Lord Hylton rose to ask Her Majesty's Government, what steps they will take to protect the legitimate interests of the Chaldo-Assyrians and other religious and ethnic minorities in Iraq. Lord Hylton My Lords, I thank noble Lords who will take part in this short debate.
I shall concentrate on the Chaldo-Assyrians, leaving other speakers to raise issues about the larger and smaller minorities. In asking this Question, I do not wish to repeat what was said in another place on this subject, on 8 December 2004. I do, however, need to put the Chaldo-Assyrians into their historic and geographic context.
Some 800,000 members of this minority have lived in Iraq since early Old Testament times. They are a three- fold minority--ethnic, religious, and cultural. They are a distinct ethnic group, different from their Arab, Kurdish and Turcoman neighbours. They speak Syriac, a form of the Aramaic language that they used when they became Christians in the first and second centuries. Religiously, many of them are in communion with the Roman Catholic Church. They make up some 95 per cent or so of all Iraqi Christians. The Chaldo-Assyrians have suffered severely throughout the 20th century.
It is little known that many thousands died during the genocidal massacres of Armenians in 1915-16. The army of newly independent Iraq, in 1933, bombarded Chaldo-Assyrian towns and villages, killing some 4,000 people, mainly women, children and the elderly. Saddam Hussein ordered the destruction of 200 of their villages, including historic churches and monasteries.
In 1984, three leaders of the Assyrian Democratic Movement were hanged. I should state that I have been a strong friend and supporter of the Kurdish people, ever since Saddam Hussein's gas attack on Hallabjah in 1987 and the subsequent Anfal ethnic clearance. It is impossible, however, to defend the behaviour of the Kurdish authorities, and the Kurdish Democratic Party in particular, towards the Chaldo-Assyrians after the end of the first Gulf war. Amnesty International reported on that in June 1994.
At least five named people are known to have been murdered, before and after that date. Others were assaulted or kidnapped, sometimes for the purpose of forced marriage and conversion to Islam. It seems that no one has ever been brought to justice for those crimes.
I have with me, and have provided to the Foreign Office, details of 58 confiscations and encroachments on Chaldo-Assyrian land and property in the provinces of Dohuk and Nineveh. Nearly all of these happened since 1991, usually with the approval or connivance of the Kurdish authorities. No redress or compensation has been offered. More worrying are the attacks that the Chaldo-Assyrian community has suffered, after the fall of the Ba'athist tyranny.
Over 100 deaths, some followed by decapitation, have been recorded since then, and probably still more woundings and injuries. I have details with me, for the period from April 2003 to November 2004. Concerted bomb attacks were made on some 15 Christian churches, and at least two schools, between June and December of last year. Christian bishops in Mosul and Amadyah have experienced threats of violence, as have students at Mosul University and individual Christian schools. The headquarters of the Assyrian Democratic Movement were attacked by mortars in August 2004.
I emphasise that these are not just my facts and figures; they are confirmed by independent sources in Iraq, Britain and the United States. Given the black record of murder and mayhem, it is hardly surprising that some 40,000 or more Chaldo-Assyrians have fled into Syria and Jordan. From there it is likely that many have already moved on to America or Australia. It is vitally important that as many as possible should be enabled to return. I shall say more on that later. Meanwhile, one can easily understand the fears that the Chaldo-Assyrians face regarding complete extinction as a community. They live among old Ba'athist enemies, unsympathetic neighbours, and militant Islamists, whether indigenous or infiltrating from the world outside. Most of those neighbours are heavily armed.
Therefore, I ask the Government what their response is to the three requests made by the Assyrian Democratic Movement on behalf of its people. It asked for an autonomous administrative region in the plans of Nineveh and in Dohuk province or, at minimum, a separate governerate, which would include some Yezidi and Shabak; that is, other minorities living close by. Such separate or autonomous arrangements would assure the survival of the Chaldo-Assyrians' unique language and culture in their historic homeland. The request was based on Article 53(D) of the transitional administrative law, which stated very clearly, "This law shall guarantee the administrative, cultural and political rights of the Turcomans, Chaldo-Assyrians and all other citizens". Your Lordships will note that the Turkomen have powerful protectors of their interests, who share a common frontier.
The Chaldo-Assyrians, who were specifically mentioned, deserve the protection of the allied powers and of the United Nations. At the very least they should be able to have primary schools with teaching in their own language. The second request was for the return of land and villages, illegally misappropriated or suffering wrongful encroachment. The third request was for a fair and reasonable share of funds, both external and Iraqi, ear-marked for reconstruction. Such finds have either not been paid to the Chaldo-Assyrian or have been diverted to the benefit of the Kurdish regional government.
I suggest that these three requests are not unreasonable. It seems to me that they are legitimate interests, as suggested in the text of my Question. They should do much to encourage the return of Christian émigrés and exiles, who could form one of the best educated, professional and politically moderate elements in the whole of Iraq. I must ask Her Majesty's Government whether they have studied the final declaration of the Chaldean Syriac Assyrian General Conference of October 2003, held in Baghdad. How have they replied to the letter sent to our Prime Minister, dated 20 May 2005, from Mr Yonadam Kanna, Secretary-General of the Assyrian Democratic Movement, who is also a member of the Iraqi National Assembly?
