Dáil debates

Thursday, 13 April 2017

Topical Issue Debate

Christian Community in the Middle East

5:00 pm

Photo of Kevin O'KeeffeKevin O'Keeffe (Cork East, Fianna Fail)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

I thank the Ceann Comhairle for facilitating this debate. I am not looking for a change in foreign policy but for more emphasis to be put on this issue, which my colleagues Deputies Mattie McGrath and Noel Grealish join with me in raising today.

Ireland was once known as the land of saints and scholars. This arose from our conversion to Christianity centuries ago. Europe has come a long way with its multicultural society but there are still major Christian values in place. The Middle East - including Syria - was the birthplace of Christianity and when its population came under attack centuries ago, we had the Crusades, which involved multinational armies drawn from countries across Europe such as Britain and Ireland. Those involved played no small part in ensuring that Christians could live where they were born, as was the case with their ancestors.

There have been many attempts at systematic extermination since then. It is ironic that, under previous dictatorship regimes in the Middle East, Christians were afforded some reasonable protection and lived in harmony with the Muslims and the other minority religious groups. Deputies Mattie McGrath, Durkan and I attended a conference at which we were well briefed on what is happening in the Middle East. We met some of the authorities from the Christian communities and the stories they told us of what is happening in there would make the hairs stand up on the back of the neck. What has happened is shameful.

It is six years since the crisis erupted in Syria, but it took the washing up of the body of a little boy on the shoreline of a European country to bring home what is going on in the Middle East. Ireland and the EU opened their borders for the influx of refugees. I commend the Ministers and their Departments on making available the ships of the Naval Service and I commend the crews of those vessels on the good work they have done to provide protection for people who are trying to escape from these hostile communities. We should, however, be doing more on the ground in the Middle East to ensure that the Christians to whom I refer are protected in order that they can survive in their own homelands, which constitute the birthplace of Christianity. I ask that the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Deputy Flanagan give serious thought to this matter.

Photo of Michael CollinsMichael Collins (Cork South West, Independent)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

Open Doors, an advocacy group, has been monitoring Christian persecution for over 60 years.

It has stated a number of facts in its assessment of global trends in persecution in its world watch list for 2017. Open Doors has noted that 2017 is the fourth year in a row in which the level of overall persecution has risen. North Korea is still the number one offender. Islamic extremism continues to strangle the expression of the Christian faith. Millions of Christians around the world now live their lives in the shadow of varying levels of discrimination, violence and unrest.

I wish to outline some of the key facts in terms of international persecution of Christians. Islamic extremism fuels persecution in 14 out of the top 20 countries and in 35 of the top 50. It is North Korea, however, that is the number one offender, as has been the case since 2002. Worldwide persecution of Christians has risen for the fourth year in a row. Asia, in particular, is showing a rapid rise. Pakistan rises to fourth on the list, with levels of violence even greater than those in northern Nigeria. As Hindu nationalists batter the churches, India has climbed to its highest ever ranking of 15th. In Bangladesh, Vietnam and tiny Bhutan, things are getting more difficult for Christians. Buddhist nationalism returns Sri Lanka to the top 50 persecutors of Christians. Sudan rises to number five as President Omar al-Bashir seeks to fulfil his 2011 boast to the effect that "Now we can impose Sharia here." Turkey rises to 37 as President Erdoğan uses the failed coup of 2016 to purge opponents and push the country towards increased Islamism. Christians continue to be caught in the crossfire of wars in the Middle East. War-torn Yemen returns to the top ten, while Christians in Syria and Iraq continue to be targeted by Islamic militants.

5:10 pm

Photo of Mattie McGrathMattie McGrath (Tipperary, Independent)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

Go raibh maith agat. Ar an chéad dul síos ba mhaith liom mo bhuíochas a ghabháil leis an Cheann Comhairle as an motion inniu.

I thank the Acting Chairman for the opportunity to speak and I thank the Minister, Deputy Flanagan, for being here. I know he is very busy. I thank him for his engagement with myself and Deputies Grealish, O'Keeffe and Michael Collins on this issue. We have had a number of meetings but we will need a follow-up meeting after Easter.

Christians and other religious minorities in Iraq and Syria will be exterminated or forced to migrate, solely on the basis of their religion, by Islamic State - also known as ISIS or Daesh - and other militant extremists. Christians and other religious minorities in Iraq and Syria have been an integral part of the region's cultural fabric for millennia. Since 2003, minority groups in Iraq and Syria have been the target of systematic violence, with millions fleeing their ancestral homes. Christians and members of other religious minorities - I stress other minorities, including minority Muslim groups - in Iraq and Syria have been murdered, subjugated and have suffered grievous bodily and psychological harm, including sexual enslavement and abuse inflicted in a deliberate and calculated manner in violation of the UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. These atrocities were undertaken with the specific intent of bringing about the eradication and displacement of their communities and the destruction of their cultural heritage in violation of that convention.

