Global Ministries

The United Methodist Church

Connecting the Church in Mission

Mission Concerns for Refugees and Human Rights in Iraq

Global Ministries advocates for those besieged by extremist forces and, with UMCOR, assists displaced minorities.

By Elliott Wright*               

August 28, 2014, New York, NY –Alleviation of human suffering and advocacy for justice and peace—two goals of United Methodist mission—dramatically come together in church responses to thousands of people being displaced and slaughtered by civil conflict in Iraq.

Since mid-summer, the self-proclaimed Islamic State (IS), also referred to as Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), has created havoc in the country of some 30 million people, primarily targeting ethnic and religious minorities for apparent extinction. IS also is at work in Syria.

The United Methodist General Board of Global Ministries is both providing assistance to those who have fled and advocating for the human rights of those under attack. To date, its United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR) has provided $170,000 in emergency assistance to communities pushed north by IS. UMCOR assists those in need without regard to religion, race or national origin. 

Global Ministries’ leaders have joined their voices with other Christians in calling for international diplomatic efforts to stop the IS rampage.

Ethnic Groupings

The highly complex situation pits IS, an ideologically driven military movement, against both the government of Iraq and various ethnic and religious groups. IS adheres to an extremist and intolerant version of Sunni Islam. The Iraqi government is dominated by Shia Muslims, who make up more than 60 per cent of the country’s majority Arab population, while all Sunni Arabs in Iraq represent about 30 per cent of the total population. 

Those especially in harm’s way are ethnic and religious groups, mostly in northern Iraq, particularly Kurdistan. They include Christians, also referred to as Assyrians or Chaldeans; Turkmen, who are Islamic but of Turkic culture; and Yazidis, a population of some 300,000 to 700,000, the estimates vary. The Yazidis are ethnic Kurds who follow a religious tradition that combines elements of Islam, Christianity and Zoroastrianism. (See “Ethnic and Religious Groups in Iraq” below for more detailed information.)               

The Christian population is today quite small, perhaps as low as 500,000, down from 1.4 million at the start of the U.S.-led military action in Iraq in 2003. The largest community is made up of adherents of the Chaldean Rite of the Catholic Church, while small groups are affiliated with the Assyrian Church of the East, an expression of Oriental Orthodoxy (as distinct from Eastern Orthodoxy). There are several congregations of Evangelical Protestants in the north and an Anglican parish in Baghdad.

Internally Displaced and Refugees

Christians are mixed in with the other minorities under attack. To date, most of the recently displaced populations are still inside Iraq, where they receive assistance from a range of international governmental and nongovernmental agencies. UMCOR is working with regional partners to provide those in need with food and water.               

About half of the four million displaced since the U.S.-led military invasion in 2003 are still in the country, while the rest are in adjoining nations, notably Jordan and Syria, or resettled in other parts of the world. Figures from the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program indicate that some 85,000 Iraqi refugees were admitted to the United States from 2007 through April, 2013—the most recent statistics available. There has not yet been enough time to refer and process any of those persons displaced by IS.

About 80,000 Iraqi Chaldean refugees have settled in the San Diego, California, area, according to an August 20 story by KPBS News. The Iraqis in San Diego have staged rallies, supported by others, asking the United States to grant alyssum to tens of thousands of Iraqi Christians. Detroit, Michigan, is another area of heavy Iraqi refugee concentration.

Human Rights Concerns      

Religious appeals for respect for the human rights of Iraqi minorities have come from a wide range of religious leaders, including Pope Francis and the World Council of Churches, which has more than 300 Protestant and Orthodox member churches.

On August 8, United Methodist Bishop Hope Morgan Ward of North Carolina, president of the General Board of Global Ministries, and Thomas Kemper, chief executive of the agency, issued a joint statement appealing for prayer and international diplomatic measures on behalf of those being oppressed in Iraq. 

In an uncharacteristic move, the heads of several Eastern and Oriental Orthodox Churches, who seldom address political issues, have spoken against what the spiritual leader of Eastern Orthodoxy called “irrational persecution, cultural intolerance and appalling loss of life.” Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, who is “first among equals” of the world’s Eastern Orthodox bishops, said that the church cannot remain silent or indifferent to what is happening in Iraq.               

The patriarchs, or their official representatives, of 10 Oriental and Eastern Orthodox churches based in the Middle East condemned the violence of what they termed “religious extremism” affecting Christian minorities in Iraq, Syria and Gaza. They expressed their hope that all animosities from the past may be laid aside in favor of a new era of peaceful coexistence among all religious groups in the Middle East.

Please pray for peace in Iraq. When you give to UMCOR International Disaster Response, Advance #982450, your gift supports UMCOR’s response to the emergency in Iraq and elsewhere around the world.               

English translations of the statements by Patriarch Bartholomew and the group of bishops were provided by the World Council of Churches.

*Elliott Wright is a writer and consultant to the General Board of Global Ministries.

Ethnic and Religious Groups in Iraq*

Arabs. The largest ethnic population, comprising 78 per cent of the population of more than 30 million, according to the Pew Research Center, of which 62 per cent are Shia Muslims, 30 per cent Sunni Muslims and six per cent “just Muslim,” in the Pew Center 2011 survey.

Kurds.  A distinct ethnic group, mostly of Sunni Muslim faith, concentrated in the north and often described in relation to a desire for autonomy or independence from Iraq. Kurds form 16 per cent of the Iraqi population, and it is in Kurdish territory that many of the people displaced by the Islamic State (IS), also referred to as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), have found refuge.   

Turkmen. The third largest ethnic group, made up of both Shia and Sunni Muslims and also a target of IS forces.  Population estimates range from 500,000 to 3 million.  Of Turkic culture, they are concentrated in the extreme north, with a concentration near the city of Kirkuk.

Yazidis. These are ethnic Kurds whose religious belief system combines elements of Islam (circumcision), Christianity (baptism), and Zoroastrianism (reverence of fire). They have long been a target of persecution. Yazidis community can also be found in Turkey, Syria and other countries, according to the Pew Research Center.  Their estimated number in Iraq is between 300,000 and 700,000. A part of their oppression stems from a misbelief that Yazidis are devil worshippers, based on reverence for Melek Tawwus, a fallen but, unlike Satan, restored angel.

Assyrians (Christians).  This ethnic group comprises most of the Christian minority. They are descendants of the indigenous people of Iraq from ancient and biblical times. They are Semitic in origin and today adhere to either a form of Roman Catholicism or Oriental Orthodoxy, the distinction based on early Christian theological differences.  There were some 1.4 million Christians in Iraq in 2003 at the outbreak of the U.S. war against Saddam Hussein, reduced to perhaps 500,000 before the recent IS rampage. The largest community is that of the Chaldean Rite Catholic Church. Originally a part of the Assyrian Church of the East, which was independent of the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox traditions, a part of this line affiliated with the Roman Catholic Church in the mid-16th century. It eventually became known as the Chaldean Rite, the name coming from the region of original concentration. Today, the communities are in northern Iraq, in the Mosul and Kirkuk areas.

*Information compiled by Elliott Wright.

The World Council of Churches (WCC) has asked the United Nations Human Rights Council to support religious minority communities in Iraq.