Religious Minorities in Middle East: An Interview with Vice Chair Nadine Maenza

The Washington Kurdish Institute (WKI) hosted Vice Chair Nadine Maenza of the US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF).

Vice-Chair Maenza is a noted speaker, writer, and policy expert with more than two decades of experience as an advocate for working families and a champion for international religious freedom. She has founded the Patriot Voices, an organization focuses on public policies that help working families. She was appointed by President Trump in 2018 and has represented the USCIRF in delegations to many countries including Iraq and Syria. She has served as a senior advisor to Rick Santorum and other presidential and U.S. Senate campaigns. Her writings on various policy topics have been published domestically and internationally.

Vice-Chair Nadine Maenza brief remarks:

Full interview transcription of interview with Nadine Maenza. By Yousif Ismael.

Thank you very much Vice Chair Nadina Maenza for joining us today at the Washington Kurdish Institute. We are really privileged and honored to have you and thank you for accepting the interview request. 

Thank you for having me. I’m so pleased to be here and talk about these important topics today.

We appreciate it. And we would like to start, if you could briefly speak about the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), its establishment and its main tasks?

The US commission on international religious freedom. We were created 22 years ago when the State Department’s office of religious freedom was also created. So it was by the religious freedom act of 1998. And what it did was create us as being independent. So while the State Department monitors religious freedom conditions abroad, we do that as well, but we do it in an independent way. We don’t consider the bilateral relationships with the country. We are single focused on religious freedom and we make recommendations to the President, the State Department and Congress on policies they should support that could help move countries towards religious freedom.

Since the Kurds have been divided into four States, we are interested to hear about your remarks about the countries that the Kurds are living in and have been there historically. So starting alphabetically with Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Turkey. Do you monitor the situation of the religious minorities and groups in Iran?

Yes, we’ve been very concerned about religious minorities in Iran. We have been covering the US commission, or USCIRF as we call ourselves, we’ve been covering Iran since 2000, recommending it as a country of particular concern. Iran is home to several religious minorities that are persecuted by their authoritarian theocratic government. Even though they give constitutional recognition to Sunni Muslims, Jews, Zorastirians, and Christians, they’re still obviously persecuted terribly. We are also very concerned about the systematic persecution of Bahai’s, which we documented not long ago in October 2019, in a special policy brief that we had. And also Christian converts who’ve been in prison. Sufis being put in increased risk in prison during COVID-19. We’ve asked for them to release prisoners. We have a prisoner of conscience project at USCIRF where we adopt prisoners and we advocate on their behalf. I’ve advocated for Pastor Youcef Nadarkhani who is a Christian who once was on death row and now he’s back in prison again. They did not let him out for the COVID-19 in spite of all the things going on. So we’ve been very concerned about Iran and we’ll continue to monitor the way that they persecute religious minorities.

So, if I understand the Iranian regime is not only persecuting the non-Muslims, you talked about the Sufis, which is as Sunni sector. They’re also hostile to a different sector like the Sunnis?

They are. We find that Sunni Muslim Kurds, I believe, will probably face pretty severe persecution in the north because of their ethnicity and their religious beliefs. So absolutely in Iran, unless you’re a Shia that’s practicing like a state sanctioned Shia, there is some sort of persecution for you if you follow any other faith.

Coming to Iraq, you have visited Iraq before, including the Kurdistan Region. How do you describe the religious tolerance in the region for the non-Muslims? We have a population obviously in the Kurdistan region, like the Christians and Yazidis and others.

We have been so grateful to the Kurdistan Regional Government for providing a safe haven for so many communities that fled during the Islamic State when they had their Caliphate, particularly from I think 2014 and 2017. I know so many are there now, so we’ve been so thankful for them providing that protection. I personally was able to visit Kurdistan, I think in 2015, and was astounded how safe it was and how they had taken in so many religious minorities. In just a few hours drive ISIS had his Caliphate and is continued to grow at that point in time. They just were that strong stable force for religious freedom in Northern Iraq through it all. It’s just really been astounding.

That’s very good to hear. And in comparison to the rest of the situation of Iraq for the religious minorities, I know that a lot of Christians starting in 2004 migrated to the Kurdistan region and to Europe and US because of the persecution they faced by other religious leaders and groups and militias. Do you monitor Iraq?

Yes, we do monitor Iraq. I was fortunate to be able to go twice to Iraq last year and in August I was able to visit Baghdad on an official USCIRF delegation with my colleague Anurima Bhargava. I was able to speak at the five year anniversary commemorative event of the Yazidi genocide. That was heartbreaking to think of how little has changed for the Yazidi community since the genocide occurred. We were also able, while we didn’t get out of the country. Not really even much out of the embassy at that point in time, but we did have a lot of people come to us.

