Donald Trump to help Iraq Christians punish Islamic State
ANKAWA, Iraq The Islamic State’s “caliphate” in the heart of the Middle East may be no more, but some Iraqi Christians, with an assist from the Trump administration, want to ensure the group that terrorized their community and other minorities faces justice for its crimes.
The offices of the Shlomo Organization for Documentation are on a busy street in Ankawa, the predominantly Assyrian Christian part of Irbil in Iraq’s Kurdish region. The volunteer staff keeps town-by-town statistics on the number of Iraqi Christian victims of the Islamic State posted on the office walls, and testimonies of the victims’ experiences fill several dozen bulging binders.
Islamic State militants displaced some 60,000 adherents of this ancient Christian offshoot from their historic homeland in the Nineveh Plains when they surged to power in Iraq and Syria in 2014. They killed or kidnapped many others.
The Shlomo organization’s chairman, Faris Jejjo, a former science and technology minister in Baghdad, is keen to get the word out about the volunteers’ work to rescue kidnapped Christians once held captive by the Islamic State, which sometimes required paying smugglers. Some, Mr. Jejjo said in an interview, are still missing.
“Shlomo has about 56 Christian people who until now are lost, unaccounted,” he told The Washington Times from his office, with pictures of Islamic State graffiti mocking Christians on the walls. “We wish that anyone has information about them.”
President Trump and his administration have shown a clear distaste for multinational initiatives, including the Paris climate accord, the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal and the Iran nuclear agreement.
But Mr. Trump in December quietly signed the Iraq and Syria Genocide Relief and Accountability Act of 2018 into law, directing the State Department to work with other countries to seek justice for the Islamic State’s actions.
According to the law, the department should identify Islamic State crimes against Iraqi and Syrian minorities, encourage foreign governments to prosecute the Islamic State for war crimes and genocide, and inform Congress of the feasibility of prosecuting Islamic State members, among other things.
As Christians around the world were preparing to celebrate their belief in the Resurrection of Christ, Mr. Jejjo said he was hopeful the U.S. law will help rebuild his battered community and lead to legal action against the group that wreaked havoc on Iraq’s Christians.
“Now we’re looking for justice for these victims,” he said.
Mr. Jejjo isn’t alone. Many Iraqi Christians and other religious minority communities are demanding the formation of an international tribunal to try Islamic State militants for war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide.
At the end of August, 1,920,456 people in Iraq were internally displaced, according to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. The numbers were highest in the parts of Iraq that were swept up in the Islamic State’s caliphate.
Some 598,578 displaced people were identified in the province of Nineveh, which includes the Nineveh Plains area north of Mosul that Assyrian, Chaldean and Syriac Christians have long called home.
The province is the homeland for other non-Muslim and Muslim minorities including Yazidis, Turkmen and the Shabak people who suffered under the Islamic State. Many of those killed and persecuted were Sunni and Shiite Muslims as well.
Much of the displacement began in 2014 when the Islamic State seized large swaths of the country, killing and taking prisoners in the process. For ideological reasons, the Islamic State targeted non-Muslims such as Yazidis and Christians in particular, and both groups are represented in the internal refugee camps.
Many of these Iraqis have just begun to return home, but a lack of jobs, poor services, destroyed homes and lingering security concerns in places such as the Nineveh Plains and the predominantly Yazidi city of Sinjar have kept many from attempting the perilous journey.
The Shlomo organization’s files include more than 47,000 records from mostly Christian Iraqis affected by the Islamic State. Their documents include eyewitness testimonies and statistics on stolen property.
The testimonies are harrowing.
“They were threatening to kill him if he refused to say the Islamic declaration of faith,” says one person’s testimony about the family’s father. “He refused. We heard them attack him. And finally, 10 ISIS members stormed in and pushed him down, killing him.”
Mr. Jejjo said an internationally organized court with respected outside judges, lawyers and organizations are needed to effectively detail and prosecute the Islamic State fighters who persecuted his people. He said the terrorist group’s record of crimes is too big for the Iraqi criminal system to process on its own.
“Iraqi criminal law can’t cover the crimes of Daesh,” he said, using an Arabic acronym for Islamic State. “Genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes these are not classified in Iraqi criminal law.”
