Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Iraq's Religious Minorities Face Extinction

Comment: This commentary focuses on an important issue. However, it is unfortunate that the writer did not mention Iraq's other minority groups, such as the Yazidis and Mandaeans, who are both suffering as much if not more than Iraq's Christian communities. Unlike the Christians, they do not have the benefit of being within the monotheistic fold of Islam, Judaism, and Christianity which traditional Islamic jurisprudence recognizes as "People of the Book" and therefore potentially have fewer guaranteed protections under Islamic legal codes as proposed by some of Iraq's Islamic parties, both Shi'i and Sunni.
Additionally, the dire situation concerning religious freedom in Iraq today can also be seen in the relations between Sunni and Shi'i Arabs as what is essentially a struggle for political power has taken outward religious overtones. Baghdad, once a heavily mixed city (ethnically, religiously) is now overwhelmingly Shi'i. Sunni Arabs have been pushed out of many neighborhoods. Mixed neighborhoods are now completely cleansed. Mixed marriages, once common, are now a thing of the past. People with first names that can be used to identify them as Sunni or Shi'i have changed them to avoid being murdered by roving death squads run by Sunni and Shi'i militias.
An Exodus from Iraq
USA Today, Opinion (July 2008)
By Brian J. Grim
The country’s religious minorities have been brutalized and driven away as a result of the Iraq war. In fact, when it comes to religious freedom, Iraq is not far ahead of notorious abusers such as Burma, Iran, North Korea and Sudan.


Not long after the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, Donny George, an Iraqi Christian whose family had lived in the region for thousands of years, received a death threat in an envelope containing a Kalashnikov bullet. The letter accused George of working for the Americans and said his youngest son had disrespected Islam. George quickly arranged to send most of his family to Damascus, Syria, but he stayed behind to work at the Iraqi National Museum, becoming chairman of the Iraqi State Board of Antiquities and Heritage in 2005.

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.

Many Iraqi Christians have suffered far worse fates. As documented by the U.S. State Department, Christians and other religious minorities in Iraq have endured extensive persecution since 2003, including the murder of their religious leaders, threats of violence or death if they do not abandon their homes and businesses, and the bombing or destruction of their churches and other places of worship. According to one Iraqi Christian leader, half of Iraq's Christians have fled the nation since 2003, and some have likened the situation to ethnic cleansing.
Getting worse?
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.
This is clearly not what U.S. policy leaders intended when the U.S. invaded Iraq in 2003.
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 Yazidi Kurds

Before the invasion, more than 740,000 Christians lived in Iraq, or about 3% of the country's population, according to the World Christian Encyclopedia. In comparative terms, this means that proportionally there were about as many Christians in Iraq as there are Jews, Muslims and Hindus combined in the USA, according to a recent survey by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, a project of the Pew Research Center.

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."
Mandaean Sabians prepare for a baptism on the banks of the Tigris river in Baghdad, Iraq, Monday, Nov. 5, 2007. Mandaeanism is a monotheistic religion whose followers regard John the Baptist as their prophet. The Iraq conflict reduced the number of Mandaeans living in the country to approximately five thousand, as most of them fled to neighboring countries under threat of violence.

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.]

Reports by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom indicate that the situation of other religious minorities in Iraq is equally bad or, for some, even worse. Yazidis, who are considered heretical by many Muslims because they have a blend of Islam and other religions, have been massacred. Sabian Mandaeans, who follow the teachings of John the Baptist, with baptism being a central ritual, numbered about 60,000 in 2003; today there might only be about 5,000 left in Iraq, meaning that more than 90% have left the country or been killed.

What's particularly devastating for Iraq's religious minorities is the lack of clear legal protections for religious freedom. Although Article 2 of the Iraqi Constitution guarantees religious freedom, it also contains what some have termed a "repugnancy clause," which states, "No law that contradicts the established provisions of Islam may be established." Because the clause does not explicitly state what the "established provisions of Islam" encompass or exclude, this opens the door for the state and the courts to become theological arbiters. As such, there are no formal avenues for religious minorities to participate in the process.
Furthermore, Article 89 of the constitution stipulates that the Iraqi Federal Supreme Court include experts in Islamic jurisprudence, which means that the provision in Article 2 will be supported by a court system with people specifically employed to interpret Islamic law. These people can be appointed without having civil law training.
Making the watch list
Last year, the bipartisan U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom included Iraq on a "watch list" of countries where religious liberty is severely threatened. Why? Because it felt that the nature and extent of the violations of religious freedom were not only severe, they also were tolerated by the government and, in some cases, committed by forces within the government.
Although the commission did not name Iraq as a country of particular concern (CPC), its most severe designation, it refrained from doing so only "with the understanding that it may designate Iraq as a CPC (in 2008) if improvements are not made by the Iraqi government."
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.
The political and social consequences of this oppression will need to be addressed by the new U.S. administration, whichever party wins the White House in November. An Iraq that truly honors and protects religious freedom would be a benchmark of success that all Americans — and no doubt both parties — would applaud.
Brian J. Grim is a senior research fellow in religion and world affairs with the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life in Washington.

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