Religious communities in Iraq, especially religious minorities, have suffered enormously over the past year. Longstanding sectarian tensions between Shiites and Sunnis deepen the crisis in Iraq, which is disrupting the entire Middle East. This week contributors are asked to evaluate this situation as a crisis of religious freedom. They address the following questions: What explains the success of ISIS in Iraq? Why do sectarian tensions exist? What can be done to resolve this conflict and prevent similar ones in the future? What role might US or international religious freedom diplomacy play?
By: Frank R. Wolf
“Help me to stay.” A young Iraqi priest spoke these words to me in late January during a fact-finding trip to northern Iraq. It was at the conclusion of an emotional meeting with roughly 25 Catholic leaders, including Archbishop Yohanna Petros Moshe of Mosul. There was a palpable sense of despair in the room.
Much of their frustration stemmed from the West’s response, or lack thereof, to the current crisis unfolding in this troubled land, especially from the perspective of Christians and other small religious groups who increasingly find themselves in the crosshairs of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS.
Last summer, ISIS drove thousands of Christians from the lands they’ve inhabited for centuries. Largely professional men and women with cars, homes, and bank accounts, they often fled with nothing more than the clothes on their backs.
ISIS then declared a caliphate in the cradle of Christianity. The remaining Christians were told to leave; if they stayed, they were told to convert, pay, or die. Yezidi men were killed; Yezidi women and children were bought, sold, raped, and tortured.
A flurry of news coverage told of the men, women and children whose lives were upended, homes confiscated, and dignity assaulted. Now the reporting has virtually stopped, but their misery continues.
Archbishop Moshe wondered aloud, “Does the American government recognize the thousands of years of heritage displaced in one day? ...Does the media cover the burning of the churches?”
Most of those with whom our delegation met, including the archbishop, were themselves displaced. But their despair was not simply a reaction to their own bleak circumstances.
These were men whose flocks had been scattered to the winds. Some had left Iraq altogether, opting for refugee camps in Jordan, Lebanon, or Turkey—with the hope of ultimately emigrating to the West (we were told that 12 Christian families attempt to leave Iraq each day). Others are living in makeshift internally displaced persons (IDP) camps located in unfinished shopping malls, abandoned sports complexes, and on the grounds of churches in Irbil and surrounding areas.
In fact, in the early days of their displacement last August, thousands of stunned and traumatized Christians arrived in Kurdistan and intuitively sought out the churches and convents of the region as places of refuge, as the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) struggled to provide an adequate humanitarian response to the thousands of newly homeless who poured into their cities and towns.
With the initial phase of the crisis having passed, what seemed temporary is now appearing more permanent. Tents have given way to containers. Multiple families are pulling together what limited resources they have and renting one- and two-bedroom apartments in Irbil and Ankawa. Twenty to thirty people are living under one roof out of sight and out of reach of the United Nations and international aid organizations. Children have been out of school for more than seven months. Life appears to be on hold.
These unwitting nomads seem reluctant to abandon their homeland, but don’t know what sort of future Iraq holds for them.
Many with whom our delegation met spoke with great fondness of the villages, homes, jobs, and churches they left behind—their nostalgia now giving way to indignation.
We heard stories of displaced men and women receiving menacing phone calls from members of the Islamic State:
“We’re living in your house. It’s booby-trapped should you ever try to return.”
“We kidnapped your daughter and will raise her to be a Muslim so that it brings shame on your family.”
“The cross and other Christian symbols have been torn down and the church is now a prison.”
These men, women, and children long to return but wonder what they might find if ever that day were to come.
Though relevant to the larger policy discussion, talk of sectarian strife, proxy wars, and complex geopolitical alliances belies the human toll of the conflict. But the human toll has been great.
The current crisis is set against a troubling trajectory that in some respects foreshadowed the peril now facing Iraq’s ethno-religious minorities—what is perhaps most surprising is the speed with which this final genocidal onslaught is on track to purge Christianity from its ancient homeland.
