Armenian genocide and religious persecution draw U.S. attention as Syrian refugees arrive in Iraq

Posted on Oct 31, 2019

Kevin Clarke, America’s chief correspondent and the author of Oscar Romero: Love Must Win Out (Liturgical Press)

October 31, 2019

According to United Nations officials, more than 180,000 people have been displaced so far by the conflict in northeast Syria’s border zone with Turkey as a second cease-fire brokered by the United States and Russia began on Oct. 29. Kurdish, Christian and Yazidi border communities have emptied as Turkish-aligned Syrian militia take control of the villages.

The terms of the cease-fire give Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, much of what he sought to achieve when he ordered the incursion to begin on Oct. 9, a few days after an already infamous phone conversation with U.S. President Trump: Kurdish fighters withdrew to a distance of 30 kilometers (19 miles) from the Turkish border, and Syrian, Russian and Turkish forces have taken positions along the border and have taken control of the zone’s abandoned communities.

Image: Salwa Hanna with her children arrive at the Bardarash refugee camp, north of Mosul, Iraq, on Oct. 17. Christians originally from Afrin, Ms. Hanna’s family has now been displaced twice by Turkish incursions. “I left my home, and I had just started a new home, and I left it all behind,” she said. “There are no emotions anymore. We live as if we are dead.” (AP Photo/Hussein Malla)

Salwa Hanna with her children arrive at the Bardarash refugee camp, north of Mosul, Iraq, on Oct. 17. Christians originally from Afrin, Ms. Hanna’s family has now been displaced twice by Turkish incursions. “I left my home, and I had just started a new home, and I left it all behind,” she said. “There are no emotions anymore. We live as if we are dead.” (AP Photo/Hussein Malla)

So far 12,000 Syrian civilians have taken refuge across the border in the Kurdistan region of northern Iraq, at a recently opened camp in Bardarash. More than 800 other refugees are sheltering at the Gawilan transit site. Both sites are about 150 kilometers east of the Syria-Iraq border. The office of the United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees reports that Bardarash is already at full capacity even as refugees from the latest violence in Syria continue to arrive.

Officials from both U.N.H.C.R. and Doctors without Borders report that new arrivals are in extreme humanitarian need and many are suffering from trauma related to their experience escaping the Turkish incursion.

A source from Jesuit Refugee Service MENA said most of those escaping the fighting remain within Syria, fleeing villages on the Turkey-Syria border to more southern regions of northeast Syria. “The areas with the largest number of arrivals are Al-Hassakeh and Ar-Raqqa,” the J.R.S. official reported via email on Oct. 28.

“Our Syria country team have not seen a mass influx of people in the area of Aleppo where we operate,” she added, but J.R.S. in Aleppo “is preparing a contingency plan in case an emergency intervention is needed.”

“This would involve distribution of aid to meet basic needs of those who have fled to the area and who are currently staying with relatives in Aleppo and would service those who have arrived in the area in which we currently operate.”

She added, “Our Iraq country team is working in coordination with humanitarian actors and the Kurdish Regional Government to map out the needs of arrivals and to offer services according to the area of expertise of the organizations.”

This is only the latest wave of Syrian refugees and internally displaced people from Iraq to seek safety in Iraqi-Kurdistan. Even as this latest group fled Syrian Kurdish and Assyrian Christian villages threatened by Turkey, a Kurdistan Regional Government official noted that Iraqi-Kurdistan already hosts 38 camps. Hoshang Mohammed, director general of the Joint Crisis Coordination Centretold Kurdish media that even before this latest humanitarian crisis “there [were] 791,000 Internally Displaced Persons and 229,000 Rojava [Syrian Kurdistan] refugees” in the Kurdistan region.

Mr. Mohammed noted continuing difficulties in helping these displaced Iraqis and Syrians return to their homes in liberated areas because of a “fear of ISIS insurgent attacks” and because an “absence of essential services and stability is forcing them to stay in camps.”

Meanwhile in Washington, a congressional vote to recognize the century-old mass killings of Armenians by Ottoman Turks as genocide passed on Oct. 29 by an overwhelming, bipartisan margin, 405-11. The nonbinding resolution was intended as a clear rebuke to NATO ally Turkey in the wake of its invasion of northern Syria and suggested Congress’ deep displeasure with the Trump administration’s unexpected withdrawal of U.S. troops and abandonment of U.S. Kurdish allies in the region.

