Forty thousand followers of the Yazidi faith are huddling, terrified, on the side of Mount Sinjar, fearing that their women are going to be raped, enslaved or killed. Nearly a quarter of Iraq’s Christians have been driven from their homes in the past week alone. In theory, the Islamic State gave them the choice of converting, paying a fine, or leaving. In practice, many were murdered before they could even make that horrendous choice: the militants have, in the words of Canon Andrew White, vicar of Baghdad, “chopped off heads, chopped children in half, hanged people on crosses. The stories are so bad they don’t sound true”. He is understandably angry that so far, Britain and other Western governments have proved deaf to pleas for sanctuary.
The White House warned last week that the situation in Iraq risks becoming a “humanitarian catastrophe”. But the plight of persecuted minorities in the region predates any current debate about the use of American military force. For months, church groups have been trying to raise awareness of this impending tragedy. Here in Britain, the Archbishop of Canterbury has warned that this is part of an “evil pattern around the world”, in which people are being killed and persecuted simply because of their faith.
We in the Labour Party have welcomed the Government’s contribution of humanitarian support and counter-terrorism expertise in Iraq. But we must also acknowledge that these latest outrages are part of a growing pattern of persecution – and that anti-Christian persecution, just like anti-Semitism or Islamophobia, must be called out for the evil it is.
I have previously urged all politicians in Britain, regardless of party or religious persuasion, to speak out on this issue. Even in today’s avowedly secular culture, misplaced notions of political correctness, or fear of being seen to “do God”, should not and cannot excuse silence in the face of slaughter.
Baroness Warsi, the former Foreign Office minister, understood this: in a powerful speech in Georgetown last year, she identified religious persecution as a growing crisis that can “no longer be ignored”. Sadly, on this, as on other issues, she was ahead of her more senior colleagues.
The Government should be doing more to speak out about the continued suffering of religious minorities, including Christians, inside Iraq. To do so would not be to support one faith over another – it would be to take a stand against oppression of our fellow human beings. That is why I have written to the Foreign Secretary to urge him to set out what steps the Government will now take, along with our allies, to address this grave and growing threat.
We as a party have welcomed, and support, the Government’s assurances it is not proposing military intervention in Iraq. There are, however, urgent diplomatic and humanitarian steps that we should take. First, the Government should call an emergency meeting of the UN Security Council – which we currently chair – to agree on further humanitarian action. Second, ministers should open discussions with the UN’s refugee agency about what shelter can be provided within Iraq – and how to provide greater assistance to refugees fleeing the region. Third, the Government should urge the UN Human Rights Council, which it joined in December, to build a consensus for action on religious freedom at the highest international level.
Finally, we politicians must accept that we have a role in raising the issue of religious persecution on to the public agenda. For too long, the growing persecution of Christians around the world has remained largely untold.
Sunday is a Day of Prayer for the persecuted people of Iraq, here and around the world. As millions unite in prayer, I hope the international community can unite in action. With the lives of thousands hanging in the balance, no one should be willing to walk by on the other side for fear of causing offence.
Douglas Alexander is the shadow foreign secretary.