“Embattled: Christians under Pressure in Europe and Beyond – Christians outside Europe – Our Response”
– Speech by MEP Lars Adaktusson at the Erzbischöflichen Palais, Vienna, 26/11/2016
Your excellency, ladies and gentlemen, dear friends.
Three weeks ago, I visited the Nineveh Plain in Northern Iraq – the area where Christian groups, Assyrians/Syriacs/Chaldeans, make up the indigenous population. Where they have lived and farmed the land for more than 1700 years.
Just 20 kilometres from the battlefield surrounding Mosul, I visited the recently liberated town Qaraqosh – known for having been the largest Christian town in Iraq.
In Qaraqosh, my colleagues and I participated in the celebration of the first mass since the city was taken by the Islamic State in August 2014.
The feeling of hope was tangible – once again, the church bells rang, once again prayers and hymns were heard in the Aramaic language.
This historic mass took place in a vandalised and torched cathedral.
What surrounded us was the signs of deliberate destruction and contempt for the beliefs of others.
What we saw was the result of hatred and pure evil. Crushed holy symbols, ashes from book burnings and damaged Bibles, the graffiti of the Islamic State on ancient crosses and church walls.
Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states:
“Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.”
The freedom of religion is not a national issue – it is universal right.
The freedom of religion is individual – each and every one has the right to believe, convert or to have no religion at all.
To be allowed to independently reflect and make decisions, to be allowed to follow your own conscience is a matter of human dignity.
Already in the 13th-century, Thomas of Aquino said that:
”Only those actions that are performed by a human through sense and will can, in truth, be regarded as human.”
The right to make decisions, with ”sense and will”, define us as humans.
Therefore, the freedom of religion is essential – therefore the absence of religious freedom is devastating.
Persecution based on religion is a global problem – millions of people from different religions live under constant threats. Constant harassments.
Christians are the most persecuted religious group in the world.
Islamism is the most common force behind this persecution.
This is a fact that needs to be brought to attention – in order to stop it.
A fact that is possible to bring to attention without downgrading the persecution of other groups.
As member of the Foreign Affairs Committee and the subcommittee for human rights of the European Parliament, I work with different issues related to religious freedom.
Due to the atrocities of ISIS, much of that work has focused on the most vulnerable groups in the Middle East.
Those groups who in the islamist and jihadist delusions are considered infidels, and therefore should be subdued or killed.
During several visits to the Middle East over the last 18 months, I have witnessed how critical the situation is.
At the end of October, my staff and I visited Syria, Iraq and Lebanon.
In Beirut, we heard deeply heart breaking accounts of abuse against Christians.
Twelve-year old Nazer from Northern Iraq was one of those who spoke with us.
With a saddened voice he told us about horrifying experience during his short lifetime.
About persecution against his own family, about his father’s kidnapping by Islamists, about a dramatic escape to Lebanon – and about a new life in misery and uncertainty.
After Nazer, we met with even more victims with accounts of persecution and despair.
Lost relatives, murdered friends, rapes, kidnappings, enslavement.
Sometimes it´s claimed that the Christians of the Middle East in a formal sense are not subject to genocide, since they can escape persecution by paying the extra tax as imposed by the Quran.
What we were told was something completely different.
Without exception, vitims told us that they, through kidnappings or written threats, had been forced to convert to Islam – or die.
Invited by the Patriarch of the Syrian-Orthodox Church, we travelled to war-torn Syria.
In Damascus, we met with Christian leaders who had been kept hostage under terrible conditions by the ISIS.
New stories about darkness, pain and evil acts.
North of Damascus, we visited Maloula, a historic town – where the inhabitants speak Western Aramaic, a descendant of the language of Jesus.
Maloula was captured a few years ago by Islamist rebel forces, now it’s a ghost town.
The population have fled, houses are destroyed, churches and monasteries demolished.
Almost half of Syria’s approximately two million Christians have been forced to flee due to persecution and violence.
In neighbouring Iraq, the situation is similar – the amount of Christians has decreased from 1.5 million 15 years ago to less than three hundred thousand today.
A historic mosaic of religious and cultural diversity is about to be torn apart and shattered forever.
As initiator of the genocide resolution that was adopted by the European Parliament in February, I have had the opportunity to discuss the situation in Iraq and Syria in different places and situations.
I’ve had the privilege to have meetings in European capitals, in the White house, the US Congress and the State Department in Washington.
