As Australia decides upon criteria for the 12,000 Syrian asylum seekers, Prime Minister Tony Abbott has said that persecuted minorities will be the focus of the intake.
Other government figures, including Social Services Minister Scott Morrison, have indicated that Christians will be prioritised over other groups, a position that has attracted widespread criticism for discriminating in favour of one kind of refugee over others.
Christians certainly are a persecuted group, particularly by the militants of Islamic State, otherwise known as Daesh, who offer three choices – conversion to Islam, the payment of a special tax, or death – but they are by no means the only minority affected by the Syrian conflict.
And nor are IS the only group doing the persecuting. Even the majority Sunni Muslim population is disproportionately targeted by the brutal tactics of President Bashar al-Assad, whose government has gone so far as to use chemical weapons against civilians.
Nor is religion the only basis for persecution in Syria, with ethnicity and sexuality also a factor. With Australia’s intake of 12,000 a mere drop in the ocean of millions of refugees fleeing the conflict, there are plenty of groups to consider. Here are just a few.
The plight of the Yazidis attracted worldwide attention in 2014 when roughly 50,000 fled the threat of genocide at the hands of IS, only to be left stranded in an Iraqi mountain range without food or water.
The humanitarian crisis prompted the airdropping of supplies by countries including Australia along with emergency evacuations. Yazidi women who have escaped a life of slavery under IS talk of being systematically raped.
Ethnically Kurdish, Yazidis worship a peacock god known by several names, including Shaytan (the Arabic word for devil, which has resulted in Yazidis being disparaged as “devil worshipers”), and believe in a kind of reincarnation which can only take place if they stay true to their religion, meaning IS’s demand that they convert is no small request.
Gays and Lesbians
Whilst the Assad government is not exactly a world leader in gay rights given it penalises “carnal relations against the order of nature” with imprisonment for up to three years, the situation is even worse in IS territory, where suspected homosexuals are blindfolded and hurled off the roofs of tall buildings.
In cases where the victims have survived the landing, militants have stoned them to death. Accurate numbers of victims are impossible to obtain, but the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission is keeping track of whenever such executions are publicised.
The Kurds are a long-suffering ethnic group that inhabit a region straddling the official borders of Turkey, Iraq and Syria. Over the years Turkey has on numerous occasions brutally crushed any attempts to create an independent Kurdistan, whilst in Iraq Saddam Hussain’s gassing of the Kurds served as America’s justification for invading in 1991 during the Gulf War.
In Syria, Kurdish militias have had the most success in holding off IS, gaining particular attention for the high proportion of females that fight in their armies.
Kurds are united by ethnicity rather than religion, which they are known for taking a tolerant approach to – the majority are Sunni Muslims, but many other faiths feature, including the Yazidi.
Adherents to an offshoot of Abrahamic religions that draws from figures as diverse as the Greek philosopher Plato and the Egyptian Pharaoh Akhenaten, the Druze are concentrated in the South of Syria. As the civil war has progressed the Druze have increasingly sided with moderate rebels and have been forced to pay the price.
Druze religious leaders have been jailed for not supporting Assad’s re-election, while others have been arrested for refusing to enlist in the President’s army.
The Assad government blamed a series of car bombings in Druze-majority towns on Islamic extremists, but many Druze leaders suspected they were false flag attacks from Assad himself.
One of the oldest ethnic groupings in the region, these descendants of the Assyrian empire – one of the earliest civilisations in recorded history – today mostly adhere to Christianity, but of a different branch to the majority of Syrian Christians.
IS is not just satisfied with slaughtering, kidnapping and expelling Assyrians from the region – they also seem intent on wiping out any trace they ever lived there in the first place.
IS has literally bulldozed the millennia-old ruins of the city of Nimrod in Iraq – which once featured magnificent statues and a castle – whilst priceless manuscripts in Mosul museum have been burned, and a 1500-year-old Assyrian monastery in Syria demolished.
A minority that form the core of President Assad’s power base, Alawites follow a controversial branch of Shia Islam that has attracted much persecution throughout history. They hold as much power as any group in Syria presently, but that has come at a price – as many as a third of Alawite males of military age have died in the conflict, numbering more than 80,000 fatalities.
Whilst they are mostly killed in combat with IS or the more secular rebel groups, in one sense Assad is the biggest persecutor of Alawites by drafting them to fight for his armies in the first place – increasingly having to remove them from their homes by force.
Many Alawite villages have had enough, with mothers setting up road blocks to prevent army recruiters from abducting their sons