17 January 2017

We need to stand up for the victims of religious persecution

By Emma Nicholson

When the Islamic State cut a bloody swathe through the heart of Northern Iraq in the summer of 2014, the outside world knew very little about their principal victims, those of the Yazidi faith.

Within days their men had been slaughtered in their thousands and an estimated 6,000 of their women had been kidnapped, and were later sold, raped, tortured and violently abused.

Thousands of these women and girls – some as young as nine – are still being held, but the ones that have managed to escape have told in heart-breaking, stomach-churning detail of their fate at the hands of Isis.

My charity, the AMAR International Charitable Foundation, was one of the first NGOs to step in to help the Yazidis. I was asked by the Iraqi Government to bring Nadia Murad and two other Yazidi girls to Britain to tell their horrific stories.

Nadia, and her friends Bahar and Maha – who was just 16 – duly arrived and what they had to say was quite devastating. The depravity and violence waged on these three lovely young ladies (and an estimated 6,000 others) was almost beyond comprehension.

I chaired the All Party Parliamentary Group on Sexual Violence in Conflict, and I asked all three girls to give evidence. Sitting in a rather grim committee room in the House of Lords, they quietly but determinedly spoke about their ordeals.

The very next day this brave trio of young Yazidis boarded a train with me to Birmingham. We had been invited to speak to children at one of the so-called Trojan Horse schools. There were fears that some of them could be at risk of radicalisation.

The girls’ stories shocked the teenage audience into silence. After a few moments, a boy rose from his seat. Totally unprovoked, he said he wanted to apologise to Nadia, Maha and Bahar on behalf of his fellow men.

Of course, this poor boy had absolutely no reason to apologise, but he’d felt he had to. Yet why is this empathy for human beings not evident in the hearts of ISIS – and the others who have perpetrated atrocities over the centuries?

The truth is that the Yazidis’ plight is today’s headline news. But religious persecution has been a driver for forced migration for as long as various faiths have existed.

So how do we change this? Why must the lives of millions of families be destroyed because they simply have a different belief system to another?

As the founder and head of a charity that rebuilds lives in the Middle East, I have seen far too often how religion is used as a tool to turn people against each other, with the losers being killed or hounded from their homes, left with nothing but the clothes on their backs, to live a life of misery in a sprawling camp.

This is why AMAR organised a high-level conference at Windsor Castle last autumn to investigate why religious persecution had become this driver for forced migration.

The entire world has been shocked and disgusted by the barbaric cruelty waged against the Yazidis, but what we sought to do was to find the underlying causes of such behaviour and to propose ways forward for when the conflicts are diminished and eventually over.

The aim was nothing less than to produce a new kind of Marshall Plan, for the Yazidis in particular and the Middle East region generally.

The conference set out examples from German, Jewish, Rwandan and other histories to see how reconciliation and reconstruction can emerge after long conflicts. The presence of the Prince of the Yazidis, the spiritual head of the 800,000-strong world community, ensured that everyone there was well informed about his people. The case of the First Nation North Americans, as told from the heart by a descendant of survivors of near decimation, was especially apt.

The recommendations we called for at its conclusion included demands for long-overdue recognition by all faiths and each nation of the Yazidi religion. We agreed that there must be a push for more inter-faith dialogue in the Middle East, looking not just for mutual tolerance but to build long-term friendship.

We asked that the United Nations, governments and parliaments address the gap between the rhetoric of international aid and its reality, whereby the torrent of financial contributions from generous populations are blocked as they flow through various systems, resulting in a trickle reaching the victims.

There were also calls for governments and donor institutions to refocus their endeavours on swiftly and effectively assisting the return home of refugees by rebuilding essential services, offering restitution of land and providing appropriate security.

AMAR and the delegates who attended the conference will continue to press on this, and we intend to meet in Windsor again later this year to see what we have achieved so far.

One thing on which we were all agreed was that religious persecution is against all social, cultural or legal norms. It is only in debased societies such as that run by ISIS where the cult of death has taken over and any excuse will do.

We need to do much more to highlight this in today’s secular societies – and that needs a shift in perception. The acceptance of religious persecution as something that just happens appears to be a prevailing cultural attitude around the world. And that has to change.

The Yazidis are a calm, thoughtful, hard-working and above all peaceful people. They are steeped in best practice for agriculture and small business, and they want nothing more than to one day return to their towns and villages and begin their lives again. We need all-decent-minded people to feel the same – to do what they can to support both the Yazidis and other victirms of persecution, to strengthen the conversation in any place they can.

It is time for us all to stand up and be counted.

Baroness Nicholson of Winterbourne is chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Sexual Violence in Conflict and the AMAR International Charitable Foundation