The second Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom was held in Washington DC and the message was clear: Christians and Yazidis in Iraq are feeling more secure, many are returning to their homes, and they have the Trump administration to thank for it. Nearly 900 religious leaders and activists attended the event hosted by Ambassador Sam Brownback and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. Also in attendance were persecuted Uighurs, Yazidis, and Andrew Brunson, the American pastor who was imprisoned in Turkey for nearly two years. Pompeo expressed his hopes that this summit will help aid support of Christianity and the religiously persecuted in general:
“We hope that this new vehicle — the first-ever international body devoted to this specific topic – will build on efforts to date and bring like-minded countries together to confront challenges of international religious freedom. It will provide a space for the work that we do here to flourish throughout the year.”
The Iraqi Connection
In December 2018, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, warned that Christians were facing “imminent extinction” in the Middle East. He said that the daily threat of murder was getting worse, not better, and that the situation is now worse than the Mongol invasions of the 13th century.
The Yazidis have borne the brunt of ISIS’s genocidal campaign that began in 2014. Nobel Peace Prize recipient Nadia Murad survived the jihadist group’s atrocities and spoke during the summit, stating that 350,000 Yazidis are still displaced in Iraqi Kurdistan while 3,000 of the women remain missing – many of them sold into sexual slavery.
The assistant administrator for USAID’s Middle East bureau, Michael Harvey, said that the Trump administration has already devoted $340 million to help support religious minorities in Iraq. Father Thabet Habib Youssef is a Chaldean Catholic priest from Karamles in the Nineveh Governorate. Nineveh is the historical homeland of Iraqi Christians and also holds the largest concentration of religious minorities in the country. Father Youssef thanked President Trump and his administration for the efforts to save Christianity.
“I wish to give thanks to the government of the United States for including us in this important conference and a special thanks to the administration of President Trump for his concern and commitment to the persecuted minority communities in Iraq.
I can say this conference gives us hope. Our greatest fear in the early years was that the world would forget us. This conference tells us we are not forgotten.”
In 2016, the US liberated Karamles and nearly half of the Christian families who escaped have now returned. Youssef said he expects more to keep coming home with the aid provided by the United States. “Today we have 45 percent of our families returned, and we hope in this next year we will see many more,” he said.
Sinjar is the ancestral home of Yazidis in Nineveh. According to Haider Elias, president of the US-based global Yazidi non-governmental organization (NGO) Yazda, the town was destroyed by ISIS jihadists in 2014. But after ISIS was beaten back, security in the area has greatly improved.
As Elias explained at the summit:
“The security situation has changed for the better in the Sinjar area. ISIS has been defeated thankfully. Half of Yazidi lands used to be under ISIS control before the [Trump] administration took over and what has happened recently is every single Yazidi village has been liberated from ISIS.”
Hadi Pir, the vice president of the Yazda NGO, said that Yazidis are still facing the threat of genocide. Even though ISIS has been defeated militarily, they still have a lot of power and support. Like others during the summit, Pir praised the Trump administration for its help:
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“The US has always been a symbol of freedom for persecuted people around the world. If minorities like Yazidis and Christians would have vanished from the Middle East, it would show the world the United States is not invested in promoting its values and a lot of people would lose hope. But now that this administration has intervened, the hope is back.”