We were able to meet and learn about all the different things that USAID and different organizations had done to build. For instance, in the Nineveh Plains. But the one thing we kept hearing is Christians in particular the Yazidis are not coming back. It’s just not safe. So I was able to come back to Iraq in my own capacity in November and I was able to visit Mosul, Talkaif, Hamdania and go into the Iraqi part of the Nineveh Plains and meet with mayors, the governor, Christian minorities, and political party leaders. You know, the drive from Erbil to Mosul and back, I went through 11 checkpoints. Now a couple of them were probably government checkpoints, but most of them were the Hashad al Shaabi [Popular Mobilization Forces] or the Iranian-sponsored militias that were shopping to check who was coming through. I can only imagine how difficult that would be for a religious minority for a Yazidi family, for a Christian family. It helped me to understand better what the conditions are like and how really horrible it is right now for religious minorities there.

I do want to add that, I understand that militias pre-date the United States. So, some of it is a cultural thing, but Iran has taken them over and it is running so many of them, especially the ones in the Nineveh Plains, which is really problematic. They obviously are against Christians and Yazidis and other religious minorities. I do know that people often work in these militias, it’s a job. So we’re not suggesting that all of them are like lockstep against everyone but the whole system as a whole.

I had the privilege of meeting with some high ranking Iraqi officials that had been in the cabinet and others brainstorming about ways in which they can be dismantled. And there are ways that some could go into the government. There are different ways that people have brainstormed how to do this and it has to be done for Iraq to move forward. There was no way that they could have religious freedom with the security situation being the way it is. I know in July, the US government sanctioned the 30th brigade and the 50th brigade under the global Magnitsky human rights accountability act for a variety of abuses including physical intimidation, extortion, robbery, kidnapping, rape, looting, selling land illegally.

So, we are concerned about the conditions in Nineveh Plains. We would hope that the government will move toward self-governance for Yazidis and Christians and there would be an opportunity for them to come back and to be able to experience religious freedom in Iraq.

What’s the US’s role? You have been recommending the US government to pressure the governments. Is this something that the current administration is interested in? Or what are the ways that they could help these religious minorities?

Well, clearly the US government has put a priority on religious freedom. And I think we, you’ve probably heard this a lot, that the Trump administration is the best administration ever on religious freedom. And they have done so much to rebuild these communities in the Nineveh Plains area.

The problem has been the government of Iraq has not been willing to stand up against Iran – so, basically the past prime ministers. And now we have a new prime minister, and the question is, he had to be approved by a majority Shia parliamentarians. So, is he going to stand up against the Iran-backed militias or not? I understand you might not be able to do that immediately, but we are hoping he will.

As for the US government, they’re independent from us. So I’m not quite sure, hopefully. We’re recommending that they are advocating for religious minorities. Knowing the way the administration cares about religious minorities, I’m sure they are. It’s a very complicated situation in Iraq. It is more complicated because, and I think part of the problem. Looking back at previous administrations, because this was long a problem before Trump came in, is that Iraq was looked at only from what wasn’t working, which is ISIS right.

And we’re seeing this even in Syria that the policy is to defeat ISIS. And so the militias were looked at like they were a nuisance and ISIS was the problem. So, we’re pouring all this money, all this treasure and time, and soldiers into trying to help Iraq when in the meantime, this festering problem of the militias is rising. And now we’re sitting here where that is the main problem. So it’s like they’re finishing what ISIS started against the religious minorities.

I was able to go to Jordan a couple of times to visit Christian families that have not been able to come back to the Nineveh Plains. There’s one family in particular I met with that tried to come back. And they came back. But they got a phone call the day they arrived there from someone saying that one of their family members, their daughter, had been killed. They got a call saying “if you stay, someone else in your family is going to die”. So they went back to Jordan and they’re living as refugees there. They can’t work, their children can’t go to public schools.

There’s still so many victims of genocide. Look at the Yazidi community most of them haven’t returned. Most of them are in the KRG, in Dohuk in the camps. And the KRG has just done an amazing job trying to care for them. This is well beyond something that you would expect a government the size of the KRG to be able to do. But we need to make it so they can come back.

They should be able to have self-governance in Sinjar and be able to rebuild their cities there and they just haven’t been able to because of the security situation of these militias.

So you made a point about self-governance, which is very understandable. Do you think, because these are all disputed territory, I don’t want to go too much into politics, but do you think the ideal solution for these religious minority groups would be self-governance in between both sides? that they can administer themselves?

