On 13 December APPG stakeholder Open Doors launched its latest report in Parliament as part of its Hope for the Middle East campaign: What next for Syria and Iraq? The Enduring Relevance of the Church in the Middle East.
The day before an Open Doors delegation – led by 12-year-old Noeh from Karamles, Iraq – had presented the Hope for the Middle East petition to the UN in New York. The petition has been signed by more than 800,000 people in 143 countries, over 186,000 in the UK. It calls for equality, dignity and a role in reconciliation for Christians and other minorities in Iraq and Syria.
”We all hope to have our full rights in Iraq… This is the most important thing we need to continue staying in Iraq,” said Father Behnam Benoka, a priest from northern Iraq, who was also part of the delegation. “The material things are really important. But to continue staying, to continue existing, we need to gain our full rights as real citizens of Iraq.”
The meeting in the UK Parliament was hosted by Kate Green MP and Dame Caroline Spelman MP, and addressed by government minister Alistair Burt.
Caroline Spelman and Kate Green spoke of their moving encounters with women who had been abused by the self-proclaimed Islamic State in the Middle East, speaking of both the horror of those atrocities and the strength shown by the women they had met.
Father Daniel described the challenges facing Christians in Iraq. He said, “I believe that my people may be gone in the near future… that depends on your actions. We are on the frontline, but we are not afraid. Please help us.”
Alistair Burt MP, Minister of State for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Department for International Development spoke of the need for good governance and tolerance in the Middle East.
The report underlines that the current situation in Iraq and Syria has raised questions about the future of Christian communities in these countries. From the start of the Syrian civil war in 2011 and the rise of ISIS (also known as the Islamic State or Daesh) in Iraq in 2014, Christians have been among the the latest wave of violence that have impacted these communities. In the mix of civil war and regional sectarian power struggles, Christians and other religious and ethnic minorities are particularly vulnerable, including to explicit religious persecution. The incredible pressure on the Christian community has led to questions of what relevance the community will continue to play in the countries of Iraq and Syria.
The combined impact of these threats has led to massive displacement of the Christian community. Iraq has seen an estimated 100,000 Christians leave the country since 2014. Only 200,000-250,000 remain from a community that numbered as many as 1.4-2 million in the 1990s. In Syria, the pre-2011 population of 1.7-2.2 million has decreased to somewhere between 800,000 and 1.4 million. Emigration remains a constant feature of life for the Christian communities of Iraq and Syria.
The report identifies three critical categories of questions for considering the present and future role of Christians in Iraq and Syria.
- In order to protect what remains of the Christian community, what is their current social and political relevance?
- If Christians are to continue to survive through protracted conflict or be enabled to return to their homelands and reconstruct the areas of the country that have been decimated by years of conflict, do Christians have access to resources to enable this process?
- The conflicts in Iraq and Syria have both fallen along sectarian lines that have destabilized the social fabric of these diverse communities. What steps are being taken to rebuild social cohesion and governance that protects the rights of all citizens?
Recommendations for Parliamentarians
To the office of the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom: Please use every opportunity to highlight to foreign leaders and officials, as well as amongst your cabinet colleagues, the positive role religious leaders in the Middle East can play in providing on the ground information and insight from the region and in rolling out reconciliation and educational programmes in communities throughout the Middle East.
To the office of the Foreign Secretary, we urge you to take a leading role in the international community to encourage the integration of religious leaders into reconciliation efforts, which will greatly contribute to the future stability of Iraq, Syria and Kurdistan. One priority area is the city of Mosul, where strong leadership from the international community is urgently needed now that the city has been liberated so as to ensure that traumatised and divided communities can live alongside each other in peace.
We greatly appreciate the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Department for International Development’s interest in coming together with faith leaders to discuss a range of policy issues relevant to the Middle East, and look forward to developing this into a series of meetings organised in tandem with Lambeth Palace in the New Year.
To all Parliamentarians: Freedom of Religion or Belief (FORB) affects a myriad of areas of life in the Middle East and needs strong champions in Parliament. Consequently, we urge all present at today’s meeting to keep this important issue on the agenda in both the UK and abroad, mainstreaming it as a consideration in your own work and by raising the needs of the Christian community, and specifically faith leaders, in questions, debates, meetings with foreign diplomats, trade negotiations, media engagements etc.
We urge all Parliamentarians to write to the Foreign Secretary to outline what you have heard today, and in particular to highlight the calls of the petition. We would ask that you take the opportunity to co-sign a ready prepared letter with your colleagues at today’s meeting which will highlight the strength of feeling that exists amongst you on this important issue.
We urge the church leaders present at today’s meeting to use your influence to encourage your congregations to pray and speak out on behalf of believers in the Middle East. Further to this we ask that you call on your political representatives to act on their behalf by writing to your Member of Parliament on behalf of your churches, outlining your concern and support for these ancient Christian communities.
To representatives of NGOs and other agencies present at today’s meeting: we thank you for the work that you do and ask that, if you are not already doing so, you proactively consider issues related to Article 18, the international right to freedom of religion or belief, within the wider work your organisations.