Throughout its history, Iraq has witnessed a long series of ethno-religious massacres and conflicts, even before its creation (1921) and independence (1932), until the latest genocidal attempt by ISIS during the occupation of Mosul, the Nineveh Plane, and Sinjar (2014-2017). Sectarian violence and extremism targeted especially Christians (Syriacs, Chaldeans, Armenians), the Yazidis, the Sabian Mandaeans, and other minorities, with the aim of erasing their civilization and identity, although they are indigenous to the Iraqi territory. Against this backdrop, properly assessing the current Iraqi context can help identify the way forward to attain the long-awaited peace and reconciliation in the country.
The Post-Saddam Era
After the fall of Saddam Hussein (2003), sectarian violence and extremism marked the revival of the strife between Iraqi Shias and Sunnis, which resulted in a large number of deaths and major destruction across the country, including mosques and religious sites. The implementation of the so-called “de-Baathification” law was the source of grievous injustices, which affected especially the Sunni community, who used to be the dominant power during the Baathist dictatorship. At the same time, the “de-Baathification” hit Christians as well, with the seizure of houses and buildings, the destruction of churches and monasteries dating back to the first centuries in Mosul and the northern villages, the forced displacement of people.
On top of that, ISIS caused ever more deaths, destruction, and humanitarian tragedies. All the Christian churches in Mosul were razed to the ground, similarly to the crimes committed by Saddam Hussein’s regime in the Christian villages of the north in 1988 while executing the “Anfal” genocidal campaign, which was mainly directed against the Kurds (between 50,000 to 100,000 victims) but suppressed other minorities as well.
Over the last 20 years, more than one million Iraqi Christians were forced to flee the country according to the official statistics. Less than 500,000 are left, and many of them still cannot return to their homes in Mosul, similarly to what is happening to the Yazidis in Sinjar. A total of 3 million Christians were forced to abandon the country since the 60s of the last century, and are now scattered in different places around the world.
Deep wounds keep bleeding in the hearts and minds of those who are alive today and fight for justice and the respect for human rights, first and foremost religious freedom. This fight unites all the Iraqi people who strive to build a better future, irrespective of their religion or ethnicity. The new generations do not deserve to suffer from the scourge of terrorism, nor to be subjected to the hegemony of sectarian militias and political parties.
How Sectarianism Looks
The origins of Iraq’s heterogeneity are in part geographical. The fertile lands along the Tigris and Euphrates became home to most of the population, which developed different customs and traditions from the inhabitants of other areas over the centuries. In addition, the presence of many religious confessions and ethnicities greatly contributed to the diversity of the social and cultural fabric, but to date the country has yet to find effective solutions to ensure harmonious relations and peaceful coexistence between the different groups. After the independence and the establishment of the Republic, all the successive governments failed in this respect, so much so that the Iraqis now believe that the authority in charge of the country, no matter who it is and how it came to power, is not better than the previous one, which the people had already rejected.
The governments that followed the end of Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship are not an exception, since they are based on institutionalized sectarianism, both from a religious and ethnic standpoint, as sanctioned by the Constitution itself. In the political sphere, sectarianism keeps influencing governmental choices and the distribution of power in favor of the majority and to the detriment of minorities. Sectarianism has spawned a number of by-products so far, such as vote rigging during elections, the growing internal corruption in the public administration, and the disenfranchisement of citizens toward politics and politicians. Each party seeks to advance the narrow interests of the sectarian constituency it represents, according to a zero-sum competition where the goal is to subjugate the state policies to its own sectarian agenda, regardless of the common good. This is a major source of domestic tensions, which are always on the verge of new outbreaks of violence.
The political process is not able to lead to the adoption of structural measures to boost the economic development of Iraq. As a result, despite the country’s huge wealth in terms of energy resources, 40 percent of the population live below the poverty line, unemployment remains rampant, especially among the youth, services and infrastructures are absent. The living conditions of families have drastically deteriorated, and so did the health system. The sick, homeless and displaced people have increased significantly. The weakness of the means to ensure social control and public order gave way to various forms of violence, delinquency, and crime. Prisons are more and more crowded.
Another source of violence and extremism is the deterioration of the educational level, which is caused by the lack of proper school buildings and facilities. Oftentimes, there are more than 50 students per class. About 1000 schools are made of mud or straw, or in other cases the lessons are given in tents or caravans. They lack clean water and sanitary toilets, as well as laboratories, libraries, and technical equipment. The level of the training for teachers is worsening, while the level of violence in schools keeps rising.