Historians estimate that up to 1.5 million Armenians were killed during the slaughter, which has been described as the 20th century’s first genocide. Turkey has vigorously disputed that categorization of the bloodshed. Arguing that the Armenian death toll has been inflated, Turkish officials and historians consider those killed to be victims of a civil war.

Addressing his ruling party in the aftermath of the U.S. vote on Oct. 30, Mr. Erdogan dismissed the genocide resolution as slander and said Turkey “strongly condemns” a second bill that calls for sanctions against senior Turkish officials and its army because of the incursion into Syria. That measure also passed with overwhelming, bipartisan support. It would bar most U.S. weapons sales to Turkey and would slap sanctions on non-U.S. citizens attempting to deliver military equipment to Turkey. It would also cut off high-ranking Turkish officials from assets in the United States and restrict their travel.

Applauding the U.S. Congress’s genocide declaration at a New York conference on religious persecution on Oct. 29 was David Alton of Liverpool, England, a former Liberal Party and later Liberal Democrat member of Parliament and British life peer. Lord Alton has made a personal mission of bringing attention to religious persecution around the world.

Speaking at a symposium on “new anti-Semitism and alarming trends in Christian and minority persecution,” sponsored by the Anglosphere Society, the Hudson Institute and Hungary Helps, Lord Alton offered a passionate closing address, urging the global community to wake up to the problem of often-mortal persecution based on religious belief.

“Whether it is Syria or Iraq, Egypt or Pakistan, North Korea or China, Nigeria, Eritrea or Sudan—or many other parts of the world—people of religious belief are suffering on an unimaginable scale,” he said.

He suggested a direct historical line between the persecution of Christians and Yazidi communities in northeast Syria today with the ethnic cleansing and genocide of Armenian and Assyrian Christians in 1915 in the last days of the Ottoman Empire.

“A slow burn genocide began in 1915 and it hasn’t ended yet,” he said, noting that contemporary Turkey’s “illegal invasion of North East Syria; its use of chemical weapons against its population; its absorption of jihadist supporters of ISIS to fight alongside its army has led in the last month to the further displacement of [180,000] people—many from the religious minorities; and now the ethnic cleansing and repopulation of the areas from which the minorities have been driven.”

The latest violence is only a small part of the religious and ethnic persecution minority communities are experiencing in the region, he said. “In 1914, Christians made up a quarter of the Middle East’s population. Now they are less than 5 percent,” Lord Alton said. “Syria’s Christian population has declined from 1.7 million in 2011 to below 450,000; in Iraq ethnic cleansing and genocide has reduced the ancient Christian population from 1.5 million in 2003 to below 120,000.”

Lord Alton repeated a recent, poignant comment from Chaldean Archbishop Bashar Warda of Erbil: “The world should understand that on our path to extinction we will not go quietly any longer…so that if someday we are gone no one will be able to ask: How did this happen?”

Lord Alton focused at length on Christian persecution around the world, particularly in the Middle East, where Christian communities are disappearing; China, where churches are shuttered or demolished; and in Pakistan, where blasphemy laws have been used to harass and imprison politically and economically vulnerable Christian minorities.

Deploring the lack of response from media and government in the West to recent acts of oppression against Christians, Muslims and Falun Gong adherents in China, he said, “The assault on religion in China is the most systematic since the lethal Cultural Revolution, when churches were desecrated, looted and turned into storerooms and factories.

“The religious were incarcerated, tortured, some burnt alive, some sent to labor camps,” he said. “And now it is happening again. And where are our voices? Where are our protests?”

The ongoing repression of China’s Uighur people was passing with too little global outrage, he complained. “We have heard [in the U.K. Parliament] disturbing evidence about the vile incarceration of 1 million Uighur Muslims, where they are to be re-educated, brainwashed, intimidated and reprogrammed.”

Quoting St. Maximilian Kolbe, “murdered by the Nazis at Auschwitz,” he said, “The deadliest poison of our times is indifference.”

He cited also the rise of anti-Semitic violence in the United States and Europe, the conflict between Muslims and Buddhists in Myanmar, and even the persecution of people who sought to publicly attest to non-belief in theocratic authoritarian states like Saudi Arabia and Indonesia. The ongoing inattention to a global problem of religion-based persecution and violence, he said, makes a mockery of the 1948 U.N. Declaration of Human Rights’ Article 18 guarantee: “Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.”