Diplomats and other officials from more than 20 countries, the European Union and the United Nations strategized Friday at the State Department about how to try to rebuild religious and ethnic communities shattered by the Islamic State group.
“It would be a terrible loss if these minority communities disappeared altogether,” said event co-host David Saperstein, the U.S. ambassador at large for international religious freedom. “It would be a ghostly triumph for Daesh [Islamic State], even if it’s totally defeated and eliminated.”
Saperstein, who is a rabbi and attorney long involved in social justice, told VOA that those displaced in Iraq and Syria should know, as a result of Friday’s conference, “the world cares deeply.” He emphasized that the group was deeply committed to giving them a choice to remain where they are, seek refugee status to go abroad, or return to their historic regions “to revive the rich, diverse tapestry of life that has added so much to the countries of the regions over the centuries.”
In addition to targeting and killing thousands of civilians — mainly Christians, Shi'ites and other minority groups — Islamic State has destroyed historic mosques, shrines, churches and monasteries in an attempt to expunge history in the cradle of civilization.
“Intense violence and terror has so badly frayed these roots that there is a real risk that minority communities that lived and survived and even thrived together for centuries will vanish entirely from the region, tearing apart whatever remains of the social fabric of Iraq,” Deputy Secretary of State Antony Blinken told the conference.
While many of those who have been experiencing a “living nightmare” for the past three years hope to remain where they have taken refuge or want to return to home when Islamic State is vanquished, Blinken warned “simmering ethno-sectarian divisions may erupt, competing agendas may distract from progress, and old, heated questions of disputed internal boundaries may re-emerge with a vengeance.”
IS has been deprived of 20 percent of the territory it once controlled in Syria and 50 percent in Iraq, according to U.S. officials.
The Washington conference was the latest series of meetings convened by France in 2015 — starting with the U.N. Security Council in March and a September ministerial in Paris, co-sponsored by Jordan — that led to the Paris Action Plan for governments to aid religious minorities.
The United States and its anti-IS coalition allies last week pledged $2.1 billion in recovery aid for Iraq, which is taking back more of its territory from Islamic State.
This latest conference came a day after religious and civic leaders from the region attended a civil society meeting at Georgetown University concerning the threats to minorities under IS.
“It was an important two days and an important discussion to have,” said State Department spokesman John Kirby. “It’s something that [Secretary of State John Kerry] remains focused on.”
Kerry earlier this year blamed IS for genocide against Yazidis, Christians and Shia Muslims in the areas it controls. Kerry also accused the group of committing crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing directed at those same groups, and in some cases also against Sunni Muslims, Kurds and other minorities.