Thursday, January 22, 2009

United States Commission on International Religious Freedom Dec. 08 Report on Iraq

The attacks on Christians in Mosul in October 2008 seemed to spur interest by a variety of different groups on Iraq’s minorities. As reported earlier, the Brookings Institution and the University of Bern released a study on the subject noting that all of Iraq’s small ethnic and religious groups were disenfranchised, displaced, and victims of attacks. They are also caught in the power struggle between Arabs and Kurds in the northern section of the country. At the same time, the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom released a report on religious tensions overall in Iraq that largely focused upon minorities. Their findings were that while fighting between Shiites and Sunnis has largely subsided, violence against minorities such as Christians, Mandeans, and Yazidis is on going. All of Iraq’s smaller religious groups have been targeted, and the government has failed to protect them. Many have fled the country as a result, and they are not coming back. The Commission concluded by saying they are fearful for the future of Iraq’s minorities, and believes their continued existence is at risk.

The victimization of Iraq’s minorities begun under Saddam Hussein, but was greatly exasperated by the U.S. invasion. Saddam discriminated against Iraq’s smaller religious groups. His Arabization program of the south not only forced out Kurds, but Turkomen and Christians as well. After 2003 tensions increased. The 2005 Iraqi elections, while touted at the time as a step towards democracy and reconciliation, actually increased divisions, which turned into the sectarian war in 2006. Minorities proved to be the most vulnerable during this time. They continue to face attacks today, especially in the northern section of the country where they are concentrated in cities like Mosul and Ninewa province. Most minorities have fled Iraq except for the Ninewa Plains and Kurdistan.

The government has done little to help them. Services and reconstruction aid have not been distributed to them evenly. The Kurds have tried to exploit them, and also mistreated them. During the 2005 elections for example, Kurds worked to exclude minorities from voting through threats and denying them ballot boxes in their areas. The 2008 Provincial Election law originally dropped Article 50 that set up quotas for minorities. When this was later re-instated, the quotas were much lower than before. Minorities were supposed to have twelve seats, but ended up with six instead. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has tried to address the concerns of minorities by created a committee to deal with their issues, but it has been largely rejected as not being representative since the Prime Minister picked all of its members.


Iraq is home to a variety of Christian groups including Chaldeans, Assyrian Orthodox, Assyrian Church of the East, Syriac Orthodox, Armenians, Protestants, and Evangelicals. In 2003 there were approximately 1.4 million Christians in Iraq, today there is around 500,000-700,000. Their victimization since the U.S. invasion is shown by the fact that before 2003 they were 3% of Iraq’s population, but make 15-20% of the registered refugees in Jordan and Syria, and 35-64% of the refugees in Lebanon and Turkey.

The most recent attacks against Christians occurred in Mosul in October 2008. Fourteen Christians were killed in the city, which led 13,000 to flee. 400 families went to Syria. The United Nations believes that was half of the city’s Christian population. By early November some had come back to Mosul, and Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki sent extra police to help with security. However on November 11, two Christian sisters were killed in their home, keeping the fear level high and deterring most families from returning.

Violence against Christians was widespread before Mosul, beginning in 2004. Since that year 40 churches and Christian buildings have been destroyed. On January 8, 2008 six churches in Mosul and Baghdad were bombed in a single day. From January to June 2008, the U.N. reported 17 attacks and kidnappings, including the murders of ten Christians. Community leaders have been murdered, tortured, and kidnapped. In February 2008, the Chaldean Bishop of Mosul, Paulos Faraj Raho was kidnapped and later found dead. In April 2008 an Assyrian Orthodox priest was killed in Baghdad. Many churches have closed as a result. Shiite and Sunni extremists have also tried to impose Islamic codes on Christians. Businesses such as alcohol shops, beauty salons, movie theaters, and video stores owned by Christians have been attacked. Christians also suffered during the ethnic cleansing of Baghdad during the sectarian war. There use to be 2,000 Christian families living in the Dora section of Baghdad, but by the summer of 2007 there were only 300 left due to concerted efforts by Sunni insurgents. There have been small signs of change however as in 2007 and 2008 Christians were able to celebrate Christmas in the capital, and 45 families did return to Dora.


