Welcome to this week’s edition of the Middle East File. As usual, we feature a range of articles, some academic and some covering events of recent days. 

First is an article from the Harvard Kennedy School’s Journal of Middle Eastern Politics and Policy. As part of a special issue on Civil Society and Social Transformations, I look at the role religious freedom might play in an Iraq that continues to negotiate both its political and social structures. Also, in the same issue, you can find a piece from my new RFI colleague Lena Abboud on the role of education in pursuing community transformation in a post-conflict society.

Over the past two weeks, the world’s 2 billion+ Christians have celebrated Easter. USCIRF commissioners Frederick Davie and Jim Carr took this occasion to highlight the realities of Christian persecution taking place in various places around the globe.  

Over the past week, Afghanistan has witnessed an escalation in violence as the ISIS affiliate, Islamic State in Khorasan Province, has particularly targeted mosques and schools amongst the Hazara Shi’a community amidst a rash of other attacks, highlighting, as Ellen Ioanes notes, yet another challenge the Taliban government is facing in its attempts to govern.

Challenges around religious freedom do not only take the form of violent persecution but also are seen in things such as education and school curriculum. A long-overdue ruling was finally handed down from Turkey’s Constitutional Court on a case involving compulsory religious education courses. This is one front in ongoing battles over what is seen as acceptable or desirable religion.  

Finally, be sure to check out the extended conversation between RFI’s Miles Windsor and His Eminence Archbishop Angaelos, the Coptic Archbishop of London. The conversation is wide-ranging, from the legacy of persecution in the 1st century to contemporary advocacy for religious freedom in the 21st century. 

Also, be sure to visit the Middle East Action Team page to find more resources and follow us on Twitter.

Jeremy P. Barker
Director, Middle East Action Team
Religious Freedom Institute 
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Toward a Stable and Inclusive Iraq? Individual and Institutional Religious Freedom Can Help  by Jeremy Barker (Journal of Middle Eastern Politics and Policy)

Introduction: “In my country religious freedom means life. Thousands of people have been killed only for their identity or even for their name! It is not easy to live in country if the authority and the community can’t accept your belief or your style of rituals. So religious freedom is crucial for my country.” This was the reflection of an Iraqi religious leader when asked about the value of religious freedom at the end of a two-day dialogue with representatives from many of Iraq’s diverse religious and ethnic communities.” 


This article seeks to provide some context to Iraq’s political and social dynamics since 2003, including the role of the Muhasasa system in hardening fragmentation and division. It will then look at the 2019 Tishreen Movement, a core feature of which was a rejection of this system, and the subsequent attempts to translate those demands into political and social change. Finally, it will consider how religious freedom, in both its individual and institutional dimensions, may have something to contribute toward supporting a more stable and inclusive Iraq. 
Why it Matters: The question of what role religion and religious actors play in Iraq's political and social dynamics has been highly contested since 2003. An understanding of what religious freedom means – both individual and institutional – could be vital in navigating a highly religious and also highly contentious environment.

This article is part of the Spring 2022 Edition of the Harvard Kennedy School's Journal of Middle Eastern Politics and Policy focused on Civil Society and Social Transformations. 

This Easter, don't forget about persecuted Christians around the world by Frederick Davie and Jim Carr (USA Today)

The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom has long advocated for the religious freedom of individuals of diverse faiths­­ and beliefs across the globe, from Uyghur Muslims facing China’s campaign of genocide to Jews experiencing an alarming rise of antisemitism in Europe and nonbelievers facing challenges across Africa. 

This Easter, we also highlight that Christians – millions who suffer at the hands of both state and nonstate actors – are experiencing terrible threats and persecution across many countries.

In the Middle East and North Africa, for example, the Algerian government has forcibly closed 13 Protestant churches and ordered the closure of seven more, while two decades of conflict, instability and genocidal terrorism have reduced Iraq’s indigenous Christian community from 1.4 million to fewer than 250,000.

Why it Matters: The celebration of Easter marked by hundreds of millions of Christians around the world represents an important opportunity to consider the realities of persecution impacting millions of Christians. Persecution can take a variety of forms, from targeted violence to government repression, to the more subtle forms of social pressures coming that can come from religious, tribal, or even family members. 



Deadly attacks on Afghan minorities show the Taliban isn’t keeping its promises by Ellen Ioanes (Vox)

A spate of attacks this week all over Afghanistan killed at least 77 people, including children. At least one — and likely most — of the attacks were carried out by ISIS Khorasan (ISIS-K), the Islamic State affiliate active mostly in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The devastating attacks are further destabilizing a nation already in economic free fall and further increase doubt that the Taliban can protect the Afghan people — especially minorities — from violence and terror.

