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  • Writer's pictureKnox Thames

How to Build a Better Future for Minorities in the Middle East

Updated: Aug 11, 2020

Visiting the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum is always a challenging experience, both emotionally and intellectually. The Museum serves as a stark reminder of the failure of the international community to protect Jews from the horrors of genocide and the millions murdered for their faith and religious identity.

But as much as we want to view the Museum as a history lesson, something disconnected from our reality today, we cannot. Persecution based on religion or belief continues. It continues today. Religious persecution is as old as human history. But it is not history. For many faith communities never again is happening again.

While I have toured the Museum many times, last year I saw it in a new light. In the early hours before the Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom last July, I joined a group of survivors of 21st century religious persecution on a Museum tour. Walking through those hallways, seeing the pictures, feeling the weight of the horror, and doing so with survivors of contemporary religious persecution brought the experience to an entirely different level. We launched the Ministerial at the Museum to note this truth — that the religious persecution we hoped was a thing of the past is still present today.

Irene Weiss, a Holocaust survivor whose picture at Auschwitz hangs in the Museum, keynoted the opening ceremony in the powerful Hall of Remembrance. Behind her stood survivors of contemporary religious persecution from Burma, China, Iran, Iraq, Nicaragua, North Korea, Pakistan, Sudan, Turkey, and Vietnam, representing multiple faith communities including Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Yezidi, Baha’i, Ahmadi, and Buddhist. We invited them to keep the discussions at the Ministerial grounded on the real impacts of this persecution, a tangible, physical, human reminder of the challenges real people face daily. We each lit candles to remember those who perished in the Holocaust and individuals suffering today.

I want to thank the Anti-Defamation League for convening this meeting today, so we can discuss how to do more at this crucial moment both in Iran and across the Middle East. What steps we can take to ensure the diverse mosaic of religious and ethnic communities is not lost to history, to see that these people, both men and women, are protected equally under the law and have a hand in determining the future of their communities. The United States’ commitment to promoting international religious freedom and protecting the rights of religious minorities is evidenced by both word and deed.

The National Security Strategy, released in December 2017, recognizes that religious minorities continue to be victims of targeted violence. It states explicitly that the United States “will advocate on behalf of religious freedom and threatened minorities… We will place a priority on protecting members of these groups and will continue working with regional partners to protect minority communities from attacks and to preserve their cultural heritage.”

In 2017, Vice President Pence promised the United States would provide direct support to persecuted ethnic and religious minorities in Iraq. The United States is leading the way in rebuilding the environment in northern Iraq so that religious minorities — many of them victims of ISIS’ genocide — can return home with hope for a better future. I just returned from my fifth visit to Iraq since taking up this post, and I heard firsthand from communities of Christians, Yezidis, Turkmen Shia, Shabak, Kaka’i, and others who appreciate the efforts of the United States. It is an unprecedented effort to restore life to areas where individuals were victims of genocide. I am proud the United States is leading this effort.

We are intensely engaged in diplomatic and programmatic efforts aimed at improving security and delivering assistance to traditional minority areas. USAID now has six people based in Erbil to directly engage with minority communities, a team that will soon grow to eight. The U.S. government has programmed nearly $340 million since Fiscal Year 2017 alone to support persecuted religious minority communities in Iraq. This programming is making tangible impacts on the ground. Our human rights bureau is funding an array of programs to assist minorities with recovery and reintegration.

We are working to revitalize historic minority areas, including assisting in protecting their cultural heritage. Our office helped organize a special training for religious minorities by the Smithsonian Institution in Erbil about cultural heritage protection, and we recently announced a $500,000 grant to help stabilize the Tomb of Nahum in Al Qosh.

And we are working on the most basic of needs. In March, for example, the Mines Advisory Group (MAG) deployed five new U.S.-funded demining teams in southern Sinjar. This brought the total number of U.S.-funded demining teams currently deployed in Sinjar to 11, which is more than any other international donor. These teams are playing a pivotal role in facilitating the restoration of critical infrastructure, access to fertile farmland, and safe return of Yezidi communities displaced by ISIS.