Sabean Mandeans are followers of John the Baptist. 90% have either fled the country of been killed. There are only 3,500-5,000 left in Iraq. Of the 28 religious leaders that were in the country during the Saddam era, only five are left. The community’s top religious leader fled to Syria after he was threatened. The Mandean Human Rights Group said that from April 2003 to March 2007 144 Mandeans were killed, 254 kidnapped, 238 threatened or attacked, 11 raped, and 35 forced to convert to Islam. From January 2007 to February 2008 42 were killed, 46 kidnapped, 10 threatened, and 21 attacked.

Mandeans are faced with the added difficulty of being pacifists, which means they can’t protect themselves. They are also afraid of extinction because one can only be born into the religion, and the displacement may make it harder and harder for them to find marriage partners. Mandean refugees also do not want to go back to Iraq, and wish to be repatriated to a third country.


Most Yazidis are concentrated in the north of Iraq in Dohuk and Ninewa provinces. Like Mandeans, they can only be born into the religion. Some believe that they originate from Zoroastrianism. Muslims do not consider them “People of the Book,” and have persecuted them as a result. On April 22, 2007 gunmen killed 23 Yazidis in the Kurdish town of Bashika after stopping a bus and only taking the Yazidis off of it. On August 14, 2007 four suicide bombings in the towns of Qahtaniya and Jazeera killed 786 Yazidis and wounded 1,562. Around 1,000 families became homeless as a result. Attacks on the community have continued into 2008 with 2 killed in a liquor store in Mosul on December 7, and seven were killed in Sinjar. Many are now afraid to leave their own communities. Many have stopped practicing their religion openly in fear that it will bring attention and attacks. Many farmers have either gone out of business or now rely upon middlemen to sell their products because Muslims refuse to work for them.

Other Minorities

There are around 2,000 Bahais in Iraq. They face legal repression as a 1970 law prohibits their religion. In April 2007 the Interior Ministry cancelled Regulation 358 from 1975, which said identity cards could not be given to Bahais, but now that they can receive them they are listed as Muslims instead of their own faith.

Iraq also used to have a small Jewish community. Now there are ten or less left. Those that have stayed in the country are hiding their religion. Like most of the Arab world, anti-Semitism is alive in Iraq.

Internally Displaced

Most of the displaced minorities have moved to the north, specifically Kurdistan and Ninewa. According to the International Organization for Migration 52.2% of the displaced in that province are Christians. This is because 53% of Ninewa are minorities. The Ninewa Plains for example, have been the historical homeland of Iraq’s Christians. The problem is that the north is one of the most violent areas of Iraq, especially Mosul, which remains the last major insurgent redoubt left in the country. Kurdistan has also been a popular destination. 24.6% of the displaced there are Christians. They have an easier time than Muslims to gain entry because they are not considered suspicious by the authorities. Kurdistan is also more secure than the rest of the country, which also makes it a draw. Yazidis are historically from Ninewa and Dohuk. Christians, Mandeans, and Yazidis all told the Commission that they are free to practice their religion in Kurdistan, and can set up their own private schools as well.

Political Pressure

Their residence in the north has placed minorities in the center of the increasing battle between Arabs and Kurds for political power. The United Nations reported that political parties in Diyala, Tamim, and Ninewa are attempting to pressure minorities to vote for them in the 2009 elections. The U.N. also reports that minorities are being forced from their houses, and their farms are being confiscated as part of this intimidation campaign. Many are pressured to identify themselves as either Kurds or Arabs. One of the major reasons why the number of seats set aside for minorities was reduced was because Arabs were afraid the minorities would vote with the Kurds for annexation of disputed territories in the north, while Kurds did not want them listed as minorities fearing that they would dilute the Kurdish vote.

Kurds have also been intimidating and pressuring minorities. They have set up an extensive patronage system that hands out money for churches and relief to win over loyalties. At the same time the Kurdish militia the Peshmerga have gone into disputed territories, taken land from minorities, only given them services if they agree to back the Kurds, stopped minorities from forming their own local security forces, and joining the police to protect themselves.

