Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Iraq’s Minorities Among the Country’s Most Threatened Communities

Discriminatory laws and the unjust treatment of Iraq’s minorities have resulted in thousands of emigrations, school dropouts, and suicides.

Iraq’s Minorities
Members of a Christian choir rehearse in a room at the Chaldean Catholic Church of St. Joseph in Iraq’s capital Baghdad on February 27, 2021. AHMAD AL-RUBAYE / AFP

Dana Hourany

Growing up, Juliana Khamo was only vaguely familiar with her Assyrian culture. Being active on the internet during her teenage years, she immersed herself in her Assyrian heritage and grew increasingly attached to it.

Today, the young adult works for an Assyrian humanitarian non-profit organization in the United States and advocates for Assyrian rights in Iraq and Syria.

“My dad is an Assyrian Iraqi who fled the country in the early 1990s,” Khamo told Fanack. “Even though he immigrated to the US over 25 years ago, he has never left his Assyrian roots behind.”

Her dad lived in al-Faw, a port town near the Shatt al-Arab before his house was bombed during the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s.

Prior to arriving in the United States, Khamo says her father escaped to Canada in order to avoid being drafted into the military during the Gulf War of 1990. However, his memories of Iraq have never faded.
“I learned from my dad’s stories that the Assyrian community had a rich heritage that was evident in their events and church ceremonies,” she said.

Assyrians are among Iraq’s prominent minorities. Descendants of ancient Mesopotamian peoples, Assyrians like other Iraqi minority groups faced killings, bombings, kidnapping, and torture, leading millions to flee the country.

The economic, political, and social situation in Iraq today presents challenges for all of its people. Minorities, in particular, continue to confront dangers of exclusion, neglect, and erasure in the absence of proper legal protection and representation.

What is happening in Iraq today?

The country has yet to recover after decades of instability, the US invasion in 2003, and terror attacks by Islamic State. From kidnappings to impoverishment, Iraq continues to suffer greatly. This reality is further compounded by incompetence and corruption on the legislative and executive levels, according to political and economic experts.

Climate change threats depleting the country’s abundant natural resources, add another layer of difficulty, with people’s livelihoods directly affected and the employment rate falling from 37.49 percent in 2019 to 35.66 percent in 2020, and a quarter of the population below the poverty line.

This reality is worsened for minorities, who have historically been underrepresented in governments and whose grievances go unheard.

The situation for minorities

Obtaining a precise population breakdown of Iraq is difficult due to the lack of recent census data as well as political sensitivities. Despite this, there are thought to be 43 million people living in the country, the majority of whom are Shi’a Arabs, Sunni Arabs, and Sunni Kurds.

The country is also home to a diverse range of people, with many religious, cultural and linguistic minorities who reside primarily in the north and scarcely in the south. These distinct communities include Turkmen, Yazidi, Christians, Shabak, Kaka’i, Sabean-Mandaean, Bedouins and Baha’i.

Throughout the decades, these marginalized groups have found themselves in precarious situations. Women, children, the elderly, and people with disabilities were among the hardest hit.

Since Saddam Hussein’s regime took power in the late 1970s and early 1980s, these populations have faced mass killings and displacement from their villages. Kurds, Turkmens, and Assyrians were among those forced to flee northern Iraq in order to repopulate the region with Arabs from the country’s south and center, as part of a campaign known as “Arabization.”

Notwithstanding differing views on Saddam Hussein’s reign, Khamo’s father and grandfather were supporters of the former ruler of Iraq for the cover he provided.

“As long as they didn’t speak out or challenge the government, they were fine, and what they prioritized was making a living to support their families and lead a normal life,” Khamo said.

She added that her family members stayed out of sight and maintained a low-profile so as not to be directly affected by Hussein’s policies. Cultural practices and religious rituals were strictly confined to private spaces.

“As a matter of fact, many minorities felt safe under Hussein’s rule, since there was a ‘kind of social contract’ between them and the ruler, which guaranteed them a good quality of life as long as they did not interfere in politics,” she said. “Others feared an alternative and preferred to live a quiet and safe life circumnavigating familiar threats. This ensured Hussein’s rule would be free of uprisings and that minorities would be left to their own devices.”

Under continuous threat

Hussein’s reign came to an end, and by 2003, there had been an alarming increase in violence against minority communities, forcing many of its members to flee amid rising fears of demographic change.

