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Iraq crisis: SDLP's Margaret Ritchie calls for more UK aid to Christians and Yazidis fleeing Islamic State

By Christopher Woodhouse

SDLP MP Margaret Ritchie has called for the UK government to provide further support to defend Christian and Yazidi minorities living in Iraq from the actions of Islamic State militants.

The former leader of the SDLP leader said: “There is a moral imperative to give all necessary humanitarian support and assistance to Christian and Yazidi minority groups in Northern Iraq as they face continued violence and threat from Islamic State forces."

Mrs Ritchie's remarks come after reports of another massacre of Yazidis by Islamic State in the village of Kocho, near Sinjar, in northern Iraq yesterday.

“There is a need to support all efforts to get minority religious groups out of harms way as soon as possible and to ensure that they have all the food supplies they need to avoid hunger and starvation.

“Church leaders from across Ireland and the United Kingdom have made clear their support for fellow Christians, who face the most harrowing of situations. We stand with them and we will not turn our back on them in their hour of need.”

The South Down MP added: “The UN’s special rapporteur on minority issues, Rita Izsák, has clearly stated that the danger of massacre and potential genocide is imminent if something is not done. I now call on the British government to heed these warnings and to provide all the necessary humanitarian support to protect Christians and other minority groups in Iraq.

“However, there should be a caution against further US/UK military intervention in the region that could destabilise Iraq and actually worsen the situation.

“Indeed the existence and growth of the Islamic State militants can be traced back to Western military intervention in the region over the past decade.

“Instead there is a need to support the new Iraqi government that seems set to emerge and to develop their capacity to handle this threat and to stabilise the country.

“If this does not happen there is the real possibility of a civil war, which will only be to the further advantage of the extremists and militants.”

“I will table questions in Parliament this week to ensure the protection of Christians and against further military intervention by the United States and the UK”.

The Sunni extremists shot dead scores of Yazidi men and male teens, lining them up and opening fire with assault rifles before seizing their wives and children.

A Yazidi politician cited the mass killing as evidence that his people were still at risk after a week of US and Iraqi air strikes on the militants.

Meanwhile prime minister David Cameron said today that a humanitarian response to the extreme Sunni group was not enough.

Writing in The Sunday Telegraph, he called for “a firm security response” and warned of a direct threat to the UK from the terrorist organisation.

Fresh criticism of the prime minister's Middle East policy has also come from a senior clergy of the Church of England.

In a letter seen by The Observer, the Bishop of Leeds, Nicholas Baines, described the government's approach as incoherent, ill-thought-out and determined by “the loudest media voice at any particular time".

The letter, written with the support of the archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, also condemns the government for failing to offer sanctuary to Iraqi Christians fleeing the advancing jihadists.

Church of England attacks David Cameron's 'reactive' response to Iraq

By Joe Churcher

The Church of England has accused the Government of appearing to have no "coherent or comprehensive approach" to tackling the rise of Islamic extremism.

In a strongly-worded attack on David Cameron's handling of the crisis in Iraq - backed by the Archbishop of Canterbury - the Bishop of Leeds said "many" senior clergy were seriously concerned.

The Rt Rev Nicholas Baines has written to the Prime Minister questioning whether there is any long-term strategy and criticising a "growing silence" over the fate of the plight of persecuted Christians.

In particular he raised questions about ministers' failure to respond to calls - including through parliamentary questions - to set out what arrangements would be made to offer asylum in the UK.

And he expressed fears over the future of the Government's "commitment to religious freedom".

The cleric said he recognised "the complexity and interconnectedness of the challenges" but joined criticism of an apparent failure to respond effectively to the advance of Islamic State fighters.

"It appears that, in common with the United States and other partners, the UK is responding to events in a reactive way, and it is difficult to discern the strategic intentions behind this approach," he wrote in the letter, which he issud to newspapers and published on his website.

"Please can you tell me what is the overall strategy that holds together the UK Government's response to both the humanitarian situation and what IS is actually doing in Syria and Iraq?

"Behind this question is the serious concern that we do not seem to have a coherent or comprehensive approach to Islamist extremism as it is developing across the globe.

"Islamic State, Boko Haram and other groups represent particular manifestations of a global phenomenon, and it is not clear what our broader global strategy is - particularly insofar as the military, political, economic and humanitarian demands interconnect."

The Church internationally should be "a primary partner in addressing this complexity", he told him.

The bishop welcomed the "notable and admirable" focus on the plight of the minority Yazidi community, who have been at the centre of an international aid operation as they flee IS massacres.

"However, there has been increasing silence about the plight of tens of thousands of Christians who have been displaced, driven from cities and homelands, and who face a bleak future," he went on.

"Despite appalling persecution, they seem to have fallen from consciousness, and I wonder why.

"Does your government have a coherent response to the plight of these huge numbers of Christians whose plight appears to be less regarded than that of others? Or are we simply reacting to the loudest media voice at any particular time?"

Decrying the lack of response to repeated appeals for asylum provision to be made for Christians, and other minorities, he said that in contrast to France and Germany there had "so far been only silence from the UK Government".

House of Lords questions on the subject tabled by the Bishop of Coventry remain unanswered, he said, "something that causes me and colleagues some concern".

"Underlying these concerns is the need for reassurance that a commitment to religious freedom will remain a priority for the Government, given the departure of ministers who championed this.

"Will the Foreign Secretary's Human Rights Advisory Panel continue under the new Foreign Secretary?

"Is this not the time to appoint an Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom - which would demonstrate the Government's serious commitment to developing an overarching strategy (backed by expertise) against Islamist extremism and violence?"

The Bishop of Manchester, the Right Rev David Walker, said the Government had a "moral obligation that it is repeatedly failing to rise to".

He told BBC Radio 4's Sunday programme that he believed the failure to offer asylum could be down to political sensitivities over immigration.

"There is always a concern around anything that could play into the debate around immigration," he said.

"But the numbers that would come here are so small that effectively they are not going to disrupt British society in any noticeable or meaningful way.

"In fact they would be good assets to our society."

If the Government failed to act then Parliament should be recalled to debate the issue, he suggested.

"But the issues are fairly clear. The Government needs to act."

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