Our action for minorities in the Middle East. Speech in the European Parliament

President, Honourable members,

Sectarianism is one of the diseases of our age. For centuries, countless faiths and ethnicities have lived together in the Middle East, more than in any other part of the world. Of course sectarian conflicts have always existed. But the diversity of the Middle East has never been as vulnerable as it is today.

For too long, too many actors have fostered sectarian divisions in a struggle for regional power. This is what we are seeing also now. Today we see the devastating effects of such behaviour. The terrorist group known as Da’esh has turned sectarian strife into a core theme of its propaganda and of its actions. They have used it as a tool for recruitment and as an excuse for claiming oil-rich lands. Not much about religion, a lot about power.

Before I get into more detail on how to tackle the mass murder of minorities, let me be clear on one important thing. Da’esh is not just a threat to minorities. A few days ago we learnt that Da’esh has allegedly killed more than a hundred people and kidnapped hundreds in the Syrian city of Deir ez-Zor. According to the first reports, all of them were Sunni Muslims. If you look at the numbers of victims in the current conflicts, the vast majority of them are Muslims. This is true in Syria and Iraq, as well as in Nigeria or in Pakistan. And also in Europe we have had Muslim victims of terrorist attacks. All faiths, all peoples are united in the fight against terror. Sending this message is a duty we all have.

Still, we cannot ignore the plight of individuals belonging to religious minorities, including Christians, in Daesh-controlled areas of Syria and Iraq. Christian communities, Kurdish cities, the enslavement of Yazidi women, Shabaks, Druze, Assyrians – we can forget none of them. You know all this, and Da’esh makes no secret about it. You can imagine my frustration whenever we publish a statement on that. We have to to that, to show we constantly care. But statements are not enough. More than condemnation we need concrete support to these peoples. So let me focus on actions we have taken in defence of Middle Eastern minorities.

First, we are providing very concrete financial support. The EU and its Member states are the leading donors for Syria, with over 5 billion euros in assistance. We have been amongst the first to provide assistance to the Yezidis and Christians in Iraq – I have visited them in Christmas 2014 –and to the Kurds in Kobane. The EU also remains the second largest donor to Iraq. Our funds are helping to bring life back to the regions liberated from Da’esh. When we say that we must help minorities stay in the land where they have lived for centuries, this is exactly what we mean.

The European Instrument for Democracy and Human Rights (EIDHR) supports civil society projects promoting Freedom of Religion or Belief. This goes together with implementing legislation that safeguards the rights of persons belonging to minorities, in both Syria and Iraq. As the war still goes on, it can be difficult to look at the future, and work on a post-war Middle East. But still we need to always keep in mind the long term goal of peaceful and inclusive democracies. We need to start investing on a peaceful future today, if we want peace tomorrow.

But let me be totally sincere on this: the resources we have invested, although generous, are far insufficient. The humanitarian response plans for Syria and Iraq were underfunded in 2015. This needs to change under the new humanitarian response plans for 2016. And we have worked on this.

The EU will continue to contribute to humanitarian aid, and I count on this Parliament’s support for our action to be strengthened this year. It will be important to commit to a strong pledge at the up-coming London Conference of donors for Syria, co-hosted by the UK, Germany, Norway, Kuwait and the UN on 4 February 2016.

But apart from the financial support we have other fields of action. The second one is that we must guarantee that justice will be done. When this war will be over, impunity will not be an option: accountability is a crucial step towards peace and national reconciliation. This is why the EU supports the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Syria, which collects evidence on the violations committed, in view of future legal action. The EU also provides political and financial support to efforts from the civil society to promote accountability in Syria. Our Union has called for the UN Security Council to refer the situation in Syria to the International Criminal Court.

For Iraq, we are aware that minority groups, in particular the Yezidis, have demanded that the crimes committed against them by Daesh are considered genocide.

Third field of action: we are seeking the broadest engagement of relevant regional actors and of international organisations. Since the beginning of this crisis we have sought to involve our Muslim partners, first and foremost, in the solution of it. We are part of the Global Coalition countering Da’esh, and contribute to its objectives with non-military means. Let me also stress that our condemnations of the crimes of Da’esh will never be as powerful as those of a Muslim religious authority: they are our best ally in this fight. We have in particular cooperated with the Organization of the Islamic Cooperation, an engagement which led to the consensual adoption of a UN resolution on Fighting religious intolerance. I have in particular upgrade our cooperation with the OIC in the past months.

The EU also supports the proposal by France and the Accountability, Coherence and Transparency Group that the Security Council develops a code of conduct whereby permanent members agree to refrain from using their veto with respect to those mass atrocities which the responsibility to protect seeks to prevent. We are happy to see that this proposal is gradually gaining more support within the larger UN membership.

Forth field of action, maybe the most urgent one: we are on the frontline of all diplomatic efforts to find a political solution to the war in Syria and join forces against Da’esh, and to support the work of authorities towards a more inclusive democracies and national reconciliation. We are finally getting to a stage when the Syrian parties will sit down together, and try to find their way out of the war. After five years of bloodshed, reconciliation will not be easy. Still, there is no other way to preserve the incredible diversity of Middle Easter societies: building up strong and inclusive societies, strong and inclusive democracies, where all peoples have a say, where all rights are guaranteed, where living together is possible and safe.

Despite the hardships, minorities in the Middle East have not lost hope. Just one month ago the Catholic community in Aleppo celebrated the beginning of the Catholic Jubilee of Mercy. They did so by opening a Holy Door in the local church of Saint Francis. Life goes on, faith goes on. It is a powerful symbol of faith, forgiveness, and confidence in a better future.

In a recent interview the Catholic bishop of Aleppo quoted an Islamic proverb which goes: Allah provides even for a black ant on a black rock, crawling in a dark night. And he continued: “We are not alone and the bells of our churches will keep tolling”. These people have not lost hope.

Personally, I am not a believer. But I am a strong believer in the right of all to live in peace and respect. I am a strong believer in the value of diversity, in the richness of communities sharing their identities, their wisdom, their hopes and aspirations, their lives and their future. That is the strength of open societies: the capacity to live together. This has been and is the strength of the EU, and also of the Middle East. We cannot let them down. And the only way to do so is to obstinately push for a political solution to the current crises. To reject all sectarianisms. To keep working for a regional settlement of all disputes, and for national reconciliation.

Our friends in the Middle East have not lost hope. If we care about them, we have to keep working for peace. Let us not lose hope either.

Thank you.