Our support for Iraqi minorities is in line with our broader support for all Iraqis who are recovering from the destruction of ISIS. U.S. assistance for Iraq’s minority communities — and for all Iraq’s communities liberated from ISIS — includes life-saving humanitarian assistance, restoring access to essential services, rehabilitating critical infrastructure, psychosocial and legal services, promoting reconciliation, support for justice and accountability efforts.

Of course the road will be difficult. Considering these challenges, we are mindful of how time is working against us to restore the rich tapestry of religious and ethnic communities. While in Iraq three weeks ago, I met with ambassadors in Baghdad representing our closest partners about ways we can accelerate reforms to help move Iraq forward.

The top issue is security for minorities in their towns and villages. We do not want minorities to return home to insecure areas. Consequently, we are encouraging and calling on the Iraqi government at the highest levels to quickly work to reassert central government control over minority areas and to remove the militias that are occupying minority towns and villages. Lack of security slows the number of Christians returning home to towns north and east of Mosul. And Sinjar remains extremely difficult for Yezidis to return to due to ongoing restrictions on use of the road between Dohuk and Sinjar, the presence of PKK-sympathetic forces and other militias, and the persistent threat of Turkish military strikes. Because of this reality, we are also working to see that minorities can integrate locally if and when they choose to do so. Helping minority communities stay in Iraq — their home country for a millennia or more — is an important next step while the security issues in their traditional homelands are resolved.

While ISIS is removed, the crisis is not over for minorities if ISIS members are not held accountable. U.S. assistance was key in seeing the first exhumations of mass Yezidi graves, and we appreciate the leadership of Karim Khan, head of the UN Investigative Team. And, justice means more than perpetrators being tried for terrorism as a crime against the Iraqi state. It means where possible convicting ISIS members for their crimes against individual Iraqi minorities in Iraq — torture, kidnapping, rape, enslavement, and murder. The new legislation introduced by President Barham Salih to help Yezidi women who survived ISIS captivity is a good start.

In neighboring Iran, however, the news is less encouraging. Every day, men and women suffer persecution because of their religious beliefs. Members of Iran’s Baha’i, Christian, Jewish, Zoroastrian, and Sunni and Sufi Muslim communities are targeted regularly by the regime. They face widespread discrimination, harassment, and unjust imprisonment. Blasphemy, apostasy from Islam, and proselytization of Muslims are punishable by death. The regime actively promotes anti-Semitism internally and exports its abroad.

The Iranian regime subjects Bahai’is to a level of repression unmet anywhere else in the world for that community. In October, Human Rights Watch reported Iranian authorities arrested more than 20 Baha’is over the course of two months. As of February, there were reportedly more than 70 arbitrarily detained Baha’is in Iran. As the State Department has previously reported, the Iranian regime routinely employs anti-Baha’i rhetoric, closes Baha’i businesses, and denies Baha’is access to basic services like education.

In addition, hundreds of Gonabadi Sufis have been imprisoned under spurious charges following protests in February 2018, and their 92-year-old spiritual leader, Dr. Noorali Tabandeh, remains under house arrest. In addition to long prison terms, the regime has subjected Gonabadi Sufis to other forms of cruel punishments such as floggings and internal exile. Human Rights Watch described these repressive actions as “one of the largest crackdowns against a religious minority in Iran in a decade.”

And the regime continues to target evangelical Christians and traditional Christian communities. In November and December 2018, Iranian security services arrested numerous Christians — reportedly including 114 Christians in one week alone — in raids on house churches across the country. The organizations believed the purpose of the wave of arrests was to warn Iranian Christians about sharing their faith over Christmas. In February 2019, Middle East Concern reported the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) arrested several “Church of Iran” members, who remained in detention.

We call on Iran to release these prisoners of conscience and give Iranians the freedom to peacefully practice the faith of their choice, or no faith at all.

The path ahead in the Middle East will be difficult. Religious minorities there and around the world are under pressure, if not outright attack. The horrific bombings targeting Christians during Easter in Sri Lanka demonstrate the lengths evil people will go to attack “the other.” We saw the same evil mindset cause carnage in Christchurch with an attack against Muslims worshiping in mosques and here in the United States with an attack against Jews worshiping at synagogues in Pittsburgh and San Diego.

To see durable success against hatred and to prevent human rights abuses, like-minded governments, civil society groups and religious communities must work together to protect religious freedom and defend religious minorities.

