Iraq is a nation that is facing many difficulties. It is facing a fiscal crisis due in part to volatility in the oil market, national insecurity, and government corruption. Although Iraq is a modern state founded in the 20th century, it is the heir of ancient empires, located on the territory of Biblical Babylonia an Assyria. Iraqi society is very conservative, tribal and driven by ethnic conflict. Fragmentation and the influence of political Islam have coloured the recent history of the nation. Many citizens are dissatisfied with the lack of public services such as the primary supply of water and electricity. The rate of unemployment is also extremely high. Many citizens are traumatized after years of suffering under Saddam Hussein’s regime, the Iran- Iraq war, the Gulf War, sanctions, the US-led invasion, and the sectarian violence. Iraqi society has been precarious and unsafe for many generations. Those issues have a substantial impact on children. Many children have developed learning disorders or even display other aftereffects of trauma. The young generation feels hopeless. Experts stated that greater foreign investment and overall security would help to grow Iraq’s economy.
Iraq has a turbulent history. The nation is blessed with rich oil resources and was able to finance ambitious projects and development in the 1970s. However, Saddam Hussein led the country into disastrous military misadventures: the Iran- Iraq War from 1980-88 and the Persian Gulf War in 1990-1 left the country isolated from the international community and brought on a lengthy economic downturn. Today Iraq is effectively divided into two parts, a semi-autonomous Kurdish region in the North (under the Kurdish Regional Government, or KRG), governed from Irbil, and the rest of Iraq, controlled directly from the capital, Baghdad.
Iraq is a divided society: ethnic and religious distinctions separate the population into various groups. These include Sunni and Shi’i Arabs, Kurds, and a variety of smaller ethnoreligious groups. Among these, Christians in Iraq are arguably in the weakest position because of their internal divisions, small number, and lack of external support. Arabs make up the majority ethnicity in Iraq, comprising 75-80% of the population. Kurds make up 15-20%, and minority ethnic groups make up about 5%. Arabic and Kurdish are the official languages. Christians make up a very small percentage of Iraqi society, contributing to their unease. Under applicable Islamic law, Muslims are effectively prohibited from changing their religion, and women registered as Muslims are not permitted to marry non-Muslims. Non-Muslims are required to live by Muslim strictures in many local environments, including the need to veil.
The rise of Islamist and sectarian violence in the years since the US invasion of 2003 have disproportionately targeted religious minorities, especially Yezidis and Christians. Amid the chaos of the civil war that raged from 2003 until 2011, each of these groups was targeted for extortion, assassination, and massacre. Religious leaders were abducted and in some cases killed. When in 2014 the Islamic State militia invaded and took over large swathes of northern Iraq, many Yezidis and Christians were forced to flee to camps in the Kurdish region or to foreign countries. Resettlement of these populations after the expulsion of Islamic State has been fraught with difficulties. Government control was restored after 2017 in partnership with local “popular militias”, many of which have sectarian interests, and some of which are allied with the government of neighbouring Iran. These militias have made it increasingly difficult for religious minorities in areas where they traditionally have lived.
Pressure and violence targeting the minorities, including the Christian community, are often ignored or dismissed as a secondary issue to the larger strategic concerns that foreign actors have about Iraq. The central government does little to alleviate the situation: sectarian politics, inadequate state supports, and economic crisis have eroded the state’s ability to respond to minority concerns. Corruption has emerged as one of the greatest threats to minority religious groups in Iraq. Christians are typically at a disadvantage when it comes to dealing with government and private-sector corruption. They have a more challenging time finding jobs or registering a business. They may often need to sell their houses at 60% of the market price.
Christians also report that they face more discrimination than was common under the former Baathist regime. For instance, they report exploitation at the workplace and housing market, including having to pay higher rents than non-Christians. Most Christians in Iraq are living in the provinces of the region of Kurdistan. However, historic Christian communities and converts from Islam can be found in all areas of Iraq. Studies also show that Christians living as internally displaced persons (IDPs) in Kurdistan experience difficulties in integrating due to the language barrier. According to UNHCR, more than 3.3 million IDPs and refugees have been across the country since 2014. Most refugees in Iraq are fleeing from the neighbouring countries, especially Syria.
IIRF-V Fellows continue to monitor religious freedom in Iraq. For more information, go to http://opendoorsanalytical.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/03/Iraq-WWR-Full-Country-Dossier-March-2021-1.pdf