Christians have been one of the main focuses of this carrot and stick approach by the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG). In 2006, the deputy governor of Ninewa stopped Baghdad from using Christian police in the Ninewa Plains. Instead they were sent to Mosul. The Chaldean Syrian Syriac Council of America said that the Ninewa council attempted to deny jobs to Christians in the provincial police. Those that have been able to join say they have been marginalized within the force. By mid-2008 there were reports that there was some progress on this situation with 269 Christians being hired. The Kurds have also only allowed the Christians to form their own security forces if they are funded by the KRG. The Kurdish Minister of Finance Sarkis Aghajan Mamendu is a Christian, and is in charge of funding for Christians by the Kurds. Christians have also been pressured to sign forms supporting the annexation of their areas into Kurdistan, and the Kurds have cut off water to certain Christian villages.

The Yazidis have also come under similar pressure. They claim that the Kurds are trying to Kurdify them. In 2008 the State Department said that the Kurds confiscated Yazidi land and started to build settlements on them illegally. The Kurdish Finance Minister said that the Kurds would return that land, but it would take up to two years. Yazidis have also said that their villages are the last to receive aid from the KRG. In March 2008, the Kurdish Interior Ministry told the Commission that they were working on forming a Yazidi police force.


Because of all the violence and political pressure, a disproportionate number of minorities have fled the country. Minorities are only 3% of Iraq’s population, but are 15% of the U.N. registered refugees in Jordan and 20% of those in Syria. Christians are 64% of the registered refugees in Turkey, and 35% of those in Lebanon. The Ministry of Migration and Displacement believes that 50% of the country’s minorities have left since 2003. Many will probably never come back because they do not believe they have a future in Iraq, and are seeking asylum in other countries.

Iraqi refugees in general are finding it harder and harder to live in neighboring countries, and minorities have it especially difficult. Iraqis are facing stricter controls on their entry, and many are running out of money. They are increasingly feeling that they will be kicked out or imprisoned for staying illegally. Access to services is extremely limited. In all of the countries except for Lebanon, Iraqis are not permitted to work. There are reports of women turning to prostitution, and children not going to school to support their families. Mandeans report that they are discriminated against in Jordan, and are hiding their religion as a result.

Because of these hardships, Iraqis have begun returning to their country. This is not true of its minorities. The Ministry of Displacement and Migration counted 3,657 families registered as returnees in Baghdad, and an additional 6,000 wanted to at the end of 2007, but there are no reports of minorities going back however.

The Commission ended with some recommendations. First Baghdad needs to ensure free and fair elections that will include the selection of at least six new minority representatives in the provinces due to the quotas. The government also needs to provide security for everyone, and set up police for minority communities. Iraqi identity cards should also not state religion or ethnicity, and the lingering sectarianism needs to be eliminated from the government and security forces. Baghdad also needs to work with minorities to ensure their needs are being met. The Kurds need to respect minority rights. Finally, the U.S. should provide aid to minorities, and help their refugees. Few of these suggestions are likely to happen as the government is increasingly divided between Arabs and Kurds who see minorities as a pawn between them in the north. This will only increase as elections near, and both sides are looking for votes.


The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom did a good job detailing the situation of Iraq’s major minority groups. All of them have been singled out for attacks because of their beliefs and being different. This has threatened the existence of some, and forced members of all groups to leave. These fissures in Iraq are unlikely to be overcome any time soon. The divisions between the major groups in the country still exist. To expect the smallest groups to be treated equally and be given representation before the larger problems are overcome is hard to believe. Until then, Iraq’s minorities will continue to be attacked, and will be the focus of political manipulation between Arabs and Kurds, which threatens their ability to maintain their religion and communities.


Ferris, Elizabeth and Stoltz, Kimberly, “Minorities, Displacement and Iraq’s Future,” Brookings Institution-University of Bern, December 2008

United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, "Iraq Report - 2008," December 2008

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

You touch on an important matter and one that has no easy answer.

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