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The Plight of the Christians In Iraq - December 2013

Struan Stevenson MEP

In November I spent four days in Iraq in my capacity as President of the European Parliament’s Delegation for Relations with Iraq. I visited Syrian refugee camps and discussed the country’s worsening human rights situation and persecution of minorities with senior political leaders. I travelled to Erbil in Kurdistan, Northern Iraq, where I met with the Kurdistan Regional Government's President Masoud Barzani and Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani. I also met with leading Christian bishops, the Grand Mufti of Iraq’s Sunni faith and members of the Iraqi Parliament, including the Chairman of its Human Rights Committee, as well as leaders of the recent popular uprisings in six Sunni provinces against the Baghdad Government.

In Erbil, I was invited to address a major conference organised by the Chaldean Syriac Assyrian Christians, which over 850 people attended. The conference debated the gradual erosion of Iraq's ancient Christian community, which has dwindled from 1.5 million to an estimated 300,000. One of the oldest Christian communities in the world, which can trace its origins back to the time of Christ, now faces extinction because of virtual ethnic cleansing and constant vicious bombings, assassinations and kidnappings. The autonomous region of Kurdistan is the only safe haven for Christians and many other ethnic minorities who have found themselves under constant attack in Iraq.

Kurdistan has a tradition of providing a safe haven for refugees and I was able to visit some massive camps where Syrians, fleeing from the civil war in their country, have been given food and shelter. But it is a sad indictment of the Government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki in Baghdad, that none of the aid money he promised the Kurds has ever materialised. I visited Kawergocek refugee camp near Erbil where 13,000 Syrian men, women and children have been living since August. The Kurdistan Regional Government and UNHCR have done amazing work in setting up a series of emergency camps in a very short period, to provide food and shelter for these people. But with winter approaching, there is an urgent need for additional aid to provide tent linings, stoves, heaters, winter clothing and more food. The EU must send aid directly to the UN and NGOs like ‘Save the Children’ who are actively helping the Syrian refugees in Iraq.

I heard many complaints against Maliki during my visit. Again and again I was told by representatives of many diverse religious faith and ethnic minorities, and even from the larger Shia, Sunni and Kurdish communities, how Maliki's sectarian government has become deeply unpopular. Leaders of the popular uprisings in six Sunni provinces told me that the wave of terror, which has claimed the lives of 7,000 people so far this year in Iraq, is his responsibility, because he controls the military, the police, the intelligence services and all aspects of security in the country. Iraq is rapidly spiralling towards a renewed insurgency and Maliki's only response is to marginalise the Kurds, label the Sunnis as terrorists and turn a blind-eye to the systematic discrimination and violence against other ethnic minority groups.

But it is the plight of the Iraqi Christians that gives me most cause for concern, particularly at this time of year, as Christmas looms. Iraq’s Christians belong to the Chaldean, Assyrian, Armenian Churches, and a few Catholic Churches. Iraqi Christians under Saddam Hussein lived in relative security and practiced their religion freely, indeed some of Saddam’s senior government ministers, including his foreign minister – Tariq Al-Aziz, were Christian. However, after the occupation of Iraq by the US, their situation changed dramatically and they were labelled ‘crusaders’ by Islamic extremists and militant groups.

Most of the Iraqi Christians are Chaldeans and follow the Eastern Catholic Orthodox Church. They are separate from the Vatican but accept the Pope’s spiritual leadership. Human rights organisations have reiterated that 75% of Iraq’s Christians left Iraq after the 2003 occupation. A large number of them have gone to foreign countries and those who have stayed are terrified of going to church on Sundays or observing various other religious holidays. The Freedom of Religion Commission in the US, in its May 2007 report, said more than half of Iraq’s Christian minority had left the country at that time due to threats by extremists and militants. The report suggested that the Christians had become targets of racial discord and a pre-planned eradication by the Iraqi government, local officials and paramilitary forces. This report added that Islamic extremists had attacked various liquor stores, hair salons and various projects run by Christians under the pretext that they were guilty of violating the sovereignty and Islamic guardianship of Iraq.

One of the most horrific manifestations of this campaign of violence was the bombing of the large Greek Orthodox Virgin Mary Church in Baghdad on 1 November 2010. On that day two car bombs exploded near the church before armed men stormed into the crowded building and began taking hostages. 52 people were subsequently killed and 67 others were wounded in the botched rescue operation aimed at freeing the hostages. Many people believed that the rescue attempt by Iraqi military forces, acting on the orders of Prime Minister Al Maliki, was in fact a deliberate operation to wipe out the Christian hostages. In any case, the incident triggered a mass exodus of Christians, with thousands heading out of Baghdad to Kurdistan or further afield to Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, the EU, US, Australia and New Zealand.

Sadly, despite the fact that Iraq was once the cradle of civilization, it is now a dustbowl of violence and bloodshed. The Syrian conflict has poured petrol on the flames, with tens of thousands of refugees swarming over the border to the relative safety of Kurdistan in Northern Iraq. But insufficient aid is reaching the Kurdish Regional Government to help these refugees and despite all of its oil wealth, the government in Baghdad is doing little or nothing.

Obama, Ashton & Ban Ki-moon must tell Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki that this whirlwind of bloodshed, violence, corruption and abuse will no longer be tolerated. They must tell him that the economic umbilical cord to the West will be severed unless he gets his act together. Iraq must become a country where Shias, Sunnis, Christians, Shabaks, Jews, Turkmen and all ethnic communities can live in freedom, peace and prosperity.  This is the future we all hope and pray for.

Struan Stevenson is a conservative Euro MP for Scotland and is President of the European Parliament’s Delegation for Relations with Iraq.

Article published in Scotland Europa

Scotland Europa