Genocide is a crime under international law that shall be punished, whether committed by "constitutionally responsible rulers, public officials or private individuals" as provided by the UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. Article I of the convention, signed at Paris on 9 December 1948 - all that long ago - states that "the Contracting Parties confirm that genocide, whether committed in time of peace or in time of war, is a crime under international law which they undertake to prevent and to punish." Article II states:

In the present Convention, genocide means any of the following acts committed with the intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such:

(a) killing members of the group;

(b) causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;

(c) deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;

(d) imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group; and

(e) forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.

Article III affirms that the following acts shall be punishable:

(a) genocide;

(b) conspiracy to commit genocide;

(c) direct and public incitement to commit genocide;

(d) attempt to commit genocide;

(e) complicity in genocide

On 13 March, 2015 the United Nations Committee on Human Rights reported that ethnic and religious groups targeted by Islamic State include Yazidis, Christians, Turkmen, Sabian Mandaeans, Kakais, Kurds and Shias and that it is reasonable to conclude that some of the incidents in Iraq in 2014-2015 may constitute genocide. I appeal to the Minister to do something. This is happening right under our noses. Like my colleagues, I salute the Government and the Minister for Defence for sending in the rescue ships of our proud Naval Service. The number of people they have plucked from the water and saved is astonishing. Sadly, many have also drowned.

I travelled to Lebanon with Deputy Grealish and Senator Rónán Mullen and I visited the camps. I will quote from one poor woman I met in a camp at 10 o'clock one Sunday night. She recalled the harrowing story of her family, which was turned upside down in the blink of an eye when their home town in Syria was overrun by Islamic State forces. The family I met living in this camp is a retired couple. He is 82 and his wife is 73. She was crying as told me what happened to them and their 40 year old daughter who has two children. They were a regular Catholic family living an ordinary regular life in their home in Syria. When ISIS came to town, all the Christian houses were, unfortunately, marked with a cross, which is so sad. Then the knock came on the door in the morning and they were told by ISIS they had to convert to Islam within a week, leave within half an hour or be shot on the spot. When the ISIS soldiers returned, the daughter's husband refused to leave. Who would blame him? He was executed on the spot in front of the family - shot dead for refusing to agree to their terms to leave or convert to Islam. The family then agreed to leave. They had to leave their house with the clothes on their backs. Isis took over their house, car and all their property. They had to walk in excess of 200 km to the Syria-Lebanon border, where they now live in a refugee camp a few miles from that border.

That family is typical of huge numbers of Christians driven from their homes in Syria and Iraq by ISIS. They were a self-sufficient family, working and carrying out their ordinary lives in their home country. The man who was executed had a well-paid job on an oil rig. The mother is a retired nurse and the father had worked with the local authority. They are not economic migrants. They are fleeing the most awful persecution and terror of their lives. They do not want to stay in an Army barracks in Mullingar or any other country to which they might be sent, particularly in light of language barriers and everything else. It was so sad. We met the children. The poor little children came out to meet us and had a little cáca milis, a welcoming party for us in the dark and they did a special dance for us. To see in that camp only grannies, very old people and children under ten or 11, no sign of the men and no sign of the mothers.

Christianity has been a stabilising factor in the Middle East since the first Easter but now it is being undermined and driven out. It is going to be a less safe place and the world itself will be a most dangerous place. His Holiness - we met him, as Deputy O'Keeffe said - pleaded with us to go back to our parliaments. Some parliaments, such as the United States Congress and the Parliament in the UK, have passed motions in this regard. I await the Minister's response.

Photo of Charles FlanaganCharles Flanagan (Laois, Fine Gael)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

I thank the Deputies for raising this important issue. There is a grim timeliness about this Topical Issue debate. It is deeply dismaying that we should need to discuss continuing violence and persecution against Christians in the Middle East as we prepare to commemorate the Easter holidays. I must begin by expressing my horror at the attacks on two Coptic churches in Egypt on Sunday, and to extend my deepest condolences to the victims and their families. The political turmoil which has overwhelmed many countries in the Middle East in recent years has led to increased concerns about the safety of many religious minorities and other minority groups.

Christian communities have indeed suffered greatly in many of these countries. In Syria and Iraq, notably, they have been caught up a general collapse of state control and authority, and increasingly sectarian violence which has made all minorities vulnerable.

This has culminated in both countries in the murderous bigotry of Daesh and other terrorist groups that have attacked and murdered many communities and groups of people for their religious beliefs and way of life. The attacks in Egypt and similar earlier incidents were, in all likelihood, a deliberate attempt to provoke similar sectarian divisions in that country. However, thus far the reaction of Egyptians has been exactly the opposite.

