Bishop of Coventry leads debate on the rights of religious and ethnic minorities in post-conflict Iraq

On 1th January 2017 the Bishop of Coventry, Rt Revd Christopher Cocksworth, led a debate in the House of Lords on the question: “to ask Her Majesty’s Government what is their post-conflict strategy for protecting the rights of religious and ethnic minorities in Iraq.” His speech is reproduced in full below, as is that of the Government minister responding. All speeches by those taking part in the debate can be read here.

The Lord Bishop of Coventry: My Lords, imagine what it was like, having been hounded out of one’s home when Daesh took control of Mosul, to be back there on Christmas Eve among 2,000 worshippers for the first celebration of the Mass in three and a half years. But then imagine the scene only hours afterwards— ​not only the church but also the city again almost entirely bereft of Christians because it is still not safe enough for them to return permanently.

What can be done to give Christians, Yazidis, Turkmen, Sabeans, Yarsanis, Shabaks and other vulnerable religious and ethnic communities in Iraq confidence that they have a future in their own land—and why is it vital for that land and that region that their confidence is regained? I will make three contentions. First, the recent military victory over Daesh is only the first step of its defeat. As General Paul Funk, commander of coalition forces in Iraq, recently said, Daesh’s,

“repressive ideology continues … The conditions remain present for Daesh to return, and only through coalition and international efforts can the defeat become permanent”.

That is exactly the fear of minority communities in Iraq—that unless the causes of the violence are rooted out, it will return and, as before, minorities will be the first victims. They look not only to the chaos that ensued after the 2003 invasion, and the reduction in the Christian population, for example, by some 75% by 2014, but back to earlier cycles of violence which, wave after wave, eroded their security and forced former generations to flee.

Secondly, the UK has both a moral responsibility and a strategic interest to help secure a stable and flourishing Iraq. The UK’s deep involvement with Iraq, right up to its part in the military coalition, places a moral burden on us for a long-term commitment to a coalition of reconstruction. Success in Iraq, so long a land marking the failure of British foreign policy, is of vital strategic importance. Daesh might be like a Hydra, with heads surfacing across the world, but if it could be fatally wounded in the country of its birth, it would be starved of vital sources of energy, morale and inspiration.

Furthermore, Iraq may have become a land where Yazidis, Christians, Turkmen and other minorities have suffered unspeakable brutality, where tensions between Shia and Sunni Muslims have spilt blood that has run deep into the soil of the nation, and where the aspirations of Kurds and Arabs divide the country. But it is also a land with a longer history of religious and ethnic coexistence. If that tradition could be harnessed in a renewed political and civic culture that builds an equitable, just and participative society in which all communities can flourish, the region will see that its religious and ethnic diversity can be a source of its strength, not a cause of its collapse, and the world will become a safer place.

My third contention follows on from these two. The protection of religious and ethnic minorities is critical to the future of a secure and politically stable Iraq. Their presence in Iraqi society is a barometer, both of whether the conditions which give rise to violent extremism have been dealt with and of whether it is the sort of society where the capacities of all its citizens can contribute to the common good and to the flourishing of every community.

A basic need that minority communities share with others is the material reconstruction of cities and villages devastatingly damaged by conflict. Her Majesty’s Government have already dedicated resources for ​“immediate repairs”. However, this week the US substantially increased its financial contribution to Iraq, and the EU announced its long-term commitment, both financial and strategic. Can the Minister therefore say what are the long-term, post-Brexit intentions of Her Majesty’s Government to lead and to shape an international effort to help the Iraqi authorities to rebuild the infrastructure of their land, on which a settled future depends, and how will this leadership be demonstrated at next month’s Kuwait conference? Given Daesh’s targeting of property owned by minority communities, some 50% of whose houses have been damaged or destroyed, will the Government use their influence to ensure that Christian, Yazidi and other communities receive a fair share of that aid?

Material construction will be of use to Iraq and the region only if it is accompanied by social reconstruction, and that depends on the reconstruction of trust. For the minority communities, trust will be hard to rebuild. In my own visits to Iraq, it is the almost total breakdown of trust that has struck me as the greatest threat to the future of minority communities: trust in the international community, trust in the Iraqi and Kurdish Governments and their ability to deliver on their promises and truly to enact Article 14 of the constitution, with its commitment to equality of all before the law, and trust between neighbours where, for example, Christians found themselves betrayed by Muslims with whom they had lived for years. In meetings with Ministers of the Baghdad Government, including the Prime Minister and the President, I was impressed with the commitments they voiced about the necessity of religious and ethnic minorities to the future of Iraq. But the contrast with the doubt in the communities themselves that the Government would turn their words into action was very marked.

