Survivors need security

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By Geoffrey Johnston
Displaced Iraqis from the embattled city of Mosul are seen buying and selling items at a camp for internally displaced persons near the village of Nahia north of al-Qayyarah on Dec. 16. (Al-Samarraia/AFP/Getty Images)
The Islamic State has deliberately and systematically targeted religious and ethnic minorities in Iraq for extermination. From the abduction and sexual enslavement of girls, to mass murder and the destruction of churches and cultural artifact, the jihadists have committed crimes against humanity that amount to ethnic cleansing and genocide.

“The Daesh fighters must be prosecuted for their crimes amounting to genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes,” said genocide expert Ewelina Ochab. “The victims deserve justice and this justice is long overdue.

“In Iraq, Iraqi Christians have been persecuted and discriminated against ever since the fall of Saddam Hussein,” stated Ochab, who serves as legal counsel for ADF (Alliance Defending Freedom) International, a Vienna-based legal organization that advocates for religious freedom. “This treatment has deteriorated over the years and was significantly exacerbated by the atrocities of ISIS/Daesh.”

The Assyrians and other Christians who have fled Iraq “are exhausted with the situation and do not believe that this is going to improve any time soon or ever,” Ochab said.

Assyrians are the indigenous people of Mesopotamia and their ancient community predates the establishment of Islam and even Christianity. The Assyrians were the first nation to embrace Christianity, and many still speak Aramaic, one of the languages spoken by Jesus Christ.

“Religious leaders want them to stay, however the Iraqi Christians have also lost their hope in their future in Iraq,” Ochab said of the persecuted.

In June 2014, Christians fled the northern Iraqi city of Mosul, which was home to tens of thousands of Christians, as Islamic State forces gained territory. And a mass Christian exodus was repeated in August of that year when the jihadist overran Quaragosh, Bartallah and other neighbouring Christian communities.

“The number of Christians killed is unknown,” Ochab said. However, the impact of ongoing persecution of Christians has been devastating. It is estimated that there were 1.4 million Christians in Iraq in 2003. Today, there are probably only 120,000 Christians left in the Muslim-majority country.

Genocide survivors

In September 2016, Ochab met with genocide survivors in Jordan. The Assyrian and other Christian refugees whom she interviewed in Jordan fled after Islamic State forces overran their ancestral homeland on the Nineveh Plain in northern Iraq. The genocide expert met with 11 families from the city of Mosul and the villages of Quaragosh and Bartallah. She also met with several nongovernmental organizations that are assisting the Christians in the Middle East, including SOS Chretiens.

Ochab also travelled to Iraq in November, visiting internally displaced persons (IDPs) camps in the northern Iraqi city of Erbil. “I met with a few families in the camps and a number of priests helping the Christian communities,” she said.

As soon as Ochab wrapped up her visit to northern Iraq, she travelled to Geneva, Switzerland, to address the United Nations Forum on Minority Issues, where she spoke about the need to investigate the crimes committed by Islamic State forces and to prosecute the perpetrators.

“The UN Security Council can take a number of different approaches to the Daesh atrocities, including establishing a commission of experts on genocide and an ad hoc tribunal, establishing a hybrid tribunal, or referring the situation to the International Criminal Court (ICC),” Ochab told the forum.

“Recognizing the atrocities committed against Christians, Yazidis, and other minorities in Syria and Iraq as genocide is the first step towards the adequate administration of justice, reconciliation, and healing. The Daesh fighters must be prosecuted for their crimes amounting to genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes. The victims deserve justice and this justice is long overdue.”

Knox Thames, a U.S. State Department official, also addressed the forum in Geneva. Thames, who is the special adviser for religious minorities in the Near East and South/Central Asia, used his speech to tout the U.S. government’s efforts to protect ethnic and religious minorities in times of humanitarian crisis. He also spoke about the Canadian-American partnership in the International Contact Group for Freedom of Religion or Belief, which focuses on religious freedom and issues facing religious minorities.

