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Reflecting on the Leverage of
Religious Minorities in Iraq

By Maria Rita Corticelli

 

Iraq occupies most of the territories once called Mesopotamia, known in the West as the cradle of civilisation. This region is also the birthplace of a wide assortment of monotheistic religions. Due to its strategic geographical position on the route between the West and the East, this region has traditionally been the receptacle of different faiths and ethnicities which have coexisted for centuries, united by a thread that has been understudied and often misunderstood. All these communities have experienced various degrees of persecution, marginalisation and violence which affected their views, faith and vision of the future. However, over the last few years, they have shown a constructive interest in each other’s existence and in the pursuit of religious and civil rights. In this context, it is important to discuss how experiences of hostility and the politics of annihilation, imposed by the various powers that have controlled the region, have raised a collective awareness and shaped ideas of constructing a society based on harmonious coexistence.

 

A wider awareness, together with the dramatic experiences of the last few years, have led all the communities to offer a different approach to their histories. This reading is seldom told either in private or can be traced in very rare documents collected by volunteers and local NGOs in their heroic effort to fight the daily loss of documentation on the crimes committed against minorities and to preserve their memory. In some cases, the legacy of division still permeates these communities that are always at the mercy of others. However, the experience of massacre, indiscriminate killings, abductions and, in some cases, genocide, as well as the public internal and international exposure — in particular after 2014 and the advent if ISIS — have spawned a new vision of a collective shared memory of a tragic past. This involves the recognition of a shared land, in particular the Nineveh Plain as well as the need for coexistence the idea of which is slowly replacing the old violent idea of revenge and vendetta and it is the minorities, with their struggles, pushing to change mentalities as well as policies.

After Operation Iraqi Freedom (2003), whoever had the intellectual sensibility to listen to the voices of the Iraqi people, discovered a fascinating blend of history that highlights deep inter-ethnic, religious and sectarian coexistence—a history often ignored. It is also common to gloss over the suffering, past and present, of  minorities in the country: an act of intellectual treason against the people who work to rebuild their lives torn apart by continuous wars, persecutions, murder and, in many cases, by an unstoppable wave of human migration. The survival of minorities in Iraq largely depends on their ability to demand a seat at the negotiating table and, a very important factor in the chronic instability of the Middle East, in their commitment to stay involved in policy debates and decision-making long after the governmental consultations have ceased. Their future further depends on the support they can receive both internally by creating spaces of discussion within communities and from the government, and externally by consulting and collaborating with international organisations.

 

For this reason, it is important to underscore the importance of the interfaith dialogue of religious minority groups who have been able to transform historic tragedies into strategies for survival and chronic displacement into a quest for a new identity and a proactive role in shaping their own futures. The Kakais, for example, better known as Yarsans, started talking openly about their cultural continuity and how they have interacted with other religious communities — and with the state — throughout the history of Iraq. Historians, activists and members of the community talk about how they were able to survive for many centuries in a hostile environment. On the other hand, despite the world’s interest in their tragedy after ISIS, very little it is known about how the Yezidis are really coping with the latest tragedy. It looks as though, in the vortex of all the attention they have been subjected to, their voices have been heard but not listened to. Their testimonies reveal the degree of sensibility to the changes in their role within and outside their own community. This awareness links them in unexpected ways with the history of women’s rights movements in Iraq in the past and the present. By doing this, Yezidi women started a dialogue with their community, questioning traditional values while confirming their belonging to the Yezidi religion. On Sunday, 7 March 2021, Pope Francis, as one last act of his historical visit to Iraq, celebrated a mass in the stadium in Erbil. Until a few years ago, it would have been impossible to witness a Christian rite in a public space in country that ISIS conquered much of by force. Beyond the symbolism, this visit had the prerogative to include Iraq in the interfaith dialogue currently unfolding between Christianity and Islam. Pope Francis came to preach solidarity, peace and citizenship. This call was also to include Sunnis, Shabak and all the communities sharing this land.

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All minorities share one, overarching, common concern: that an anti-pluralistic society emerges in the future. In interviews with the representatives of the different religious minorities this argument always surfaced as a real possibility despite superficial analyses of the political and social situation that point to the contrary. It is important to provide spaces for communities and individuals whose stories rarely reach the West. In the end, what seemed like dissonant sounds and tales turned into a single symphony that prayed only to become a single community, united in the memory of a common violent past but determined to rebuild a future of possible coexistence on new foundations.

15 June 2022