Wednesday, 19 January 2011
I welcome the Minister of State and I am particularly pleased it is the Minister of State with responsibility for European affairs as some of what I have to say will look to elicit the support of the European Union. I am looking for a statement on the spate of recent murders, which was particularly intensified over the Christmas period, of Christians in a number of Middle East countries. There is a need to defend Christian minorities within those countries.
There was an alarming case in Nigeria where 32 people were killed, with over 70 seriously injured, over the Christmas period. In a previous incident in Jos, Nigeria, 86 people were killed. In Pakistan suicide bombers killed 47 people and left over 100 people injured. In Iraq a couple of people have been killed and many were injured as well. I know representation has been made by various Christian groups to the Obama Administration in regard to Iraq and the greater protection of Christians there. On New Year's Eve a bomb attack in Egypt killed 21 Christians and injured over 100 people in the Church of the Two Saints in Alexandria. Over 80% of those who have been targeted have been Christians. Aid to the Church in Need, a Catholic-based organisation dealing with religious freedom, estimates that somewhere between 75% and 85% of all acts of religious persecution are directed against Christians, with many, unfortunately, coming from Muslim extremists.
The international community is to a great degree refusing to acknowledge and highlight these atrocities, which in some instances are tantamount to ethnic cleansing. Many international communities are failing to realise these atrocities but the Obama Administration has acknowledged that Christians are primarily targeted in this regard. There is a real need for the international community to take steps to prevent such acts. A lone voice in doing this recently has been Pope Benedict XVI, who has highlighted the persecution of Christians in a wide range of countries. In the past two or three weeks we have seen in Iran a significant number of Christians arrested and incarcerated without trial in some of the most heinous prison regimes to be found anywhere in the world.
This and other countries embracing a human rights ethos must lend voices to defending these people, even leaving aside the fact that we are a Christian country. Italy has proposed that the EU consider withdrawing aid from countries which fail to protect Christian communities, and we should support this policy. The European Union should articulate its strong objection to what is taking place and its support for having such action arrested. I am happy to allow a minute or so to my colleague, Senator Norris, who will support my argument.
I thank my colleague, Senator Jim Walsh, for so generously making this time available. I asked if he would allow me to participate in the debate because he has picked an extremely significant issue which deserves a widespread debate. I commend him on taking the matter up as it is extremely serious.
I asked if I could participate because I have some personal knowledge of the matter. When I began going to the Middle East approximately 40 years ago, the population of Bethlehem was 80% Christian and 20% Muslim but that has now been reversed exactly. That is partly due to the Israeli occupation. I know from friends that another cause is the bullying tactic adopted by mosques, which blare highly political sermons into the Christian districts, which is really deplorable.
The awful violence which Senator Walsh spoke about so eloquently is an embarrassment to mainstream and decent Muslims, which are in the undoubted majority. There is a fanatic minority which has been exacerbated by the attack on Iran etc. I have also been in Egypt and spoken to some of the Kopts. There was an appalling attack on a Roman Catholic church, when over 100 people were killed in Baghdad, but there was also an attack on people at a special Christmas service in Alexandria. It was abominable for people celebrating the birth of Christ to be attacked in this way.
I am particularly glad Senator Walsh gave me this permission as I ask the Minister of State if it is possible for him to give any information on the position in Pakistan. A woman, Ms Asia Bibi, has been sentenced to death for blasphemy, with the act including a defence of the Christian religion. People are being condemned to death for converting, so what kind of freedom is that? I read a book over Christmas which was not terribly high-brow but it was interesting. It is called Labyrinth and was written by Kate Mosse, and it takes us through the Crusades period, detailing how Cathars were horribly persecuted.
I would be a little reluctant to impose sanctions as that may injure the most vulnerable people in the country. I would agree to it if we could injure the governments but our actions must be political. We must consider our own blasphemy laws as it is an important subject. We can consider the assassination of the governor of Punjab in Pakistan for the crime of talking about repealing blasphemy laws. Ireland was given as an example because we introduced blasphemy laws. Members of the Pakistani bar displayed appalling behaviour in openly cheering and throwing flowers on the man who murdered the governor, simply because he preached a certain degree of tolerance towards Christians.
I thank Senators Walsh and Norris for their contributions on this issue. There is doubt that there has been a growth across the world in religious intolerance, not only Christianophobia but also Islamophobia and anti-Semitism. It is intolerable at this stage of human development that such growth should occur.
The Christmas Eve bombings in Jos, Nigeria, which claimed 80 lives, are widely believed to have been the work of an Islamist fundamentalist group known as Boko Harem. While a number of Muslim religious leaders have condemned the bombings outright, unfortunately their condemnation has not been heeded. Violence in and around Jos has been predominantly between Christians and Muslims and has a complex origin. Continued efforts by the state and federal governments to address the root causes of the violence are required if recurrences are to be prevented. The Irish Embassy in Nigeria has provided financial assistance to people in Jos, especially those who have been displaced or require relief as a result of intercommunal violence.
