I have just spent a memorable week in northern Iraq as a guest of the Assyrian Christians, becoming the first British MP to visit the lawless land north of Mosul since 2003. When we think of Christianity here in the West we conjure up an image of cosy medieval churches set in green fields with polite elderly congregations, or perhaps majestic cathedrals. What I saw in Iraq was a reminder of Christianity in its raw early form.
Here are the last speakers of Aramaic, the language of Jesus Christ. Here I saw the tomb of the Old Testament prophet Nahum, with its Hebrew inscriptions on the old stone walls. This prophet's brief book describes, in somewhat lurid terms, the overthrow of Nineveh. It is the Lord's vengeance upon the Assyrians as the enemies of God's people. Ironically, the words he applies to the pagan Assyrians could now be applied to the Christian Assyrians of Iraq: "Your people are scattered on the mountains with none to gather them." If they continue to be evicted from the Nineveh Plains, where they have always lived, then their language too will fade away.
Then there is the suffocating heat, unrelieved in Ramadan by even a glass of beer, the undercurrent of violence and oppression, the small flat-roofed houses, the bare ancient churches devoid of any ornament and the ancient liturgy.
I heard some harrowing tales of Christians being killed and kidnapped in Baghdad following our invasion. I am even more certain I was right to vote against an invasion which has caused so much misery for minorities in Iraq.
I spoke to a number of displaced widows who shared their tragic stories. One woman told that her husband had been kidnapped and a $15,000 ransom demanded. Although she paid, her husband was never returned and is presumed dead. Another widow's husband had been killed by a bomb and she has been left to care for their son and two daughters, one of whom has Down's Syndrome. Another told me that her husband had been killed by a roadside bomb in 2006 while he was returning from church. A few days after her husband's death her daughter was kidnapped. At this point she started crying uncontrollably and we had to end the interview. I later learned that her daughter has never returned and is presumed dead.
After this I spoke to a young Christian woman who lost four of her family members in 2004. When she lived in Baghdad Muslim extremists had put leaflets through her family's letterbox calling the Christians "pigs" and telling them to leave or be killed. A few days later they attacked her house and killed her parents and sister. One of her brothers disappeared and she believes he returned home while the killers were still there and was kidnapped. There is no news of her missing brother and he is presumed dead.
Sometimes I find British politics inward-looking and petty. When I go to places like northern Iraq I feel new life coursing through my political veins and I am determined to stand up for these minorities. This decimated community is under pressure from many sides. Over 700 Iraqi Christians have been killed since 2003 and half have left Iraq, leaving perhaps about 400,000 Christians in Iraq. Over 95 per cent of them are Chaldo-Assyrian, the descendants of the Assyrians of Old Testament times. They are the indigenous people of Iraq, with a continuous presence in that land for over 6,000 years. Today, probably more than at any other time in their long history, the Assyrians are in grave danger of disappearing altogether from their ancient homeland.
The average Iraqi faces many risks but Christians are exposed to even more: they have to deal with the additional threat of attacks from Islamic extremists, who want to drive them out of Iraq, kill them or force them to convert to Islam; attacks by insurgents who mistakenly view the Christians as close allies of the "Christian" West; abduction by kidnappers who think that the generally well-educated Christians are more wealthy than other Iraqis; and having large areas of their land - and many of their houses - misappropriated by neighbouring Kurds in in what appears to be a systematic attempt to take over Christian-owned land and drive Christians out of the Kurdish region. At least 58 Christian villages have been partially or wholly misappropriated by Kurds.
I visited many during my stay and was told by the Christians how their land and houses and sometimes even their sources of water had been taken by the Kurds. In every case the Kurdish authorities failed to ensure that the misappropriated property was returned. In some cases it has even been the ruling Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) which had seized it. For example the KDP office at the Christian village of Kany Masy was built on Christian-owned land without the owner's permission. In the area under Kurdish Regional Government control an environment of impunity prevails, where Christian-owned property is viewed as "up for grabs". The KDP is even encouraging Kurds from abroad to come and settle in the region as part of their systematic attempt to Kurdify the entire area and squeeze out the Chaldo-Assyrians.
While there is no danger of the Sunnis, Shias or Kurds vanishing from Iraq, there is a risk that this may soon happen to the Assyrians unless their security situation improves and they receive much more support. The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees reported that Christians made up 36 per cent of Iraqi refugees in Syria, although they only comprised about four per cent of Iraq's population, further evidence that Christians suffer disproportionately.
The West, particularly the US and Britain, must step in to protect the last remnant of a Christian minority in Iraq, lest they go the way of the Jews, who were all evicted. We need to give them their own province in the Nineveh Plains. We need to warn the Kurds that continued encroachments of their land will not be tolerated.
Iraq's leading Christian political party, the Assyrian Democratic Movement (ADM) has long called for a self-governing province to be established for the Chaldo-Assyrians, situated in and around the Nineveh Plains, as these lands form part of the Assyrians' ancestral homeland and are still heavily populated by them.
The ADM have received the highest number of votes from Iraqi Christians at elections, indicating that their call for a province is supported by the majority of Iraq's Christians. This province would provide better security for Christians and encourage many Iraqi Christian refugees to return and live there. If the Assyrians do not get their province then the KDP will probably eventually annex the Nineveh Plains to Kurdistan and the_Assyrians will soon die as a nation.
By Edward Leigh
Edward Leigh is the Conservative MP_for Gainsborough. Readers can help the refugees by sending a cheque to the Assyrian Aid Society, a registered Christian charity, at 36 Crossway, London W13 0AX. Readers may also write to their MP, urging them to contact the Foreign Secretary and asking the Government to give more support to Iraq's Christians, including support for the creation of a self-governing province in and around the Nineveh Plains.