Seanad debates

Wednesday, 5 March 2014

Adjournment Matters

Human Rights Issues

5:05 pm

Photo of Denis O'DonovanDenis O'Donovan (Fianna Fail)
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A number of people and organisations have been on to me about the persecution of Christians throughout the world. In Ireland, it is often said we are not a tolerant society, but by and large, we respect the constitutional right of people to practise their religion. In countries such as Syria, Iran, Iraq and Turkey, and many parts of Africa that are predominantly Muslim, with which I do not have a problem, the persecution of Christians is a huge issue. I am not talking about the Catholic ideology. It could be Protestant, Methodist, Presbyterian and other denominations of Christianity where Christ is the centre of their adoration and adulation.

It particularly bothers me that recently in Syria, a bishop from a Christian minority was taken out and shot. In Turkey, which is primarily an Islamic country - that is fair enough, that is their view - their tolerance for Christianity and any Christian churches is seriously absurd. None the less, there is a huge lobby, led particularly by the Americans, that Turkey should join Europe as an extension to the EU. While this Christian persecution goes on, we should have grave reservations. Organisations such as Church in Chains and others have raised this. They have met the Turkish ambassador to Ireland and tried to explain this to him. Turkey is a Muslim country with about 80 million people. I remember being at a diplomatic conference in which the Americans wanted Turkey to join Europe. Is that because it is a useful centre between Iran, Iraq, the Middle East and the Far East in which the Americans can have a European base?

If it happened in this country that a Muslim or any other minority religion was being abused, there would be great controversy. I am not in any way a holy Joe, but in many countries across the world, including in Africa, Asia and in places like Syria, Iran, Iraq and Turkey, there is ongoing persecution of Christians. People who purport to be of a Christian denomination and who support the view that Christ was a saviour on Earth will be crucified, to use the pun.

With St. Patrick's Day coming up, we should be sending the message around the world that in Ireland, the freedom to practise religion is the norm and that other countries should respect our views as well.

Photo of Kathleen LynchKathleen Lynch (Cork North Central, Labour)
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I would like to thank the Senator for raising this issue, which I am taking on behalf of the Minister of State, Deputy Paschal Donohoe. I could not agree more with the Senator. Intolerance has probably caused more wars than anything else in the world. I thank him for taking the time to consider this issue, which has become a more pressing matter in recent years.

The Middle East is home to some of the world's most ancient Christian denominations. It is not the case that Christians in Syria, Iran or Iraq are generally unable to practice their faith. In fact, all three countries have traditionally been noted for an officially tolerant approach. Regrettably, however, there has been a significant reduction in the numbers of Christians in the region over recent years, as the political turmoil across much of the Middle East has heightened concerns about the safety of Christians across the region. The descent of Syria into violence and disarray has left small Christian communities very exposed and sometimes subject to direct attack.

Recent threats by a radical jihadist group to force Christians in the city of Raqqa in Syria either to convert to Islam, pay a tax or face death are nothing less than abhorrent. Similarly, the attacks by the Assad regime on Christian communities and churches in opposition-held areas expose the false claims of the regime to be protecting the rights of minorities.

In Iraq, as in Syria, small Christian communities scattered among larger Sunni or Shia Muslim populations were especially vulnerable during bitter sectarian violence between those populations between 2006 and 2009, and up to half of the Christian community are estimated to have emigrated in that period. Violence in Iraq has significantly reduced since then, although it is unfortunately now very much on the increase, and the ability of the Iraqi Government to protect all of its citizens remains a major concern.

In Iran, the ancient Christian communities long established in the country, the largest of which is the Armenian Church, are able to practice their faith, maintain churches and have small reserved representation in Parliament, although there are also many areas of national life reserved for Muslims. There is a less tolerant attitude to more recently arrived evangelical forms of Christianity.

While some Christians from the Middle East have found refuge in Ireland, asylum in Ireland or Europe is not a solution to this problem because the numbers are too great and there are others also at risk and because it would spell the end for ancient Christian communities which have survived in the region since the earliest days of Christianity.

The protection of fundamental rights for all communities particularly now in Syria but also across the wider Middle East, including Christian communities, many of whom are faced with rising intolerance and threats, is integral to Ireland's engagement with these countries and societies. Ireland raises the issue of the safety of Christians through its official bilateral contacts with the countries in question, stressing the responsibility of the Government to protect all minorities.

The Tánaiste has raised the protection of Middle Eastern Christian communities at meetings of the EU Foreign Affairs Council, where Ireland has argued for stronger references to pressure on minority communities, as well as in his bilateral meetings with representatives of Middle Eastern states. Officials from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade have frequently met local Christian leaders from the Middle East region and discussed the issues affecting their communities. Many of these groups have requested that efforts made on their behalf be carried out discreetly as any special attention from western countries might increase their difficulties. This is why EU and Irish interventions are often framed in general terms of minority rights, or freedom of religion.

On the broader international plane, Ireland has worked at UN and EU level to promote resolutions and actions on the principle of freedom of religious belief, notably during our 2013 EU Presidency and now in our membership of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva. The Government remains committed to this important issue.

5:15 pm

Photo of Denis O'DonovanDenis O'Donovan (Fianna Fail)
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I thank the Minister of State for her encouraging response. I ask her to convey to the Tánaiste my view that we should redouble our efforts to preserve human dignity and something we accept generally in our Constitution. The religion that seems most at risk worldwide at the moment is Christianity, which is unfortunate. Ireland is tolerant of most religions and while we have had our faults and failings, we should be cognisant that there is an effort in many Middle Eastern countries, Africa and elsewhere to diminish the Christianity with which we are associated. Even China has 5 million or 6 million Christians who are allowed to practise - which is more than the number of practising Christians in Ireland. We are swimming against the tide as Christians. I thank the Minister of State for her response and I ask her to ask the Tánaiste to redouble his efforts and keep the issue to the fore.

Photo of Kathleen LynchKathleen Lynch (Cork North Central, Labour)
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I believe he will do so because he is very conscious of the issue. However, it needs to be framed in the context of freedom of expression and freedom to practice one's religion. I am very conscious that the Christian leaders who are met at private meetings are anxious that any efforts made on their behalf are done discreetly. We can only imagine the pressure they are under and the fear in which they live on a daily basis. We need to be conscious of their fears. I will convey the Senator's sentiments to the Tánaiste.