The UN day for the persecuted

“On this Day, we reaffirm our unwavering support for the victims of violence based on religion and belief. And we demonstrate that support by doing all in our power to prevent such attacks and demanding that those responsible are held accountable” – UN Secretary-General, Antonio Guterres

The United Nations has dedicated a day (today) to those persecuted for their faith. There is an irony in this that you may not be aware of. On the frontline in Iraq (where we work) the UN does not distinguish people by faith. Instead, people are helped according to need. This sounds good on paper but in practice it has exacerbated sectarian divisions.

The problem with the faith-blind approach

When Christians in northern Iraq were driven from the Nineveh Plain by ISIS, they went east to Erbil (the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan). They generally sought refuge in churches rather than the UN camps. A gang culture often exists in the camps and Christians have been subjected to intimidation and threats. There are many ISIS sympathisers in the camps. On our visit to northern Iraq in March this year we met with the Interior Minister of the Kurdish Regional Government. He told us that 700 ISIS sympathisers have been arrested in one camp alone. Sunni Muslim IDPs, most of whom are not ISIS sympathisers, have little other option than to rely upon the UN camps. This has meant that one religious group receives aid from the international community (i.e. the UN) and one does not, relying instead on churches and Christian charities like us.

In the wake of ISIS, a faith-blind approach was adopted by the British government. While MPs in the House of Commons agreed that the persecution of Christians in Iraq by ISIS was genocide, the government’s aid arm (DFID) continued to give British taxpayers’ money to the UN as the best way to help those displaced. We recently submitted a Freedom of Information request to DFID asking what proportion of UK aid went to the different religious groups in Iraq. They replied: “Information on religion of recipients of aid is not recorded.” One the one hand, British MPs acknowledge that Iraqi Christians are the victims of genocide. On the other hand, government ministers do not acknowledge that they are Christians at all.

As Christians we work with other religions

This dissonance at the heart of British government policy was highlighted by Bishop Mounstephen in his review of the FCO’s response to the global persecution of Christians. In his final report Bishop Mounstephen criticised the “paucity of awareness of the challenges facing the Christian community” and highlighted the lack of religious literacy among Foreign Office staff. That religion is intrinsic to identity should be obvious, and in some parts of the world it is the cause of sectarian violence. To ignore these fact is to deny reality. Incidentally, we provided evidence to Bishop Mounstephen’s review, including testimony from priests and prelates working on the frontline in Iraq. They are as baffled by the faith-blind approach as we are.

As a Christian charity we support different religious groups in Iraq, including Muslims, Yazidis and Mandeans. In Harsham IDP camp in Erbil we have just paid for a new football pitch for the boys there (who are mostly Sunni). In Baghdad we fund St George’s Clinic which employs Christian and Muslim staff and treats people of all faiths and none. As part of our reconciliation work we speak with leaders from across the sectarian divide, including eminent Shia cleric Ayatollah Hussein al-Sadr who spoke movingly of our shared humanity. During our last trip to Erbil we spoke at length with staff at Ghasin Al-Zaiton, a Yazidi organisation planting olive trees in areas destroyed by ISIS. We will be partnering with this brilliant organisation in the future. Our message is clear, we are Christians but we are working with like-minded people from all religious traditions. 

Is this a sea change moment?

Obviously the UN and DFID help hundreds of thousands of displaced and dispossessed people. However, the faith-blind approach risks depriving those persecuted for their faith of the help they need. Christians we have spoken to in northern Iraq have given up on the international community. One prelate we spoke with, Archbishop Nicodemus Dawood Sharaf of the Syrian Orthodox Church, told us that “there are many diplomatic missions only seeking to inquire of our situation without actually providing any assistance.” We hope this first ‘International Day Commemorating the Victims of Acts of Violence Based on Religion or Belief’ is the start of a sea change in how governments respond to religious persecution. Indeed, it is time the international community opened its eyes. 

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