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Interview with former chair of USCIRF on religious freedom in Rojava

Bestoon Khalid conducted an interview with former chair of the US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) Nadine Maenza after her recent trip to northeast Syria (Rojava) and the current situation of religious freedom in the region, specifically for Muslims who have converted to Christianity.

“In northeast Syria there really is this remarkable culture of tolerance and acceptance of every religion, faith, ethnicity, and of course gender… people are even allowed to change their religion, which you don’t see very often in this region,” said Maenza. “There are churches with Christian converts and we see them interacting with the different faith communities, treated as equals,” she added.

Discussing this trend, Maenza explained how over “the past several years, we’ve seen a growth - throughout the Middle East - of people converting [to Christianity], but I think in northeast Syria it’s accepted, so you see it a little more.”

In relation to the Christian-Yazidi villages on the Turkey-Syria border, affected by the latest Turkish invasion, the former official noted the “several hundred thousand people still displaced from the previous Turkish invasions in northeast Syria,” and the atrocities being committed against those who remained, “particularly against religious minorities and women.”

“What we’ve seen is that the areas that Turkey has invaded in northeast Syria, it’s almost like they’ve created conditions similar to the ISIS caliphate,” the former official warned. “You don’t hear about it a lot partly because it’s difficult for the international community because this is a NATO ally, and so it’s easier for people to just kind of ignore it and look away.”

“Because the atrocities are so terrible, it’s a story that needs to be told, and the international community needs to stand up… If targeting civilians is not okay in Ukraine, it should not be okay in Syria either,” she added.

Questioned on her assessment of religious freedom in the Kurdistan Region, Maenza said there was “no comparison” with federal Iraq, describing “the culture here [the Kurdistan Region], the acceptance of freedom of religion or belief, the fact that the government has representatives from eight different religions” as impressive, and hard to compare.

“When I was Chair of the US Commission on International Religious Freedom, that I just finished a few weeks ago… we have written extensively about the fact that this Region is so positive, and also welcomes so many religious minorities,” she added.


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