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The Future of Religious Freedom in Iraq and Syria: Recommendations from Religious and Ethnic Minorities

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Last week, the Religious Freedom Project’s conference at Georgetown University, Threats to Religious and Ethnic Minorities under the Islamic State, allowed Christian, Yazidi, Kakai and Turkmen religious leaders and civil-society advocates to share their experiences of religious and ethnic persecution in Iraq and Syria and their recommendations for international action. Several questions quickly emerged as the discussion’s recurring centerpieces: What are immediate challenges posed by Daesh? What do post-Daesh Iraq and Syria look like? How do we get there?

Below is a compilation of the panelists’ shared concerns, followed by their shared recommendations. The list of panelists and their biographies are available here.

Shared Experiences and Concerns:###

Immediate Survival:

The panelists agreed that the immediate short-term issue in Iraq and Syria is the dire, day-to-day crises: the ongoing physical violence, the abduction of women and children, chemical warfare, and the extreme lack of healthcare, housing, jobs, and financial resources.

Loss of Hope for the Future:

This theme recurred over and over as one of the panelists’ most prevalent concerns. Mar Awa Royel, a bishop of the Assyrian Church of the East, described a brokenness that transcends the spiritual and material losses of homes and livelihoods. Minority groups have lost, he explained, their confidence in their homelands and in their futures there. The panelists’ shared vision of a post-Daesh future honored diversity and pluralism; while creating separate provinces for minorities was briefly mentioned towards the end of the discussion, the panelists prioritized safety, self-determination and religious freedom.

Fear of Cultural Loss:

With thousands of religious and ethnic minorities fleeing Iraq and Syria, the preservation of these minority heritages rises as a concern. Murad Ismael, the executive director of an NGO established to support Yazidis, emphasized that while it was not anyones place to decide whether individuals should stay or leave Iraq or Syria, there must be situations that will allow refugees to return. When prompted what these conditions would be, the panelists once again emphasized the need to increase minority confidence in their homelands by establishing increased political representation and accessible infrastructure. More detail about the panelists’ recommendations are below.

Lack of International Awareness and Recognition:

When asked to describe concerns that were not reported in international media, the panelists highlighted the chemical attack in Iraq in March 2016 and the persecution of the Kakai community, a community that is absent from not only the Iraqi constitution but also from international awareness. The panelists also called for a broader international recognition of genocide; they applauded Secretary of State John Kerry’s recognition that ISIS’s crimes towards Christians, Yazidis, Shi'a Muslims, and other religious and ethnic minority groups in Syria and Iraq were genocide, but unanimously called for broader recognition and action.

Shared Recommendations:

While the discussion had a distinctive focus on policy makers and international action (the conference was largely in preparation for a State Department meeting scheduled for the following day), the panelists reinforced the need for multilateral action. “No one church, no one agency, no one government alone can do this work,” Mar Awa Royel said, a sentiment that was repeatedly echoed by others.

Recommendations for International Policymakers:

  • International Legal Action: Referencing Article 13B of the International Criminal Court, Breen Tahseen, the official representative of Prince Tahseen Said of the Iraqi Yazidi community, called for the UN Security Council and the International Criminal Court to open a case on the atrocities in Iraq and Syria.

  • Documentation of Genocide Crimes: The panelists asked that, following the U.S. and E.U., the U.N. and Iraqi government acknowledge that the ISIS crimes are genocide. Murad Ismael emphasized that international recognition is an important and necessary step in establishing justice that does have “teeth on the ground.”

  • Refugee Settlement: In cases where return to Iraq and Syria is not possible, refugees must be welcomed into the U.S. and the E.U.

Recommendations for NGOs:

  • Immediate Safety and Care: NGOs must help to create protected zones for minorities and to support local security militia. In addition to providing health services and treatment, and staging medical evacuations if necessary, NGOs can also begin to investigate the long-term consequences of chemical warfare and other health hazards.

  • Gather Information, Document Crimes and Bring Awareness: In collaboration with local advocacy groups, NGOs can help collect information, such as the identities and locations of abductees, to bring to the government and to international actors.

The panelists also began to discuss a strategic plan for minority groups in post-Daesh Iraq and Syria, emphasizing the need for governmental action and international enforcement of religious freedom and self-determination.

Recommendations for the Iraqi Government:

  • Guarantee the Safety of Minorities: The Iraqi government must pass new laws to protect minorities.
  • Political Representation and Voice: Religious and ethnic minorities must be involved in all levels of government and they must have the democratic ability to elect their own leaders from their own communities.

Recommendations for Minority Leaders:

  • Increasing Dialogue: The panelists noted a loss of trust among the different minority communities. Mar Awa Royel proposed dialogues, perhaps in a formal council, to facilitate camaraderie and partnership across the minority groups as to create common solutions and to form a stronger case to present to the government.

“The next year against Daesh will be pivotal,” Knox Thames, the special advisor for religious minorities in the Near East and Asia at the State Department, said while opening the conference. “And once Daesh is expelled, we must shift from the difficult task of waging war to the equally difficult task of making peace.” The panelists’ emphasis on integrated, multilateral action continually echoed this remark: they pointed not only towards the cessation of violence and immediate humanitarian assistance, but also towards the slow process of rebuilding the confidence of minority groups in a safe future in post-Daesh Iraq and Syria.

Rainah Umlauf is a Design, Monitoring & Evaluation Intern at Search for Common Ground.