In the last decade, the Christian community, which is believed to date back to the Apostle Thomas, has plummeted from approximately 1.5 million to 300,000 or even less. Once vibrant faith communities are quickly becoming mere remnants. This is true of Christians, Yezidis, Shabak, Turkmen, Mandaeans, and others. The fact that Iraq’s religious minorities have historically resided in some of the most contested areas, notably the Nineveh Plains, has only added to their misery.
In Republican and Democrat administrations alike, the US Department of State, has, at various junctures, declined to recognize that these communities were experiencing more than just the generalized violence that for years has plagued Iraq—rather they were being targeted for who they are and what they believe. Theirs was, first and foremost, a struggle for religious freedom.
While the rapid rise of the Islamic State surprised many, as did the ease with which they captured strategic cities in Sunni strongholds like Mosul, the sectarian and ethnic divides which made this possible have been brewing for some time and are on full display in the offensive currently underway to take back Tikrit.
News reports indicate that Qassim Sulaimani, the commander of the Iranian Quds Brigade, is intimately involved in and in fact helping oversee the operation. Photos to this effect have been widely circulating on social media. Sulaimani’s very public role underscores the growing Iranian influence on the Iraqi central government. And there are troubling reports emerging at the same time of the Iranian-backed Shiite militias fighting and targeting Sunnis more broadly, not just members of the Islamic State, which further deepens sectarian divisions. As these divides harden, religious and ethnic minorities, who do not enjoy the protection of well-funded and equipped militias, are caught in the shrinking middle.
The situation is complex, but there are steps that the US government can take to advance the cause of religious freedom, our first freedom, that at the same time counter the security threat posed by the Islamic State.
Even as the debate surrounding the Authorization of the Use of Military Force (AUMF) is underway in Congress, there is already consensus for supporting local forces committed to protecting vulnerable minorities in the Nineveh Plains and elsewhere. The notion is stated in the National Defense Authorization Act for fiscal year 2015—now law. And Iraqi Christians have begun training new recruits for the Nineveh Protection Unit, a national guard capable of defending a future Nineveh Plains province once these lands are liberated. I visited the NPUs: The men are eager to defend their families and their homeland.
But no one is under the illusion that they alone can take on ISIS, whose numbers grow daily, buoyed by an influx of global jihadists.
Enter the Kurds and their fighting force, the peshmerga. They’re not boy scouts: I heard troubling reports in Iraq that, as ISIS advanced, they abandoned Christian and Yezidi villages they’d pledged to protect.
But the Kurds are unique in their pro-American sentiments, and they’re prepared to battle the Islamic State, at least in historically Kurdish areas. Roughly 1,000 peshmerga have already given their lives in that fight.
In meeting after meeting, leaders of the KRG lamented to me the lack of direct support from Washington.
Touring a peshmerga outpost 1.5 miles from the front, we heard that they are desperate for modern weapons and training to adequately confront ISIS (which is equipped to the hilt with state-of-the-art US weaponry captured in the Iraqi Army’s retreat).
If such weapons came with conditions—including Kurdish support for a Nineveh province for Iraq’s religious minorities—it could advance both US national security imperatives and our values.
With each passing day, Baghdad becomes more aligned with Iran. We must recognize this reality and broaden our intervention to include unconventional channels, including direct military support to the Kurdistan Regional Government and the Nineveh Protective Unit.
Moving from the security sphere to the diplomatic space, President Obama should immediately fill the now vacant post of Special Envoy for Religious Minorities in the Middle East and South Central Asia. This position is congressionally authorized having passed through both houses of Congress last summer at precisely the juncture that the Islamic State was capturing large swaths of land in Iraq and imperiling thousands of religious minorities. The president signed the bill into law but has failed to fill it for seven months.
The need has never been greater to have a senior person at the State Department working exclusively on policy approaches intended to protect and ultimately preserve in their ancient homelands these vulnerable faith communities.
Will the cry of the young priest, “Help me to stay,” fall on deaf ears? Or will policymakers in the West and people of good faith answer his urgent plea?
Congressman Frank Wolf served in the US House of Representatives for 34 years, representing the tenth district of the state of Virginia.
This piece was originally authored on March 9, 2015 for the Religious Freedom Project at Georgetown's Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs.