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When Yazidi advocate Pari Ibrahim goes back to the Yazidi refugee camps in the Kurdistan region in Iraq, the people always ask, “What did the U.S. say? What will happen now?” Four years ago ISIS radicals began a genocidal campaign against the Yazidis, killing or kidnapping almost 10,000 people; now survivors languish in refugee camps on Kurdistan’s Mount Sinjar and in Syria and Turkey.
At a Nov. 9 event in Washington hosted by the Religious Freedom Institute and Baylor University, Ibrahim said her people desperately look to the American government for help: “If the U.S. says something, then the whole world will listen.”
On the 20th anniversary of the passage of the International Religious Freedom Act, advocates say the IRF Act offers persecuted religious groups their best chance for relief, even as conditions continue to worsen around the world. By some estimates, more than 80 percent of the world lives in a religiously restrictive environment.
“When you look at countries from which some of our gravest threats, terrorism, instability, violence emerge ... these are overwhelmingly countries where religious freedom is badly abused and oppressed,” said Katrina Lantos Swett, former chair of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF).
The offices the IRF Act created, including USCIRF and the ambassador-at-large position, monitor religious freedom conditions, release an annual report, and make recommendations for the United States to sanction offending countries.
Knox Thames, special adviser for religious minorities at the State Department, said an often overlooked aspect of the State Department’s annual IRF report is that it trained a generation of foreign service officers in religious issues. “There, we are ahead of the curve from just about every other country,” Thames said.
In countering new and old challenges, a growing number of religious freedom advocates argue that neglecting religious freedom in the interest of national security actually harms both in the long run. Since 2004, the United States has given Saudi Arabia a waiver on USCIRF-recommended sanctions, citing national security. Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia continues to earn its status on USCIRF’s annual report as a “country of particular concern,” most recently by the brutal killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
The Trump administration took a different tack with Turkey, squeezing its economy to secure the release of Pastor Andrew Brunson, WORLD’s Daniel of the Year.
At the 20th anniversary event, Ambassador-at-Large Sam Brownback at one point asked how many knew someone who was in jail because of their faith. Hands shot up around the room—the majority of them concentrated in just a couple of rows.
When they later opened a mic for questions, one man, a Uighur Muslim named Ferkat Jawdat, said he came with a group of Uigher Muslims. All had family members in re-education camps. China has detained over 1 million Uighur Muslims in camps for what officials call counterterrorism measures.
After the event, Jawdat showed me a picture of his mother, whom officials detained in February. He has not spoken with her since. Jawdat said he has been seeking help from State Department officials, lawmakers, and anyone else who will listen.
He believes other countries are hesitant to act, intimidated by China’s economic power.
“The U.S. has the same gun in their hands—economic power,” he said. “They are just softly speaking to the Chinese government officials. They should directly use it for human rights violations. They should have used it a while ago.”
In describing the Yazidi genocide, panelist Ibrahim said, “This will happen again tomorrow if the root causes are not tackled.”
Jawdat and his aunt, who held a yellow plastic binder filled with pictures of their missing family members, have only too much reason to fear it is happening again today.