The attacks started Tuesday, with double bombings at the Abdul Rahim Shaheed High School and in the vicinity of the Mumtaz Education Center, both in the capital Kabul. There were at least six deaths and 17 injuries at the Abdul Rahim Shaheed High School in the predominantly Shia and Hazara Dasht-e-Barchi neighborhood, Al Jazeera reported Tuesday. While no group has yet claimed responsibility for the attacks, ISIS-K has been known to target Dasht-e-Barchi in the past. Government workers in Kunduz province were targeted this week as well — an attack for which ISIS-K claimed credit.

Attacks continued Thursday, with a bombing at a Shia mosque in Mazar-e-Sharif, in northern Afghanistan. That attack, which ISIS-K claimed credit for on Friday, killed at least 31 people and injured many more, Pamela Constable reported in the Washington Post Friday. The Associated Press put the number of dead much lower, at 12, in a Saturday report. In a statement on Friday claiming responsibility for the attack, ISIS-K said that the bomb was in a bag that was left in the Seh Doken mosque; it exploded when the mosque was filled with worshippers. “When the mosque was filled with prayers, the explosives were detonated remotely,” the ISIS-K statement claimed, also alleging that 100 worshippers were injured. Around the same time, the New York Times reported Friday, ISIS-K attacked a bus in Kunduz province, killing four and injuring 18.

After the Taliban government announced it had arrested the “mastermind” of the Mazar-e-Sharif bombing in Balkh province on Friday, an explosion at a mosque in Kunduz province killed at least 30, and a mine went off near a market in Kabul, ending the already-devastating week with even more destruction.

Why it Matters: The series of bombings across Afghanistan represent just one facet of the serious challenges that are continuing to face the country. The Islamic State remains active in Afghanistan, a challenge to the Taliban's efforts to impose control. These attacks targeted Shi'a Muslims at schools and a mosque, a Sunni mosque, and government employees and public spaces. These only serve to compound the mounting humanitarian pressures and needs for maintaining access to food and other basic services across the country. 



Turkey’s top court rules compulsory religion courses violate rights by Nazlan Ertan (al-Monitor)

Turkey’s top court ruled that compulsory religion classes violate freedom of religion, upholding the two past rulings of the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) that criticized Ankara on the principle and content of compulsory religious education.

The Constitutional Court’s verdict last week follows a long legal battle by Huseyin El, who wanted to pull his daughter out of compulsory education classes more than a decade ago because their content was not in line with his religious and philosophical beliefs. The school principal insisted that Nazli Sirin El, a fourth grader at the time, should take the course because only Christian and Jewish citizens of Turkey could be exempted. Nazli Sirin El is neither. She and her father are Alevis, a branch of Islam whose believers worship in a cemevi, rather than a mosque, with men and women alongside one another. But El insisted that it mattered little whether he was an Alevi, Jewish or an atheist, challenging the concept of compulsory religious courses and his right to stop his child from attending them.

Why it Matters: The long-overdue court decision represents an important test case for how diversity will be handled within Turkey's public spaces. The conception of secularism in Turkey has been an important question since the founding of the Turkish republic and remains still to the present. This case helps to consider whether the rights of all communities to be religious will be protected, avoiding both an enforced anti-religious secularist identity or an enforced particular Islamic identity. 



Learning From the Coptic Church's Experience of Persecution interview with Archbishop Angaelos by Miles Windsor (Religious Freedom Institute)

Miles Windsor, Senior Manager for Strategy and Campaigns for RFI’s Middle East Action Team, recently interviewed His Eminence Archbishop Angaelos, head of the Coptic Orthodox Church in London, on the Coptic Church’s long experience and understanding of persecution. In the interview, Windsor and Angaelos discussed what the worldwide church can learn from the Coptic experience in terms of the foundations and history of Christian persecution, how to understand and respond to it, how to endure waves of trial and hardship, how to stand in defense of “spiritual kin” and how to protect religious freedom for people of all faiths.

At one point, Archbishop Angaelos stated, “Persecution has been a blessing for us and provides us with an insight, thankfully not leading us into turning in on ourselves, but actually leading us to advocate for others so that no one else experiences what we've experienced.”

His Eminence Archbishop Angaelos, head of the Coptic Orthodox Church in London and Miles Windsor, Senior Manager for Strategy and Campaigns, Middle East, Religious Freedom Institute | Read More
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