The humanitarian superpower Sweden is lagging behind in taking action against one of the greatest threats to the world.
On September 10, the day that Ann Linde became Sweden’s new Foreign Minister, human rights activists in Iraq reminded me of photos taken by poet Jamil Aljamil in March 2017 that more than two years later, were published on the Ezidi24 website. Aljamil happened to be on the scene when a security group found a mass grave in an Assyrian /Syriac / Chaldean village and excavated seven corpses. Thanks to the photos, relatives of those buried were able to identify their relatives.
Some pictures never leave one’s memory, for example when the Nobel Peace Prize winner Nadia Murad and other survivors from the Iraqi village of Kojo (also spelled Kocho), returned there in the summer to look for members of their families among corpses lying in mass graves. The village, which previously was home to 1,400 people, is now a ghost town. No one lives there anymore.
On August 16, 2014, ISIS entered the village. They ordered the Yazidis who lived there to convert to Islam or die. The terrorists took the villagers to a school and divided them into groups. There was a group only of younger women and girls, a group of small boys, a group of middle-aged and older women and a group of men. Those men and women who could not be sold in sex markets were massacred.
Necla Matta was one of those who were sold. When she finally fled ISIS, she became one of those refugees that who were brought into Germany and given residence permits. This year, on August 16, on the very day five years after she was stolen from her family, she, together with journalist Düzen Tekkal, returned to her village.
She went to the school, re-lived everything that had happened and began crying hysterically. After she calmed down, she began to look through the uploaded photos of the missing Kojo inhabitants and, when she found her mother’s picture among them, she started screaming hysterically beating herself with her fists. Forty-three of her family members and relatives were killed on August 16, 2014.
On August 22 of this year, while we were following the excavations of mass graves live via social media, an important meeting was held at the UN building in New York. On twin monitors, I saw both how the Kojo survivors helped to excavate the remains of their family members, as well as the ongoing UN conference.
It was a historic day. The UN-designated that day as the UN International Day Commemorating the Victims of Acts of Violence Based on Religion or Belief. It was a signal that religiously motivated violence will no longer be tolerated.
The initiative for a day commemorating victims of religious persecution came from Poland. The idea emanated from a friend and colleague, the Polish legal researcher and human rights advocate, and author of the book “Never Again: Legal Responses to a Broken Promise in the Middle East, Ewelina Ochab. Strangely enough, Sweden was not among the countries that signed the resolution at the UN General Assembly on May 28 this year.
Religious minorities are increasingly discriminated against, and in every fifth country religious freedom is threatened, according to a new report by the Catholic organization Aid to the Church in Need (ACN). In half of the countries where religious freedom is threatened, the situation has worsened.
The report on religious freedom in the world based on a survey conducted between 2007 and 2017 by the highly regarded research institute, the Washington-based Pew Centre for Research, also shows that persecution due to religious affiliation has increased significantly. Only in the last five years, we have witnessed two genocides, the one against religious minorities in Iraq and Syria and that in Myanmar against the Muslim minority group, the Rohingya.
On September 10, the Swedish Parliament reconvened and Stefan Lövfen, the Prime Minister made his Statement of Government Policy. I expected him to mention religious persecution and religious freedom,
here at home in Sweden as well as in the rest of the world, as one of the challenges to facing us. He didn’t say a word but mentioned the word “climate” nine times.
In July this year, my organization ADFA (A Demand for Action) was invited to an international conference on religious freedom and religious persecution hosted by the US Department of Foreign Affairs. Several of the speakers, including former British Prime Minister Tony Blair and the US Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, agreed that religious persecution is now one of the world’s biggest threats, in parallel with the climate threat.
Sweden did not join The International Religious Freedom Alliance formed as a consequence of the conference. It surprised me. I contacted the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to find out why. Cecilia Tamm, the Foreign Office’s Chancellor, responded: “Our general attitude is that it is better to deal with religious freedom issues in the already established multilateral forums, such as the UN Human Rights Council and the UN General Assembly’s Third Committee. Sweden actively participates in this work and also cooperates closely with the United States.”
The UN Human Rights Council has been questioned by critics all over the world, even here in Sweden. The United States left the Council in the summer of 2018. It includes, among others, Saudi Arabia, Cuba, China, Venezuela and, Qatar, countries that are not especially known for human rights.
When Ann Linde became Foreign Minister, I contacted her. The genocide of Christians in the Ottoman Empire during the First World War is something recognized by Parliament but not by the government. I wondered if she intended to change this, and if she thought differently from her predecessor Margot Wallström regarding the ongoing genocides, of Yezidis, Christians and other indigenous peoples in Iraq and Syria, which Wallström had refused to recognize as genocide. I also asked her if Sweden intends to join the International Religious Freedom Alliance. The answer: “In short, the government’s policy is fixed on this issue, even now that we have a new foreign minister.”
We can state that the humanitarian superpower Sweden is lagging behind in taking action against one of the greatest threats to the world and that the world’s first feminist government does not care about the most persecuted women. Or have I misunderstood something?
*This article was first published as a column in the Swedish daily Svenska Dagbladet. It was translated by David Kushner and edited by Susan Korah.
Independent investigative reporter, filmmaker, author, Middle East & human rights analyst. Founder of A Demand For Action