Christian genocide in Iraq

Christians need help, deserve justice

The genocidal Islamic State is on its back foot in war-torn Iraq, and it is only a matter of time before the Islamist army is defeated by Iraqi and coalition forces.

Christians, Yezidis and Shia Muslims in Iraq have been targeted by the jihadists for extermination. Employing mass murder, rape and ethnic cleansing, the Islamic State has perpetrated crimes against humanity, genocide and war crimes.

Many in the news media and in government tend to overlook the suffering of Iraqi Christians. But the evidence is clear: Iraq’s ancient Christian community has been decimated by the Islamic State. And life on the run for the forgotten Christians is especially grim.

The certain defeat of the Islamic State—also known as ISIS, ISIL or Daesh--will not automatically turn the Muslim-majority country into a safe place for Christians. In fact, it is uncertain whether the followers of Jesus Christ even have a future in Iraq.

Many Iraqi Christians have fled the country and are now living lives of quiet desperation as refugees in neighbouring Jordan. “Their situation is desperate,” agreed genocide researcher and author Ewelina Ochab, who visited with Christian refugees in 2016.

“Some of the Iraqi Christians that I visited lived in very poor conditions,” she said. “They did not have a proper place to sleep, some slept on the floor. They did not have money for food, medication, clothes, and other basic needs. They cannot send their children to school. Their lives pass before their eyes, and they remain frozen in time in Jordan.”

Although the Canadian government has yet to formally recognize that Christians are victims of genocide in Iraq, Ochab has no doubt that Christians have been the targets of systematic atrocities in Iraq. And she says so in her 2016 book, Never Again: Legal Responses to a Broken Promise in the Middle East.

Assyrian Christians

Assyrians are the original indigenous people of Iraq, Syria and parts of Turkey. They are not Arabs. And their ancient community predates the establishment of Islam and even Christianity. Many Assyrians still speak Aramaic, one of the languages likely spoken by Jesus Christ.

The vast majority of Iraqi Christians are of Assyrian ethnicity. Within the Assyrian nation, there are a number of Catholic rites and Protestant denominations, including the Assyrian Church of the East, Chaldean (Roman Catholic), Syriac (Catholic and Orthodox), Presbyterian, as well as Evangelical.

In 2003, there were approximately 1.5 million Assyrians and other Christians in Iraq. Today, there are perhaps only 120,000 left.
“Religious leaders want them to stay, however, the Iraqi Christians have also lost their hope in their future in Iraq,” Ochab said of the persecuted. The Assyrians and other Christians who have fled Iraq “are exhausted with the situation and do not believe that this is going to improve anytime soon--or ever,” she added.

In June of 2014, as Islamic State forces gained territory in Iraq, Christians fled the northern city of Mosul, which was home to tens of thousands of Christians. And scenes of panic and mass exodus were repeated in August of that year, when the jihadists overran Quaragosh, Bartallah and other neighbouring Christian communities.

“The number of Christians killed is unknown,” said Ochab of the assaults on Christian strongholds.

It was against that backdrop that Ochab visited Jordan. “The idea behind the trip to Jordan was to meet with the refugees, obtain their testimonies, and ensure that the testimonies are delivered to the right bodies, for example, the United Nations,” she said.

Ochab spent most of her time in Amman, where she met with many Christian refugees. “Iraqi Christians are not in the refugee camps,” she said. “Some of them were afraid to go to refugee camps. They heard stories that Christians were being persecuted in refugee camps.”

Where are the refugees living in Amman? “Most of the Iraqi Christian refugees in Jordan live in private accommodation,” Ochab answered. “When they came to Jordan, they had some savings so they were able to afford the accommodation.”

However, when the money runs out, Christian refugees face especially hard times. “Now, over two years after coming to Jordan, their savings are gone,” Ochab said. Iraqi refugees are not allowed to work in Jordan. The situation is desperate. There is also no guarantee that they will be able to move to a safe haven anytime soon.”

Christian refugees

Christian refugees have medical needs that are not being met. “They are suffering from lack of medical treatment and medication,” Ochab said. “Also, many of them require psychological counselling.”

Were the Iraqi Christian refugees whom Ochab met in Jordan registered with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR)? “All of the Iraqi Christian refugees that I met were registered with the UNHCR,” replied. “They have the registration letter.”

Were those Christian refugees getting help from UNHCR? “They were not receiving any assistance from the UNHCR,” the genocide researcher alleged. “Some of them have been in Jordan for over two years. Their cases are not progressing at all.”

Are the Iraqi Christian refugees being well cared for by other UN agencies? “The Iraqi Christian refugees that I spoke to felt very neglected,” Ochab replied. “They could not understand why they were forgotten by the world.” And she said that the Christian refugees felt as though they were living in “limbo” and had “lost their hope for a better life.”

What does the UNHCR have to say in response to Ochab’s allegations? “We cannot respond specifically to the cases that you cite as there are not enough details,” answered UNHCR spokesperson Matthew Saltmarsh. “But we can assure you that UNHCR seeks to ensure religious minorities – including Iraqi Christians in Jordan -- are not excluded from the support that they need.”

