Religious minorities under Islamic State eye prospects after ‘genocide’ declaration

Alienation among the younger generation from their homelands and dealing with trauma among survivors of kidnapping and sex trafficking are only two of the issues facing religious minorities in their struggle against the Islamic State (IS), according to activists and foreign affairs specialists speaking at a recent conference. The May conference at Fordham University in New York, attended by RW, sought to address the prospects for religious minorities in Iraq and Syria, particularly after the U.S. State Department recently declared the Islamic State as genocidal. The March declaration was the first political statement to include all the “stakeholders” in the conflict—Christians, Muslims, and Yazidis, a syncretistic and mystical religion. The speakers stressed the growing generation gap among these groups about their future in their homelands. Haider Elias, president of Yazda, an international Yazidi advocacy group, said that younger Yazidis “don’t want to go back [to Iraq and Syria]. Most want to go to Europe or the U.S., because they say this is not the first time and it won’t be the last [time that they have faced persecution]. It’s not just ISIS; they’ve lost trust in the government and the surrounding community.” The Yazidi population, already less than one million throughout the world, has declined sharply in their home countries of Iraq and Syria, and 20 percent of them are in refugee camps.

Rev. Gewargis Sulaiman, a priest with the Assyrian Church of the East, likewise said that while members are more connected with the church, the younger generations have “lost their trust, even among the loyalists; they want a safe place to start their lives. People have lost faith in their own government and in the U.S. and Europe” in resolving the threat of the IS. Most of the speakers and specialists at the conference did not hold out much hope for international protective zones for these religious minorities or no-fly zones, although there was some distant hope that religious minorities could create self-determined communities. In Iraq, which received the most attention at the conference, there are five factions in the government working against each other, leading to the high of level of distrust, journalist Eliza Griswold said.

She also added that the need for reconciliation will be pressing, as neighbor has turned against neighbor over those who have cooperated with the Islamic State. The prospect of trauma in the return of many Yazidi women surviving kidnapping and sexual trafficking—often through family buying them back through undercover means—is real but is not as dire as feared, according to Elias. Highly respected Yazidi religious leaders have welcomed survivors back to the community, meeting with them in the faith’s shrines. “Spirituality has been just as effective as psychotherapy” for many of the returnees, he added. Douglas Padgett of the Office of International Religious Freedom of the U.S. Department of State closed the event by appealing for more assistance to relief organizations for the religious minorities and refugees, which has decreased sharply since 2014. He also held up the role of the churches and religious organizations in the region as they bypass governments and provide vital information about the condition of religious minorities to the State Department. Padgett added that secularists and other dissenting minorities also require assistance in their struggle against the IS.