Joint Subcommittee Hearings: Attacks Against Religious Minorities in Syria and Iraq

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Tom Malinowski,  Anne Richard, and Thomas Staal
Tom Malinowski, Anne Richard, and Thomas Staal

On September 10, 2014, US House Committee on Foreign Affairs held a joint subcommittee hearing to address atrocities committed by ISIS against religious minorities in Iraq and Syria. Christians were often the main focus, however, testimonies shed light on the plight of other minorities, such as Yazidis, Shabaks, and Shia Turkmen. Many organizations believe that nearly all Christians and Yazidi in ISIS-controlled areas are displaced. At least 300,000 Turkmen Shia have been displaced. In just one week in August, 200,000 Yazidis from the Sinjar District fled. Over 100,000 Christians are hiding out in the Kurdish region, which host more than one million people, made up of Iraqi and Syrian refugees.

Protection of Religious & Ethnic Minorities

“Among ISIL’s clear ambitions is the destruction of Iraq’s rich religious heritage and ethnic diversity and absolute subjugation of all people within its reach.” -Assistant Secretary Tom Malinowski

Assistant Secretary Malinowski testified that about a week after their invasion of Mosul in June, ISIS intensified their religious persecution. Christians were barred from working public sector jobs, churches and offices were looted, and Yazidis were kidnapped and held at ransom, subjected to torture, and brutally executed. An ultimatum was issued in Mosul: minorities had to convert, pay a special tax, vacate the city, or face death.

ISIS also recently advanced into Sinjar, terrorizing its large Yazidi population. Kurdish peshmurga retreated and left Yazidi civilians with no way of defending themselves. Hundreds were killed and tens of thousands were stranded on Mount Sinjar, often dying of thirst or exposure.

Women and children are at particular risk for abuse and violence. There are reports from Sinjar, Tel Afa, Bashir sub-district, Mosul, Ninevah plain and Amerli about kidnapping, harassment, and assault of women and children. Women have been sold into sexual slavery, murdered, and forced into conversion of Islam. Many women and young girls have been forced to marry ISIS members.

Humanitarian Assistance for Displaced Iraqis

“The U.S. government is very focused on ending ISIL’s reign of terror and ensuring protection and access to humanitarian assistance for all its victims.” -Assistant Secretary Tom Malinowski

In June, the UNHCR announced that for the first time since World War II, the number of refugees, asylum seeks and displaced persons across the world exceeds 50 million people.  ISIS has caused an estimated 1.8 million Iraqis to flee and they are dispersed in more than 1,600 places across Iraq and in neighboring countries. IDPs remain mobile as families perpetually must flee as safe havens quickly become battle grounds. Before ISIS’s 2014 campaign of violence, UNHCR reported more than 91,000 Iraqis as registered refugees in neighboring countries. By the end of August, this number had increased by at least 50,000.

The displaced of Iraq are facing an extreme lack of basic necessities, such as clean water, food, and shelter, especially as winter approaches. Relief items also include mattresses, blankets, fans, kitchen sets, jerry cans, and hygiene kits. The World Food Program has served five million hot meals in field kitchens in the Dohuk and Erbil governorates, benefiting 218,000 people each day. On August 7th, President Obama authorized humanitarian aid for those trapped on Mount Sinjar, dropping more than 114,000 meals and 35,000 gallons of water between August 8th through 13th. When ISIS besieged Amerli for 70 days to starve the Shia Turkmen population, the U.S. military, UK, Australia, and France dropped more than 7,000 meals and 10,545 gallons of water. On August 19th, UNHCR cargo jets arrived in Erbil with 100 tons of emergency relief supplies.

45 percent of Iraqis IDPs are living in public buildings, camps, unfinished buildings, parks, and on roadsides. Many IDPs are living in school’s, preventing children from attending as the summer comes to an end. UNHCR is constructing 26 camps for IDPs, making existing buildings suitable for winter conditions, and providing cash disbursements to displaced people paying for hotel rooms and apartments.

The UN Embassy in Baghdad and Consulate in Erbil are working with humanitarian organizations to make sure all displaced Iraqis can have access to aid. The U.S. and the UN headquarters are working together to increase the speed of delivery of aid. UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres has described the crisis as, “The largest single aid push we have mounted in more than a decade.”

The U.S. committed $12.8 million in June to support international aid efforts, making the total U.S. government humanitarian spending for Iraqis more than $138 million for the fiscal year 2014. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia contributed an astounding $500 million to the UN in June to help fleeing Iraqis. Despite this funding, it is predicted that additional resources will be needed in the near future. The UN will release a revised version of their Strategic Response Plan in late September to address the growing humanitarian crisis, create a long-term strategy, and outline financial needs. Early talks estimate that this plan may cost the international community more than $1 billion.

Sustainable & Inclusive Governance

“We are working to support Iraq as it strives to form a new non-sectarian government which ensures that all individuals, including members of Iraq’s diverse and historic communities, receive equal protection under the law and the human rights to which they are entitled.” -Senior Deputy Assistant Administrator Thomas Staal

The U.S. has been pushing the Iraqi government and the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) to protect Iraqis citizens, especially vulnerable minority populations, and working to build a coalition with governments supporting the Government of Iraq.

Ambassador Peter W. Galbraith recommended in his testimony that the U.S. not rely on creating a more inclusive Iraqi Government, arguing that religious differences in a polarized Iraq cannot be successful.

Religious Freedom versus Extremism 

“The solution for the Iraqis displaced by ISIS is not to offer them passage out of the country, but to remove the threats to them, whether from ISIS or from their neighbors who collaborated with ISIS, and stabilize the region, providing civil and economic security.”   -Pascale Warda, President of Hammurabi Human Rights Organization, Iraq

The Islamic fundamentalism of ISIS is viewed as the root of the crisis that must ultimately be destroyed. Thomas Farr, the Director of the Religious Freedom Project of Georgetown University’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs, testified that military force alone “cannot kill the religious ideology that created and sustains ISIS” and other extremist groups. Focusing primarily on Christians, Farr argued that both Christians and Muslims would suffer from the eradication of Middle Eastern Christians. Farr claimed that even though the US has made promoting religious freedom an important part of its foreign policy, 76 percent of the world’s population lives in countries where religious freedom is highly or very highly restricted. The Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom needs more access to resources and authority to promote religious freedom in the region.

(Full Hearing Part 1)

(Full Hearing Part 2)

 

Full testimonies