Safe haven

Will the Assyrians and other Christians ever be safe again in Iraq? “I certainly hope so,” Thames said in a telephone interview. “And that’s something we’re working hard on to help bring about security conditions where Christians as well as Yezidis, Shia and Sunnis” and others “can live safely and in harmony with each other.”

However, getting to that place of harmony won’t be easy. “It will be a tough road,” Thames agreed. “There’s a lot of hard work that has got to be done. But with the effort to liberate Mosul and the Nineveh Plain from Daesh, we’re starting to see the rollback of their territorial gains and some promising signs of life returning with ringing of bells in the churches of Kirkuk and elsewhere.”

The State Department official declared that “helping to see that these minority communities feel confident that they have a future is a priority. And we’re working with our Iraqi partners and the international community to help bring that about.”

The persecution of Assyrians and other Christians in Iraq began long before the rise of the Islamic State in 2014. Religious persecution in Iraq escalated after a U.S.-led coalition deposed Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein in 2003, leading to targeted killings, kidnappings and ethnic cleansing of Christians.

Given the ethnic and religious divisions in Iraqi society, would minority communities be safer in their own autonomous or semiautonomous states? “I can’t really answer that question,” replied Thames. “It’s impossible to know right now.”

All that Thames would say is that the United States is “working very hard” to liberate areas controlled by Daesh, reconstruct liberated areas, remove landmines and restore utilities. “Those are the things that are top of the priority list,” he said.

As far as the establishment of autonomous or semiautonomous regions controlled by persecuted minorities, Thames acknowledged that minority communities are having that conversation amongst themselves. “We will continue to be in touch with what they think is best for their future,” he stated.

Iraq Study Group Report

“The challenges in Iraq are complex,” stated the final report of the Iraq Study Group, a bipartisan panel established by the U.S. Congress in 2006. The panel was tasked with advising the administration of President George W. Bush on how to best deal with the rapidly deteriorating security situation in Iraq.

The Iraq Study Group considered and ultimately rejected the option of partitioning Iraq into separate and autonomous ethnic and religious states. It was decided that America favoured a united Iraq.

However, it is clear that Iraq remains badly fractured and probably cannot be mended. From the State Department’s point of view, has the time come to revisit the issue of partitioning Iraq? “Our policy is one Iraq,” Thames said emphatically.

Nor does Canada advocate the partitioning of Iraq. “Canada supports a united, stable and diverse Iraq,” stated Chantal Gagnon, a spokesperson for Foreign Affairs Minister Stephane Dion. “We support the Iraqi government’s efforts to confront Daesh, to mend ethnic and sectarian divisions, and to improve governance.”

According to Gagnon, “the solution to Iraq’s crisis is first and foremost political, and it must be Iraqi-led.” To that end, Gagnon said that the Canadian government “supports the efforts of Iraqis to develop inclusive political and security arrangements.” And she contends that “such arrangements should reflect Iraq’s diversity and address the needs of individuals and communities for justice and security, while respecting Iraq’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.”

What is the future of Assyrians and other Christians in Iraq? “Time will tell,” Thames said. “This is a really difficult environment. Christians, Yezidis and others are leaving to find safety in your country and my country and elsewhere in the West,” conceded the American official.

“But we’re committed to protecting religious minorities in Iraq and around the world. I feel confident this will be a priority of the next administration, as well.”

The Nineveh Plain requires more than the reconstruction of devastated towns and villages. “The persecuted minorities in Nineveh Plain need a guarantee that the atrocities committed by Daesh will never happen again,” Ochab declared. “They need a guarantee that they will be safe in their homes and will not have to flee in the middle of the night yet again.”

Ochab contends that “some of [the survivors of genocide] are worried that once Daesh is defeated, their fighters would shave off their beards, blend in, and return to normal life. That frightens them to the point that they do not want to give testimonies. They do not feel safe, and the lack of investigations and prosecutions only prolongs the growing feeling of impunity.”