Saving Iraqi Religious Minorities and Their Heritage

Knox Thames is a Senior Fellow at the Institute for Global Engagement and Visiting Expert at the U.S. Institute of Peace. He previously served as the State Department Special Advisor for Religious Minorities under both the Obama and Trump administrations

Since the U.S. invasion and subsequent ISIS onslaught, the future for religious minorities in Iraq is increasingly uncertain. Once one of the largest Christian communities in the Middle East, Iraq’s Christian community has shrunk to an estimated 250,000 from over 1.5 million before the American intervention. Many fear the country known as the “Cradle of Christianity” will soon be a graveyard. And the world witnessed the barbaric treatment of Yezidis by ISIS.

When I served in the Obama and Trump State Department in a special envoy role focused on religious minorities, I made multiple trips to Iraq, hearing firsthand about the victimization of minorities. In my diplomatic engagements, I searched for ways to turn the tide against seemingly unstoppable currents that drove minorities out. Caught between religious extremists and discriminatory laws, theirs is a vexing problem with no obvious or immediate solutions. But we were able to make some progress. Christians and minorities feel forgotten, so the Pope’s recent visit provided a high-profile shot in the arm for these efforts.


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Advancing Religious Freedom in Different Political Regimes in Theory and Practice

Elizabeth A. Clark is Associate Director, International Center for Law and Religion Studies and Regional Advisor for Europe at the J. Reuben Clark Law School, Brigham Young University

There are many aspects of advancing religious freedom globally. As an academic, I can speak most to the theory and practice of assessing and promoting compliance with international norms on freedom of religion or belief.  In practice, I’ve consulted with national governments, NGOs, U.S. government bodies, or intergovernmental organizations in dozens of countries, with a particular emphasis in post-Communist Europe and Central Asia. Most of my work is this sphere is focused on legal analysis and education, often in the form of technical analyses of draft laws, working with other comparative law scholars on amicus briefs, expert testimony, or engaging in legal trainings.

At the outset, it’s important to stress that, even when I’ve worked with the U.S. government, the effort has never been to impose American values or norms, but to instead focus on compliance with international norms and treaties that a country may be party to.

To frame the question of advancing religious freedom, two models are helpful. The first looks at methods of influencing regimes to be more compliant with their international and domestic human rights commitments, and the second focuses more on the process of the regime change.


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