Why Haven't Religious Minorities Returned to Iraq?
September 27, 2019
By Arielle Del Turco
Even after the fall of ISIS, Iraqis are still suffering from the genocide they've endured. In such a complex environment, what is the definition of "success" for U.S. involvement in Iraq? At a hearing on Religious Minorities' Fight to Remain in Iraq Thursday, hosted by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, Senior Deputy Assistant Administrator for the Middle East Bureau Hal Ferguson answered that success is "for people to return there and in that way, reverse the effects of genocide by ISIS."
Yet, the people that ISIS drove from their homes -- most of whom belong to a religious minority group -- haven't gone back. Approximately 120,000-150,000 Yezidis are still in refugee camps. Only 61,000 have returned so far. Iraqi Christians also haven't returned to their homes. Almost a million people from the Nineveh Plains, home to many Christian Assyrians, are still displaced today.
Iraqi provincial elections are scheduled in 2020, requiring that people return home to vote. Yet, many are still living as refugees, and they won't be home. Because religious minorities won't be there to vote, those in power (who are currently failing to provide solutions) will only consolidate power.
Why haven't religious minorities returned to Iraq? At Thursday's hearing, several witnesses offered their perspective, but they all answered this question the same. Iraq's religious minorities haven't returned yet because they still don't feel safe. Pari Ibrahim, Executive Director of Free Yezidi Foundation, testified at the hearing that "there is always one primary reason for not returning: security… for families to return, there must be reliable, non-discriminatory, sustained security for our people every day. Most families simply do not believe it." Lack of security is the biggest issue facing Iraq and it's also the biggest obstacle to religious freedom and pluralism there. The failure to provide security in Iraq and the consequences that has for religious freedom highlights the importance of ensuring security remains where we currently have some degree of religious freedom in the Middle East, such as in Northeast Syria -- something FRC has addressed before.
What can the U.S. do about this? President Trump can take a strong stance with the Iraqi government. Iraq must reign in its militias, or the U.S. should provide additional financial sanctions against the Iraqi government, while continuing the direct humanitarian and infrastructure work through USAID. This could likely provide the needed incentive as Iraq's government spending is exceeding revenue -- and they will need additional assistance soon.
What happens to the religious minorities in Iraq, which are many, is vitally important not only to Iraq's future but to the Middle East as a whole. If we fail to make Iraq secure, and religious minorities are unable to return to their communities and rebuild, Iraq may be destabilized in the long-term and unable to provide its religious minorities any hope of religious freedom. An insecure Iraq will also embolden Iran, a major problem both for U.S. interest and religious freedom in the Middle East.
In addition to the security threat facing Iraq and the religious minorities hoping to return home, U.S. government officials and private NGOs speaking at the USCIRF hearing recognized the importance of caring for traumatized religious minorities in post-ISIS Iraq. Yazda is an example of an organization doing important work providing humanitarian support and trauma treatment for victims of ISIS. Samaritan's Purse has also been active in Iraq, rebuilding over 1,000 homes and providing agricultural cash grants to farmers in the region. Ultimately, there is still much to be done in Iraq. However, there are actionable steps that the U.S. can take to help create an environment in which religious refugees can envision coming back to their Iraqi homeland. Ensuring security for religious minorities and holding Iraq's government accountable for that security are among the first.