USA Today, Opinion (July 2008)
By Brian J. Grim
Within a year, though, he too decided to flee — first to Damascus, and eventually to the USA.
"I was told by some people in the same ministry that … such an important institution should not be headed by a Christian," George told the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom last year.
In fact, the status of religious freedom in Iraq is in some ways worse today than it was under Saddam Hussein, according to independent analyses of the State Department's religious freedom reports. While the level of official government restrictions on religious freedom slightly decreased from 2001 to 2007, the level of non-governmental or social restrictions — including sectarian violence, ostracism and abuse — steadily increased from 2003 to 2005 and remained at an alarmingly high level in 2007, the most recent year for which data are available.
It is no small irony, of course, that the Shi'i majority that's now a leading force in Iraq was brutalized and suppressed under Saddam, who extensively curbed the Shi'a's religious freedoms. A State Department report in 2002 said Saddam's government "severely restricts or bans outright many Shi'i religious practices."One might think that those fresh memories would be enough to ensure liberties for Iraq's religious minorities today. Yet that appears not to be the case.
Iraqi Christians are part of historic indigenous communities that have been in what is now Iraq nearly since the time of Christ, several centuries before Islam came to the region. The majority of them are Chaldean Christians, an ancient religious group affiliated with the Roman Catholic Church.
Pope Benedict XVI voiced concern about the status of Christians in Iraq when he met privately with President Bush at the White House in April, echoing his thoughts at a Vatican meeting with the president last year. In 2007, Bush recounted, the pontiff "was concerned that the society that was evolving (in Iraq) would not tolerate the Christian religion."
Indeed, Iraqi Christians have continued to find themselves in the cross hairs of faith-inspired violence. The worst episodes have occurred in regions with diverse ethnic and religious groups, such as Baghdad and Mosul, where the majority of Iraq's Christians live. The State Department reported last year that Muslim extremists "warned Christians living in Baghdad's Dora district to convert, leave or be killed."
Christians appear to be taking the threats seriously — disproportionately fleeing Iraq. While only a small percentage of Iraqis are Christian, a survey released in April by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees found that 20% of Iraqi refugees in Syria are Christian. [Note: A large number of the Iraqi refugees in Jordan are also Christians.]
Commission representatives recently visited Iraq. Among other things, they are assessing whether religious freedom is threatened due to possible collusion between Shi'i militias and Iraqi government ministries, and whether the country's smallest religious minorities are being marginalized by government officials and parastate militias. The commission's forthcoming assessment of the Iraqi government's culpability in violations of religious freedom will determine whether Iraq moves from the watch list to the CPC list, which would put Iraq in the same company as Burma, Iran, North Korea and Sudan.