Assyrians, Yezidis, and Shabaks were spared from the harshest of the aerial bombardments when the US forces invaded the country in 2003; nonetheless, nearly three-quarters of Christians (including Chaldean Christians, Syrian Orthodox Christians, Armenian Catholics and Apostolic Christians and Greek Orthodox Christians, as well as Christians of the Assyrian Church of the East and Assyrian/Syrian Catholics) fled the country when the United States invaded.

During the US-led occupation of Iraq, the political equilibrium that emerged often disadvantaged the country’s smallest minority groups, including the Assyrians, Mandaeans, Shabaks, Turkmen, and Yezidis. State institutions in both Iraq and its Kurdistan region were plagued by corruption and were frequently exploited to enhance the influence of the dominant political parties.

The incursion of Islamic State (IS), which launched a terror campaign in the summer of 2014, intensified the bloodshed. IS took over cities such as Mosul and Tikrit in less than a month. Ethnic and religious groups such as the Yazidis and Christians were forced to flee their homes for fear of being killed.

Three hundred fifty thousand Christians and five hundred thousand Yezidis lived in Iraq prior to the rise of IS. Also, 200,000 Kaka’i, 5,000 Sabean-Mandaeans, and a small number of followers of the Baha’i faith. Today, “less than 250,000 Syriac, Assyrian, and Chaldean Christians remain in Iraq, down from 700,000 before the IS genocide and 1.4 million before the U.S. invasion in 2003,” according to a United States Commission on International Religious Freedom report.

For Christians from the Nineveh Plains region who were forced to flee, the prospect of ever returning back home remains challenging. With many militia groups active in the region, the return of refugees and internally displaced peoples is fraught with dangers.

Despite the terrorist group’s heinous crimes against minorities, no one has been charged with war crimes, crimes against humanity, or genocide, in part, due to the flawed justice system in Iraq.

In 2017, Human Rights Watch published a report indicating that the Iraqi authorities were detaining suspected IS members in overcrowded and inhumane conditions, failing to separate children from adult detainees, and failing to provide access to legal counsel for suspects. Additionally, Iraq has not passed legislation related to war crime-specific offenses, despite recommendations in its last review in 2014.

However, small gains were made, like the Yazidi Survivors Law according to Human Rights Watch, which was passed by Iraq’s legislature in March 2021. This statute recognizes that atrocities committed against women and girls from the Yezidi, Turkmen, Christian, and Shabak populations were genocidal and violated human rights principles. No significant steps have been taken to put this legislation into action thus far.

Multi-layered violence

Mishtak Idan al-Hulfi, an Iraqi history scholar and author, argues that one of the major troubles faced by minority groups is the absence of security provided by tribal powers.

Al-Hulfi explains that the roots of tribalism still run deep in Iraq, placing those outside the traditional structure in a precarious position.

“Without the protection of larger communities such as tribes, minority groups must rely solely on each other for support,” the scholar told Fanack.

According to al-Hulfi, many minority groups move to cities where laws tend to take precedence over tribal customs, thus providing a sense of safety.

He adds that parliamentary quotas are the main means of protecting minority rights in the country.

Quotas guarantee nine out of 329 seats on the Council of Representatives be set aside for minorities from different provinces – five are allocated to Christians, with the other four going to Kurds, Yazidis, Shabaks and Mandaeans as laid out within Parliamentary Electoral Laws.

This does not, however, entail the right to express religious and ethnic rites publicly. The minorities’ right to practice their rituals is limited to their homes and places of worship.

Nevertheless, al-Hulfi claims that minority groups are in a safer position now that attacks by IS have ceased.

“Their real problems now – just as those of all Iraqis – are economic hardship, lack of employment opportunities, and security concerns,” he said.

Discriminatory laws against minorities continue to exist – including Law 105 of 1970 which prohibits the Baha’i faith, and Article 21/3 for minorities, which mandates conversion of minor children to Islam upon the conversion of one minority parent.

Moreover, the unjust treatment of minorities in employment, housing, public services, political participation, and freedom of movement and worship, have resulted in thousands of emigrations, school dropouts, and suicides.

Al-Hulfi stresses that enacting new protection laws would be useless without strict enforcement measures.

“In the absence of a strong state presence, extremist groups and militias have greater freedom to threaten minority safety,” he added.

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