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Iraq's battered religious minorities face difficult future, warn experts
Diplomatic Pouch / November 6, 2014

By Larry Luxner

As the Islamic State’s murderous rampage through Iraq and Syria continues with no end in sight, each day’s headlines bring more bad news from the Middle East. And nobody seems to be suffering more than the region’s ethnic and religious minorities.

Last month, Washington’s Iraqi Cultural Center brought together four experts to make sense of it all. About 60 people attended the Oct. 17 event, including Iraq’s ambassador to the United States, Lukman Faily, and his wife Lameis.

“The situation for Iraqi minorities is one of unfolding catastrophe,” said Viola Gienger, senior writer at the U.S. Institute of Peace and moderator of the panel. “In the first nine months of 2014, more than 12,000 civilians were killed, and religious and ethnic minorities are the primary targets. In areas controlled by ISIS, minorities have been subject to summary executions, torture, forced conversions and sexual abuse. Half a million people have been forced to leave their land with little more than the clothes on their backs. It is an unbelievable tragedy.”

Alda Benjamen is an Iraqi-born doctoral student at the University of Maryland who specializes in Middle East history. She said that as 2014 began, many people were hopeful that Iraq’s ethnic problems were on their way to being resolved.

“In January, the Iraqi National Assembly voted to make Syriac, Assyrian and Turkmen — all languages spoken by minorities — official languages alongside Arabic and Turkish,” she told her audience of scholars, diplomats, Iraqi officials and other invited guests. “There was an increase in basic services like schools and hospitals. They hoped to see an end to the political tensions between the Iraqi central government and the KRG [Kurdistan Regional Government]. This all came to an abrupt stop in June.”

That’s when ISIS suddenly captured Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, and the fundamentalists began a vicious crackdown on non-Muslims.

“At first, Christians were being restricted from receiving their salaries. Then some Christians were killed for not dressing appropriately. Soon, whole communities were targeted, especially the homes of Christians or Shi’ite Muslims. Almost all of Mosul’s Christians escaped the city, leaving behind their homes and livelihoods. At checkpoints, ISIS militants stripped them of all belongings including money, food and children’s toys. Many had their cars confiscated and were forced to walk to the Nineveh plain, 20 kilometers away on foot,” said Benjamen, a native of the Iraqi city of Kirkuk.

“On Aug. 7, almost two months later, while the world just sat idly watching, ISIS forces advanced to Sinjar. The residents had no choice but to escape,” she said.

Thousands of ethnic Yazidis fled to Mount Sinjar, with ISIS militants in pursuit. They ended up on the mountaintop, facing starvation and dehydration. At that point, U.S. military forces stepped in, dropping food and water for the stranded Yazidis while bombing ISIS artillery units and military convoys. The siege was finally broken on Aug. 14 with help from Kurdish fighters based both in Syria and Turkey.

But the nightmare isn’t over for the Yazidis, which need long-term assistance.

“Not all their demands are political. Some are humanitarian,” she said. “They’re asking for a missing persons registry and a property registry, so these people can come back and claim their homes. A lot of these towns are not equipped to deal with rain. The weather will continue to deteriorate. These are not conditions any human being should be living in.”

Kamal Elias represents the American Ezidi Center (AEC), a Washington-based NGO whose mission is “to educate the American people, government, institutions, scholars and the public about the Ezidi religion, its history, heritage and culture.”

According to the AEC, the Ezidi [an alternative spelling of Yazidi] people have suffered 73 genocides throughout history; the recent ISIS attacks have displaced more than 400,000 Ezidis, primarily the people of Sinjar, where Elias is from.

He says that so far, about 7,000 Yazidis have been killed, and many children 10 years old or younger have been forcibly taken to Islamic madrasas, or religious schools.

“We’ve always lived with the Arabs and where were never any issues between us, until this latest one. Most of our neighbors turned on us. I’m not going to say everybody is bad, but a lot of people helped ISIS. And the people in charge of protecting the area have left,” said Elias.

“Nobody has suffered like the Ezidis. We had only two choices: become Muslim or die. There’s ‘no pay and get out.’ There’s no ‘take all your stuff.’ And even if you do become Muslim, they’re going to take your women away, and take the children to jihadi schools. The Ezidis need to be protected, otherwise we’ll all just leave or be killed. The Kurdish and the central Iraqi government must work together. Nobody’s going to care as much as the Iraqis themselves. We’ve got to be united and move forward.”

Sarhang Hamasaeed, senior program officer at the U.S. Institute of Peace, couldn’t agree more.

“Almost all the minorities are displaced,” he said. “Before, many people felt the Iraqi army or the Peshmerga [the Kurdish armed forces] would protect them, but neither one materialized. The force that came at them was too great.”

Hamasaeed, who joined USIP in February 2011, was previously deputy director-general with the KRG’s Council of Ministers. He holds a master’s degree in international development policy from Duke University, and among other things has worked with Kurdistan Save the Children.

“Some of the challenges we see today take a more brutal form, but we’ve been talking about this since at least 2003. The Iraqi constitution has the foundation for granting rights to minorities, and for the past 10 years there have been attempts to guarantee these rights. But those attempts did not reach fruition,” he said, adding that when it comes to Iraq, “we don’t have a problem just with the minorities. We have a problem with the majority as well.”

Hamasaeed added that the idea of establishing a United Nations peacekeeping force in Iraq is tempting, but that it, too, is fraught with dangers and uncertainties.

“The Iraqi army faced defeat at the hands of ISIS, and the Iraqi people have been through multiple cycles of displacement and violence,” he said. “The international coalition so far is hesitating to send in ground troops to fight this war against ISIS. That option is not present, and we don’t know if it will be. The situation is still evolving.”

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