That letter set out the three requests already mentioned. It is worth noting that Mr Kanna is the only independent Chaldo-Assyrian in the Iraqi Constituent Assembly and he stood on a platform of regional autonomy. If we take together the two documents just mentioned, it is clear that the request for autonomy comes from the people themselves. It was irresponsible of a Foreign Office Minister to suggest otherwise, when speaking last year. I conclude by urging the Government to use their utmost efforts to ensure that freedoms of thought, conscience and religion are enshrined in the future constitution of Iraq.
These are the bare, necessary essentials for a very plural society and would give expression to Iraq's obligations under Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Lord Rea's Speech My Lords, I am very pleased that the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, has asked this Question as I too have become aware of the dangerous situation facing the Iraqi Assyrians. He has described their ancient lineage and some of their long and often tragic history. They backed the allies during the First World War and helped the UK greatly during the protectorate period in Iraq in the 1920s which made them very unpopular with some Iraqis and Kurds. In return we promised them an autonomous homeland when we left, but it never materialised.
Since the first Gulf War they have been oppressed both by the Kurds of north Iraq and by fundamentalist Islamists in the south. That has escalated since the second Gulf war, as the noble Lord pointed out. I also have the list of atrocities committed against the Assyrians that he described to us. There has been relentless pressure by Kurds on Assyrians in the Nineveh plains near Mosul--their traditional homeland--to move out.
A block has been imposed on Assyrians returning to their homes and land from which they were evicted by Saddam. Crimes against Assyrian people in KDP-controlled northern Iraq have not been investigated. There appears to be a climate of impunity. It seems that the Kurds, themselves victims of oppression, are now oppressing the indigenous minority in their midst. Unfortunately that appears to be a common human trait, both within families and with tribes and nations.
As an example of what is happening I want to quote from a Jubilee campaign paper, published on 3 February. It says: "KDP deprives Iraqi Christians of right to vote. The Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) . . . has prevented voting by Chaldo Assyrian Christians of the Nineveh Plains . . . during elections for the Iraqi National Assembly on January 30. The KDP effectively blocked the delivery of ballot boxes to at least six major Chaldo Assyrian towns and villages in the Nineveh Plains around Mosul. . . . The resulting unavailability of ballot boxes prevented up to 100,000 Chaldo Assyrian voters from casting their votes and affected tens of thousands of Yesidis, Shabak, and Turkman voters".
I suggest that there are two main ways in which the UK could honour its historical debt to the Assyrian people: first, through helping to ensure that the new draft Iraqi constitution, due to be agreed in about five weeks, contains specific provisions that ensure that the Assyrians are recognised as a national minority with a right to representation and the right to live peacefully in the land of their ancestors. That should include the right to return to their land and homes from which they have been illegally evicted.
I understand that on this very day the European Parliament is requesting its representative in Iraq to make just such a recommendation. Perhaps my noble friend can outline the role that the UK would play during its presidency of the EU to back up that request. The second way is through our contacts in Iraq with the United States, the senior coalition partner, responsible for the Kurdish areas of Iraq, asking them to put pressure on the Kurds, especially the KDP, to respect the rights of indigenous minorities to the peaceful occupation of their rightful land and property.
Many Assyrians feel that they are so vulnerable in the present state of Iraq, that they should be granted a semi-autonomous region, as described by the noble Lord, in the Nineveh plains, where they can administer the law and provide education in their own Syriac language. That is near to what we offered them in the 1920s but did not grant before we left Iraq. It would be wrong to pretend that Assyrians are the only people in Iraq who are suffering; far from it, as anyone who pays attention to the media knows. There is, however, a case to be made that we owe the Assyrians a special historical debt of gratitude and that there are some possible lines of action, as the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, and I have indicated.
As a footnote, I would like to point out that it is of importance to some Assyrians that the term "Chaldo-Assyrian" may be confusing since it implies that it only includes the Chaldean-Assyrians, who are Catholics. Using the single word "Assyrian" in any official document would be more clearly inclusive of both the Catholic and Orthodox branches of Assyrian Christianity. The Lord Bishop of Rochester My Lords, I also am very glad that the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, has obtained time for this debate; it is not just timely but urgent.
Indigenous Christian and other communities have been so often betrayed by the powers playing the "great game" in the Middle East and south-west Asia. We must make sure that the Chaldean-Assyrian and, indeed, other communities are not sold for 30 pieces of silver yet again. On the one hand, these communities have enjoyed a high level of autonomy as so-called "millets" under the Ottoman Empire and, indeed, before then. They are used to ordering their own affairs, having their own religious, political, legal and social leaders and contributing to the prosperity of their country as a whole. On the other hand, as the noble Lords, Lord Hylton, and Lord Rea, pointed out, along with the Armenians, they have been subjected to almost unparalleled brutality, not least in our own times--but not only in our own times. The figures speak for themselves.
During the genocide which followed the beginning of the First World War, 750,000 were killed and their lands confiscated, mainly because they supported the Allies against the central powers. In the 1930s again, the Assyrians were targeted by the Iraqi Army and the Baathists refused even to recognise them as a legitimate religious, ethnic and linguistic minority. The teaching of their language, Syriac, which is of course a form of the language spoken by Jesus himself, suffered grievously at that time.