The Middle East is home to some of the world’s most ancient Christian denominations. Unfortunately, many of these often small and vulnerable communities are coming under increasing pressure due to a range of factors including low birth rates, emigration and, in some cases, increased sectarian persecution and violence. This has led to a significant reduction in their numbers in the region over recent years. In Iraq for instance, it is estimated that more than half of the Christian community may have emigrated over the past decade. The political turmoil which has overwhelmed many countries in the Middle East in recent years has led to increased international concerns about the safety of Christians first in Iraq and Egypt and now most pressingly in Syria. The descent of Syria into violence and disarray has left small Christian communities very exposed and sometimes subject to direct attack. 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 its citizens and minorities. In situations of general instability and insecurity, such as Iraq some years ago or Syria today, this is of course especially difficult. Ireland also works with our partners in the EU to raise the issue in multilateral fora such as the UN Human Rights Council, as part of the EU’s human rights policy. The EU has taken a number of steps in recent years in support of Freedom of Religious Belief, including issuing Council Conclusions on the matter, most recently in February 2011. 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 as a current member of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva. I have raised the issue of protection of Christians in the Middle East in discussions at the Foreign Affairs Council, and supported stronger EU statements on the issue, for instance in the Council Conclusions on Egypt issued on 21 August last and the FAC Conclusions on Syria which were agreed in January and April 2014.
Ireland attaches great importance to combating all forms of discrimination based on religion or belief and incitement to religious hatred. Ireland was elected to the Human Rights Council in November 2012 and will serve for the 2013-2015 term. Amongst our priorities as a member of the Council is the issue of freedom of religion or belief, and we have played a central role in the negotiation of two important resolutions on this issue in the past year.
Officials from my Department have met frequently with local Christian leaders from the Middle East region, and discussed the issues affecting their communities. It should be noted that many of these groups request that any efforts made on their behalf be carried out very discreetly, as any special attention from western countries might only increase their difficulties.
While some individuals from the region have found refuge in Ireland, asylum in Ireland or in Europe cannot provide the solution to this problem, because the numbers are too great, because there are others also at risk, and because this would spell the end for ancient Christian communities who have survived in the region since the earliest days of Christianity.