Security, of course, is an urgent need, as well as a fundamental right. With this in mind, I ask the Minister whether Her Majesty’s Government will use every effort to empower the Iraqi and Kurdish Governments to ensure that the forces under their control work together to protect all members of their society, especially the vulnerable communities residing in the liberated areas of the Nineveh Plains and Sinjar, and that they do not rely on Shia militias?

Despite the terrible tears in the fabric of Iraqi society caused by betrayals of trust, there are already remarkable examples of civic society beginning to repair it—a symbol of which was the way that the cross on the church at the Mosul Mass was erected by a group of young Muslims. Yet there are interventions that the Iraqi and KRG Governments could make, though their exercise of the law and shaping of culture, to support and quicken these efforts.

The high proportion of young people in Iraq means that there is great potential to create a new culture of understanding and respect through education. The Iraqi Government can play an important role by reforming and policing how minorities are spoken of in educational curricula and course materials in state and in non-governmental religious schools, and also through all forms of media, including media used by religious bodies. How will Her Majesty’s Government encourage the Iraqi authorities to take bold steps to create a ​culture, through education and media, that celebrates the diversity of its people, affirms the historic place of its ancient minority communities in the nation, and addresses the legal and administrative systems that reinforce the sense of vulnerability and discrimination, such as the proposed registration of children as Muslim if either parent converts to Islam?

I conclude with the words of a priest of the Assyrian Church of the East administering in Dohuk spoken to me just a few days ago. I asked him what he would particularly like to convey to this House today. His reply was hauntingly realistic but inspiringly idealistic. “We may not be able to restore the Christian demography that we had in the past”, he said, “but we can preserve for the future a presence and role for the Christian community in our society so that through our schools, our skills and our hospitals we can serve all the people of this land”. My hope for this debate is that it will play some part in fulfilling the prayer of that priest and of others from the array of Iraq’s ancient, small, suffering communities who long for a future in their own homeland.

Baroness Goldie (Con) [Minister]: My Lords, I first thank the right reverend Prelate for tabling this debate and all noble Lords for their thoughtful contributions, because this debate has been illuminating and instructive.

Following Iraqi Prime Minister Abadi’s declaration of victory over Daesh last month, the focus must now turn to winning the peace, so I welcome this timely opportunity to set out the Government’s post-conflict strategy in Iraq. I have listened with interest to the various observations made by Members during the debate and I shall try to deal, if not with specific contributions then certainly with the issues that have emerged.​

We have all been appalled by the suffering of Christians, Yazidis and other minorities, as well as of the majority Muslim population, at the hands of Daesh in Iraq. My noble friends Lady Anelay and Lady Hodgson spoke of the appalling suffering of women at the hands of Daesh, and I think that we are all horrified at what has emerged in that respect. As the country begins the enormous task of repairing and rebuilding shattered lives and communities, it is vital that the reconstruction effort takes account of the needs and interests of all Iraqis. That is why we welcome the Iraqi Government’s stated commitment to protect all its citizens. However, we are concerned by reports of continuing religious persecution.

Freedom of religion or belief is a fundamental human right. It is important for its own sake, because many millions of people around the world are guided and sustained by their faith. We also believe that tolerance and respect for all are essential foundations of a stable and successful society. The noble Lord, Lord Griffiths, referred to Christianity in Iraq having a small presence. To me, freedom of religion or belief is just that: it is respect for all faiths, regardless of their size. Indeed, the noble Baroness, Lady Deech, made that observation when she referred to the situation of those of the Jewish faith in Iraq.

By ensuring that everyone can contribute to it, society as a whole is better off. There is clear evidence to suggest that tolerant and inclusive societies are better equipped to resist extremism. My noble friend Lord McInnes spoke perceptively of the miscellany of different groups and faiths in Iraq. My right honourable friend the Prime Minister herself has spoken of the need to,

“stand up for people of all religions to practise their beliefs in peace and safety”.

This is why the British Government are working hard to promote and defend freedom of religion or belief in Iraq.

In recent months, we have seen promising signs of efforts to build community cohesion in Iraq’s liberated provinces. To be successful, these efforts will need careful nurturing. My noble friend Lady Anelay spoke eloquently and with wisdom of the need to address underlying issues which, even with the defeat of Daesh, are still there and which must be recognised and dealt with. The noble Lord, Lord Glasman, also referred to long-standing issues that are part of the enduring situation in Iraq over many years. He also referred to the great suffering and fear and used a phrase which struck me: the rupture of trust. I think it very eloquently describes the difficulties which confront Iraq.