Even when the current violence is brought to an end, as it will be, many of these ancient communities will be permanently diminished. Over half of Iraqi Christians have fled the country. While some may return, many are now settled in the United States and Australia and they will not return. These tragic events are the result of crises of governance and legitimacy and, in some places, the collapse of state authority. The grim reality is that the only means of securing the protection of Christian communities and other minorities throughout the Middle East is through the promotion of sustainable political solutions to the conflicts that have for so long destabilised the region and have been the key factor in the promotion of radical and extremist ideologies.

Ireland has consistently called for inclusive, democratic solutions to the unrest in the Middle East and north Africa. Deputies will be aware that we have been to the fore under successive Governments in trying to focus international attention and effort on these problems. We have actively supported and encouraged successive political efforts to achieve ceasefires and to advance and progress peace agreements. We have worked to discourage outside interventions that have worsened these conflicts. We have worked to urge mechanisms of accountability for those guilty of war crimes.

Irish peacekeepers and professional staff have served with UN missions in Lebanon, Syria, the Palestinian territories and Iraq. We have supported efforts to establish humanitarian corridors. We have significantly increased humanitarian aid in addition to the marvellous efforts of Irish NGOs throughout the region. I pay tribute to Irish NGOs and peacekeepers for the manner in which they conduct their business and for their experience and expertise in some of the most challenging regions in the world.

More broadly and in view of the longer term, Ireland engages in international work to combat the persecution of Christians and other minorities in the Middle East. There is not time in this short debate to cover these in detail. However, I acknowledge the importance of these issues to the Deputies who have raised the matter. I was pleased to meet Deputy McGrath and others, as he evidenced.

Ireland has made freedom of religion and belief a priority of our engagement. At the United Nations General Assembly I have condemned all forms of persecution, intolerance and discrimination based on religion or belief. Ireland has consistently supported resolutions on freedom of religion or belief at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, including co-sponsorship of the resolution at the most recent session of the Human Rights Council some weeks back in March.

In addition, Ireland frequently raises the issue of the persecution of Christians through our bilateral contacts in the region. We stress the responsibility of governments to protect all citizens and minorities, irrespective of their religion or belief. I assure the Deputies that Ireland will continue to play an important role in this area and actively support freedom of religion or belief across our foreign policy.

5:20 pm

Photo of Kevin O'KeeffeKevin O'Keeffe (Cork East, Fianna Fail)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

I thank the Minister for his response. I agree with what he has said. I acknowledge the good work of the NGOs, our Defence Forces and the Naval Service. However, we believe more could be done. Europe has learned its lesson from the Yugoslav war. It was a neighbouring country of EU countries. We should remember what happened there with the minority religious groups. Plenty of international attention is being given to this issue but more needs to be done.

Europe reacted quickly to the creation of a Jewish state after the Second World War. We are not looking for a new state to be created for Christians or other minority groups in the Middle East. We are simply asking that they be left to go back to where they came from and continue their traditions, which have created many of the values that we have today. I thank the Minister for his response and I hope that we get more back in the future.

Photo of Mattie McGrathMattie McGrath (Tipperary, Independent)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

I thank the Minister for his compassion and interest. It is sad that it is Holy Thursday evening during seachtain na Cásca when we are having this debate. That is our choosing. It is appropriate to have it this evening.

I apologise for Deputy Grealish who had to leave for an engagement in Galway. I thank him. I know Deputy O'Keeffe and others are travelling to Frascati again this year in August to meet world leaders. I was glad that the leaders of the Coptic Church were brought before the Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs and Trade to engage with us. There is a Coptic Christian community in Cahir in Tipperary. They are most welcome and valuable members of the community. I have sympathised with them totally and with their colleagues in Egypt after the horrific attacks that took place on Palm Sunday which caused deaths, slaughter and devastation. It beggars belief.

I salute the NGOs and peacekeepers. We have a proud record. Deputy Grealish referred recently on Leaders' Questions to some of the peacekeepers of the past. He made the case that they have not been recognised properly for the gallantry they displayed. We are proud in Ireland.

The United Nations has been lax in this case. It is ironic that under the dictatorships of certain countries – I will not name them but we know which ones – Christians were allowed to practise their faith with impunity, as were minority Muslim faiths. There was peace and harmony. They all worshipped whatever God they believed in or thought they were worshipping and there was no problem. However, things have changed since the bombing by the US, England and other countries. Since the removal of those dictators, there is no possibility for these people to worship or to hold their right to freedom of expression or anything else. The situation is far worse than it ever was.

