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The protection needs of minorities from Syria and Iraq – the World Council of Churches and Norwegian Church Aid

December 12, 2016

tpnomfsaiThis report criticises a one-size‑fits-all-approach” from aid because it can exclude vulnerable minorities, in­cluding religious groups.

“A pair of shoes is necessary, but not all fit all feet,” Dr “Tykse Tveit, said. “The same applies to aid.”

Recommendations include offering support and funding for men, women, and children, and to those returning home as well as to the internationally displaced.

It suggests that, while most humanitarian agencies understand the implications of age, gender, and diversity when distributing aid in conflict zones, protecting minorities must also be properly considered. Attitudes to reconciliation, for ex­ample, or the desire to flee and resettle, vary between Muslims, Christians, and Yazidis, relative to  the suffering endured.

“Given the history of persecution and conflict experienced by religious minorities, future reconciliation and peaceful relationships between different faith groups equires dealing with trauma and suffering of the past,” report says.

“It also requires facilitating and sharing positive and hopeful examples of coexistencer and mutual support between people of different faiths.”


“Before the war there were no problems, we were like brothers, very close to Muslim neighbours and friends.” Christian female Syrian refugee, Beirut, Lebanon, February 2016

“I lived with my neighbours for 40 years, and all of a sudden they pointed at me with their weapons.” Christian male Iraqi refugee, Amman, Jordan, June 2016

“People in Kobani were butchered, and not only by Daesh [IS] but by their neighbours.” Syrian female Kurdish refugee, Beirut, Lebanon, February 2016

“I lived in a suburb of Damascus, where Christians were lower in numbers [than] Muslims. Christians respected the Muslims and their celebrations, and they also respected us, our celebrations. This was one of the first suburbs uprising and the oppression was terrible, with constant shelling. One day, our Muslim neighbours warned 256 Christian families when al Nusra was coming and took us to a safer area in Damascus. Later on, our church was put on fire by al Nusra and the same group published it on the Internet, stating that is was destroyed from bombing by the regime.” Christian woman from Damascus, Beirut, September 2016

In 2003–2014, the main type of violent acts against minority groups involved:

  • destruction and defacement of religious buildings.
  • mass murder of congregations gathered in and around religious buildings.
  • abduction and murder of religious and civic leaders and individuals, including children, targeted because of the perception that certain minority groups are

wealthier than the rest of the population and could pay ransoms.

  • threats to leave houses and apartments and subsequent confiscation of property by individuals or militia groups.
  • forced conversion to Islam using tactics such as death threats, rape and forced marriage.

Given the history of persecution and conflict experienced by religious minorities, future reconciliation and peaceful relationships between different faith groups requires dealing with the trauma and suffering of the past. It also requires facilitating and sharing positive and hopeful examples of coexistence and mutual support between people of different faiths.

The political, social and security dynamics in Syria and Iraq are highly complex. There is no single recommendation or solution that will resolve the multitude of issues facing religious and ethnic minority groups as well as those facing the majority populations. Nevertheless, the recommendations outlined below aim to provide a basis for tackling the humanitarian crises, enabling displaced people to return home and creating a positive future for minorities in Syria and Iraq. It is worth noting that a certain level of stability needs to be achieved for the long-term recommendations listed below to become actionable.


  1. Donors need to provide predictable and sufficient funding that is flexible and reaches the women, men, girls and boys most in need – including host communities – to avoid creating or exacerbating tensions. A one-size-fits-all funding approach

and criteria can inadvertently result in excluding vulnerable groups. In the current crises in Syria and Iraq, humanitarian and development needs are intertwined. This may necessitate funding to enable relief and development assistance to be delivered

simultaneously and designed to be mutually reinforcing.

  1. Identify and account for diverse experiences in displacement – conflict-affected populations are not homogenous. In some instances, minority vulnerabilities and needs must be disaggregated in order to provide targeted and tailored assistance.

The same applies to individual refugees and displaced persons – gender and age in particular are important characteristics to disaggregate in order to meet people’s needs. Humanitarian actors need to equip themselves with assessment tools able to capture differences based on ethno-religious affiliation and how different vulnerabilities intersect.

  1. Promote conflict-sensitive programming and ‘a do no harm’ approach to avoid exacerbating tensions.
  2. Continue to provide mobile registration centres and responses for out-of-camp refugees and IDPs.
  3. Support programmatic interventions to promote inter-community peacebuilding, relationship building and social cohesion, both as standalone initiatives and project components in sector-specific interventions. Actors representing the different local

religious communities could be a central resource to draw on, as is an awareness of how religion has been used by some to escalate tensions and violence.