The purpose of this debate, from my perspective, is to explain the UK’s post-conflict strategy. There are three strands to that strategy: humanitarian aid, stabilisation support and political engagement. Either directly or indirectly, all three help to protect the rights of religious and ethnic minorities. Addressing the immediate humanitarian suffering is an urgent priority. The UK has committed nearly £230 million in aid, including £40 million in this financial year alone. We have helped to provide food or safe drinking water to more than 1 million people and to give shelter to over 300,000. We provide assistance on the basis of need, irrespective of race, religion or ethnicity, and in line ​with international humanitarian principles. This ensures that aid reaches the most vulnerable people—and in Iraq, many of these are indeed from religious and ethnic minorities.

In the post-conflict phase, stabilisation will also be critical. It will help minorities to feel safe about returning to their communities and beginning to rebuild their lives. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Coventry made the point that there is a fear among minority communities that Daesh will return. I say to him that the United Kingdom’s activity is aimed at supporting Iraq, and that we hope thereby to reduce the risk of Daesh ever regaining a hold.

My noble friend Lady Anelay asked, in effect, what UK funding is achieving. That is a fair and important question. Since 2015, the UK has contributed over £65 million to stabilisation efforts in Iraq. That money has been spent on clearing IEDs and supporting the United Nations Development Programme’s funding facility for stabilisation, which is rebuilding schools, water treatment plants and hospitals. As your Lordships will be aware, that funding is a pooled fund, but there are instances where we funded two specific FFS projects, one in east Mosul, to help with the repair of a water treatment facility and one in west Mosul, including the repair of 1,000 houses. In the pooled resource, we have contributed to 171 projects currently benefiting Christian and other communities on the Nineveh plains.

It is estimated that around three-quarters of a million Iraqis from minority communities will benefit from stabilisation projects. Stabilisation is about not just restoring physical infrastructure; it is also about the fundamental question raised by the noble Lord, Lord Glasman, of rebuilding trust. This community reconciliation is vital if Iraq is to enjoy a stable and prosperous future. My noble friend Lord McInnes rightly emphasised that. That is why, through our Conflict, Stability and Security Fund, and our diplomatic efforts, we are supporting the development of inclusive and representative reconciliation processes at both national and community levels.

The third element of our post-conflict strategy is political engagement. As I said, we welcome the commitment of our Iraqi allies to protect the rights of all religious and ethnic minorities. We will continue to work with them to hold them to that commitment. That means continuing to stress the importance of religious tolerance, mutual respect and understanding and the benefits that they bring to all, and promoting this message at all levels in government and civil society.

The noble Lord, Lord Glasman, talked of the need for leadership training in the minority communities. That is very important. That is why, in our discussions with the Government of Iraq and the Kurdistan Regional Government, we underline the importance of protecting minorities, and of taking their needs into account when planning for the future. We also engage closely on this issue with religious leaders in Iraq. As a number of your Lordships observed, women have a very important role to play in all of that.

The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Coventry asked about long-term strategy. I hope that what I am outlining indicates what the United Kingdom’s three-pronged approach is intended to achieve—that ​humanitarian aid, stabilisation and political engagement are all about a future for Iraq. There will be elections in that country this year and these messages will become even more important.

My noble friends Lady Anelay and Lady Hodgson raised a number of issues about UK support to the Kurds. The Government have recognised the Kurdish contribution to both fighting Daesh and hosting people from across Iraq, including many Christians displaced by conflict. The UK supports humanitarian camps in the Kurdish region and our Armed Forces work closely with the Kurdish Peshmerga, as they do with the federal Iraq security forces.

The issue was raised of relations between the Government of Iraq and the Kurds. On the referendum last September, we made it clear that we would not support any unilateral move towards independence. We are encouraging dialogue between Baghdad and Irbil to ensure they put the relationship on to a sustainable long-term footing, and we are doing everything we can to encourage the resolving of differences.

A number of points were raised by my noble friend Lady Berridge. I hope I have managed to outline what humanitarian and stabilising work we are doing and how that is targeted at minorities. She mentioned in particular discrimination against minorities in camps. ​DfID and FCO staff regularly discuss the situation of minorities with United Nations humanitarian camp staff and NGOs, including Christian NGOs. We have received no evidence of discrimination against minorities trying to access humanitarian aid. However, we continue to raise this subject and would look to investigate any substantive accusations.

The noble Lord, Lord Collins, raised the important issue of accountability—bringing perpetrators to account. He will be aware of the United Kingdom’s leadership in the United Nations on getting a resolution passed, in which we were successful, which is all about doing just that.

I may not have managed to cover all points raised, but I undertake to look at the Official Report and deal with any matters that I have not managed to address specifically in my concluding remarks. The Government firmly believe that religious freedom is not just an important right in itself but a vital foundation for a stable and prosperous society. That is why we are working so hard to support a truly inclusive and representative process of reconciliation in Iraq. It offers all Iraqis the best chance of long-term peace and prosperity, and we will continue to strive to help them to realise that goal.