© 2024 WLRN
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

U.S. Considers Efforts To Help Religious Minorities Recover From ISIS


The U.S. military is making plans to help Iraqis retake a major city from ISIS. And at the State Department, they're thinking about some of the non-military aspects of this battle. That includes how to help religious minorities recover from what the Obama administration calls a genocide. NPR's Michele Kelemen reports.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: The ambassador at large for International Religious Freedoms, David Saperstein, says the U.S. has been helping minority communities document the atrocities carried out by ISIS in Iraq. That includes going over satellite photography to identify where there are mass graves.


DAVID SAPERSTEIN: So that when the coalition forces move in and the Iraqi forces move in on the ground, that they'll move in a way to protect those sites so that it won't damage the documentation necessary to hold people accountable.

KELEMEN: In March of this year, Secretary of State John Kerry announced that the U.S. holds ISIS responsible for genocide in parts of Iraq and Syria. Saperstein in a recent interview with NPR said that designation didn't change the U.S. approach. The Obama administration was already leading an international coalition against ISIS. But it has increased expectations that the U.S. will do more to help minority religious communities rebuild. There are many, including some groups little known outside the region.


SAPERSTEIN: The areas that ISIS controlled were basically ethnically cleansed of almost all of the very rich tapestry of minority communities - the Shabak, the Sabaean Mandeans, the Turkmen Shia and different minority Muslim communities and of course the Christian community.

KELEMEN: Saperstein says that Christians were pushed out of their historic homelands in Mosul and throughout the Nineveh Plain. Thousands of Yazidi women and girls were kidnapped as sex slaves.


SAPERSTEIN: It remains a major priority for this administration and a fulfillment of our moral obligation in the face of this genocidal activity that's been taking place to ensure that people will be - have the option to return to their home and rebuild that tapestry.

KELEMEN: While Saperstein says the Iraqi prime minister understands the need to restore this rich tapestry, Senator Ben Cardin, a Democrat from Maryland, is raising doubts about Iraq's ability to deal with the wider war. He worries about a new wave of Sunni-Shia violence as Iraq tries to recapture Mosul from ISIS. Religious minorities often get caught up in the middle, and aid groups get overwhelmed.


BEN CARDIN: I am not confident that Iraqi leaders are sufficiently engaged to respond to the humanitarian crisis coming when hundreds of thousands of civilians flee Mosul.

KELEMEN: At another recent hearing, Congressman Chris Smith, a Republican from New Jersey, said the administration isn't doing enough to protect religious minorities in this conflict or matching its rhetoric with actions.


CHRIS SMITH: Administration officials have stated that it is in the interest of the United States to enable Christians, Yazidis and other religious and ethnic communities to remain in their ancient homelands of Iraq and Syria, yet the administration has so far refused to identify the humanitarian needs of these communities and provide them with the assistance so that they're able to survive in their home country.

KELEMEN: He's co-authored legislation which calls on the State Department to aid the survivors of genocide and help Iraq hold the perpetrators to account, not just document the crimes. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michele Kelemen has been with NPR for two decades, starting as NPR's Moscow bureau chief and now covering the State Department and Washington's diplomatic corps. Her reports can be heard on all NPR News programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered.
More On This Topic