According to Saltmarsh, “UNHCR encourages all of those who are forced to flee to register with us and we treat every individual who approaches us for support in the same way, with dignity and respect, regardless of their ethnicity or religion.”

Saltmarsh contends that refugees “from all backgrounds and nationalities--there are 42 nationalities registered with UNHCR in Jordan--can access services and protection after registration, including legal aid, financial assistance, access to medical care, education and durable solutions (for example resettlement) based on their protection needs and socio-economic vulnerabilities.”

As for the allegation of discrimination against Christians, the UNHCR representative claimed that the UN agency “is not aware of religious minorities being targeted or ill-treated as a result of their faith in Jordan or elsewhere.”

In addition, Saltmarsh declared that the UNHCR office in Jordan “has a very effective registration and case tracking methodology, including a complaints mechanism that is open to all refugees, including advocates on their behalf, if there is any suggestion of deliberate neglect or discrimination in any case.”

There is no doubt that UNHCR provides assistance to Iraqi refugees in Jordan. However, Saltmarsh acknowledged that “UNHCR does not break this down by religious group.” For example, UNHCR reports that “2,295 Iraqi families are currently receiving monthly financial assistance.” But Saltmarsh admitted that UNHCR could not provide “a breakdown based on religion.”


How does the UNHCR determine which refugees get resettled? Do they prioritize persecuted religious minorities and/or victims of genocide? “Determining which refugees will be referred by UNHCR for possible resettlement is based solely on the criteria of vulnerability, of which religion can be a factor,” said Saltmarsh.

The UNHCR says that it has referred a total of 72,700 Syrian and Iraqi Christians for resettlement since 2008. And since 2003, said Saltmarsh, “26% of all Syrians and Iraqis who were referred for resettlement by UNHCR were Christians or other minorities.”

In Canada, the Department of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship does not explicitly prioritize Christian victims of the Islamic State’s genocidal campaign.

“The Iraqi Christian refugees in Jordan are registered with the UNHCR and have been applying to Canada and Australia for asylum,” said Ochab. “They say that Canada and Australia are the only countries that actually consider their applications.

Nonetheless, they have been in Jordan for two years and there seem to be no hope of finding a permanent home.”

In addition, Ochab said that many of the Iraqi Christian refugees she met in Jordan “expressed their disappointment that many people, mostly Muslim, receive asylum to other countries, but no one is concerned with their fate. They do not understand why.”

After meeting with Iraqi Christian refugees in Jordan, Ochab concluded that they “require urgent assistance to be able to move on with their lives. “What struck me the most was that no one is interested in what these people have been through. They were unbelievably grateful to talk about their stories with me,” she said.
“They said that the rest of the world has forgotten about them,” continued Ochab. “However, another issue that resurfaced during my time in Jordan was the lack of organizations or bodies that would document the stories of the victims.”

Genocide and mass atrocities

Why is it important for the victims and survivors of genocide and mass atrocities to receive justice? “Justice is important for any society as it is the ultimate message that that society would not tolerate the crimes,” replied Ochab.

“In relation to crimes like genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes-- justice for the victims is elementary,” continued Ochab. “Without it, the impunity will beget the crime.”

“In November, I visited Iraq where I met Iraqi Christian internally displaced persons (IDPs) living in Erbil,” Ochab said. And she met with “a number of families” from Mosul and other communities. She also visited a number of liberated towns and villages, including Quaragosh, Karamless, and Bartallah.

In addition, the genocide researcher “also met with several NGOs helping Christians in the Middle East, including SOS Chretiens, a number of NGOs collecting the evidence of the Daesh atrocities, including Shlomo and Hammurabi Human Rights organisations, and a number of religious leaders.”

The ancestral home of Assyrian Christians is located on the Nineveh Plain in northern Iraq. “After Daesh took over Nineveh Plain in August 2014, Iraqi Christians fled to Erbil and other parts of Kurdistan,” explained Ochab.

“Hundreds of Iraqi Christians have left the region for Jordan, Lebanon, and other countries. However, there are still many internally displaced Iraqi Christians living in Kurdistan.”

According to Ochab, “there are four camps for Iraqi Christians in Erbil.” And she found that the displaced Christian are living in “small metal containers.” And she said that they are receiving “some humanitarian assistance” and are “reasonably safe.”

Ochab visited several northern towns and reports that they have been “destroyed” by Islamic State forces. “Daesh looted one house after another without leaving any stone unturned,” she said. “The houses, churches, schools, and shops are looted, burnt down, and damaged.”

The jihadists paid special attention to churches, desecrating them. “In every church that I have visited, crosses are broken, the statutes of Jesus and Holy Mary are destroyed, Holy Bibles and books burnt,” said Ochab. “The destruction sent a very clear message: Daesh specifically intended to destroy Christianity in the area and everything that Christianity is associated with. This is genocide.”

