AMMAN, Jordan — Religious minorities are highly vulnerable during conflicts, often exposed to grave violence, and require active protection and assistance, religious freedom advocates said during the 2020 Ministerial to Advance Freedom of Religion or Belief, sponsored by the U.S. State Department and hosted by Poland.

“Religious minority communities are often at risk of immediate and grave violence; the risk is exacerbated for these communities in crisis situations,” said Rebecca S. Shah, a former associate scholar with Georgetown University’s Religious Freedom Project.

“In most cases, these communities were already vulnerable, even before crisis or conflict,” Shah said, drawing attention to the so-called Islamic State’s genocide against Yazidis and persecution of Christians in Iraq.

“Soft targets accused of blasphemy, (such as Pakistani Christian) Asia Bibi, are also vulnerable religious minorities that are at risk of immediate and grave violence,” Shah added.

Serving as the principle religion and economic empowerment investigator at Archbridge Institute in Washington, D.C., Shah addressed the Religious Freedom Institute’s panel discussing “Vulnerabilities in the Blind Spot: Religious Freedom and Progress toward Sustainable Development Goals.”

The event on the sidelines of this third annual ministerial forum was held virtually due to the coronavirus pandemic. The forum gathered representatives from more than 50 nations and international organizations, highlighting the most pressing religious freedom issues in the world.

While the U.S. as well as other governments and international organizations have engaged “quite effectively with faith-based relief and development agencies, there is a ‘blind spot’ of sorts when it comes to the role of religion in conflict and peace-building,” said Gerard Powers, who directs Catholic peacebuilding studies at Notre Dame’s Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies.

Although since 9/11, more attention has been given to religious extremism, Powers said “the U.S. and other governments have, for the most part, not developed the capacity to engage religion in a systemic, sophisticated, appropriate and effective way.”

“As a general rule, the U.S. government has not devoted the resources needed to understand and engage the complex dynamics behind both the negative role of religion in contributing to conflict as well as the positive role of religion in promoting peace, justice and freedom,” said Powers.

The Notre Dame academic is also the coordinator of the Catholic Peacebuilding Network, linking 21 bishops’ conferences, Catholic development agencies, universities and independent peace organizations in an effort to enhance the study and practice of conflict prevention and management as well as post-conflict reconciliation in war-torn areas.

Governments should assess “the impact of their past, current, and proposed policies and programs on the religious dynamics of the conflict situation, so that they do not contribute to the very religious extremism that the government purports to be opposed to,” Powers said, pointing to Iraq and Syria as examples.

He said both countries exemplified “what could go wrong when there is not a sophisticated understanding of religious dynamics or an adequate assessment of the impact of U.S. policies on those dynamics.”

Powers said it was “critically important for governments not to instrumentalize religion” as a tool of U.S. foreign policy.

“Too often, U.S. officials have placed unrealistic expectations on the capacity of religious leaders to deliver short-term political outcomes during a crisis. Especially in conflicts with a religious dimension, the government has sometimes helped to convene religious leaders to support peace initiatives,” Powers said.

“While the intention may be laudable, these efforts can be perceived as interference in the internal dynamics of religious actors in their interfaith relationships, and they might undermine the independence and credibility of the very religious actors that might have a role to play in promoting peace and reconciliation,” he added.

Salah Ali, who coordinates the Iraq Religious Freedom Roundtable, urged his government “to create a platform to promote religious freedom in Iraq,” which has many diverse religions and ethnic groups. “This diversity has never been managed properly by the government,” said Ali, who has extensive experience in projects of peacebuilding, social cohesion and protection.

“There is clear evidence that the government was the one most of the time as the violator of minority and ethnic rights,” he said during the Religious Freedom Institute discussion. Religious and ethnic minorities have been persecuted because the Iraqi government had employed “marginalization, favoritism, coercive policies,” he said.

Ali warned that Iraq may no longer have diverse religious groups in “10 to 15 years,” unless there are strenuous government efforts to protect its religious minorities, which include Christians, Yazidis, Kakais, Shobaks and others. He pointed to the shrinking Christian presence, which numbered some 1.5 million before the 2003 U.S.-led war that toppled Saddam Hussein and now numbers 200,000 to 300,000.