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  • Writer's pictureKnox Thames

The struggle of Yazidis and a connection to metro Detroit

OPINION Nov. 16, 2016 I arrived in Lalish in northern Iraq after a three-hour ride from Erbil, in a gradual northwesterly arc taken to avoid Da’esh-occupied Mosul in August 2016.  I made the trip in my official capacity as special advisor for religious minorities in the Near East and South/Central Asia at the U.S. Department of State to commemorate the second anniversary of the horrific atrocities Da’esh committed against the Yazidi people.  The Yazidis are a small, ancient community that recently rose to global prominence due to the horrific violence committed against them.  After the commemoration ceremony, we met with survivors and other families.  I will never forget one Yazidi man who gave me a five page list of kidnapped family members, including his five sons, five daughters, and 33 other relatives. In March of this year, I visited metro Detroit and learned how many residents know these and similar stories all too well, due to their many personal connections to Iraq and the region. Perhaps unlike anywhere else in the United States, the Detroit area has a unique and clear understanding of the atrocities inflicted by Da’esh against minorities. We at the State Department are also aware of this suffering. Because of this, the United States is working to address the needs of Yazidis, Christians, Sunnis, Shi’a, and other religious and ethnic groups victimized by Da’esh. First and foremost, we are supporting Iraqi efforts to defeat Da’esh militarily, so they cannot repeat these atrocities. Yazidi villages were liberated earlier this year, and current Mosul operations have freed Christian villages in the surrounding Ninewa Plains. We are encouraged by the sights of Christians ringing church bells and holding mass for the first time in two years. The military campaign is supported by diplomatic efforts. In March 2016, Secretary of State John Kerry said that, in his judgment, Da'esh was responsible for genocide in areas under its control, including against Yazidis, Christians and Shia Muslims. To build international support for minorities, we convened a major international conference in July that brought together civil society, religious leaders, faith communities, and diplomats to identify gaps in assistance and to devise concrete responses to more effectively support religious and ethnic minorities victimized by Da'esh. More than 30 nations attended, as well as representatives of the European Union, several UN offices, and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation. The U.S. government is working right now in Iraq to meet the immense challenges facing these communities.  State Department assistance programs continue to help members of religious and ethnic minorities and all Iraqis defend their human rights.  We continually emphasize the importance of ensuring that members of religious and ethnic minorities are treated as equal citizens with equal rights, and given a voice in governance.  We are training, advising, and assisting Iraqi Security Forces drawn from all components of Iraqi society, while supporting Iraq-led efforts to enable local forces – including minorities – to secure territory reclaimed from Da’esh.  Going forward, the major priority will be identifying and implementing security and governance arrangements that allow all Iraqis to feel they are safe and have a voice.  The UnitedStates and the international community are committed to working with our Iraqi partners to ensure we can achieve this crucial goal. To support efforts aimed at justice for victims of mass atrocities, we are supporting efforts to collect, document, and analyze evidence, and will support efforts to see that the perpetrators are held accountable. Our programs fund work that is gathering testimonies from survivors of atrocities, as well as using satellite imagery to search for mass graves in Da'esh controlled territory. Recognizing how heritage sites and ancient places of worship represent the deep bonds minorities have to their ancestral lands, we are launching new partnerships with institutions such as the Smithsonian Institution to educate religious and ethnic minorities about protecting their religious and cultural heritage. The United States is responding to the violence and horrific actions taken in opposition to religious diversity in Iraq and elsewhere in the region. While the future is uncertain, I have witnessed examples of increasing religious tolerance during my travels across the region. It can happen, but requires a steadfast commitment to defend diversity of thought and belief and minority rights. It is our firm belief that countries that respect and protect religious pluralism are stronger, more prosperous, and more progressive. The protection of religious minorities is a foreign policy priority of the U.S. government. However, this work is not easy. But as we pursue this goal with our Iraqi partners, the United States is actively working to defeat Da’esh, to prevent further atrocities and defend members of religious and ethnic minorities, to support respect for religious freedom and related human rights, and to recreate conditions that value diversity and religious pluralism. Knox Thames is special advisor for religious minorities in the Near East and South/Central Asia at the U.S. Department of State.

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