New Europe has asked me to write an article for this supplement focusing on religious freedom, particularly regarding the situation being faced by the Assyrian Christians of Iraq. Since 2003, members of this ancient community have been increasingly forced to abandon their homes, sometimes literary with nothing except a bag of clothes, and catch the nearest bus to take them to the borders of Jordan, and nowadays Syria. These two countries, which are not wealthy countries, have thankfully opened their doors to millions of refugees, due to the carnage in Iraq -- whether due to abductions, rape or murder, which are continuing to take place daily. This is especially highlighted in October's attack on a church in Baghdad, when many of the congregation were held hostage for hours and then killed by terrorists, who may have been from Egypt, Yemen or neighbouring countries.
While a British citizen for forty years, I was born in Iraq and am myself an Assyrian Christian. Assyrians are the indigenous people of Iraq and were the first to embrace Christianity as their national religion in the first century AD. It is well known that Assyrians speak Aramaic, the language believed to be spoken by the Lord Jesus Christ; we pride ourselves to be the first people to embrace Christianity.
Over the years of sanctions I had travelled to Iraq to help provide much-needed humanitarian and medical aid, so I was aware of conditions facing Assyrians in the country at the time, particularly in Baghdad. Sanctions certainly took their toll, but providing Assyrians steered clear of politics they were largely left alone by the regime.
However, following the war in 2003 catastrophe struck. It is unbelievable that even under the previous regime Assyrians did not face the type of insecurity faced now, even after seven years. It is estimated that since the invasion about half of all Christians have left their homes. Some have fled to the north or have escaped to countries like Syria, Jordan and Lebanon, while others have eventually reached Europe. These people are living in these countries as refugees and need support with basic needs such as housing and medication.
The situation for Assyrian Christians has grown steadily worse over the years in the seven years since the invasion. Baghdad and Mosul are still dangerous places for Christians, with numerous examples of horrendous anti-Christian atrocities including kidnapping and murder. Of course, churches have been targeted and Assyrians are finding it extremely difficult to care for the vulnerable and needy in the community.
After the invasion, with a British journalist friend, I started a campaign called Save the Assyrians. The intention was to put pressure on the West to use its power to ensure the Iraqi Government guaranteed the rights of its Assyrian and Christian community.
Sadly, these efforts have fallen on deaf ears. There have been meetings in Washington, in New York at the UN, with the European Commission, but nothing has resulted from any of these. Even as recently as July this year, I was invited to a meeting of the various Christian denominations in Iraq (as I had dealt with some of the delegates previously), and attended on behalf of the Save the Assyrians campaign. Unfortunately, I can report that nothing progressed -- we had good listeners from the US State Department and Congress but that is all. More concrete steps have needed to be taken against successive Iraqi Governments to force them to meet their obligations to its own people, particularly those who represent such an integral part of the country's rich heritage.
We have tried working through the European Parliament to raise awareness of the situation being faced.
A resolution was passed in the European parliament thanks to Dr Charles Tannock MEP and Glyn Ford, a former MEP, together with many other honourable members. But unfortunately because of the continuing problems with Iraq, such as corruption and the warring factions running the country, nothing has been done. Since this resolution was passed, there has been no improvement in the situation -- in fact, it has only gotten worse, not helped by there still not being a government in place so long after Iraq's last elections.
Since the scale of the exodus of Assyrians from Iraq has became clear, we have also sought funds to provide humanitarian aid for those now living in terrible conditions, whether in Syria or those internally displaced to the north of the country. Unfortunately, the EU has been very slow in providing any assistance to non-Muslim communities in Iraq. Instead, we have been kindly helped by various British and American charities, who not only provide basic help with food and medication, but are also trying to rebuild communities which are in exile.
I hope this article has given you an appreciation of what is being faced by Iraq's Assyrian Christians. You can help us in our efforts by writing to both your local member of parliament and your MEP to put pressure on your government and the EU to use whatever influence it has to help this community.
We cannot continue to allow one of civilisation's oldest communities to simply drain away from its ancestral homeland and disappear, especially as we in Europe are supposed to place a high regard for other people's human rights.