Monday, May 7, 2012

Situation For Iraq’s Religious Groups Improves, But Still Face Many Difficulties

On May 1, 2012, the United Nations representative to Iraq, Martin Kobler called for the protection of Iraq’s Yazidi community. This came after Kobler met with the spiritual leader of the group within Iraq, Baba Sheikh, in Ninewa province. When the insurgency was going strong, and the country was wrought with civil war, many outside observers were afraid that the Yazidis, and Iraq’s other minorities, such as Christians and Sabean Mandeans would disappear due to a steady stream of attacks by militants. Since the sectarian war ended in 2008, there is far less religious based violence, but Iraq’s minorities are still at risk. The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom highlighted this in its annual report. In March 2012, the Commission’s yearly study noted that there are still attacks upon Iraq’s minorities, and sectarian tensions, but that the situation is improving.

The report started with Christians who still face violence. In 2003, there were 800,000-1.4 million Christians in Iraq of various sects. Those included Chaldean Catholics, Assyrian Orthodox, Assyrian Church of the East followers, Syriac Catholics and Orthodox, Armenian Catholics and Orthodox, Protestants, and Evangelicals. Today, there are an estimated 500,000 left. It’s believed that 50% of the communist has fled the country. Christians use to be regularly targeted by militants, who considered them co-religionists of the Americans, and therefore fair game. Today, those attacks have greatly declined, but they have not ended. In January 2011, three liquor stores and a Christian social club were vandalized and robbed in Baghdad. This involved either local police, or people wearing police uniforms. In April, during Easter, a bomb exploded outside the Sacred Heart Church in Baghdad, wounding four. In August there was a car bombing of the Holy Family Syriac Catholic Church in Kirkuk wounding 15, and a bomb near the St. Ephraim Syriac Orthodox Church in Kirkuk that resulted in no casualties. On both occasions, other bombs were discovered and disarmed by the security forces at other churches in those cities. In December 2011, a mob of Kurds attacked and burned Christian owned business in the town of Zakho and others in Dohuk province after Friday prayers. Still, this was a marked decline from previous years, and far less costly. In October 2010 for instance, Al Qaeda in Iraq attacked the Our Lady of Perpetual Help Syriac Catholic Church in Baghdad in the worst attack since the 2003 invasion. More than 50 people were killed in the assault, and 60 wounded. It led to a wave of Christians fleeing the capital for northern Iraq What’s more is that according to a captured Al Qaeda member, these attacks are not planned so much out of hatred of Christianity by Muslim extremists, but rather to garner international media coverage, because the militants believe that attacking churches will gain the attention of the West. This is a common theme amongst the experience of Iraq’s minorities, that they often find themselves being used as pawns by much more powerful forces.

Sabean Mandeans are another prominent religious minority in Iraq. They are followers of John The Baptist, and one of the smallest groups in the country. In 2003, there were approximately 50,000-60,000 Mandeans in Iraq. By 2011 they were down to 3,500-5,000. Because they can only be born into the faith, and they are pacifists, some worried that they faced extinction during the heyday of fighting. In 2003 for instance, 175 Mandeans were killed, hundreds kidnapped, threatened, attacked, raped, displaced, or forced to convert to Islam. In comparison, in 2011, the Mandean Human Rights Group only recorded two Mandeans killed in two separate incidents, and two kidnapped for the year. Like the Christians, Mandeans have also benefited from the end of full-scale conflict within the country. What once looked like a disappearing group now has a chance to revive itself.

The earlier violence in the country led to a mass migration of Christians and Mandeans moving to Ninewa, the three Kurdish provinces, or leaving the country altogether. A recent report by the International Organization for Migration found that for many Christians this movement is not permanent. Many have left the north for their original homes, because they could not find work, aid or register their children for school. At the same time, there were many who were applying for visas to leave the country altogether. There have also been reports of the Kurdistan Regional Government manipulating and abusing minorities. The Commission noted that the Kurds are attempting to use the religious groups in their attempt to annex the disputed territories. They have interfered in their voting, taken their land, based services upon support for the Kurdish parties, forced them to identify themselves as either Arabs or Kurds, and blocked the creation of minority police forces. Arab officials have been no better in their treatment, and both sides have failed to prevent attacks. At the same time, there has been a push by some to form an autonomous region for Christians in the Ninewa Plains. Neither Baghdad nor the Kurdistan Regional Government has listened to them however. As long as there is violence or even the threat of it, minorities will continue this migration back and forth, and continue to be placed in the middle of the struggle for the disputed areas.

