- Deseret News - Tuesday, June 9, 2015

When Christians return to their homes located in territories conquered by ISIS, they find the Arabic letter “Nun” painted on their door, which stands for “Nazarene” or “Christian,” according to the Religion News Service.

The consequences of that label can be deadly.

“Starting with the city of Mosul, ISIS overran one city and town after another, giving the Christians of the region three choices: 1) Convert to Islam, 2) Pay a tribute to ISIS, or 3) Leave their cities, like Mosul, with nothing more than the clothes on their back,” Sister Diana Momeka said to the House Foreign Affairs Committee on May 13.

Momeka, a Catholic nun with the Dominican Sisters of Saint Catherine of Siena, is one of thousands of religious minorities, according to the CIA World Factbook, that preside or once presided in Iraq.

Though predominantly Muslim (99 percent), Iraq is a mosaic of diverse ethnic and religious backgrounds, which many point to as the Achilles’ heel of the country.

Religious minorities have never had it easy in Iraq.

According to a 2009 report by the Centre for International Governance Innovation, sectarianism and societal changes led to the internal or external displacement of over 80 percent of the Mandaean population, and nearly 60 percent of Christians and other religious groups.

Of those who are displaced, there is little evidence to show they ever return when situations are more stable. A 2007 UNHCR report found that less than 1 percent of the displaced Iraqi population returned to their homeland, and no minorities were reported within the group that returned.

Concerns expressed among minorities in Iraq that CIGI spoke to included lack of education opportunities for children, access to universities, employment opportunities and societal integration in general.

The situation for religious minorities has worsened where ISIS has moved in.

According to a 2014-15 Amnesty International report, as ISIS expanded throughout Iraq it “embarked on a systematic campaign of ethnic cleansing in which it committed war crimes, including mass summary killings and abductions that targeted religious and ethnic minorities.” A majority of ISIS’ victims include Sunni Muslims that do not conform to ISIS’ government, or that ISIS suspects are cooperating with the Iraqi government.

War crimes included the murder of hundreds of predominantly Shiite prisoners, the expulsion of thousands of Christians who had to choose between conversion, paying a tax or death, and the abduction and murder of thousands of Yezidis — an ethno-religious minority in Iraq. In addition, hundreds of females have been subjected to sexual abuse, according to the Amnesty International report.

As part of an effort to provide U.S. aid for religious minorities in Iraq, Momeka spoke to the House Foreign Affairs Committee about her own experience with ISIS.

“When you lose your home, you lose everything you have,” she said. “I am here to ask you, to implore you for the sake of our common humanity to help us.”

Activists around the world have been responding to the dire situation with aid on various fronts.

Assyrian Christian activists are working toward establishing a “safe haven” for the minorities in the Ninevah Plains, a semi-autonomous region in the north, according to the Huffington Post.

Others, such as human rights activist Mark Arabo, are working to help the over 400,000 Iraqi refugees achieve refugee status more easily. The bill Arabo is working on would allow the religious minorities to apply directly to the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program.

Lastly, humanitarian aid efforts are being distributed throughout the distraught country.

In April, President Barack Obama pledged $200 million to humanitarian assistance of Iraq (although Iraq’s president was reportedly disappointed with the amount). In addition, church-based organizations in Iraq — such as the Assyrian Church of the East Relief Organization and Iraqi Christians in Need — have been providing humanitarian relief to Iraq.

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