The promotion of religious tolerance is a key objective in our bilateral relations with Pakistan and in European Union relations with that country. Senator Walsh specifically referred to the need for the EU to be proactive in this matter. For its part, the Pakistani Government has given clear commitments to the European Union to combat extremism, protect religious minorities and promote religious tolerance. The work of the independent, national Human Rights Commission of Pakistan is welcomed, especially its public position on the obligations of the state.
Ireland will continue to work closely with our European Union partners and other international partners to secure the human rights of all minorities in Pakistan. The recent assassination of the Governor of Punjab, a case to which Senator Norris referred, highlights the difficulties faced by courageous people in that country.
I was gravely concerned about the horrific attacks against defenceless Christian worshippers at Our Lady of Salvation Church in Baghdad on 31 October and the Coptic Church of the Saints of Alexandria on New Year's Eve. I condemn unreservedly the deplorable attacks on 18 and 19 January against Iraqi security forces providing support in this area. Groups such as al-Qaeda in Iraq which carry out these attacks are bent on destabilising the countries in which they operate and imposing religious totalitarianism. Ireland and the European Union are committed to ensuring such efforts to fragment and undermine pluralistic and democratic states do not succeed.
I do not agree that we should penalise governments for the actions of a violent few. We should work to help governments in Iraq, Egypt and elsewhere which are making efforts to improve matters in this area. The formation of a new Government in Iraq in December 2010 was an important step in the democratic development of a pluralistic state in which Iraqi Christians, Muslims and members of other religious denominations can live together.
As Senator Walsh noted, the Italian Government has produced a so-called food for thought paper to promote freedom of religion and related counter terrorism measures. The document, which is due to be considered at the European Union Foreign Affairs Council on 31 January, is welcome because it highlights the concern we all share on freedom of religion and belief, including the deplorable recent attacks on innocent worshippers. The Italian paper makes several detailed proposals which the Government will examine carefully in co-operation with our European Union partners. There are no proposals for cutting aid to countries where Christian communities have been attacked. In any event, such proposals would be counter-productive. The European Union is, however, engaged in a concerted effort to ensure governments fulfil their responsibilities.
Ireland will continue to work closely with our European Union partners in this area. In 2009, the European Union General Affairs and External Relations Council issued Council conclusions on freedom of religion and belief. The conclusions reaffirmed the strong commitment of the European Union to the promotion and protection of freedom of religion and belief. States must ensure their legislative systems provide adequate and effective guarantees of freedom of thought, conscience, religion or belief to all without distinction. Since the adoption of these European Union Council conclusions, Ireland has been working continuously with European Union partners to implement them in a meaningful way.
Ireland and the European Union have also been active on these issues at multilateral level. Ireland has actively supported resolutions on the elimination of religious intolerance at the United Nations Human Rights Council and General Assembly. At the most recent session of the General Assembly in October and November 2010, the European Union brought a resolution on the elimination of all forms of intolerance and discrimination based on religion or belief. Ireland co-sponsored this initiative, which passed by consensus. In March 2009, at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, Ireland co-sponsored a draft resolution on discrimination based on religion or belief and its impact on the enjoyment of economic, social and cultural rights, which reaffirmed the right to freedom of religion or belief. In June 2010, at the Human Rights Council, the European Union successfully proposed a draft resolution on the issue of freedom of religion. It will continue to engage in this matter.
Senator Norris referred to the case of Ms Asia Bibi, a Christian woman in Pakistan who has been condemned to death for blasphemy. Ms Bibi's case is a cause of grave concern. The Pakistani authorities have indicated this is the first time a death sentence has been imposed under the country's blasphemy law and that there has never been an execution in these circumstances. This assurance provides cold comfort. The European Union and senior officials of the Department of Foreign Affairs have made clear that this is an horrific development. The concerns expressed in the Seanad will be passed on to the Pakistani Embassy.
I thank the Minister of State for his response which recognises that this is an important issue. I hope Ireland will support the Italian initiatives and will be at the forefront of European Union efforts in this regard. Christians continue to be the most oppressed minority in the world. We must ensure protection against fundamentalism is provided for Christian communities. In this regard, I welcome the Minister of State's comments on the need to actively support freedom of religion or belief. We should proof all our legislation with regard to freedom of conscience. In July last, the House had a debate which did not recognise the fundamental principle of protecting all minorities. In this instance, the minorities in question are Christians.
None of us referred to another minority faith which is suffering oppression, namely, members of the Baha'i religion. I have spoken to representatives of the Baha'i faith in this country and I am concerned about their case. Its omission from this discussion was not intentional.