NGO Open Letter to the Holy See on the Visit of Pope Francis to Iraq

Basilica di San Pietro in Vaticano

H.E. Cardinal Pietro Parolin
Palazzo Apostolico Vaticano
Secretary of State of the Holy See
00120 Via del Pellegrino
Città del Vaticano


4 March 2021

Your Eminence,

As members of Iraqi civil society and international NGOs, we welcome the apostolic visit by His Holiness Pope Francis to Iraq in March 2021. At this critical moment in the country’s history, the visit represents an important opportunity to promote peace and tolerance by bringing together ethno-religious communities and inspiring collective action to prevent further atrocities of the kind that has caused so much suffering for generations.

Over many centuries the rich tapestry of ethno-religious communities in the region has been woven in largely peaceful conditions, but in more recent times minority groups have faced increasing levels of persecution and violent attacks based on religious beliefs. Ongoing genocides have forced communities to flee their ancestral homelands, unravelling the ties that bind people together in this cradle of civilisation.

The misuse of Sharia Law led to the institutionalized marginalization of non-Muslim minorities in Iraq, exacerbated by Saddam Hussein’s attempts to change the demography of the Iraqi state. The 2003 US-led intervention severely destabilized inter-communal relations, resulting in state collapse, sectarian warfare, and the proliferation of extremist ideologies and armed groups. The Christian population has been reduced to a mere 300,000 today. Other minority communities such as Yazidis, Sabean-Mandaeans, Turkmen, Kak’ais, and Shabaks have faced existential threats in recent years.

From August 2014, the terrorist group Da’esh, also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), exploited the lack of religious freedoms to launch a genocidal campaign against ethno-religious minorities in Iraq. The targeted violence sought to erase the presence of religious minorities in Iraq altogether, and particularly of the Yazidis, decried by ISIS as devil-worshippers. ISIS executed those who refused religious conversion, and destroyed countless shrines, churches, temples, and other cultural sites. 

The threat of future atrocities from Da’esh remains clear and present despite the terrorist group’s territorial defeat. We continue to see hate speech against minorities promulgated by extremist clerics across Iraq, and intolerance remains deep-rooted because of a lack of education on other religions and human rights. Recent demographic changes in the Nineveh plains have been accompanied by the increased presence of militia groups in the region. The inadequacy of basic services and infrastructure alongside the ongoing security threat leaves communities with a sense of hopelessness and despair.

We welcome the efforts already taken to safeguard religious freedom in Iraq, such as the Interfaith Statement on the Victims of ISIL endorsed by religious leaders from the Christian, Sunni, Shia, and Yazidi communities, and supported by UNITAD and the UN Office on Genocide Prevention. However, without justice and accountability for past atrocities, religious communities will continue to face persecution and the threat of repeated violence.

The visit of His Holiness Pope Francis to Iraq is an ideal opportunity to promote cooperation and unity of purpose among the Government of Iraq, the Kurdish Regional Government, religious leaders, and the wider international community in order to comprehensively address the needs of affected communities. We recommend that these stakeholders take the following steps:

  1. To provides reparations for survivors of the genocide by Da’esh and adopt legislation that delivers justice for victims.
  2. To put in place security and political arrangements that will protect ethno-religious communities in their historical homelands from future atrocities and demographic changes. In addition to reconstructing destroyed areas in Sinjar, Tel Afar and the Nineveh Plains, basic services and livelihood opportunities must be provided to encourage communities to return to their homes.
  3. To provide psychosocial therapy support for survivors, particularly women and children, to assist in social reintegration.
  4. To change laws that affect the religion and dignity of religious minorities, such as Article 26 of the unified national card Law No. 3 of 2016.
  5. To promote religious education across Iraq by means of cultural events and activities that inform the population about minority communities; integrate education about religious minorities in the Iraqi school curriculum to combat misinformation.
  6. For the United Nations to facilitate a follow-up conference to broaden the endorsement for the Interfaith Statement by other religious communities.


The Undersigned:

  1. Air Bridge Iraq - Luftbrücke Irak
  2. American Islamic Congress
  3. Asia-Pacific Centre for the Responsibility to Protect `
  4. Assyrian Policy Institute
  5. CAPNI Organization
  6. Center for Justice and Accountability
  7. Civil Development Organization
  8. Coalition for Genocide Response
  9. CSW
  10. Darfur Women Action Group
  11. EMMA Organization for Human Development
  12. European Federation for Freedom or Belief
  13. European Interreligious Forum for Religious Freedom
  14. Eyzidi Organization for Documentation
  15. Eziden Weltweit e. V.
  16. Freedom House
  17. Free Yezidi Foundation
  18. Genocide Watch
  19. Hammurabi Human Rights Organization
  20. Harikar
  22. International Christian Foundation for Democracy
  23. International Coalition for the Responsibility to Protect
  24. Iraqi Institution for Development
  25. Jiyan Foundation for Human Rights
  26. Joint Help for Kurdistan
  27. Masarat
  28. Middle East Concern
  29. Montreal Institute for Genocide and Human Rights Studies
  30. Mosaic Middle East
  31. Nadia’s Initiative
  32. Observer Human Rights Center
  33. PAX
  34. Project Abraham
  35. Religious Freedom Institute
  36. Refcemi
  37. Shlomo Organization for Documentation
  38. Springs of Hope Foundation
  39. Soteria International
  40. TAJDID Iraq Foundation for Economic Development
  41. Tuly NGO for Turkmen Affairs
  42. Turkmen Rescue Foundation
  43. World Federalist Movement/Institute for Global Policy
  44. Voice of Ezidis
  45. Yazda
  46. Yazidi Legal Network

Photo at the top of the page: St. Peter's Basilica in the Vatican (Credits: Alvesgaspar, CC BY-SA 4.0)