U.S. State Department officials said that they have not forgotten the suffering in Iraq and Syria—where Islamic State (ISIS or Daesh) has slaughtered, pillaged, and displaced entire minority communities.
“I want to be very clear, the protection of religious and ethnic minorities in Iraq and Syria is a foreign policy priority of the United States,” said Knox Thames, the State Department’s special adviser for religious minorities in the near east and south and central Asia. “The best way to defeat Daesh and its ideology of hate is by protecting what they have tried to exterminate: religious and ethnic pluralism.”
Thames and David Saperstein, the State Department’s ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom, said they will meet with delegations of more than 25 countries in Washington today to discuss ongoing strategies to protect vulnerable populations under ISIS control and ensure religious freedom in the region.
Saperstein said the first step to restore stability in desecrated communities is to destroy ISIS.
The U.S. and its allies are making important gains in the fight against ISIS, according to Saperstein. Terror groups in the region only retain about 50 percent of the territory they once had. ISIS has lost 30 percent of its oil reserves, and airstrikes have killed thousands of militants.
Just last month, the Iraqi army announced it had fully liberated Fallujah, which ISIS has controlled for more than two years. And it expects to free more territory soon.
Saperstein said the State Department is preparing for the aftermath of liberating Mosul. Vacating the city of militants is crucial, but the community’s devastation will not disappear along with the fighters. The State Department wants to deploy strategic resources to restore the city’s former infrastructure and stability.
Religious freedom is a core and basic universal right for all persons, but according to Saperstein, supporting it abroad also protects both U.S. and world interests.
“Respect for religious freedom is instrumental to peace, security, and development around the world,” Saperstein said. “No nation can fulfill its potential if its people are denied the right to exercise their freedom.”
On March 17, Secretary of State John Kerry made the historic determination that ISIS is committing genocide against Christians and other minorities in Iraq and Syria. But highlighting the tragedy did not solve the problem.
Religious and civic leaders from the region gathered at Georgetown University on Thursday to detail their ongoing plight and give recommendations for policy makers to support freedom of faith.
Throughout the onslaught of violence, ISIS has targeted minority groups. Terrorists besieged their Assyrian Christian, Yazidi, and Shia Muslim neighbors. ISIS gave many the option to either convert to radical Islam or die. Others fled, creating a humanitarian crisis of 3.3 million internally displaced persons.
“There is no appreciation for human life, and that is the greatest loss our people are suffering there,” said Mar Awa Royel, bishop of the Assyrian Church of the East. “[During the Mosul invasion] what I experienced was a people that were really broken. Not merely spiritually, materially, but no longer had a future to look towards.”
Many Assyrian Christians are indigenous to the region, and have lived in cities like Mosul for more than a thousand years. Royel said they want to remain in their homeland, but right now that’s impossible. ISIS attacks have left their communities in ruins, destroying both physical and economic stability. He recommended creating an international coalition where all persecuted minority groups can engage in an open dialogue.
Royel said amid the current cacophony, little dialogue takes place. A formal structure will help persecuted groups craft a common request of international partners, he said.
But Christians are only a small portion of the persecuted. In 2014, ISIS massacred the people of Sinjar, killing 5,000 Yazidi men and capturing thousands of women for sex slaves.
Murad Ismael, the executive director of Yazda, a nonprofit established to support Yazidi in the U.S., said his people have lived as second-class citizens for a long time, creating fertile ground for genocide.
“The Yazidis are suffering a holocaust,” Ismael said. “There are no gas chambers to kill people and burn people, but there’s a system to persecute the Yazidis.”
According to Ismael, 3,700 Yazidi women remain enslaved, facing rape by ISIS fighters every day. Ismael said many Yazidi commit suicide, too afraid to live any more with the fear of becoming a sex slave.
Breen Tahseen, a representative of the Yazidi community in Iraq, said the country needs justice before it can ever pursue reconciliation. He called on the International Criminal Court to prosecute ISIS for its crimes against the Yazidis.
— by Evan Wilt