Government of Canada

“We are appalled by the atrocities and widespread abuses committed by Daesh, including those committed against religious and ethnic communities,” Kristine Racicot, spokesperson for Global Affairs Canada, stated in an email. “The Canadian government has repeatedly called for urgent action by the United Nations Security Council, and we are contributing $840M in humanitarian aid to assist the most vulnerable, including Yezidis.”

Is it important to bring to justice those Islamic State fighters who had a role in genocide and other crimes committed against Christians and Yezidis and Shia Muslims in Iraq? “Accountability is absolutely crucial to providing justice for victims, deterring violations, and promoting reconciliation,” replied Racicot.

“Canada has submitted letters to the UN Security Council calling for the investigation of violations of international law by Daesh,” said the Global Affairs representative. “Canada also supports the Commission for International Justice and Accountability gathering evidence of atrocities committed by Daesh, so we can ensure that individuals are held accountable.”

Islamic State fighters will supposedly not find safety in this country. “Canada will not be a safe haven for those involved in the commission of war crimes, crimes against humanity or genocide,” declared Racicot. “We consider all available remedies in specific cases after thorough investigations. All matters brought to the attention of government officials will be dealt with accordingly, including any of these allegations.”

Why is it important to pursue prosecutions of the perpetrators of genocide and mass atrocities in Iraq? “This is both a moral and a political question,” said mass atrocities and genocide prevention expert Simon Adams. “Victims and survivors deserve justice, no matter where and when these crimes were committed. There must be no sanctuary, anywhere in this world, for any perpetrator of mass atrocity crimes.”

However, there is more to the prosecution of the perpetrators of genocide and mass atrocities than just morality.

“On the practical political side of things, we know that holding perpetrators accountable for past atrocities is one of the best means we have of preventing the recurrence of these crimes in the future,” continued Adams, who is the executive director of the New York City-based Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect. “Impunity enables further impunity, but international justice can be contagious,”

Community of nations

A special event was held at the United Nations on Thursday, March 9, 2017 to highlight the importance of holding ISIS to account for genocide and mass atrocities. The event, dubbed The Fight against Impunity for Atrocities: Bringing Daesh to Justice, was chaired by Adams.

International lawyer Amal Clooney, who represents Yezidi victims of genocide, delivered an impassioned speech to the assembled UN ambassadors and representatives of nongovernmental organizations, urging Iraq and the UN to investigate the Islamic State’s atrocities and to hold the perpetrators to account.

Indeed, Clooney got it right when she told the UN that history will judge the community of nations harshly if it allows ISIS to get away with genocide.

What can members of the community of nations do to ensure that Islamic State fighters and leaders face justice? “First, if states can exercise jurisdiction over these alleged crimes, they should try these alleged perpetrators,” replied Noelle Quenivet, an associate professor in international law at the University of the West of England. “Unfortunately, there are many hurdles to mounting such a prosecution on the national level.”

Second, the law professor contends that countries can use the screening process in asylum cases to “discover whether individuals have been involved in such crimes.” However, she cautions that “one has to be cautious too as the questioning of asylum-seekers can be very traumatising and be directed at persons who have suffered enormously.”

Finally, Quenivet points out that “some ISIS perpetrators have been photographed or caught on video committing these crimes.” She said that “a database of such individuals could be used to simplify the task,” noting that “this is in fact how the perpetrator tried in Sweden was identified.”

Ochab agrees that the community of nations should focus on ensuring that the perpetrators of genocide and other mass crimes are brought to justice. “We cannot allow a situation that the individuals who have been committing or were complicit in mass atrocities including killings, rape, sexual violence, enslavement, and torture, will return to their old lives and move next door. Justice must be served,” she said.

Is evidence of genocide and other crimes committed by ISIS fighters currently being gathered in Iraq? According to Ochab, a number of nongovernmental organizations are doing just that. “Unfortunately, some of the information would not be admissible in the future national, regional or international tribunals,” said the genocide researcher.

“It is crucial that such evidence is gathered by a specially created independent mechanism,” she continued. “As the end of December 2016, it was announced that such a mechanism will be created for Syria to document all atrocities committed since 2011 by all actors, including Daesh.”

The United Nations is in the process of establishing a special investigative unit in Geneva to gather evidence to be used in the prosecution of war crimes committed in Syria, which has been engulfed in a bloody civil war for the past six years. According to a UN statement, the unit will “analyze information, organise and prepare files on the worst abuses that amount to international crimes.” And its focus will be “primarily war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide, and identify those responsible.”

However, no legal mechanism to address mass atrocity crimes has been set up for Iraq. “This should be the first task of the coalition to bring Daesh to justice,” Ochab said.

“Justice for the victims will send a message that one cannot try to destroy groups in the Middle East and escape responsibility for doing so--not in the 21st century,” said the genocide researcher.
However, Ochab warned that if a thorough investigation is not conducted and evidence gathered, the full extent of the atrocities perpetrated by ISIS will never be known.

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About the author

Special to ChristianWeek

Geoffrey P. Johnston is a Canadian rights journalist. Follow him on Twitter @GeoffyPJohnston.