Freedom of Religion Adjournment

I spoke in this chamber on 25 March this year about persecution of religious minorities. I talked at that time about the German International Society for Human Rights which highlighted that 80 per cent of all religious discrimination and vilification was in fact directed against Christians, which comes as a surprise to many people, particularly here in Australia where Christians would tend to be regarded as the majority and we do not expect those things. I also talked particularly about the situation in Syria at the time, where minorities such as Druze and Christians were being persecuted in the middle of a very sectarian war. It was interesting to look at the response by journalists and media around the world. Whilst there were some people, particularly the BBC, who were starting to report on the issues faced by those minorities, it was not generally regarded as a big enough issue to dominate headlines.

Fast forward to recent times and what we have seen is that al-Qaeda and al-Nusra spawned the ISIL, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, which became just the Islamic State when they declared a caliphate—the group is known more in that region as Daesh. We have seen the atrocities committed by them, not just in this case against Christians but against Yazidis, Shia Muslims and Kurds throughout that region, and in particular in the town of Mosul. We have seen incredible atrocities where some 150,000 people have had to flee that town. The Christian community were given a choice of converting to Islam, paying a special tax and living in a state called dhimmitude—which means being a second-class citizen. Many were beheaded or crucified—men, women and children—by Daesh in that situation. We have subsequently seen Daesh impose sharia law not just in Mosul but a number of other towns. We have seen refugees from the Yazidi, Christian and Shia populations fleeing into neighbouring countries.

I particularly want to highlight tonight the plight of not only the refugees—and we have a natural empathy and sympathy for them—but also the role that neighbouring governments in Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey play in providing facilities and support for overwhelmingly large numbers of people. Focusing for the moment on Christian refugees, one of the things that are a particular focus is that many of the official United Nations sponsored camps, which are being hosted by these governments, are not housing and supporting many of the Christian population. Because of the extreme sectarian nature of the violence that has occurred, many of these people have chosen instead to be supported directly by the Christian population living in Turkey and particularly in Lebanon. That means that not only does the government have a huge burden, which is often supported in large part by the United Nations, but the Catholic and the Orthodox populations are shouldering a large burden with tens of thousands of people who have literally fled for their lives, arrived with nothing and are now seeking support from the communities in those nations.

Many people I have spoken to in the public have asked about what Australians can do to support. I would refer them to the various organisations—Caritas, World Vision and the various Orthodox churches which have representatives here in Australia—who provide means to support not only the refugees but also the communities who are hosting and supporting them in those nations. Awareness is really important. As I said back in March, there were a lot of dreadful things happening that people were not aware of. Even today, many Australians are not aware of the extent of the atrocities that are occurring over there. I want to draw the attention of the Senate to an initiative which is being held this coming weekend in Australia called Solidarity Sunday, where churches from around Australia have agreed to hold awareness days for not only their congregations but their communities to raise awareness of what is happening to the Christians, Yazidis and even Shia Muslims.

The Australian Christian Lobby is one of the organisers, but it is supported by a large number of churches: the Anglican Church, various Orthodox churches, the Australian Christian Churches, the Baptist Union, the Catholic Archdiocese of Sydney, C3 Churches, Coptic Orthodox churches, the International Network of Churches, life ministry centres, Lutheran churches, Presbyterian, Salvation Army, Seventh Day Adventists, Syrian Orthodox, Open Doors, the Barnabas Fund, Voice of the Martyrs of Christian Faith and Freedom—just to name a few. At the moment, there are some 600 churches engaged. The ACL are providing information packs for those who wish to register and receive that information. I encourage people to take part in this, because, as global citizens, we cannot afford to close our eyes to things that are occurring overseas that so directly affect the human rights of fellow citizens.

We heard just recently from an eminent Australian, Michael Kirby, who was reporting on the abuses that are occurring in North Korea at the moment. He made the point that, in the 1930s, when people looked at the rise of the Nazi regime there were warning signs, but the world did not act until it was too late. Here again we see not only warning signs but gross abuses against a range of people in one region. The world really needs to take notice and raise awareness so that we can unite to support, give these people hope that they are not forgotten and, equally importantly, take the steps that we need to in order to find out the causes of the ideology that has spawned the abhorrent violence we see. Then we can make sure that people of all communities and all faiths can work together to eliminate those elements of ideology that have led to that kind of action. That way we can not only make our community here in Australia safer but play our part in making the world a safer place for all people, so that article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which is about the freedom of belief, conscience and religion—or, indeed, the freedom not to have a religion—is respected by all authorities around the world.