This commitment to working with partners is why Secretary Pompeo convened the first ever Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom last July around the joint goal of finding ways that governments and civil society can work together to protect religious freedom around the world. We hosted representatives from 84 governments at the Department of State, as well as the European Union, OSCE, Organization of American States, and United Nations. Recognizing the importance of including members of civil society and religious communities, over 400 NGOs and religious figures attended. We also invited survivors of persecution, to ground our discussions in the cold, hard reality of the repression they faced.

I was particularly moved by the survivors from Iran we invited to speak, two Christian converts and a member of the Baha’i community.

The presence of these brave survivors made clear the need for the first-ever Ministerial. Persecution occurs in too many places everyday: ongoing repression of and atrocities against Rohingya Muslims in Burma, the brutal Chinese crackdown on Uighur Muslims, Tibetan Buddhists, and Christians, attacks by terrorists on Christians and other minorities in Iraq and Pakistan, authoritarian repression of Baha’is in Iran and now Yemen, and all faiths in North Korea. In addition, there is a rising tide of anti-Semitism around the world. Overall, studies show limitations on religious freedom by state and non-state actors at all-time highs, impacting 83% of the global population.

At the conclusion of the Ministerial, the Secretary wanted to directly address particularly severe violations of religious freedom, and we issued special statements cosigned by other countries on Iran, Burma, China, highlighting their gross repression and human rights violations.

Never before had ministers convened to focus on advancing religious freedom for all. And yet our work is not done and repression persists. In this effort, the United States cannot and should not do this alone, which is why Secretary Pompeo announced he will convene the second Ministerial in Washington on July 16–18.

And while the challenges are great and seemingly increasing every day, so is our resolve to confront persecution.

As I said, religious persecution is as old as human history, but for the first time in history we are seeing a global effort to stop persecution, to defend religious minorities, to promote freedom of religion or belief. We have our own country’s commitment now being joined by other nations. More than 10 other counties and international organizations have special ambassadors or focal points on religious freedom.

We have new funding and resources. At the Ministerial we launched two new initiatives: the International Religious Freedom Fund (I-ReFF) and the Genocide Recovery and Persecution Response Program, both aimed at bringing new resources to assist persecuted individuals or their advocates. In addition, to equip NGOs for greater impact, we conducted special trainings on how to successfully apply for grants. We also challenged likeminded governments that support religious freedom, as set out in Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, to take new actions, with several doing so. While a successful opening effort, our work has only just begun.

Persecution on account of religion or belief remains a daily reality for millions around the world. Could we see in our lifetime’s religious freedom enjoyed by people of all faiths and none everywhere around the world? It is an audacious question. But we must try. Could we actually move religious persecution to the dustbin of history? It is a seemingly intractable problem. But we must try. We must not grow weary.

Why should we try? It demonstrates American values and projects American leadership. We should try because it is practical: countries where minorities are protected and religious freedom respected are more stable, prosperous and less likely to generate violent extremism.

And we should try to give hope to the families of those killed by ISIS in Iraq — Yezidi, Christian, Shia, and others. I met with Nadia Murad in my office on Friday. We must try. We must try so that the lives lost in Christchurch, Colombo, and San Diego are not lost to hate in vain. I visited churches in Colombo last March, and I was so impressed that Muslims (who face many challenges) were advocating for Christian protections. We must try so that believers imprisoned in China and the other gulags around the world know they have advocates and do not lose hope.

Vice President Pence said it well at the Ministerial: “As we labor, we can take confidence from the determination of the nations gathered here to advance a cause of religious liberty. Our cause is just. We’re advancing the first freedom that is essential to the people of all of our nations and to the world.”

In closing, the challenges confronting members of religious minorities are great. Every faith is a minority somewhere, and members of every faith are facing threats to their religious freedom. These challenges will not recede if we are silent or inactive. The United States is working in common cause with likeminded governments and non-governmental organizations. That’s why we appreciate the ADL’s new Task Force of Middle East Minorities and Sharon Nazarian’s leadership. We are building an alliance around the value of religious diversity and freedom of belief. So let us redouble our efforts to confront religious persecution, intolerance including anti-Semitism, as well as to find new ways to advance religious freedom for all.

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