I do. I know that the US Commission on International Religious Freedom has not taken, I don’t believe, a position on this. But so this would be, I’ve written about this personally and professionally before I even joined the commission, that this was the way forward.

I mean, I live outside of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. We have policemen that are from our own community that keep us safe because they’re invested in our community. Part of the problem with these areas is the security. They have never been able to have their own security forces, their own governance.

So I do believe it’s the way forward for Iraq. There’s a lot of people that do.

I think federalism has been talked about for a while for these countries. But no doubt it is not as simple as we approach it. And a lot of conversations need to be had with all the governments. But I do know the White House and the administration had been mentioning this to Iraq in the past.

So it’s certainly something. I think people that care about the religious minorities there see this as a possibility. It needs to be on the table.

Going to, to Syria, where you have visited North and East of Syria last November, I believe. And the areas that you have visited are under the Kurdish-led administration. It’s the Autonomous Administration of North East of Syria. What was it like there for the religious minorities?

It’s among the best conditions in the middle East for religious minorities. Christians can evangelize there freely, can build churches. I first heard about the Autonomous Administration in northeast Syria, actually I did not hear about them, until I joined the USCRIF commission. And I was amazed that this place existed. And as I learned more and more about how they had this freedom of religion or belief and how they’ve built governance. They built a democracy. They have a legitimate government that provides services and they built this during the civil war, during their fight against ISIS.

They have a very, as you know, very charismatic, General [Mazloum Abdi] heading the Syrian Democrtic Forces (SDF). He could have easily tried to build a military dictatorship. And that’s not what they did. They built a democracy. So here we go to so many places and we go to places like Afghanistan or even Iraq some extent where we help them. We try to get them to learn how to govern, how to provide human rights, how to have religious freedom, you can’t and it doesn’t work. We’re leaving Afghanistan having failed that.

And here we are in a place where it’s working. You can’t make people care about each other. You can’t make them care about religious freedom, care about human rights. And there’s a place that does. So I was just listening to a discussion online about Syria with some really impressive experts and it was disappointing to me that the Autonomous Administration of North and East of Syria never came up in the conversation. The conversation was about Assad, it was about Russia, about Iran, about Turkey, about ISIS, about all the players. It’s literally the most dangerous conflict in the world happening in this country. Even China’s on the ground economically. Everyone is there because of the strategic importance of this.

And you have a place that’s working, that has the best military even on the ground. The only reason that the Syrian Democratic Forces have had problems like with Turkey is because they don’t have air power. But in terms of providing security, that isn’t a problem. So it seems that sometimes the US policy, and like I said, is historically looking at how to fight what is evil. And obviously ISIS is evil, Assad is what he’s done to his own people. But yet we also should be supporting what’s working, because that’s really the best way to fight the enemy is to show them what freedom looks like.

I think that’s why they all want the Autonomous Administration gone. Because of the freedom right across their borders. Like we say, like West Berlin to East Berlin, they can see freedom. They don’t want their own people to see what freedom looks like. We’re seeing how Turkey has come in and taken land from them. If you look at any of the land they have taken, they take away religious freedom. They are moving people. Doing population transfers and enforcing what some people call an ethic cleansing, cause Christian Kurds, Yazidis to flee and then replacing them with Syrian refugees from other parts of the country.

So I really do believe it’s in the United States best interest to support the Autonomous Administration and help them be stronger and be this light that they already are for Syria.

The Kurds have reported tens of cases, if not hundreds with documents, footage, evidence of the Turkish violations and the jihadist groups. Islamic jihadist groups that they are backing. Not only against the Kurds but against others, as you mentioned, Yazidis and Christians, especially during their first invasion of the Afrin region in 2018. Does the USCIRF monitor the situation under Turkey’s control of Syria?

We do. I might add Turkey is the only NATO member that the US Commission on International Religious Freedom reports on. In fact, in the USCIRF report on Syria, we recommend that the US government pressure Turkey to provide a timeline to withdraw from Northeast Syria because of these exact violations.

So we’re really concerned about the Free Syrian Army and the radical Islamic factions and how they’re going after Yazidis, Christians in other areas. Afrin obviously is the oldest example. So it’s a little bit more work played out. But you see the same thing happening in other areas that they have taken in. They’ve made it very clear President Erdogan has made very clear plans to come back again. So for religious freedom, Turkey is a negative influence on religious freedom and these war crimes and what some people have even said could be crimes against humanity with a population transfer. And these Yazidi shrines that have destroyed and the re-settlement of the refugees.

