Sunnis Flee The Islamic State, But Still Fall Under Suspicion : Parallels The Islamic State is a Sunni Muslim group. Yet many Sunnis have abandoned their homes and fled areas where ISIS has taken over in Iraq. But that doesn't mean Shiites welcome them with open arms.
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Sunnis Flee The Islamic State, But Still Fall Under Suspicion

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Sunnis Flee The Islamic State, But Still Fall Under Suspicion

Sunnis Flee The Islamic State, But Still Fall Under Suspicion

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

And in Iraq, ISIS casts itself as the protector of Sunni Muslims, but large numbers of Sunnis have actually fled areas controlled by ISIS. They're seeking shelter among Iraq's Shiite Muslim majority and not finding much comfort there either. NPR's Alice Fordham reports.

ALICE FORDHAM, BYLINE: The Nidaa mosque in northern Baghdad looks grand with clean, modern lines swooping up to a blue mosaic dome. Inside, though, it's squalid with piled-up mattresses, cooking pots and almost 60 families, most of whom fled the province of Anbar when ISIS advanced there two months ago.

WAFAA AHMED: (Foreign language spoken).

FORDHAM: Wafaa Ahmed is a widow who walked for days with her sick children to escape.

W. AHMED: (Foreign language spoken).

FORDHAM: The small woman with big hazel eyes says when they made it through the sniper fire and mortar rounds, they found shelter in Baghdad but scant welcome.

W. AHMED: (Foreign language spoken).

FORDHAM: "People call us bad words in the street," she says, "sectarian words." Like most everyone from Anbar province, Ahmed is Sunni. Baghdad is home largely to Shiite Muslims, and bloody years of conflict between the two sects have left deep, suspicious scars.

W. AHMED: (Foreign language spoken).

FORDHAM: So Ahmed keeps her mouth shut when she's out in case people tell from her accent she's an Anbar Sunni. "I keep it all inside," she says, "because if I say something, I'm afraid something will happen to my children."

ISIS bills itself as a Sunni group, but many Sunnis are afraid ISIS will kill them because they worked in police or government. Others are from a tribe that opposes ISIS. Others just hate them, and they add up to maybe 2 million Sunnis who've run away from them. Here's Lise Grande, the U.N.'s humanitarian coordinator for Iraq.

LISE GRANDE: The majority of people that are receiving assistance do come from Sunni communities. The bulk of people that have been fleeing areas that have come under ISIL attack - yes, they're Sunnis.

FORDHAM: You might think they'd be welcome among Shiites who were targeted by ISIS, but many Sunnis instead face a hostile reception. The Sunni imam of this mosque, Ezzedine Ahmed, explains the displaced can't come and go freely in this Shiite area.

EZZEDINE AHMED: (Through interpreter) The people come and go, but we have some security measures.

FORDHAM: The rules are enforced by police and army officers, one of whom sits in on our meeting. Any man wanting to leave the mosque must get permission.

E. AHMED: (Through interpreter) We give them a paper so they can go out, do what they need to do and come back.

FORDHAM: They must be back by the end of the day. There are other official restrictions like displaced people coming into Baghdad must have a local resident vouch for them. That's not technically a sectarian thing, but as most people in Baghdad are Shiite and most of the security forces are, too, Sunnis say it feels like discrimination.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken).

FORDHAM: There are a few places in Baghdad where Shiites are helping Sunnis.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Foreign language spoken).

FORDHAM: At a Shiite mosque in another Shiite area, there's also a handful of displaced Sunni men praying shoulder to shoulder with the locals. I speak with a white-bearded imam, Bassem Mohammed Ali.

BASSEM MOHAMMED ALI: (Through interpreter) It's a religious duty. We have to give them the hand of help. They are our people, our kin.

FORDHAM: He explains the mosque distributes food to displaced Sunni families, helps them find jobs and apartments. The security forces monitor them, but because the mosque vouches for them, they can move around freely. The imam says he reassures locals afraid of the Sunnis in their midst, though he claims there's few of them.

ALI: (Through interpreter) Maybe like two in a million, one in a thousand, but we educate our society, and we have a lot of security measures here.

FORDHAM: He says as long as they can't go home, they'll have a home here. But even here, Sunnis told us some people still seem to associate them with the ISIS militants they gave up their homes to escape. Alice Fordham, NPR News, Baghdad.

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