  1. Support the provision of cultural-,age- and gendersensitive psychosocial support services to ensure that survivors of traumatic events receive sufficient rehabilitation to reintegrate into society. Ensure that appropriate and effective referral mechanisms are

accessible for women and girls. Identify culturally appropriate ways to increase awareness about how rape and other forms of sexual violence are used as a weapon of war, destroying individuals and families. Work with communities, traditional and religious leaders to build a shared understanding that rape is always the fault of the perpetrator and not the survivor. Consider the value and appropriateness of religious rituals to facilitate reintegration into the community and avoid the stigmatisation of children and adults affected by sexual violence. Moreover, integrate community-based psychosocial support into humanitarian responses to help women, men,

boys and girls, families and communities heal.

  1. When requested by displaced children and adults themselves, facilitate their movement and return to their home areas as soon as practicably possible once the areas have been freed and secured. Ensure that women are included and considered

when planning and facilitating a return home, and that women support family decisions to return. Focusing on humanitarian assistance to displaced populations should not overshadow support for people returning home when that is an option.

Prioritise female-headed households for return support if they chose to make that decision.

  1. Use existing civil society structures trusted by local populations, including those of minority groups, to channel assistance. Deliver aid channelled to those structures in a conflictsensitive and non-discriminatory way, in accordance with humanitarian principles and standards.
  2. Hold local governments accountable for political tactics that harm minority populations, exacerbate the effects of the crises that have affected them or

that inhibit them from returning to their home areas.



  1. Incorporate a gender-responsive transitional justice perspective into the current displacement response, while advocating for all cases of sexual violence to be addressed through criminal prosecution – ensuring that the wishes of sexual

violence survivors are strictly adhered to. Support an international inquiry into genocide, war crimes, human rights abuses and atrocities, and ensure that sexual violence cases are prioritised in such inquiries. Facilitate the documentation

of abuses, for possible future prosecutions.

  1. Reconciliation can reduce tensions between residents and also the likelihood of widespread reprisal killings or further conflict. Promote communal reconciliation, particularly in areas where minorities have been directly targeted by armed actors and experienced hostilities from neighbouring communities. Take into account gender

considerations when designing such efforts, as well as whether communities are ready for such efforts.

  1. Facilitate the resumption of gendersensitive livelihood activities, including the

rehabilitation of civilian infrastructure and community facilities such as places of worship.

  1. Make efforts to promote trust between conflict affected communities and security forces responsible for their protection. Such security sector reform needs to address perceptions of wrongdoing and lack of accountability. Support security forces to include female staff members for community outreach, and facilitate reporting and

requests for security among the female population.

  1. Ensure that relevant education opportunities are provided to school-age girls and boys who have been displaced by violence or trapped in IS-held areas. This may include accelerated learning programmes, so that displaced children are not further disadvantaged.

Educational programmes should address the language difficulties that some IDP and refugee children face in learning and integrate reconciliation, trust building, equal citizenship and religious tolerance. Ensure that education programmes for children from minority groups include their native language and maintain their cultural roots

  1. Assist local and national legal institutions in initiating legitimate and gender-sensitive legal procedures to tackle the property expropriation and redistribution

processes taking place in many areas, to limit a pattern of dispossession of religious minorities or reallocation of property along sectarian and ethnic lines.

  1. Support community and faith leaders and initiatives that promote religious tolerance and encourage peaceful relations among religious groups. International organisations should assist Iraqis and Syrians in collecting, emphasising and underlining stories that outline attempts to preserve and rebuild bonds between majority and minority communities and express common future narratives. These stories should accompany rather than replace tales of persecution, and give the silent, moderate majority a voice.


  1. To reduce tensions and misunderstandings between communities and limit the likelihood of discrimination, promote education and curriculum reform to

improve perceptions and understanding of religious minorities and their historical, cultural and religious significance. Diversity is an indicator of a society’s quality. Through education, foster recognition of diversity as a positive attribute and respecting diversity as a way to build a more sustainable society. This is necessary to provide stability, overcome prejudice, build trust and establish conditions for

shared life. Similarly, promote access to education for all – regardless of gender, ethnicity, religion or political affiliation – and disaffiliate education provision from political motivations or agendas.

  1. Address democratic governance deficits, structural discrimination and cultures of impunity embedded in particular in Iraq before IS took over significant parts of territory in 2014. Train the judiciary, security forces and public servants in general, addressing degradation of minorities in the public discourse. Promote the implementation of appropriate constitutional provisions when they exist and, when

necessary, revisions of the legal framework at all levels to promote equal citizenship. During such legal changes, facilitate an inclusive process that ensures wide participation among different segments of society (women, youths, academics, etc.)