This spring I was invited to speak at an international conference in the UN-headquarters in New York.
It has been amazing to see that the resolution passed by the European Parliament has made a difference – but the awareness that the mission is not completed, stems from a different context.
It is among the ruins in Qaraqosh on the Nineveh Plain, in the meeting with the distressed boy in Beirut, with the tormented inhabitants in Damascus – that my and our responsibility becomes clear.
After the recognition of the genocide by the European Parliament, other parliaments have followed suit.
For example the House of Commons in the British parliament, the Australian House of Representatives, the Senate and House of Representatives of the US Congress, as well as the White House.
This is important, as the recognitions in themselves become a confirmation that the victims have suffered from the worst and most heinous crime according to international law.
The victims and their family’s dignity is addressed and somewhat restored.
But the recognitions of the various parliaments is important even in other aspects.
Research shows that it is not until the word genocide is used that the international community reacts and acts.
At the same time, the possibility for a legally binding recognition of genocide by the UN Security Council increases.
Through the International Criminal Court it might be possible to prosecute the perpetrators.
The title of this session is ”Our response”.
And let´s be clear;
Any step taken in order to raise awareness about the alarming situation for Christians I Iraq and Syria is important.
Whether it concerns the need for reconstruction, de-mining or the overall need for security arrangements – or just making sure that the Christians are not forgotten – it will make a difference.
I would also like to take this opportunity to underline the importance of a holistic perspective.
To compel the United Nations to recognize the genocide is indeed a key to secure the future of Christians in the Middle East.
But alongside the work for a binding international recognition, it is crucial to secure the political rights for Northern Iraq’s indigenous peoples.
As Mosul is yet to be liberated and as ISIS is yet to be driven out of Iraq, there is now a window of opportunity to address the future for Christians, Yazidis and other vulnerable minorities.
Because the very moment when the last ISIS-warrior has been hunted out of Mosul, the conflicting agendas of the different actors risk destabilising the region, thus making the return of IDP:s and refugees impossible.
That is why I initiated a resolution on Northern Iraq that was adopted in the European parliament on October 27th.
The resolution expresses the need for maximum autonomy – Nineveh Plain, Tal Afar and Sinjar need to be self-sufficient provinces within the framework of Iraqi constitution.
Together with security and protection, such a solution would create the conditions necessary for repatriation.
Under an autonomous system, fundamental human rights of Christians and other indigenous peoples can be restored and preserved.
Actually, it was this resolution that led to my recent trip to Iraq, where I in addition to visiting the Nineveh Plains also met with representatives of the Christian political parties.
It is well known that the relationship between these parties is characterized by political differences and disagreements.
So the purpose of a joint meeting I hosted, was to enable an exchange of views on the newly adopted resolution, and encourage the parties to unite behind the content.
The meeting was a success.
All 12 parties signed an official letter urging the European Union High Representative Federica Mogherini, and the EU member states, to act upon the recommendations of the resolution.
Obviously there is a need to show the EU-commission that the view of the European Parliament have strong and broad support among stakeholders.
But not only that.
There is also a need for the 12 different political parties to stand together in front of their own people and declare the obvious:
The European Union, the world at large, won’t do anything when it comes to political support and reconstruction, unless they act together.
United Nations special envoy for freedom of religion and belief is Heiner Bielefeldt – he has stated that …
”Human rights without the dimension of religion and belief has no meaning.”
This is indeed a message that needs to be brought to decision makers in Brussels, New York and the Middle East.
A disappearance of Christians from the Middle East will mean the termination of indigenous groups from the region.
Middle East without its mosaic of peoples will be a region rapidly going into a dark age – with no hope for peace and stability for a long period of time.
A Middle East without Christians can no longer rely on a group which for centuries have been able to be a broker between different ethnic or religious groups.
Assisting the vulnerable people of the Middle East is the right thing to do.
As political representatives, as church leaders and citizens of Europe we need to realize that such an assistance is also in our interest.
Therefor we must never hesitate in the defence of religious freedom.
In the end, it is about standing up for a foreign policy based on the values of human dignity and fundamental human rights.
Such a policy includes an explicit commitment to the world’s most persecuted religious groups.
Not because it is Christians who are persecuted, not despite the fact that it is Christians who are persecuted – but because it is our fellow human beings who are being persecuted.
Thank you for your attention.