Working toward worldwide religious freedom

By Sarah Kittle

This past July in Washington, D.C., U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo hosted a summit called the Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom, the second annual summit held on the topic. Civic and religious leaders, activists and policymakers were among those that convened the first two days, with foreign government delegations joining in the discussion on day three.

An estimated thousand civic, governmental and religious leaders plus nearly a hundred foreign delegates reaffirmed international and interreligious commitments to promote religious freedom for all mankind, declared as a universal human right by the United Nations.

This year’s focus was on concrete actions delivering outcomes that produce durable, positive change. The agenda included general sessions plus breakout sessions focused on three tracks: Building Blocks for Advancing Religious Freedom; Emerging Trends in Religious Freedom; and Religious Freedom in De-velopment /Humanitarian Assistance.

Nobel Peace Prize winner Nadia Murad was among the many survivors of religious intolerance that spoke at the summit. Murad is a Yezidi from Iraq who was captured by the Islamic State (IS) at the age of 19. She was raped, beaten and tortured before she escaped and was aided by a neighbor to her subsequent refuge in Germany.

Her presentation was followed by a general session on “The Journey to Self-Reliance: Securing the Way to Religious Freedom.” This rein¬forced Ambassador Brownback’s keynote speech, in which he asked those assembled “to boldly fight for religious freedom for yourself, for all those who profess your faith, and – taking it an essential step forward – joining together to fight for those who profess different faiths.”

Day two saw an expansion of the conversation begun the day before, with a “deep dive” on the building blocks for advancing religious freedom. United States Institute of Peace (USIP) President Nancy Lindborg opened a session on development and humanitarian assistance. USIP is an American federal institution tasked with promoting conflict resolution and prevention worldwide.

Breakout session topics on the second day of the summit included best practices for religious freedom activism, advancing women’s rights, and countering violent extremism. The threat of death brings upheaval that causes difficulty in registering and recognizing religious communities, among other issues.

More heavy topics discussed in this summit included emerging trends, partnerships between international development and humanitarian aid groups, and challenges to religious freedom. Al¬most everyone living in Iraq has been traumatized, if not by the Saddam Hussein regime, then by sectarian violence including atrocities committed by IS militants.

The impact of this on the population - and especially on children - is disastrous, with many children having learning disorders and living in a permanent state of fear. Several analysts have asserted that trauma is one of the main factors for radicalization. This does not bode well for Iraq’s large youth population. A shortage of water and electricity and too much unemployment fuel the flames of unrest.

Particularly relevant to the worldwide Chaldean community, the discussion on religious tolerance and assistance addresses the estimated three fourths of the world’s population that does not have the freedom to openly express their beliefs for fear of discrimination, persecution, or even death. In far too many nations, religious intolerance is used as an excuse for gaining and maintaining control over a group of people. It’s not always a direct physical threat.

The recent loss of Jimmy Aldaoud, an Iraqi National who never set foot in Iraq until he was deported there from the United States, underscores the inherent danger in sending a person “home” with no support system, no contacts, no medicine or medical care, and no place to live. Jimmy died not from a beating or a deadly weapon, but from lack of insulin to treat an ongoing and known medical condition.

Action-item topics of the summit included multi-faith initiatives, economic development, cultural preservation, and international development aid. Breakout sessions were devoted to economic security, faith-based partnerships, documenting atrocities, and the role of the private sector in post-ISIS Iraq.

Chaldean Community Foundation President, Martin Manna, was part of a panel that discussed how to get the diaspora more involved and engaged in investing in Iraq.

One of the main goals of the Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom is to establish support systems in the most urgent regions, including Iraq, Syria, and the Middle East. The Chaldean American Chamber of Commerce (CACC) in Farmington Hills is strengthening ties with USAID and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce to aid the community in the homeland.

Iraq was only given national status early in the 20th century but was built on the ancient powerful kingdoms of Babylonia and Assyria. The ethnically and religiously diverse nation is suffering from sectarian violence and corruption which are the main fac¬tors hampering progress and the process of democracy.

Closely related is the problem of impunity, which greatly affects the position of Iraq’s Christians, and the rise of radical Islamic groups which do not tolerate any religion other than a strict and violent form of Islam. Although the general situation in Iraq remains far from stable, there are hopeful developments as IS was territorially defeated in December 2017, allowing more and more Christians to return to a number of villages.

Attempting to stay politically neutral, the CACC is focused on business development and empowerment of Christians living in Iraq. In December of 2018, the CACC along with the Chaldean Community Foundation, the nonprofit arm of the CACC, hosted an International Roundtable to discuss the revitalization of the Yazidi and Christian villages in the Nineveh Plain.

The Assyrian Church of the East, the Syrian Orthodox Church, the Syrian Catholic Church, the Chaldean Catholic Church and the Armenian Orthodox Church are all seriously affected by persecution in Iraq, especially from Islamic extremist movements and non-Christian leaders. They also face discrimination from government authorities.

Every year, the State Department releases the International Religious Freedom Report, describing the status of religious freedom around the world. Vice President Mike Pence spoke at the summit, reiterating that the Trump Administration is committed to making religious freedom a reality worldwide, dedicating resources and staff to combating intolerance and promoting world peace.

USAID support for minorities in Nineveh, Iraq

According to USAID, “The preservation of Iraq’s rich historical pluralism is critical to reintegrating persecuted ethnic and religious minority communities into a peaceful Iraq.” Their efforts focus on the following areas:

Genocide Recovery and Persecution Response (GRPR)

  • Over $133 million in recently launched activities supporting the four pillars of USAID’s GRPR Program, bringing total funding for GRPR to $239 million.

    • Meeting Immediate Needs: Over $51 million in life-saving humanitarian assistance to populations from the Nineveh Plain and western Nineveh, includes safe drinking water, food, shelter materials and household items, medical care, and psychosocial support.

    • Helping Restore Communities: $9 million in funding to support early recovery needs and restore access to services like health and education.

    • Promoting Economic Recovery: $68 million in funding to improve access to jobs and markets, support local businesses, and revive the local economy.

    • Preventing Future Atrocities: $5 million to address systemic issues affecting minority populations and prevent future atrocities.

Clearing the Explosive Remnants of War

  • Approximately $37 million in funding to support explosive remnants of war (ERW) survey, clearance, and risk education in and around minority communities. This support has enabled the Department to significantly expand the number of U.S.-funded ERW survey, clearance, and risk education teams across Nineveh and fulfills the Secretary’s pledge to expand ERW clearance efforts in Iraqi minority communities made at the July 2018 Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom.

Social, Economic, and Political Empowerment

  • $8.5 million in additional assistance to projects that provide psychosocial services, legal support, and initiatives to help collect evidence of human rights abuses; increase minority representation in local and provincial government; increase access to justice for children; strengthen rule of law; and provide livelihoods support and access to economic opportunities for vulnerable groups bringing the FY 2017 total to $18.5 million.

Preservation of Historic and Cultural Heritage Sites

  • $2 million in ongoing programming to support the preservation of cultural heritage sites in Northern Iraq that were targeted for destruction by ISIS and other terrorist groups, safeguarding, preserving, and restoring access to significant cultural heritage sites of minority communities.