British Parliament Debates the Assyrians
6 Jul 2004 : Column 202WH
Assyrian Christian Minority
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 the 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.
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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
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 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
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
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
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 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
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
thi 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.
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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
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
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 are
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 under 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 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 carries 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 an 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 constitution so that the duly elected Government
respect those rights. To some ext 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.