Nina Shea: How to help Iraq's religious minorities

As Islamic State heads toward defeat in Iraq, Christian and Yazidi survivors of genocide should be returning to their hometowns in Nineveh province. Instead, these fragile minority communities mostly remain stranded at displacement shelters in Kurdistan without the means to rebuild their villages. Many are fleeing Iraq, and the country now risks losing these religious minorities entirely. The Trump administration is making the situation worse by continuing Obama policies that effectively exclude these non-Muslims from U.S. aid in Iraq.

Today there are fewer than 250,000 Christians in Iraq, according to the State Department, down from as many as 1.4 million before the 2003 invasion. These Christians speak Aramaic, like Jesus of Nazareth, and trace their faith to Thomas the Apostle, whose relics were spirited from Nineveh by Orthodox monks as ISIS approached. The Iraqi Jewish community, its roots in the Babylonian exile, was forced out over the past 70 years; fewer than 10 Jewish families remain in Baghdad. Yazidis—who have lived near the Sinjar Mountains—number about 400,000. Nadia Murad, the voice for thousands of Yazidis enslaved by ISIS, warned a congressional panel earlier this year that her people could soon disappear because of emigration. This would signal the end of Iraq’s indigenous non-Muslim communities.

Since fiscal 2014, the U.S. has provided $1.4 billion in humanitarian aid for Iraq, but very little of it has reached the beleaguered Christian and Yazidi communities. This is because the Obama administration decided to channel most of it through United Nations refugee and development agencies, a practice the new administration has continued. There is no protection for religious minorities in the U.N.’s overwhelmingly Muslim camps, and Christians and Yazidis are terrified of entering them. The U.N. doesn’t operate camps in Iraq for displaced Christians, and the international body has enough resources to shelter only half the Yazidis who congregate around Dohuk, in Iraqi Kurdistan. U.N. programs also exclude the local churches that struggle to care for these minorities, forcing them to raise aid on a piecemeal and insecure basis from other sources.

President Trump has spoken about the plight of Christians in the Middle East, but he has done little to effect change. Far lower percentages of Christians and Yazidis are returning from displacement to their homes in the devastated Nineveh Plains and Sinjar, respectively, compared with the larger religious groups in Tikrit, Fallujah and Mosul. The prior administration decided to have U.S. reconstruction assistance, now at $265 million since fiscal 2015, also flow through the U.N. The director of the U.S. Agency for International Development, Mark Green, started only last month and has not yet moved to change this policy. 

To continue reading Nina Shea's column in the Wall Street Journal, click here.

Nina Shea has worked as a lawyer specifically focusing on religious freedom in American foreign policy, for thirty years. Joining the Hudson Institute as a Senior Fellow in 2006, she has led the Center for Religious Freedom, which she founded in 1986, in its effort to defend religious freedom internationally.  She currently is a leader of a campaign for Christians threatened with genocide by ISIS.