2011 also saw sectarian attacks by insurgents, and tensions between the Shiite and Sunni communities. In January of that year, Shiite pilgrims were targeted in Karbala during the Arbayeen celebration. Two days of bombings that month led to around 75 deaths and 200 wounded. In July, three bombs struck Karbala that left 100 casualties. In September, militants hijacked a bus in Anbar killing 22 Shiite pilgrims. During Ashura in December, there were 28 deaths and 78 wounded. Finally, in three days in January 2012, there were a slew of attacks again, against pilgrims heading for the holy city of Karbala resulting in 134 killed, and 283 wounded. Militants also targeted their Sunni brethren. On June 3, 2011, a suicide bomber attacked a mosque in Tikrit during Friday prayers. Another suicide bomber then blew himself up at the hospital where the wounded were taken. In total, 21 people were left dead, and 70 injured. On August 15, gunmen from Al Qaeda in Iraq assaulted a mosque in Anbar during Ramadan, murdering seven members of the Sons of Iraq. On August 28, a suicide bomber attacked the Um al-Qura mosque, the largest in Baghdad during Ramadan, killing 28. In an October 2011 poll, 75% of Sunnis questioned felt like the government did not treat them equally, and 60% said that they were treated unfairly in society overall. Tensions have also increased, because of the political dispute between the Iraqi National Movement and Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s State of Law list. That showed that both insurgents and politicians were both guilty of using the sectarian card to achieve their goals. Militants hope to restart the sectarian war by attacking Shiites and Sunnis, hoping that the two sides will turn on each other. At the same time, Iraqi parties have used sectarianism in their battles with each other.

Amongst all the negative news, the Commission had some positives to report. Minorities have quotas set for them in elections, so that they are assured of representation. In the 2010 parliamentary vote, eight seats were set aside for minorities, five for Christians, and one each for Mandeans, Shabaks, and Yazidis. Six other Yazidi candidates won as part of the Kurdish Coalition as well, creating a total of 14 minority lawmakers in the 325 seat legislature. A minority caucus was also formed for the first time, and is pushing for greater representation and education about their communities. While very small, the quotas do assure that there are some minority lawmakers in each session of parliament. They appear to becoming more organized and active as well, which will hopefully improve their situation overall in Iraq.

Despite the improved security situation in Iraq, the country has been placed on the Commission’s Watch List since 2007, and on its “country of particularly concern” list since 2008. That’s because there are still attacks upon groups based upon their religion, and sectarianism is alive and well if for nothing else, but pure political gain. At the same time, things are improving in Iraq. The number of attacks upon all religious groups is far down from what they were in the past. That gives hope that Iraq’s minorities can recover from the devastation that they felt in the years immediately after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein. For groups like the Sabeans this could provide the breathing space they need to rebuild and reproduce, so that they will not completely disappear from Iraq. The institutional discrimination and manipulation that minorities face at the hands of Arabs and Kurds however in northern Iraq will not end. That means even with things getting better in the country, there will still be many difficulties facing its minorities.


Aswat al-Iraq, “UNAMI representative calls to protect minorities’ rights,” 5/1/12

Al Dulaimy, Mohammed and Bengali, Shashank, “With U.S. forces set to go soon, Iraqi police step up,” McClatchy Newspapers, 1/21/11

International Organization for Migration, “Displacement Of Christians To The North Of Iraq,” 1/31/12

Salaheddin, Sinan, “Al-Qaida in Iraq threatens attacks on Christians,” Associated Press, 11/3/10

United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, “Annual Report of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom,” March 2012
- “Iraq Report – 2008,” December 2008

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