Created as a provision of the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) has played a vital role in supporting those around the world who suffer for their beliefs, conscience, or religion. IRFA granted religious freedom priority in U.S. foreign policy. And the Commission’s robust reporting, strong advocacy for prisoners of conscience, and resources such as prisoner lists and the “Country of Particular Concern” system are essential tools to advance this fundamental human right.
But like freedom itself, of which President Ronald Reagan warned is always only one generation away from extinction, USCIRF seems to be always only months from extinction! Right now, without a continuing resolution or reauthorization, the Commission’s last day will be November 21. This cannot be allowed to happen and all concerned citizens should reach out to their U.S. Senators and urge them to reauthorize the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom immediately!
Another of USCIRF’s most valuable assets is holding hearings to highlight violations of religious freedom and the vulnerable communities that are being affected. Here is just one such example, reported by Scott Morgan of Confused Eagle, and IRD International Religious Liberty Program Director, Faith McDonnell:
On Thursday, September 26, 2019, the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) held a hearing regarding religious minorities in Iraq. The hearing, entitled “Religious Minorities’ Fight to Remain in Iraq” was held in the Russell Senate Office Building.
The Commission’s Chairman, Tony Perkins, and Vice-Chairs, Gayle Manchin and Nadine Maenza offered opening remarks. They then turned to two panels, a U.S. government witness panel and a civilian/NGO witness panel.
The goal of the hearing was to answer several key questions. The first and most important question: Was the environment within Northern Iraq (Kurdistan) stable and secure enough to allow some of those remaining in IDP camps to return home and reenter society? And is that what the Assyrians and Yezidis really want?
One of the NGO representatives who testified was Aaron Ashoff, the Deputy Director for International Projects at Samaritan’s Purse. Ashoff told the commissioners and other attendees:
Samaritan’s Purse conducted two large-scale assessments of minority populations in Iraq in 2017 and 2019. From thousands of survey interactions with IDPs and returnees, we heard again and again that minorities want to stay. They want to rebuild their lives because they feel a strong sense of belonging to their places of origin. It is an honor to help them return.
The answer to the question “is it safe” for them to return was, according to the witnesses, “not yet.” But there was testimony from Hallam Ferguson, Senior Deputy Assistant Administrator, Middle East Bureau, U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) regarding the Administration’s efforts to bring about conditions that would make it safe. USAID has many partners in the region. Ferguson announced the creation of three exciting initiatives in partnership with the Knights of Columbus, the Government of Hungary, and the Government of Poland.
Witnesses from the Yezidi and Assyrian communities presented evidence that despite the efforts to improve the situation there are still an estimated 280,000 people still classified as being refugees. The numbers of people that have left Iraq and have not ever returned are staggering as well.
One of the oldest Christian communities in the world is in limbo and, to borrow the phrase again, on the verge of extinction! This should be an affront to all those who share their faith.
Before the launch of Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003 there were an estimated 1.5 million Assyrians living in Iraq. Six years later, 2009, the numbers are believed to have dropped to roughly 500,000. Current numbers for 2019 place the total number of Assyrians still remaining in Iraq at around 300,000. Most of these people are trying to find a safe haven in the Nineveh Plain area.
Regarding another persecuted and oppressed minority group, the Yezidis, the most recent numbers were calculated in 2018. These calculations have the number still residing in Iraq at 500,000.
Disturbingly, official numbers from the UN High Commission on Refugees indicate that since the rise of ISIS in 2014 and the subsequent genocide, roughly 3,000 Yezidi – mostly women and children – are still unaccounted for. It is assumed that ISIS sold them into slavery.
Pari Ibrahim, Executive Director of the Free Yezidi Foundation, reminded those at the hearing of this horrific practice:
The other women and girls were literally sold on slave markets. That is not a metaphor. Until the fall of the ISIS caliphate, Yezidis were literally brought to physical slave markets, where ISIS members would buy and sell human beings at negotiated prices. Slave markets, in the 21st century. There were judges to approve the sale of human beings, documents to catalogue ownership and price, and paperwork to ensure the business of selling our women and girls. I am saying this to convey the systematic and organized nature of the sexual violence that was perpetrated, a fundamental part of the ISIS genocide against Yezidis. There has not been a single indictment, anywhere in the world, for those actions.
Yezidis have little trust for either the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) or the leadership in Baghdad because neither government has put in much effort to finding these innocent missing citizens. They continue to appeal to the United States government because, as witness Pari Ibrahim revealed, “The Yezidi community is grateful to the United States for its forceful voice and its commitment of resources in support of Yezidis and other religious minorities in Iraq.”
Another major issue for religious minorities in Iraq is the lack of opportunity to work. Both the Yezidis and Assyrian Christians have stated that they don’t need blankets or food parcels; they would rather have employment. Being able to provide for your family is one of the most important tasks in life. And a more stable family will also be able to freely worship, as well.
The hearing also confirmed that security is a major concern to both the religious minority community and to the donor community that is currently providing assistance. Both communities were particularly concerned about Iran’s proxy militias.
Currently there are two Popular Mobilization Units (PMU), the 30th and 50th brigades, in the region. These PMU’s, proxy militias with close ties to Tehran, were supposedly there to help defeat ISIS. But having them in an area that already has an autonomous government and a high concentration of displaced people is not a very “popular” idea at all. It is a recipe for disaster. And in areas of the Nineveh Plains under PMU control, the rate of return for Assyrians is only seven percent.
Elections are planned for the upcoming spring for governorships and other posts. Questions such as how will the refugee voices be heard are sure to arise. Providing opportunities for refugees and IDPs to participate can be done, but it will take a lot of effort and organization. One such successful effort with a Diaspora of millions voting was the referendum on secession for South Sudan.
There is another question related to the elections looming which is one which the people are already thinking. With the rising influence of Iran in Iraq’s national legislature, just how far is the country willing to go in extending Iran’s influence beyond its current level? During the hearing the recent actions and comments by Turkish President Erdogan were never mentioned. But Erdogan’s draconian tactics cannot be ignored.
It appears that despite positive rhetoric coming from both Baghdad and Irbil, assuring us that stability and prosperity are on the horizon, there is still a long way to go before Assyrian Christians, Yezidis, and other religious minorities can feel secure and safe back in their homeland.
It is not a hopeless situation, though. Assyrian Christian witness Reine Hanna from the Assyrian Policy Institute said, “the good news, however, is that it is not too late to act—and the policies necessary for Assyrians to survive are clear and actionable.”
Hanna revealed that “the communities of the Nineveh Plain are constantly referred to as the voiceless—but they have always had a voice.” The problem, Hanna continued, “is that no one is listening.”
Hopefully the USCIRF commissioners holding this hearing and listening to the voices and advice of all of the religious minorities will lead to the solutions that will allow them to win their fight to remain in Iraq.