The Islamic State of Iraq and Sham (ISIS) is killing, kidnapping, and threatening religious and ethnic minorities in and around the northern Iraqi city of Mosul.
Since capturing Mosul on June 10, 2014, the armed Sunni extremist group has seized at least 200 Turkmen, Shabaks, and Yazidis, killed at least 11 of them, and ordered all Christians to convert to Islam, pay “tribute” money, or leave Mosul by July 19.
On June 29, ISIS abducted two nuns and three Christian orphans, whom it held for 15 days. Around that same time, ISIS issued orders barring Yazidi and Christian employees, as well as ethnic Kurds, from returning to their government jobs in Mosul, two regional government officials and a priest told Human Rights Watch.
Virtually all Turkmen and Shabaks – tens of thousands of families – have fled their communities near Mosul as a result of ISIS raids, in which the fighters seize local men and pillage homes and places of worship, residents of those villages said. Mosul’s few remaining Christian families also have fled, local priests said.
“ISIS should immediately halt its vicious campaign against minorities in and around Mosul,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Being a Turkman, a Shabak, a Yazidi, or a Christian in ISIS territory can cost you your livelihood, your liberty, or even your life.”
Local Shabak and Shia Turkmen representatives told Human Rights Watch that they have received reports from Sunni contacts that ISIS has killed many of the men taken prisoner. ISIS has summarily executed Shia captives several times in Iraq, for example killing soldiers en masse in Tikrit, 180 kilometers north of Baghdad, after taking that city on June 11.
It reportedly killed at least 40 Shia Turkmen, including children, in four communities near the city of Kirkuk, about 100 kilometers southeast of Mosul, on June 16. ISIS has also tortured some of its detainees, Human Rights Watch said. In June, ISIS captured 28 Yazidi border guards and held them hostage for ransom for up to 25 days.
Two of those guards told Human Rights Watch after their release that ISIS repeatedly beat the Yazidis with guns and sticks, and called them “infidels.” On July 14, three days before it issued its decree on Christians, ISIS began placing marks on minorities’ properties to designate them as Christian, Shia Shabak, or Shia Turkmen, and levying a “jihad tax” on the few remaining Christian merchants, Christian residents and religious authorities told Human Rights Watch.
The group seized the buildings of the Chaldean Catholic archdiocese and the Assyrian Orthodox diocese in Mosul on June 29, several residents, government officials, and religious leaders told Human Rights Watch. They said that ISIS took down or destroyed six religious and cultural monuments in the city, including a statue of the Virgin Mary and an Islamic grave site.
ISIS also destroyed or damaged at least 13 Shia mosques and shrines in areas outside of Mosul between June 24 and July 2, they said. Some strict interpretations of Islam prohibit the depiction of people or animals in statues and art, or worship at the graves of venerated people – a common practice in Sufi and Shia Islam – on the belief that Muslims should only worship Allah.
ISIS, which formed in April 2013 and on June 30 changed its name to Islamic State, has captured broad swaths of Syria and Iraq and claims that it is establishing a caliphate in the region. It is the latest of several armed extremist Sunni groups to have systematically killed and threatened Iraq’s Chaldo-Assyrian Christians, Shia Shabaks and Turkmen, and Yazidis, labeling them crusaders, heretics, and devil-worshipers, respectively.
Iraq’s Christians are Assyrians, known as the Church of the East, or Chaldeans, an Eastern rite of the Catholic Church that broke away from the Assyrians. Yazidis, ethnically linked to Kurds, practice a 4,000-year-old religion that centers on the Peacock Angel. Shabaks have ethnic ties to Kurds, Turks, and Persians; the majority are Shia and the rest are Sunni.
A majority of Turkmen, of Turkic ethnicity, are Sunni, and the rest are Shia. These religious minority groups, concentrated in the Nineveh Plains surrounding Mosul, have been historically marginalized. Many of their communities are now flashpoints in the ISIS battle against Iraqi government forces. ISIS and its extremist Sunni precursors have largely targeted Shabaks and Turkmen who are Shia, not Sunni.
The laws of war ban all parties to a conflict from targeting, intentionally damaging, seizing or destroying religious, cultural and historic properties, provided they are not used for military purposes. Freedom of belief and religion itself is a fundamental human right, and under international law there can be no derogation, or partial suspension or repeal of the right, in times of conflict or state of emergency.
Under the laws of war the convictions and religious practices of civilians and all detainees must be respected. Discrimination on the grounds of religion is strictly prohibited. Murder of civilians, taking hostages, and the torture or killing of detainees, including captured combatants, as well as pillaging, constitute war crimes.
ISIS has also targeted Iraqi police and security forces, many of them Shia, ordering them to “repent” at designated mosques in Mosul and the nearby city of Tal Afar for following state law rather than Sharia (Islamic law), or face death. Under that threat, hundreds of security officials and soldiers have “repented,” local residents told Human Rights Watch.
But a relative of one Mosul policeman told Human Rights Watch that he fled instead after learning that two of his fellow police officers, both Shia, were found dead in late June in Mosul even though they had “repented” a few days earlier. In late June and early July, ISIS seized 15 to 20 Sunni military officers or leading members of the banned Baath Party of former President Saddam Hussein, two regional government officials and three local activists told Human Rights Watch.
ISIS released some of them but it has also taken in dozens of other former military officials and Baathists for hours of questioning, the two regional officials said. The detained Sunnis included Gen. Waad Hannoush, once a top commander under Saddam Hussein, and Saifeddin al-Mashhadani, a Baathist whom the US included on its list of “most-wanted” Iraqis following its 2003 invasion of Iraq, the two officials and Reuters news agency reported.
Baathists, who are largely secular, and former military officials under Saddam Hussein supported the ISIS takeover of Mosul at first and may have helped curb the group’s abuses in the area, several opposition regional government officials told Human Rights Watch. Indeed, ISIS initially told Yazidis and Christians that they were “welcome” in Mosul and had “nothing to fear” from ISIS, members of the two communities told Human Rights Watch.
The group’s abuses against minorities – though on a lesser scale than the violations the group has committed in neighboring Syria – and its roundups of ranking Baathists since then suggest fractures in the local Baathist-ISIS alliance.
ISIS should immediately cease its campaign of kidnapping, killing, and seizing or destroying the property of religious minorities, Human Rights Watch said. Regional Sunni authorities and members of other Sunni armed groups allied to ISIS should also press the group to stop its targeting of religious minorities and desecration.
“ISIS seems intent on wiping out all traces of minority groups from areas it now controls in Iraq,” Whitson said. “No matter how hard its leaders and fighters try to justify these heinous acts as religious devotion, they amount to nothing less than a reign of terror.”