Last year marked two decades since the illegal invasion of Iraq and the overthrow of dictator Saddam Hussein's regime. It was a war that forever changed not only Iraq but the entire Middle East. Eight years after the start of the Iraq War, neighboring Syria was embroiled in a painful internal conflict and an international proxy war. The number of Christians in both these countries has drastically declined since 2003.
Christians in Iraq number around 120,000 today, according to the U.S. State Department--a huge fall in two decades from 1.2 million. Their population is expected to decline even further. In Syria, the Christian population has been reduced to 300,000. Before 2011, there were 1.5 million Christians living there, according to several human rights organizations. Most Christians in these countries are ethnic Assyrians/Syriacs/Chaldeans and Armenians. The decline in these Christian populations is due to religious persecution by terrorists.
Related: Timeline of ISIS in Iraq
Related: Attacks on Assyrians in Syria By ISIS and Other Muslim Groups
In the summer of 2014, after reporting on the wars in Iraq and Syria, I realized that journalism alone wasn't enough to bring attention to the plight of Christians and other religious minorities. Several terrorist organizations had joined together to form one of the world's most dangerous and powerful units ever created--the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, also known as ISIS. But hardly any of the major media outlets, nor the U.S. government or the United Nations, wanted to draw attention to the religious persecution. My home country of Sweden continued to deport Christian asylum seekers to Iraq even though the Iraqi government had asked them to stop, as their safety could not be guaranteed.
By 2014, it had been 10 years since Al Qaeda beheaded the first Christian in Iraq on camera, a young man named Raymond Shamoun. The video of the atrocity was spread all over Iraq, to frighten Christians into fleeing the country. It worked.
At that time, I posted on Facebook asking for help to draw attention to the ethno-religious persecution. Within two days we had started the A Demand For Action (ADFA) campaign--a network of volunteers across the globe working to stop an unfolding genocide.
We shared articles and posts thousands of times a day, on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. We contributed to tens of thousands of people demonstrating in cities such as Los Angeles, Chicago, Sydney, and Berlin. We reached the attention of politicians, mass media, and celebrities. We had all the documentation, all the facts and sources that were needed. Now politicians and the media could no longer be quiet.
Unfortunately, we failed in stopping the genocide. But the victims were given a voice. ADFA is now an established human rights and aid organization.
In December 2022, the U.N. recognized that the Islamic State carried out war crimes and crimes against humanity against Iraq's Christians. Behind words, numbers, varying reports, and decisions about what to call the violence are the people affected by the atrocities.
We at ADFA recently decided to interview refugees from Iraq and Syria, forgotten victims of ethnic and religious cleansing, living in Beirut.
Our report, The Elephant In The Room--The Forgotten Plight of Christians in Iraq and Syria, was produced by Lebanese artist and TV presenter Layal Nehme. We visited many Assyrians/Chaldeans/Syriacs and Armenians in Lebanon's capital. In the report, we asked why Christians continue to flee their homeland even though terrorist organizations such as ISIS have been defeated.
One refugee, Raghad Abdallah Matti, said that they could not afford the ransom money the terrorists demanded for his brother. Both his parents died of grief within months of the kidnapping. Raghad's brother has been missing since 2014.
In Lebanon, Raghad does not have the right to work, to health care, and his children do not have the right to education. He, just like everyone else, is left to the winds. Completely forgotten. ADFA's proposal and demand is that those who want to return to their home countries should be given the opportunity to do so. They must feel safe and secure.
The refugees in Lebanon, and in other neighboring countries, such as in Jordan and Turkey, need financial help. They must be able to buy food and seek medical care. Those who want and have applied to move to Western countries, such as to Australia, Canada, or somewhere in Europe, should be prioritized in the asylum system.
The most affected by numbers by the wars in Iraq and Syria are Shiite and Sunni Muslims. But Indigenous Peoples such as Assyrians/Syriacs/Chaldeans, Armenians, and Yezidis are threatened with ethno-religious cleansing. We would have preferred to see them safely return to their home countries. But the vast majority of them refuse to do so out of fear of persecution, as outlined in our report.
The international community must not forget these victims of ethno-religious cleansing. Their continued suffering, as survivors of crimes against humanity, testifies to the failure of the international community at large. By writing the report and participating in the International Religious Freedom Summit in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 30-31, we hope for real change.
Raymond Shamoun must have a voice again. His brutal murder and the consequences of the violence that followed must not be forgotten. The Christians of Iraq and Syria are not yesterday's news. They are human beings. Human rights organizations, politicians, and others who fight against religious persecution of any kind must always remember and consider them.
Nuri Kino is an independent investigative multi-award-winning reporter and minority rights expert.