So you’re right, there are many, many documented, atrocities and violations and war crimes that appear to be coming from these areas.

The US decision to withdraw from both Syria and Iraq obviously is the biggest fear of the Kurds because as they say, it’s like feeding the Kurds to the wolves. Also it will empower the enemies of the United States, including several terror groups like Al-Qaeda and ISIS and other jihadists who are backed by Turkey. Where does the USCIRF stand on such a move by the policymakers?

The USCRIF repeatedly called on the US government to prioritize religious freedom in Syria and Iraq. And that we have spoken out in favor of keeping troops in Syria and Iraq in order to protect religious freedom. We are very concerned about the potential if they left, what that would mean, particularly for Northeast Syria but even Iraq. I talked about the Hashad al Shaabi in Iraq, but I didn’t really mention that they’ve moved into Syria as well and are backing up Assad and you have so many players right there. I’ll be honest, freedom on their border is a threat.

So of course, if the US is not there’s no doubt they’re going to try to destroy the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria.

The thing that’s so remarkable is this really quite a great return on investment. There are only 400 US soldiers in Syria right now. That is a really small amount for keeping these guys at bay. So it appears that the Trump administration doesn’t need us to teach them how to govern. They need our support. Certainly we can give advice. I mean, we’re not suggesting they’re perfect, of course, but they don’t need a lot from us. They don’t need us to provide some of the things these other countries we already provide to them. What they need is for us to just be there so that they can continue to develop their project to be able to expand on all the rights they’ve given to their people to be able to have.

We’ve suggested lifting sanctions from only the area they govern. So they’re able to build an economy and let them build their project and have freedom. It’s what America stands for, freedom.

And this is a place to have it right in the middle of this conflict. It’s the best weapon. You can’t win the war of ideas with weapons. You can only win the war of ideas by showing people what it looks like and showing people what freedom looks like across the ocean isn’t very effective. Showing people what freedom looks like just across the country is a totally different thing.

So, I mean, I’ve been excited by what I’ve seen. I’ve had the opportunity to continue to work with the leaders of the Autonomous Administration and learn more about what they’re doing. I did not even talk about the fact there more women leaders in the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria than there are in the West and America. To see how women are empowered there to lead, is again an impressive statistic. I mean, I’m excited by what I see, but I’m also concerned because I know it’s fragile and I know that U.S. policy can make a big impact.

So that’s why I’m pleased that the US commission made these recommendations and I’m hopeful that the administration will take those into account because I know they also prioritize religious freedom.

Turkey under President Recep Tayyip Erdgoan has seen significant aid and support for the Islamic schools in the country. Especially the Imam Hatip schools, which is a concern because it encourages extremism as have happened in the past. Do you think such an approach and aid for these Islamic extreme schools could affect the religious freedom in Turkey?

The USCIRF has followed it and expressed concern about Turkey’s various education programs for a while now and the proliferation of these schools. And the conversion of mini secular and other schools to become these Imam Hatip schools is really an obstacle for families and students that don’t want that kind of education.

I’ve written about this personally, about what we call Islamic fascism, which is ruling by using Islam with violence. I distinguish by saying that most Muslims are not, do not subscribe to this. Right. In fact, I’d say that ISIS, and like Erdogan i.e. the way he’s been ruling, Iran, such countries… I mean, Muslims have probably lost more. More muslims killed by them than any other religion. So I wish we make a distinction here. But there’s this threat that’s coming, that we’re seeing, that I’ve written about with Turkey in particular, of really forcing this extreme version of Islam.

We were very concerned about the decline of religious freedom by conditions in Turkey. We have found it internally, but it seems like in Syria in particular, it’s easier almost for them. They don’t have the same sort of democratic guardrails that some that exist in Turkey that keep Erdogan from making, maybe the kind of changes he’d want to make. But that’s why, when it gets to Syria, he seems to rule so harshly because they’re able to.

So to me, that almost shows what his goal would be if you look at a friend. And that’s really dangerous when you see a friend. So we’re very concerned about Turkey as we write in our report. It’s why we’ve recommended them to be on the special watch list at the State Department because of their conditions. So we also recommend that the US government raise at the highest levels the reopening of the Greek Orthodox seminary and to comply with European Court of Human Rights, religious freedoms ruling.

So a lot of people are watching Turkey and we’re very concerned with conditions and how they continue to decline in the country. And like I said, as well as in Syria and other places that they have had a footprint.

Published by the Washington Kurdish Institute (WKI) on 17 May 2020.