the region perhaps go deeper than those of any other community in the middle east. They are rightly proud of their history and culture. However, like all the people of Iraq, the latest chapter of their history has been one of misery. They have endured decades of oppression under Saddam's regime. Many were forced into exile, as were many others during the great Assyrian diaspora of decades before. I know that many Assyrians live in my hon. Friend's constituency and that he has worked hard during his years as a Member of this House to highlight their cause, and it is right that he should do so.
There are also thousands of internally displaced Assyrians still living in Iraq, driven from their homes during Saddam's "Arabisation" scheme. The forced movement of Kurds, Turkomans and Assyrians is one of the worst legacies of Saddam's regime. An Iraqi Property Claims Commission has been set up to deal with the way in which people were forced out of their homes and to examine whether the disputes over property can be resolved in a legal and controlled fashion. Offices arc now open throughout Iraq, with particular emphasis on the Kirkuk district, which saw the worst cases of forced displacement.
The British Government have worked tirelessly over the past year to secure basic human rights for all of Iraq's minorities—rights that Saddam denied. Iraq now has human rights legislation encapsulated in chapter 2 of the transitional administrative law, agreed by the Iraqi governing council in March. This legislation provides a legal framework for Iraq during the transitional period. It states that all Iraqis are equal before the law and that discrimination on the grounds of ethnicity, religion or gender is illegal. It states that torture in all its forms is prohibited in all circumstances and it guarantees the right of all Iraqis to educate their children in their mother tongue, including Syriac, the language of the Assyrian people.
It is the first time in Iraq's history that such an impressive package of human rights legislation has been passed, and Iraq's different communities have universally welcomed it. I know that the Assyrian community in particular were pleased with article 53 of the law, which guarantees their administrative, cultural and political rights, although of course they would have liked more.
The British Government will continue to keep in touch with the full spectrum of different ethnic, religious and tribal groups that make up Iraq's rich tapestry. Foreign Office officials regularly meet representatives from Iraq's Assyrian community, both in London and in Iraq. We will actively continue with such engagement. We are very aware of the Assyrians' unique place in Iraq's history. Appropriately, they have a representative in the new Iraqi Government, Ms Pascale Isho Warda, who is Minister for Displacement and Migration.
All indications from the new Iraqi Government are that they will continue to further minority rights. That is not surprising—after so many years of suffering the 207WH Iraqi people crave a Government who will further their collective and individual rights. Many individuals in the interim Government have personal and direct experience of human rights violations under the former regime.
Of course, the drafting of human rights legislation in Iraq is only part of the battle. Respect for human rights must be seen in action, too. We have a moral duty to support the Iraqis in the implementation of the laws that they have passed. As my hon. Friend said, there have been reports of attacks against the Christian community in Iraq, including kidnappings, assassinations and intimidation of practising Christians. It is not just Christians who are affected. Shias in Sunni areas, Sunnis in Shia areas, Kurds and Arabs—men and women—have all been affected by terrorist attacks. A small minority who aspire to provoke and exploit divisions between religions and ethnic communities carry out the attacks.
The British troops currently serving in Iraq are working with the Iraqi security forces to prevent those attacks and create stability in the country. It is only by building up the Iraqi security forces and ensuring that they enforce the human rights laws that their Government have decreed that we can create the conditions in which the most basic human rights—security, stability and democracy—can be implemented.
The handover of authority on 28 June was a milestone that has profound importance for the Iraqi people. It has been welcomed throughout Iraq, regionally, and worldwide. With the support of the United Nations, Iraqis are preparing for the next steps in the political transition—elections to a Transitional National Assembly and Transitional Government by the end of January, followed by the drafting of a permanent constitution, a referendum and then elections on the basis of the new constitution.
We hope that the elections will give Iraq's minority groups an opportunity to be represented at all levels of government in Iraq. Furthermore, it is the elected representatives to the Transitional National Assembly who will draft the permanent constitution in 2005, so all Iraqis, including the Assyrians, will be able to identify with the values and institutions enshrined in that new constitution.
There is a long way still to go. There are obviously difficulties in dealing with terrorism, reducing the level of violence, and ensuring proper respect for human rights. It is also clear that the hatred that is building up among some in Iraq is targeted not only at coalition forces but at various minority groups, including the Assyrians. We must ensure that the security forces are strong enough to deal with the problems, and that respect for human rights is embedded in a new Iraqi 208WH constitution so that the duly elected Government respect those rights. To some extent the coalition can help, but it is up to the Iraqi people how they vote in elections.
§ Mr. Piara S. Khabra (Ealing, Southall) (Lab)
Under a constitution, or whatever political system is set up in a country, there is a guarantee of civil liberties and rights to the minorities. However, despite the fact that the law may not allow it, religious fundamentalists in many countries behave as they want to, as has been experienced by Christians in Pakistan. How can the difficult situation in Iraq be resolved if the authorities are unable to control the fanatics, who like to intimidate and persecute minorities in a country that is predominantly made up of one religion?
§ Mr. O'Brien
My hon. Friend is right: we have seen the growth of fanaticism in a number of countries in and beyond the middle east. There have been attacks based on religious hatred in Pakistan, India and many other countries. The Governments of those countries must deal with that level of fanaticism, the teaching of hatred and the fact that some people seem to think that they have a God-given right to murder others because of their different beliefs.
Iraq presents us with particular problems because of the aftermath of the war and the creation of the new Government. There has been a concerted attack not only by outside extremists—some no doubt influenced by al-Qaeda—but by those involved with Saddam Hussein in the past. Others, for various tribal and domestic reasons, have also become involved in terrorist action and violence. The religious hatreds that my hon. Friend identified have fed into that situation.
Over the coming months, we shall seek to embed the idea of respect for human and individual rights into the operation of the Iraqi Government. I repeat that it will be up to the Iraqis what sort of Government they create. We can help and encourage them, and show that we believe that respect for minority religions is enormously important. We will continue to lobby the Iraqi Government to implement human rights legislation and we will continue to provide troops for the multinational force in line with Prime Minister Allawi's request. We will also continue to lobby the new sovereign Iraqi Government after the implementation of the constitution to ensure that human rights are firmly anchored in their permanent way of dealing with people. We want to see a free, democratic, stable Iraq, at peace with herself and her neighbours, and with respect for all religious minorities, including the Assyrians.
§ Sitting suspended until Two o'clock.