The priorities for all refugees in Turkey interviewed for this study were shelter (housing) and food. Education, psychosocial support and employment opportunities have been sorely neglected for all groups of displaced Syrians and Iraqis in Turkey. Indeed, none of the refugee families in Turkey interviewed for this study have children who attend school, with the exception of some attendance at Sunday classes for children attending church. Similarly to some IDPs in the Kurdistan region of Iraq,

Syrian children in Lebanon are struggling with language. In Syria, the curriculum is taught in Arabic whereas in Lebanon, despite it being an Arabic-speaking country,

many subjects are taught in English or French. In Turkey, Syrian children are faced with education delivered in Turkish. support network in their churches.

Trust and a sense of belonging make it easier for them to approach churches and related organisations to register for, and receive, humanitarian aid. The felt humiliation of some having to stand in line in public to await assistance vanishes when such assistance is provided in a sensitive way in the safe space of a church.

In Turkey, according to a Syriac Orthodox Church representative, the church cannot support Iraqi refugees due to limited resources and the need to prioritise Syrian Christians. They cite two reasons for this. Firstly, donations from Turkish church members are often earmarked for Syrians. Secondly, the media and political focus has been on Syria, neglecting the ‘Iraqi case’, placing external pressure and expectations on the church to care for Syrians. This is not to say that Iraqi Christians were entirely neglected – they were able to attend and participate in church activities, access

essential social support, and upon their initial arrival a few years earlier, received temporary accommodation. However, these Iraqi refugees are now primarily selfsupporting, materially and financially. For example, although the Syrian Christian refugees interviewed were housed together and had all their expenses covered, Iraqi Christians were paying rent and other expenses from their savings or earnings from the little work they could find.

“The problem is not rebuilding houses, but rebuilding mentally to live together peacefully.” Yezidi woman representative, Erbil, Kurdistan region, Iraq, September 2016

Many Syrian Christian refugees involved in research for this study said they would like to go back to Syria if the war ends.170 The most common reasons for wanting to return were attachments to their country, the fact that their homes and occupations are in Syria, and the difficulties of life outside their own country. Those surveyed by NCA in Lebanon noted that differences between religious groups have intensified, to the extent that they may now be irreconcilable and make life back at home difficult. However, Iraqi Christian refugees surveyed were adamant that there would be no possibility of returning, even in the absence of IS. The sense of their sudden betrayal by Muslim neighbours and friends – and the trauma that minority communities have suffered, and continue to suffer, in Iraq – means that minorities who fled to neighbouring countries had few plans to return.

For refugees in Lebanon, lack of security and loss of homes and jobs were the most commonly cited reasons for not wanting to return. When insecurity escalates

and families from a minority group start leaving an area, this leads to distortions in the housing market. Other minorities try to sell their properties and leave as well but in the absence of buyers from the same community, members of the majority community can push the price down.173 Assyrians from Al-Hassakah reported on land confiscation by the Kurds,174 and there are unconfirmed reports by Assyrians of having to sell their real estate because of pressure from Kurds.

In Sinjar, no Yezidi ownership of houses or lands is registered, complicating both selling and reclaiming property. As result of the Arabisation phase, Arabs held titles to their homes in this area, while Yezidis did not. In cultures where customary land tenure is prevalent, such as that of the Yezidis, the particular situation of women must be considered when planning the return of displaced communities. According to Yezidi tradition, inheritances are habitually divided equally among a deceased man’s sons (or brothers and male cousins if he has no sons) – daughters and wives do not receive a share. This is even more of an issue because it is far from uncommon to find women-headed Yezidi households as a result of armed persecution.

Survey data highlights two factors that decreased a respondent’s desire to emigrate – being older and being Muslim.

Some minority groups directly targeted by Islamic militant groups, and those who have lost their lands, often see resettlement abroad as their only way out and flee en masse. Some groups’ current experience of prosecution and displacement needs to be viewed through the lens of historic massacres, displacement and self-preservation.

The prospect of return among such groups that have strong collective memories are minimal or non-existent. The Assyrian community is a case in point: some 8,000 women, men and children from this community have come to Lebanon as refugees since the start of the Syrian crisis. Once settled with assistance from their church, the main priority for this community was to initiate emigration to a third country. In September 2016, 185 people (45 families) in an Assyrian parish on the outskirts of Beirut planned to travel to Australia; another 90 people had confirmed emigration plans and tickets to leave the country in October. According to the church, practically all Assyrian refugees apply to an embassy for resettlement, most commonly through private sponsorship programmes.

The report is available here

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