Aid to the Church in Need produced a report in 2016 on religious freedom in the world. The report analysed the situation of 196 countries from June 2014 to June 2016. It concluded that Islamic extremism is the main threat for Christians and other religions. That is an honest report. It states that more than 334 million Christians are persecuted and discriminated against because of their religion. Cardinal Mauro Piacenza, president of Aid to the Church in Need, made several observations at the launch of the report. He said that persecution has always threatened Christians and always will. However, he said that does not mean they need to have a pessimistic attitude or do nothing about it. We have to act. Out of the 196 countries under the microscope, 38 host Christian communities have suffered serious violations. This is savage. In 23 countries there is strong religious persecution and in 15 countries there is discrimination. The most dangerous countries for Christians are in the Middle East and Africa. These include Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq, Nigeria and Somalia among others. According to the cardinal, this is the worst problem in the world community but we remain oblivious to the toil of these communities.

The media have a role to play as well. We are not getting the attention. We get it when there is a horrific atrocity, and rightly so. However, we are not getting it otherwise. Since 2014, one in five counties has been the victim of an attack from Islamic State. Islamic extremism is felt more strongly every day and has caused a rise in the number of refugees. In 2015, a total of 5.8 million people had to flee their homes. They lost everything. According to the United Nations, the total number of refugees in the world is 65.3 million. It is unimaginable. This is the situation that the Bishop of Syria has to endure every day.

These are the types of issues that arise. Christians who live under authoritarian regimes like those in China or Turkistan undergo difficult circumstances. In two years in the Chinese province of Zhejiang, 2,000 crucifixes have been removed from churches. We are at that in our country. We remove them from hospitals and places and we do not think of the consequences. I do not see the need or the rush to do it. We do not think of the awful consequences and the signal this sends to those people who are being savagely persecuted.

Photo of Bernard DurkanBernard Durkan (Kildare North, Fine Gael)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

Thank you, Deputy.

Photo of Mattie McGrathMattie McGrath (Tipperary, Independent)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

I beg your indulgence for a minute. Deputy Collins did not take his time, so you might allow me a little grace.

I am delighted that we got the opportunity to raise this matter. I am very pleased that the Minister is present to hear us. I know he is engaging and that he intends to engage. We have many Muslims in my constituency and in the constituencies of my colleagues as well. They are here and happy to be here. We are happy to have them. They play a vital role. That is the way it should be. We are not against any one faith or another. As I said, the minority sects of Muslims and others get even more horrific persecution. Something has to happen. Account has to be taken of where we are.

The United States Congress and the United Kingdom Parliament have passed motions recently. We need to come to this Chamber without fear of any big powers. We need to stand up against the persecution of ordinary decent families. These people simply want to live out their lives under their own culture, in their own country and to be allowed to raise their families in safety.

The whole world is being completely destabilised by what is happening in the Middle East. It will have earth-shattering consequences going forward if we do not deal with it. I thank the Cathaoirleach for his forbearance, as well as the Minister and my colleagues who helped to raise this discussion today.

5:30 pm

Photo of Charles FlanaganCharles Flanagan (Laois, Fine Gael)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

I thank Deputies O'Keeffe, Michael Collins and Mattie McGrath for raising this important issue. Let me reiterate in the strongest possible terms that Ireland strongly condemns all forms of persecution on the basis of religion or belief, irrespective of where they occur or who the victims are or might be. We attach great importance to combatting all forms of discrimination based on religion or belief and all forms of incitement to religious hatred. We firmly believe in the matter of tolerance, non-discrimination, freedom of expression, freedom of thought, freedom of conscience, freedom of religion and freedom of belief. Ireland consistently raises the issue of intolerance and unequal treatment at the UN Human Rights Council during the council's universal periodic review of the United Nations' member states.

I acknowledge what Deputy McGrath said on the matter of the United Nations. I note that Ireland also consistently raises this issue at meetings of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe, OSCE, and on a continuous basis in meetings and engagements of the Council of Europe. The promotion of inclusive societies in which the human rights of all individuals are respected is a core objective of our engagement. It is a core cornerstone of foreign policy to promote issues such as the freedom expression, the freedom of religion and the freedom of belief.

During our recent Presidency of the Council of Ministers in 2013, Ireland played a key role in the development and adoption of EU guidelines on the freedom of religion and belief. These guidelines provide a framework for the promotion of freedom of religion or belief in the EU's external human rights policy. Later, in 2015, Ireland pressed for the inclusion of the promotion of freedom of religion or belief in the EU action plan for human rights and democracy, a four-year plan from 2015 to 2019. Let me assure the Deputy that I will continue to raise the voice of the Irish Government, Parliament and people on these important issues. I thank the Deputies for raising this issue, particularly today on Holy Thursday at the start of the most important Christian festival in our calendar.