The Assyrian Policy Institute was pleased to attend the second annual Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom hosted by the U.S. Department of State from July 16 to July 18, 2019. API Director Reine Hanna attended the three-day conference with Iranian-Assyrian human rights activist Dabrina Bet Tamraz.
Several of the API’s community partner organizations were also represented at the Ministerial, including the Assyrian Aid Society – Iraq (AAS-I), the Iraqi Christian Relief Council (ICRC), the Assyrian American Association of Southern California (AAASC), as well as the Nineveh Plain Defense Fund. It is estimated that nearly one thousand individuals participated in the 2019 Ministerial.
According to the U.S. State Department:
"The Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom brings together leaders from around the world to discuss the challenges facing religious freedom, identify means to address religious persecution and discrimination worldwide, and promote greater respect and preservation of religious liberty for all. This event focuses on concrete outcomes that reaffirm international commitments to promote religious freedom and produce real, positive change."
The 2019 Ministerial provided a unique opportunity for attendees to hear from and engage with officials, diplomats, experts, advocates, activists, and representatives of civil society organizations from around the world. It is our hope that this Ministerial leads to meaningful action benefiting minoritized religious communities across the globe. The following is a summary of events:
The Ministerial opened with remarks from Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom Sam Brownback and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. Other highlights on Day 1 included a powerful address from Nobel Peace Prize laureate Nadia Murad and a panel discussion with U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and retired Congressman Frank Wolf.
Day 2 of the Ministerial included a robust agenda with various breakout sessions. The program featured several Assyrian speakers, including Dabrina Bet Tamraz and William Warda who spoke on a panel entitled “Addressing Challenges to Religious Freedom in the Middle East.” Read Bet Tamraz’s full testimony here.
Assyrian human rights advocate and former Iraqi Minister Pascale Warda also delivered a speech on the challenges faced by women and marginalized peoples in Iraq.
Later that afternoon, Dabrina Bet Tamraz joined a delegation of survivors of religious persecution at a meeting with U.S. President Donald Trump at the White House. She spoke on her family’s plight in Iran and the President vowed to look into the situation. Watch the full meeting here. She also hand-delivered a letter signed by a coalition of Assyrian organizations, including the API, AAASC, AAS-I, and the ICRC.
Later in the evening, representatives of the API attended the first-ever International Religious Freedom Awards ceremony, which honored “extraordinary advocates of religious freedom from around the world.” Among the six honorees were two Assyrians: Pascale and William Warda. According to the State Department: “William and Pascale Warda have devoted their lives to advancing religious freedom and other human rights in Iraq.”
The couple co-founded the Hammurabi Human Rights Organization (HHRO) in 2003—HHRO monitors and reports on human rights violations in Iraq, launches advocacy campaigns related to human rights violations, and provides humanitarian assistance following instances of violence. Learn more about the honorees here.
The final day of the Ministerial was reserved for foreign ministers and select NGOs and featured remarks from Secretary of State Mike Pompeo a keynote address from U.S. Vice President Mike Pence. The meeting was held at the U.S. State Department. The API attended and observed as diplomats from around the world pledged to promote religious freedom. Several ministers made mention of the plight of Assyrians, including those representing Armenia, Iraq, and Hungary. Representatives of more than 100 countries were in attendance; see the full list of attending delegations here.
API representatives had the opportunity to speak with a number of ministers and ambassadors on the current situation for Assyrians in their homeland, notably Iraqi Minister Mohamed Ali Alhakim and Iraqi Ambassador to the U.S. Fareed Yasseen.
In their remarks on Day 3, both Secretary Pompeo and Vice President Pence recognized Assyrian human rights activist Dabrina Bet Tamraz, and the U.S. Department of State has since formally called for the release of her family members, who were imprisoned for activities related to the peaceful practice of their Christian faith.
The Ministerial later concluded with a closing reception held at the National Museum of African American History and Culture.
It is imperative to engage with religious leaders and faith-based institutions when dealing with matters of religious persecution. However, the API emphasizes the need to depoliticize religious leadership—particularly with regard to the Christian community in Iraq—in order to promote the development of democratic forms of administration in areas inhabited by minoritized communities.
The API is concerned by practices exhibited by U.S. and European officials through which Christian religious leaders are legitimized as political representatives. The politicization of Christian religious leaders in Iraq has contributed significantly to internal sectarianism among ethnic Assyrians and encourages intra-Christian political competition—detrimental to an already fragile and disadvantaged community. The strategic conversion of churches into institutions of political party organizations has been particularly divisive for Assyrians as an ethnic group and has encouraged the co-opting of religious figures by external actors. Further, this practice denies Assyrians their right to democratic and duly-elected representation.
The politicization of Christian religious leadership in Iraq undermines the fragile democratic processes that should be protected by governments committed to advancing democratic norms in Iraq. It is our recommendation that when dealing with matters related to governance and security affecting Assyrians, Western officials should favor and empower secular and legitimate representation.