In 2014, ISIS began to establish its “caliphate” in Syria and Iraq. This meant torture, forced displacement, sexual slavery and abuse, as well as forced conversions, looting, the destruction of churches and many other horrors besides. There was no place for religious pluralism: establishing the purely Islamic state meant a genocidal campaign against religious minorities. This genocide is recognised by the Council of Europe, the European Parliament, US Congress and the House of Commons, among others.
In December, Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi declared military victory over ISIS in Iraq. But the battle against the group’s ideology will continue. Many now wish to return to their homes. This is undoubtedly true of many Christians who have stayed in Kurdistan in camps for Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) for more than three years, after being forcibly displaced in August 2014. These communities have the so-called right to return to their land and homes, protected by international law and the Iraqi constitution.
But enforcing that right may be challenging, and some steps have to be taken to ensure that the right is translated into reality.
First, whole villages and towns must be rebuilt. According to Aid to the Church in Need (ACN), in nine Nineveh Plains towns more than 13,000 houses were vandalised by ISIS. The cost of rebuilding them was estimated at more than $240 million (£175 million) in early 2017. But not all homes can be rebuilt. New homes may be needed to accommodate the families who lost everything.
As financial resources are limited, progress is slow. In Qaraqosh, more than 1,000 houses have already been rebuilt. Another 600 are currently being worked on. The humanitarian assistance provided by ACN is invaluable. However, funding for the reconstruction projects is still a problem.
Some countries are providing substantial support. Hungary, with its Hungary Helps project, has allocated $2 million towards the reconstruction of Christian communities near Mosul. Earlier this month, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) announced more funding for the “needs of vulnerable religious and ethnic minority communities in Ninewa Province, especially those who have been victims of atrocities by ISIS”. This is a positive development. But more funding will be needed.
Secondly, the issue of security in the region has yet to be addressed. Initially security was shared between Iraqi and Peshmerga soldiers; but recent clashes between the armies show this was never a sustainable solution. The turning point was the Kurdistan independence referendum and the ongoing disagreement about disputed territories, including the Nineveh Plains, where a plurality of inhabitants are Christian. Security must be a priority over the coming months as without it the Nineveh Plains will continue to be an easy target for any militia. The people cannot pay the price for power struggles between Iraq and Kurdistan.
Thirdly, the Iraqi government must ensure that the rights of religious minorities in Iraq are fully guaranteed and protected. Religious minorities must enjoy all rights available to majority groups and receive extra protection as minorities. Iraqi officials must address shortfalls in protecting religious minorities and respond to acts of discrimination and violence.
Finally, the Iraqi government must encourage interfaith dialogue and include all religious communities in the process. It must include leaders of all religious groups in the process of establishing new policies to protect religious pluralism. It must also address the mistrust between communities.
This is the minimum that needs to be done to help Iraqi Christians and other religious minorities to return. And heading back to Iraq appears to be the only option. Although many have left Iraq or Kurdistan for Jordan, Turkey or Lebanon, their situation in these countries is dire. They moved there as a short-term solution with a wish to resettle in other countries. In the majority of cases, this proved impossible. Three years later, many Iraqi Christians are still awaiting refugee status determinations, and their resettlement is very unlikely to happen.
The challenges faced by Iraqi Christians – to be recognised as refugees or be resettled – are yet to be properly investigated. However, voices from the field suggest that Iraqi Christians face widespread, if not systematic, obstacles. This is highly worrying as, in case of Christian minorities persecuted by ISIS, they are survivors of genocide. The international community should make helping them a priority. But it isn’t.
The right to return does not mean much without decisive steps to translate it into reality. These steps – ranging from reconstruction to security measures, to interfaith dialogue to community reconciliation and legal action – are closely linked. States must help to rebuild regions destroyed by ISIS and work towards strengthening the position of religious minorities. This must happen sooner rather than later and be a truly international effort.
The British Government has promised resources and must urgently play its part. As more mass graves are discovered, ministers must ensure that practical support finally reaches the victims of this genocide.
Lord Alton of Liverpool is an independent crossbench peer. Ewelina Ochab is a human rights advocate and author of Never Again: Legal Responses to a Broken Promise in the Middle East