Religious Minorities and the Lack of Religious Freedom
Article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that “all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood”. Therefore, we are all born with the right to freedom, including freedom of religion. However, this is still not the case in Iraq, where there is freedom of worship, but not religious freedom. The two are different things.
For instance, Article 26 of the Iraqi National Identity Law introduced in 2016 requires minors from non-Muslim minorities to convert to Islam if one of their parents becomes Muslim, thus restricting their capacity to take decisions about their own religious belief. Furthermore, the right to embrace another religion is granted only to non-Muslims when they intend to convert to Islam. Anything else is deemed a crime (apostasy), even punishable by death. As a consequence of the lack of legal protection for minority religions, most Christian and Yazidi Iraqis have been persecuted and forced to live in diaspora, with violence and genocidal events diminishing their presence in the country. Most of Muslim children are mistaught their religion from an early age to a degree that they end up insulting and condemning their classmates as “infidels” if they are Christians and Yazidis.
Most of the countries in the MENA region lack the basic concepts of justice and equality, as mechanisms to reject religious and ethnic discrimination. This is a cultural issue, which needs to be addressed through a major effort in the educational field, in order to develop and spread the culture of respect for other religions. To invest in human capabilities is the way forward to raise awareness of religious freedom among young men and women, who will become the citizens and the leaders of tomorrow. All Iraqis must feel safe and have their human rights duly protected in their country.
In March 2021, the landmark visit of Pope Francis to Iraq was seen as a hope for change. The reaction of the Iraqi people was unique, since they discovered a new reality which was reflected in the words of the Pope, who said “you are all brothers”, asking for “human fraternity”, rather than war and sectarianism. All of this bears witness to the need for the Iraqis to work together as human beings directed toward interreligious dialogue, a peaceful society, and cooperation for the common good.
The Support of the International Community
Article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is valid in any circumstance. This means that it is possible to preserve religious freedom, while still establishing long-term peace and stability in a society, such as the Iraqi one. The Iraqi authorities are thus called to make the necessary legislative changes and implement concrete policies to stop all forms of abuse, violence, and discrimination against religious and ethnic minorities, ensuring the respect for human rights on a local and national level.
To fulfil this task, the “National Reconciliation Committee”, acting under the Higher Committee for Coexistence and Community Peace, was established in 2017, soon after the liberation of the country from ISIS, and a number of initiatives aimed at protecting human rights and promoting peaceful coexistence were in fact carried out. However, this process suffered a major setback in 2019, due to the violent repression of the demonstrations led by the civil society and the youth. Since then, no substantial progress has been made to address the issue underlying the creation of the “National Reconciliation Committee”, especially as far as the religious minorities are concerned.
The body is entrusted with “the return of the displaced to their homes”, and with “resolving security, clan, and service problems that hinder it”, but there are still thousands of Christian and Yazidi Iraqis who are not able to go back to Mosul and other places in the Nineveh plane they had to flee from during the plague of ISIS occupation. In addition, sectarianism, also prompted by foreign interferences, continues to be the hallmark and the driving force of the political process, preventing the possibility to concretely “work to establish a culture of dialogue, tolerance, respect for other opinions, diversity in all its forms, respect for the law and for all values that support peaceful coexistence”, as expressed in the mission statement of the “National Reconciliation Committee”.
This calls for a renewed effort by the international community to support Iraq in its quest for peace and security. The role of the international community has been fundamental so far, both in making the liberation from ISIS possible and in providing humanitarian aid and a substantial help in the reconstruction of what was destroyed during the war. Now, further support is needed in favor of those organizations of the civil society and faith-based actors striving to promote education and awareness about dialogue, respect for human rights, and religious freedom.
At the same time, from a security perspective, Iraq needs to strengthen its relations with NATO and NATO member states to ensure the training of the Iraqi military and police forces. This will play a key role in advancing the security and stability necessary to allow a culture of peace, reconciliation, and living together to take root and flourish across the country.
Proceedings of the Study Seminar
A Strategic Perspective on “Religion, Peace, and Security”
Dr. Elie Al Hindy: “Interreligious Dialogue: Three Levels of Engagement for Peace and Security”
Dr. Majeda Omar: “The Amman Message and Other Insights from Jordan”
Prof. Aicha Haddou: Preventing Extremism: The Moroccan “Experience”
Imam Yahya Pallavicini: Policies and Initiatives Against the Radical Discourse in the MENA Region
Dr. Elie Abouaoun: “Food for Thought” On How to Foster Peace and Reconciliation in the MENA Region
Hon. Pascale Warda: Sectarianism and the Predicament of Religious Minorities in Iraq