Religious Minorities Face Uncertain Fate in Syria and Iraq
In 2014, the crimes committed by Daesh (also referred to as Islamic State or ISIS) shook the world. Daesh has committed mass atrocities, including “murder, enslavement, deportation or forcible transfer of population, severe deprivation of physical liberty, torture, rape, sexual slavery, sexual violence and persecution.” These atrocities amount to crimes against humanity, and because they were perpetrated against the protected groups (here, religious group) with intent to annihilate them in whole or in part, the atrocities amount to genocide.
While the Daesh genocide perpetrated against Christians, Yazidis, and other religious minorities is an extreme example of religious persecution, it sheds light on the perils religious minorities have been encountering more generally in the Middle East. Even before the emergence of Daesh, religious minorities faced significant difficulties. Many Iraqi Christians named 2003, when Saddam Hussein fell, as the event that changed their position in Iraqi society. Under Hussein’s dictatorship, despite some challenges, many religious minorities had a decent life, I was informed. After the fall, discrimination and persecution became part of their lives. During my interviews with Iraqi Christians, I was told about single occurrences of killings, kidnappings for ransom, assaults, threats, and individual cases of forced displacement. Such cases of discrimination and persecution were not unusual for the post-Hussein Iraq. However, they were not systematic or conducted on a mass scale.
With the emergence of Daesh, portraying itself as a legitimate state, with its own courts, flag, and currency, the jihadists wanted to ultimately establish a purely Islamic states across North Africa and West Asia. The rewritten world map that Daesh released in 2014 will remain a warning of what it could have been without the military efforts of so many states that managed to (more of less) restrain Daesh to two countries (with some smaller presence in Egypt, Libya etc., however, not to the same extent as in Syria and Iraq).
In 2014, Daesh began taking over parts of Iraq and Syria and established a self-proclaimed caliphate. Around this time news started circulating about what life under the Daesh “caliphate” would look like. Most notable were videos and photographs of beheadings or burning people in metal cages. During my trip to Iraq and Jordan, I spoke to many Iraqi Christians about their situation before and after Daesh. They all were very clear that after Daesh began to take over their villages and towns and established the self-proclaimed caliphate, their lives as Christians ceased to exist. Daesh fighters destroyed churches and places of worship, burnt all Bibles and religious books, and broke crosses. Daesh wanted to destroy all signs of Christians ever living in the area.
As the brutality of the Daesh atrocities against religious minorities was unprecedented in the 21st century, the world finally became concerned about the fate of religious minorities in the Middle East. Over the last roughly three years, 68 states have engaged in military actions against Daesh in Syria and Iraq. The Council of Europe, European Parliament, the US Congress and Secretary of State, the UK House of Commons, and the Parliaments of Lithuania, Australia, Canada, France, and Austria, formally recognized the Daesh atrocities as genocide. Some states offered to resettle the persecuted groups, most notably, the Canadian government pledged to relocate 1,200 Yazidis. Other actions to address the Daesh atrocities in Syria and Iraq in general and against religious minorities specifically are still at very early stages.
While Daesh is losing territories in Syria and Iraq, there is some fallacy in speaking of post-Daesh. The same applies to the debates of “before Daesh”. The militia that ultimately became known as Daesh has been in the region for years. The origin of Daesh reaches back to 1999, when Abu Musab al-Zarqawi funded the Jama’at al-Tawhid wal-Jihad that later become what we know as Daesh. The two major events that shaped the group were also the 2003 invasion of Iraq and the 2011 Arab spring. However, the act of Daesh establishing so-called “caliphate” in many parts of Syria and Iraq marked a new era in the history of the region. A terror group of unprecedented size and unprecedented international support of foreign fighters took the Syrian and Iraqi lands piece by piece, unabated.
Also, soon Daesh in its current form may be defeated, but this does not mean that its narrative will be defeated. Their mentality may survive the military action and re-manifest itself the next time circumstances in the region allows, for example, during a civil war, because of fragility and instability in the area.
To prevent such re-manifestation of the Daesh narrative, states must ensure that they enable and accommodate interfaith dialogue among all religious groups, strengthen the interfaith cooperation, and actively overcome the Daesh narrative of countering religious pluralism or the “us against them” narrative. This is not an easy task as the communities are torn. However, to ensure that the threat to the existence of religious minorities is overcome, all communities must work together towards a sustainable solution. The need for reconciliation and interfaith dialogue has never been greater, as right now the fate of Christians and other religious minorities in the Middle East is uncertain.
Ewelina U. Ochab is a human rights advocate and author of the book Never Again: Legal Responses to a Broken Promise in the Middle East. Ochab works on the persecution of minorities around the world, with main projects including Daesh genocide in Syria and Iraq, Boko Haram atrocities in West Africa, and the situation of religious minorities in South Asia. Ochab has written over 30 UN topical reports (including Universal Periodic Review reports) and has made oral and written submissions at the Human Rights Council sessions and the UN Forum on Minority Issues. Ochab is currently working on her Ph.D. in international law, human rights and medical ethics.
Photo Credit: Daesh Vandalism at a church in Quaragosh, Iraq. Photo provided by Ewelina U. Ochab.