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An Iraqi Christian fleeing the violence in the towns of Qaraqush and Bartala prays at the Saint George church on July 1, 2014 in Arbil.(KARIM SAHIB/AFP/Getty Images)

ISIS Is on the Verge of Expelling Northern Iraq's Religious Minorities

Nina Shea

The Islamic State, formerly known as ISIS, is continuing its two-month-old rampage across northern Iraq’s large, multi-cultural Nineveh province, intensifying religious cleansing and further consolidating its power. Nineveh’s Assyrian Christians report that Sunnis from throughout Iraq – including some from Kurdistan — have joined the some 10,000 jihadists to fight under the black banner of the Islamic State.

While much attention is being given to the destruction of Nineveh’s ancient monuments, the suffering of the province’s religious minorities at the hands of the jihadists is being given short shrift by both the media and our political leaders. Individual lives and entire civilizations are being destroyed, not in conflict – there hasn’t been much — but through the deliberate convert-or-die policies of the Islamist extremists.

To date, neither President Obama nor Secretary Kerry has mentioned the epic humanitarian and human-rights catastrophe underway in this large agricultural province that for over a millennium has been home to Christians, Yazidis, and various ethnic Sunnis and Shiites. The U.S. has provided humanitarian aid in the wake of each attack, but the Islamic State’s siege of Nineveh requires immediate additional measures to protect Iraq’s uniquely vulnerable minorities.

In a rout of Kurdish peshmerga forces this past weekend, the Islamic State captured Shinjar, home to the Yazidi minority, two other smaller towns, and an oil field.

The United Nations’ envoy to Iraq, Nickolay Mladenov, has warned that a “humanitarian tragedy is unfolding in Sinjar,” as some 200,000 people, including many Yazidis, have fled to the mountains, where the humanitarian situation is “dire.”

The New York Times reported that one Yazidi worker said he escaped through the hospital window while being shot at when Islamic militants burst in, demanding to know his religion. Hundreds of civilian Yazidi families were reported rounded up and the men were executed and their widows made “jihad wives.” According to the Hammurabi Human Rights Organization (HHRO), working in north Iraq, more than 50 Yazidi children have died.​

Yazidi Prince Tahseen Said has issued a desperate appeal for help to President Obama, among other world leaders, but no response has been received.

The Yazidi religion is an ancient, pre-Christian monotheistic faith that reveres angels, is linked to Zoroastrianism, and is viewed by the Islamic State as an intolerable affront to Islam. Like the Christians, Yazidis have been subjected to horrific persecution by extremists in recent years, including a recent incident related to me by the Yazidi Human Rights Organization, in which Isis plucked out the eyes of 13 Yazidi men who refused to convert to Islam and then, when they still refused, doused them with gasoline and burned them alive.

The horrors deepened on Monday, when jihadists entered the village of Tel Kepe. With the Islamic State’s persecution of Mosul’s Christians fresh in mind, Assyrian Christians from there, the village of Batnaya, and other villages north of Mosul immediately fled by car to the Kurdish border. It appears that Qaraqosh, a majority Assyrian-Christian town of 50,000 in Nineveh, will be attacked, if not next, then soon.

With tens of thousands of Yazidis facing imminent threat, a likely attack on Iraq’s largest Christian town, the lives of many thousands of various minorities in play throughout Nineveh, and a dam that could be used by the Islamic State to flood Mosul and Baghdad up for grabs, the U.S. government needs to act fast. It should immediately do the following three things:

Respond to the Kurds’ desperate plea for arms in their defense of Nineveh, which borders on but is not part of Kurdistan. In an emergency meeting on Nineveh called by House speaker John Boehner last week, protection was identified as the most pressing concern, even more than humanitarian aid, by a variety of aid and rights groups The administration withholds arms from the Kurds while awaiting a new, unified Iraqi government with a new prime minister. Meanwhile, Iraqi troops abandoned Mosul to the Islamic State on June 10 and no Iraqi army troops are in Nineveh province now. Yesterday, Iraqi’s current prime minister ordered air support to help the Kurds, but Baghdad has reportedly not paid Kurdish soldiers, now spread very thin, for six months.

Warn local populations of impending attacks; establish regular communications with vulnerable local minorities. An advance evacuation warning could enable an orderly exit of residents ahead of jihadist attacks. When the Islamic State took Shinjar on Sunday, thousands of civilians fled into the nearby mountains, where aid will not reach them. When the group attacked Mosul on June 9, the city’s residents were taken unaware and half a million panicked civilians fled in chaos. Later some of them, including Christians and Shiites, returned, apparently unaware of the Islamic State’s convert-or-die policy in Syria, only to be stripped of their possessions and expelled penniless a few weeks later. Generally, communications between Nineveh residents and the international community need strengthening. As the situation deteriorates, aid delivery will become ever more difficult for aid agencies based in the Kurdish capital, requiring regular communications with local minority representatives inside Nineveh.​

Assist resettlement within the country of displaced religious minorities. As Iraq fractures along religious and ethnic lines, the Christians, Yazidis, Mandeans, and other small minorities need help to resettle in places where they can restart their lives. Baghdad facilitated an airlift to evacuate Shabak and Turkmen Shiites and resettle them in Najaf after Mosul fell, but Mosul’s displaced Christians and Yazidis have had to rely on the hospitality of nearby villages, which themselves are struggling under the burden and with acute water shortages created by the jihadists. As the Islamic State takes more Nineveh towns, there will be less local hospitality available and more displaced mendicants. Consulting with local religious and political leaders, Washington should start now to help coordinate resettlement within Iraq for the Christians and Yazidis who have no area of refuge. A safe haven within Nineveh that can be realistically protected, as some Assyrians are calling for, should be considered. The Kurdish Regional Government has generously invited to take in the Christians without confining them to camps. Basra, where there is already a Christian presence, might be another possibility. In each case, these thousands of displaced minorities, many of whom are skilled professionals, will need help to get restarted. If such assistance is not soon in coming, religious diversity will be another of the Islamic State’s conquests, as members of the small minorities continue to leave the country. Of course, in dire cases, France’s offer of asylum to Nineveh’s Christians should be taken up and assistance for this is also needed.

The Islamic State’s bombing of Jonah’s tomb and the historic mosque surrounding it two weeks ago was a significant cultural loss. But now the West must recognize that a horrific crime against humanity is taking place against Christians, Yazidis, and others right now in Nineveh. The leadership of the Obama administration is urgently needed, and the average American can freely speak up to demand it.

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