Abandoning Iraq’s Religious Minorities to the Islamic State

Aug 10th, 2016 | By | Category: Weekly Washington Updates

by Andrew Harrod, PnD. – Exclusive to the Religious Freedom Coalition 

“Within the culture in the Middle East, if you are the other, you will never be embraced,” stated Murad Ismael, executive director of the Yazidi advocacy organization YAZDA during a July 28 Georgetown University conference.  Describing the plight of various minorities facing the genocidal onslaught of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), he and his fellow conference speakers indicated why only power decentralization could stabilize this long troubled region.

Naomi Kikoler from the Holocaust Memorial Museum discussed learning during her trips to Iraq of a “deep distrust both towards the Iraqi government and the Kurdish regional government by many of the minority communities.”  “In the U.S. this idea persists that all Iraqis can live together” in a “melting pot,” stated Sherri Talabany, president of the SEED Foundation, a Kurdish aid organization.  Yet bitter experience had taught various ethnic and religious groups that “you really are not safe unless your group is in charge.”IslamReligionOfPeaceCartoon

Father Behnam Benoka, an Iraqi Catholic Chaldean priest and humanitarian worker, particularly noted that “we don’t accept as Christians anymore to be under Arab or Muslim tutelage or custody.”  Distrust of Iraq’s central government meant that Iraqi Christian communities now seek “to govern our cities by ourselves” and have “our house to be our own house” in some form of local autonomy under international protection.  Echoing comments by Turkmen Rescue Foundation President Ali A. Zainalabdeen, Benoka noted that Iraqi government soldiers fleeing ISIS’ 2014 Iraqi conquests had “delivered all the religious minorities as a gift for ISIS.”

Left defenseless, Iraqi minorities often perceived their own Sunni Muslim neighbors in the area of ISIS’ advance as more of a threat than ISIS foreign fighters, Talabany stated.  As these minorities would recount, “our neighbors came to the Christian family and said, ‘you have lived next to us for 100 years and so for that reason I am going to give you and your family ten minutes to go and I won’t kill you.’”  She noted Yazidi ISIS sex slaves often knew their captors and dismissed trying to “re-integrate people with their torturers,” while segregation often helped pacify refugee camps.  Benoka asked of treacherous neighbors “how could we continue living in peace with them.”

Syria Justice and Accountability Centre Executive Director Mohammed Al-Abdallah noted that the region’s Sunni Muslims themselves feared various groups fighting ISIS such as the Kurds, with whom they had a conflicted history.  Precisely Shiite domination of Iraq’s central government had alienated the country’s Sunni minority in western Iraq, causing them to favor ISIS.  Concerning Sunnis, ISIS’ Kurdish and Shiite opponents effectively “want to liberate you in spite of you, and you should be happy with our governance even if we do not represent you.  And of course that will bring only another ISIS.”


Amidst the region’s bloodbath, Talabany cited Iraq’s Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) as a unique “safe haven” for minorities, including numerous refugees, as indicated by a multiplicity of diverse recognized religious holidays.  Nonetheless, Kurds “need to get rid of Islamic religious teaching in the schools and replace that with tolerance and world religion.”  Abdallah criticized as well Syrian Kurd use of female child soldiers in their fighting against ISIS and others, while Zainalabdeen noted recent fighting between Iraqi Kurds and Turkmen.

Despite ISIS vivid brutality, Assyrian Aid Society of America Vice President Mona Malik emphasized that the region’s “ethnic cleansing has not just started two years ago, it has been slowly happening.”  Iraq’s Christian community, once 1.5 million in 2003 before the American-led overthrow of Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship, now numbers 250,000-200,000.  In this process, ISIS “just made it happen quicker in a shorter period of time.”

“The root problem of everything we have heard is the political culture” in the region, stated Syriac National Council of Syria President Bassam Ishak.  The medical doctor Zainalabdeen analogized that “any movement in the hand needs an impulse in the nerve center of the brain” and described an Iraqi cultural “terrorism in the brain” preceding actual violence.  Ishak noted a biased statement from the Syrian National Coalition fighting to overthrow Syria’s Bashar Al-Assad dictatorship that only condemned Kurd attacks on Arab villages while ignoring ISIS attacks on Assyrian Christians.

Ismael observed that genocide requires a “general understanding within that region or that community that these people do not deserve life” and that Yazidis like him in Iraq were “always treated as third-class citizens.”  “Second-class citizenship is a precursor to genocide,” Malik concurringly paraphrased Knights of Columbus Supreme Knight Carl Anderson.  Before being deemed pagans by ISIS, for whom the “Yazidis’ existence within the Muslim world was a shame on them,” Ismael often had to explain to Iraqi Muslims that “Yazidis were not devil worshippers, that Yazidis were not dirty.”

Babies of Iraqi Christian refugees from the Islamic State need diapers – Please help!

The Iraqi Christian Pascale Warda, president of the Iraqi Hammurabi Human Rights Organization, dramatically contrasted her country with the United States.  “What we understand of religious freedom here is completely out of existence in Iraq.  Anyone who is converted, especially Muslims, if they convert to any religion, they are killed.”  She noted that Iraqi laws automatically register children as Muslims when a parent converts to Islam.

In this context, United States State Department statements appeared naïve.  Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom David Saperstein stated that America’s “vision is of a sovereign united Iraq” and a “Syria that is democratic, nonsectarian, and pluralistic,” a “reawakening of Iraq and Syria’s historic diversity.”  America’s allies included “vetted opposition forces in Syria,” notwithstanding Abdallah’s criticism that such a “vetted” group had beheaded a child in Aleppo, Syria.

Such official optimism remained unconvincing to audience member Bayan Sami Abdul Rahman, the United States representative of a Kurdistan Regional Government holding longstanding Kurdish independence aspirations.  Iraq “has been a country of coup d’états, revolutions, bloody transfers of power, oppression against one group or another,” the “theater for mass murder,” she stated.  Little wonder that various Iraqi and Syrian communities living in Islam’s not so peaceful Dar al-Islam desire to emulate the Balkans’ breakdown, however messy, of centralized states into local self-governed entities.

About Andrew Harrod
Andrew E. Harrod is a researcher and writer who holds a PhD from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy and a JD from George Washington University Law School. He is a fellow with the Lawfare Project, an organization combating the misuse of human rights law against Western societies. He can be followed on twitter at @AEHarrod.

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