Senator FIFIELD (Victoria) (7.02 p.m.)-Every day we are reminded of the enormous challenges facing the people of Iraq as sectarian militias and al-Qaeda terrorists continue to wage acts of senseless violence against the Iraqi people. Our television screens are inundated with coverage of events in Baghdad and its surrounds. But we hear virtually nothing of the plight of the Assyrian and Chaldean Christian minority, whose community is predominantly based in northern Iraq. Most people would be surprised to hear that Iraq is home to one of the world’s oldest Christian communities, consisting mainly of Chaldean Catholics and Assyrian Christians. The Christians of Iraq have been there for over 2,000 years and still pray in Aramaic, the language of Jesus. In 2003 there were estimated to be around half a million Christians in Iraq, but faced with vicious persecution from radical Muslims many have now left. Some estimate that the Iraqi Christian population has in fact now halved. Christian Iraqi refugees have fled to neighbouring Turkey, Jordan and Syria.
The targeting of Iraqi Christians has been comprehensive and relentless. They have been threatened and driven from their homes. They have been harassed, assaulted and kidnapped. They have been extorted and ordered to convert to Islam. Their churches have been bombed, and many priests and nuns have been murdered. In the past six months alone, according to one report, seven priests have been kidnapped-with two of those murdered. To protect themselves, Christians are forced to hide their religious identity. Christian women regularly wear the hijab, whilst the crucifix on churches and worn around necks is hidden from view. Radical Muslims have been demanding that Christians convert to Islam or pay the so-called ‘head tax’, the jizya. Those who refuse are threatened with violence. Some have decided that openly practising their Christian faith is now simply too dangerous. They are effectively prisoners in their own homes.
Earlier this year, a letter circulated by the Moqtada al-Sadr aligned Mehdi Army in Baghdad warned Christian women to wear the veil. The letter asked, ‘What measure should be taken against a woman who disobeys her father, husband or guardian by not committing to the legal veil?’ The letter advised that husbands and fathers ‘must guide and educate her religiously in order to convince her’. It continued, ‘If she is not convinced still then they must imprison her at home and not expose her to the forbidden interaction with men.’ In June, in the city of Mosul in northern Iraq, a Chaldean Catholic priest and three of his subdeacons were shot dead outside their church. Father Ragheed Ganni was a respected local priest, and he was just 31 years old. He and his three assistants were told that they would be spared if they renounced their faith and converted to Islam. All of them refused. Sadly, this is what the people of Iraq have come to expect from those who want to impose a radical Islamic state and sharia law. This is the level of freedom of religion that these Islamic extremists want to bring to bear.
What a shocking reality the Christians of Iraq face each day. Simply for daring to observe a faith other than a radical form of Islam they are made to suffer. We are told often that we should be tolerant. But why is it that those who speak of tolerance are so often intolerant of other faiths? If you look at authentic Islam, you do see a genuine exhortation to tolerance. But that is not manifest in this particular radical form of Islam. This sort of religious bullying is something that is alarmingly prevalent in radical Islam, which many would argue is at odds with mainstream Islam. This is a real problem for contemporary Islam. I will cite two recent examples. When a Danish newspaper published disparaging cartoons of the prophet Mohammed, violent rioting erupted across the Muslim world-as we all remember. Angry mobs took to the streets. Effigies were burnt. Flags were desecrated. Danish embassies around the world were threatened with bombs and had to be evacuated. Danish companies were boycotted. Similar scenes erupted after a speech by Pope Benedict last year. That radical Muslims reacted violently to a speech commenting on Islam and violence was an irony that was not lost on many.
In Iraq the reaction to the Pope’s speech was sickening. In Mosul a priest was kidnapped. Despite his church complying with the demands of the kidnappers to put up posters repudiating the Pope’s comments, the priest was killed. His decapitated body was found a week later. Contrast these episodes with the restraint shown by the Israeli people in the face of constant threats from the Islamic Republic of Iran. That radical Islam is a dangerously violent faith that in Iraq is manifesting itself in the brutal persecution of Christians is a sad truth. But you will not hear much about Christian persecution through the media. The systematic persecution and violence perpetrated against Iraqi Christians by Muslim extremists does not fit well with the anti-Western, anti-American editorial line of some media outlets. If there is something to be drawn from the suffering of Iraq’s Christians, it is this: we must stay the course in Iraq lest it descend into complete and utter chaos and violence. If it were not for the presence of the United States and its allies, including Australia, Iraq would plunge into civil war and, worse still, run the risk of triggering a catastrophic ethnic cleansing of many groups in Iraq-including the Assyrian Christian minority. That is just part of the reason why we should not cut and run on Iraq. The consequences are too dangerous and do not bear considering.
During his recent visit to Australia and when meeting with the Prime Minister, Iraq’s Prime Minister Maliki praised the role of Australian forces in Iraq and indicated his wish that Australian forces remain until such time as Iraq is able to take responsibility for its own security. During his recent visit to Iraq, our foreign minister underlined to the Iraqis the vital need for progress on reconciliation and population security for all Iraqis in order to build a stable and prosperous Iraq. These points were reiterated to Iraq’s foreign minister during his recent visit to Australia. Australia is doing its part to assist, not just on the ground in Iraq; the government has also accepted over 10,000 Iraqis under the humanitarian program since 2001. Iraqi nationals represented the second highest number of humanitarian visas granted in 2005-06, and earlier this year the government announced a further $6 million to assist displaced Iraqis.
Iraq is on the road to freedom and a more secure future, although it is a rocky road to that future and there are many challenges ahead. None of us deny that it is an extremely difficult situation in Iraq, but amidst the violence endured by Iraqi Christians there is hope for the future. They have a spirit of persistence and a strong desire to determine their own destiny. I do not think that it is just in the Assyrian and Chaldean communities but that it permeates through the entire Iraqi community. Perhaps Louis Sako, an Assyrian Archbishop based in Kirkuk, put it best when he said:
Now we are looking forward for a new Iraq, a new country, where each one of us can live with dignity and freedom.
That should be the goal of Australian assistance in Iraq, and we should be particularly mindful of the Assyrian Christian minority and the Chaldean community.