Humanitarian reasons support the court as well. Majid Elia served in the Dwekh Nawsha Assyrian militia during the battles against the Islamic State alongside Kurdish peshmerga forces in the Nineveh Plains. He wants legal prosecution for Islamic State leadership in particular because of atrocities against Christians and Yazidis.
“Of course I support this because of their crimes against humanity in my homeland, Iraq,” he said about the establishment of an international tribunal, “especially for the Yazidis and the massacres committed against them, and the displacement of more than 60,000 Christians from Nineveh Plains in one night.”
There is some support for such a court as well among Yazidis, a community with deep roots in the region whose faith blending elements of Islam, Judaism and Christianity proved to be a particular target of Islamic State brutality and repression.
Natia Navrouzov leads the documentation of Islamic State crimes for Yazda, an organization that advocates for and assists Yazidis. She shares Mr. Jejjo’s concerns about the ability of the central government in Baghdad to prosecute the Islamic State.
“The Iraqi criminal system is not fit for ISIS fighters’ crimes,” she said in an interview. “It doesn’t recognize genocide or crimes against humanity.”
The fight for international justice is gearing up while many allies who fought to defeat the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria struggle with the aftermath, in particular with what to do with the thousands of Islamic State fighters captured on the battlefield in the final days.
Islamic State fighters come from many countries, including many European nations, and some of those countries have balked at taking back their citizens who joined the group and are now being held in Syria and Iraq. Many say the Islamic State recruits have forfeited their citizenship and would pose security risks if they return.
The U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces, the Kurdish and Arab coalition of militias that now holds the Islamic State captives, last month called for an international tribunal to be set up to try to determine what to do with the local and foreign militants in captivity.
“Many were foreign fighters. It makes sense for countries to have an international tribunal,” Ms. Navrouzov said. “There’s been discussion lately but no real solutions. An international tribunal may help solve some of these issues.”
Iraq has the death penalty, another complication for many countries, Ms. Navrouzov said. She noted that some international organizations refused to participate in the trial of former President Saddam Hussein for this reason.
Some observers have criticized the idea for trials of Islamic State fighters inside Iraq. Rights groups cite inadequate distinction among levels of involvement. One of the critics, Human Rights Watch, wrote in a March report that Iraqi courts have since raised their evidentiary standards.
Role for the U.S.
In Washington, the State Department says it is working toward international prosecution for the Islamic State and implementing the law signed by Mr. Trump. The U.S. gave $2 million to the U.N. investigating team to gather evidence of Islamic State crimes to be used in domestic and international courts, according to a State Department official.
The U.S. is also supporting United Nations work exhuming mass graves in Sinjar, the site of a notorious massacre of Yazidi men in August 2014. With U.N. support, the Iraqi government began digging up suspected mass grave sites there in March.
A U.S. Agency for International Development official told The Washington Times that USAID has delivered $354,773 to the Chaldean Catholic Archdiocese of Irbil as well. Part of the funds went toward equipment for rubble removal.
The leader of the archdiocese, Archbishop Bashar Matti Warda, also supports the formation of an international tribunal to prosecute Islamic State crimes. He said the U.S. has made a positive shift for Iraqi Christians under Mr. Trump.
“In the last year, there has been a recognizable change from the U.S. in the focus of finally helping minorities on the ground, which had been ignored completely for so many years,” the archbishop said in an interview.
Not everyone in Iraq backs the idea of an international tribunal.
William Bnyameen, an Assyrian activist from the Duhok province now living in Ankawa, said he wants the federal and Kurdistan Region governments to be held accountable for failing to stop the Islamic State onslaught before any court is set up for fighters.
“The government has a duty to protect its citizens,” he said at an Ankawa cafe.
Ahmed Allayla, from Mosul, went to Irbil after the Islamic State took his hometown in 2014. He, too, has little interest in an international trial and would prefer that all Islamic State fighters be dead.
“They’re like a cancer,” he said. “Their mentality is to kill humanity alone.”
Mr. Jejjo is watching closely to see how the U.S. law is implemented but said its passage has given him hope.
“I think the U.S. cares for minorities in Iraq and will try to help us,” he said as he stood amid the pictures and names of the missing. “This law reflects this concern for Iraqi minorities.”