Last September I became one of the first British MPs to visit Northern Iraq since the invasion in 2003. There I saw and heard for myself the plight of this amazing community of persecuted Christians, known as the Assyrian-Chaldeans.
Being one of the most ancient Christian communities in the world, they still speak a form of Aramaic – the language in which Jesus himself preached the Gospel.
I was lucky enough to get a slot at the last minute for the last Tuesday of Westminster Hall debates this session, as another MP had pulled out. People of faith might say this was providential. At any event, it enabled me to make the case for government action to help the beleaguered and persecuted Christian minority of Iraq.
We had an interesting debate, attended by the Shadow Foreign Office spokesman, David Lidington. I spoke about my experience of visiting Iraq and meeting victims of what I called an ‘anti-Christian pogrom’:
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It was emotional and moving to go into the ancient villages in the Nineveh plains and visit ancient monasteries that have been there for the best part of 2,000 years. I saw the tomb of the Old Testament prophet Nahum and read what he wrote thousands of years ago:
“Your people are scattered on the mountains with none to gather them.”
How extraordinary that those words are still true today and that those people are being scattered and persecuted.
When I went to the Nineveh plains, what struck me was that there was a sense of security in those ancient, entirely Christian villages. I met many displaced people who had come up from Basra and Baghdad to settle in the Nineveh plains, and I heard some absolutely heart-rending stories. I met a young girl who had lost her parents and her sister-they were murdered. I met a widow who had lost her husband and was now caring for a disabled son. Her husband was murdered in what can only be described as an anti-Christian pogrom. A quiet, cool and collected lady was sitting there listening to the appalling stories, and she finally came and told us her story. Her husband was a deacon. On the way back from church, he was killed-he was blown up by a bomb-and then her daughter disappeared. At that stage, she broke down and burst into tears, and we could not carry on the interview. We subsequently heard that she had never seen her daughter again. Imagine the anguish of that lady: she lost her husband, who was killed in a roadside bomb, and then her 18-year-old daughter, who disappeared and was probably murdered.
Those are just three of the many terrible stories told by ordinary people who have no interest, and have never showed an interest, in politics. They just wanted to get on with their lives in the suburbs of Baghdad but have had to flee to what they consider to be a kind of safe haven in the Nineveh plains.
I finished by mentioning the inspiring words of Canon Andrew White, the immensely courageous Anglican Vicar of Baghdad. 93 members of his congregation have been killed just in this year alone, but his church is still expanding:
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Mr. Leigh: …when someone asked him what kept his congregation going, he said that it was love between the members of his congregation…
Anybody interested in reading the full Hansard text of the debate can find it on the following link.
Once you get to the page, just click on ‘Christians in Iraq’ at the top of the screen.