On Sunday 26 July 2015, the Australian Christian Lobby (ACL) held a policy forum entitled, 'Policy Solutions for Persecuted Religious Minorities,' as part of the Australia Labor Party FRINGE Program, an event running alongside the Australian Labor Party (ALP) annual national conference in the Melbourne Convention Centre.
The forum, which was hosted by ACL Managing Director Lyle Shelton, featured (in order of appearance): Syrian journalist Johnny Abo, Elizabeth Kendal (religious liberty analyst, advocate and author), Chris Hayes (MP), His Grace Bishop Suriel of the Coptic Church and Maria Vamvakinou (MP). The purpose of the forum was to raise awareness of the plight of the Middle East's persecuted and existentially threatened religious minorities, and to propose policy solutions.
By Elizabeth Kendal
Iraq’s last official census (1987) counted 1.4 million Assyrians (the indigenous people of Mesopotamia, who are Christian). But as Islamic zeal and Arab nationalism rose in the wake of Gulf War One (1991) persecution escalated and Christians with means emigrated.
By the time of the March 2003 US-led invasion, the Christian population of Iraq was estimated to have declined to between 800,000 and 1.2 million.
By 2010 -- church bombings, killings and kidnappings had caused the Christian population to decline to around 400,000. By this time, the Mandaeans of southern Iraq – a pacifist people who follow the teachings of John the Baptists – preaching righteousness and engaging in regular baptisms for the forgiveness of sins – had been essentially annihilated.
In December 2011 – as the last US troops prepared to withdraw – Archbishop Louis Sako of the Chaldean Catholic Church gave voice to the pervasive fear, that if the persecution continues with such intensity, “Iraq could be emptied of Christians”.
In Australia, the Assyrian Universal Alliance (AUA) published an open letter to the Prime Minister, appealing for help from the Australian government. The letter included this grave warning:“The slow genocide of the indigenous Assyrians, also known as Chaldeans and Syriacs, in Iraq now sits at the tipping point of a relentless and inexorable genocide, leading to ethnic extinction.”
After detailing the destruction of churches, the targeted violent persecution of Christians and the desperate flight of more than 600,000 Assyrians since 2003, the AUA letter highlighted the saddest and most shameful aspect of all:“Despite the scale of this human tragedy and the drastic displacement of the Assyrians, the International Community’s response has been almost non-existent and the displaced Assyrians have been left to their demise.”
In March 2013 – on the 10-year anniversary of the US invasion – Canon Andrew White (a.k.a. as the Vicar of Baghdad) estimated that a mere remnant of 200,000 Christians remained – with most hunkered down in Nineveh Province – in the provincial capital Mosul, and in Iraq’s largest Assyrian city, Bakhdida (a.k.a. Qaraqosh).
In June 2014 – ISIS swept into Nineveh, seizing Mosul in a blitzkrieg as tens of thousands of Iraqi security personnel (Shi’ites) fled for their lives, unwilling to defend the city, especially in the face of widespread Sunni support for ISIS.
On Friday 18 July 2014, ISIS – now known as Islamic State (IS) – issued an ultimatum: Christians would have until midday of the next day to either convert to Islam, submit as dhimmis (second-class citizens) and pay the jizya (protection money) – otherwise they would “face the sword”.
Mosul’s remnant Christians departed, causing Archbishop Sako to lament, “For the first time in the history of Iraq, Mosul is now empty of Christians.”
Patriarch Louis Sako, issued a statement on 10 Aug 2014, in which he warned that Iraq’s Christians “are facing a human catastrophe and risk a real genocide”.
Lamenting that all the churches from Mosul to the border of Iraqi Kurdistan were now deserted and desecrated, he added, “The level of disaster is extreme.”
In SYRIA meanwhile – where religious minorities makes up around 25 percent (12% Alawite, 10% Christian) the Syrian government stands as the last line of defence preventing a genocide of the minorities. The threat was made clear from the outset, for when the banned Syrian Muslim Brotherhood led a “day of rage” in the “Arab Spring” of April 2011, protesters were heard chanting in the streets, “Christians to Beirut, Alawites to the grave”.
As Syria was flooded with international jihadis, the threat became existential.
In March 2013, the northern city of Al-Raqqa became the first provincial capital to fall under rebel control. In Jan 2014, ISIS and al-Nusra split – with al-Nusra concentrating on the Battle for Aleppo, and ISIS assuming full control of Al-Raqqa where they enforced Sharia law without compromise, without mercy.
In March 2015, Idlib became the second provincial capital to fall under rebel control after a rebel coalition led by al-Qaeda’s al-Nusra, but including several FSA battalions, stormed the city.
Everywhere the rebels have gained control Christians have been forced to flee – many have perished.
In February 2015 – IS fighters raided a string of Assyrian villages along the Khabour River in north-eastern Haseka, displacing thousands. Some 230 Assyrians remain in IS captivity to this day.
|More than 250,000 Armenians |
were massacred in the
pogroms of 1894-96.
Armenian Genocide Museum
How many times have you heard it said that the current crisis in the Middle East is “unprecedented”?
Well – I’d like to suggest that it is not the least bit unprecedented.
Read up on the last century of the Caliphate: that is, through the 19C to the Armenian Genocide [1915-23]. The threat to minorities is not unprecedented. We have seen all this before!
Read up on the influence of the rabid anti-Semite Haj Amin al-Husseini the Mufti of Jerusalem, who aligned with the Nazis and incited violence against Jews throughout the Balkans and the Middle East. Today the Arab lands are proudly judenrein (free of Jews). So even the elimination of an entire ethno-religious group would not be unprecedented.
Today we lament Western silence in the face of genocide. But this too is not unprecedented. Western governments have routinely abandoned the minorities to their fate and stood idly by in silence as they were driven from their homes and slaughtered.
- Western powers have long believed their “vital interests” are best served by maintaining pro-Arab, pro-Muslim policies.
- Western powers have great faith in democracy (reduced these days to elections and majority rule). The trouble is, as Western efforts to democratise the Middle East have converged with Islamic revival, the result, for the minorities, has been catastrophic.
I believe the Australia government should stand with the persecuted and maintain a foreign policy committed to advancing religious liberty and aiding vulnerable, existentially imperiled minorities.
Concerning those [existentially imperiled minorities] who want to stay in their homeland: I believe we should help them by providing aid directly to them, and by working with regional governments to secure safe havens – particularly a safe haven in the Nineveh Plain, the historic homeland of the Assyrian nation. If safe havens could be made secure – then displaced families could at least get on with educating their children.
Concerning those [existentially imperiled minorities] who just want to leave, because they desperately want their children to have a future: I believe we should help them too by guaranteeing them places in Australia.
Let’s encourage our government to do something really unprecedented and for once, put the plight of existentially threatened minorities ahead of economics, geo-politics and political correctness.
Elizabeth Kendal is the author of
Turn Back the Battle: Isaiah Speaks to Christians Today
(Deror Books, Dec 2012).
Turn Back the Battle: Isaiah Speaks to Christians Today
(Deror Books, Dec 2012).