While overall violence is decreasing in Iraq, the level of attacks and intimidation of religious minorities remains high, leading to increased displacement, a new report says.
"There's a feeling that Iraq is slowly moving towards increased stability, but minorities are feeling that they are excluded from public life and that the new Iraq is not for them," said Chris Chapman, head of the conflict prevention programme at Minority Rights Group International, the London-based advocacy and research organization, which wrote the report. "They feel they are getting a message that Iraq is not their country and they are not welcome... It's for Sunnis, Shi'as, Kurds, but not for them."
The report said "in some cases [the displacement is] decimating communities to the point that they risk disappearing altogether from their ancient homeland".
At the peak of the insurgency against US troops who invaded Iraq in 2003, attacks against minorities were well-documented.
But those attacks continue, even now that overall violence has subsided. The most fatal were the suicide attacks against a Baghdad church in October 2010 that left 56 dead and led more than 1,000 families to flee Baghdad over two months. But there have been many other incidents, amounting to targeted violence, threats, and intimidation that the US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF)'s 2011 report describes as "systematic, ongoing and egregious".
While violence in 2011 is slightly lower than in 2010, Chapman said, there have been several attacks on churches; an attack on a Turkmen political party; repeated attacks on members of the Shabak, Yezidi and Mandaean minorities, including kidnappings and murders, according to local NGOs; and continued targeting of shops providing goods or services deemed un-Islamic, including liquor stores owned by Christians and Yezidis, according to USCIRF.
"Attacks against minorities have had a profound effect by targeting their communities' social infrastructure, leaving victims and others fearful to carry on with their everyday lives," Human Rights Watch (HRW) said in its 2011 report on Iraq. Many minorities say they feel the goal of these attacks is to force them out of Iraq altogether.
Those minorities who subscribe to a religion other than Shi’a or Sunni Islam represent 3-5 percent of the Iraqi population but make up 10 percent of the internally displaced, according to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC), and between 17-22 percent of its refugees, according to the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR).
"There is no doubt that minorities in Iraq are living in extremely bad conditions," Hanin Al-Qado, who heads Iraq's Minorities Council NGO, told IRIN. "They are awaiting a dark and uncertain future and they are concerned about that."
Unlike many other populations in the region, Iraq is diverse in terms of ethnicity and religion. In addition to the largest Muslim groups of Shi'a and Sunni Arabs and Kurds, Iraq has communities of Armenians, Chaldeans, Syriacs, Assyrians, Circassians, Baha'is, Black Iraqis, Roma, Faili Kurds, Kaka'i, Sabean, Mandaeans, Shabaks, Turkmen, Yazidis, Jews and Palestinians.
Al-Qado, a prominent leader of the Shabaks, said about 1,200 members of his community had been killed since 2003. The USCIRF report said at least half of the pre-2003 Iraqi Christian community is believed to have left the country, "with Christian leaders warning that the consequence of this flight may be the end of Christianity in Iraq". Mandaeans have reported to USCIRF that almost 90 percent of their community has either fled Iraq or been killed.
Ali Al-Moussawi, a spokesman for the Iraqi government, denied that minorities were being singled out in Iraq, saying one of his government's priorities was to make sure that they are safe and practise their religions.
"Terrorist attacks are not only targeting minorities but all Iraqis. Terrorists do not differentiate between minorities and other Iraqis," Al-Moussawi said. "The government gives a priority to protecting the minorities and their rights more than other segments of the Iraqi people," he added.
"We are proud of the minorities in Iraq and we can't abandon them as we consider them proof of coexistence among Iraqi people, their civilization and the diversity in their society."
But rights groups say attacks on minorities are rarely investigated or punished, creating a "climate of impunity".
Fawzia Al-Attia, professor of sociology at the University of Baghdad, said political and ethnic wrangling since 2003 was behind the discrimination and marginalizing of minorities of Iraq.
"This problem did not exist in the past but after 2003, the political, religious and ethnic affiliations - as opposed to citizenship - have become main pillars in forming the government," Al-Attia said.
"And that has led to competition and conflict, not only against minorities or among big sects but even among the same sects," she added. "Politicizing the tribe or the sect has become a culture in our society to get these gains."
The MRG's Chapman said prejudices and religious extremism had flared as a result of the conflict, partly because minorities have been associated with the multinational forces.
"But part of it is simply that the conflict allowed tensions to blow up into all-out conflict between religious groupings. That has created divides which were kind of there before but had not been allowed to flare up to that extent."
Access to public services
According to the MRG report, minorities in Iraq also face difficulty and discrimination in accessing employment, education and healthcare.
"There is discrimination, prejudice and marginalization," Christian lawmaker Younadim Kanna said.
This is especially the case in areas disputed by the federal government and the Kurdistan Regional Government - where many minorities live - because neither side sees it as in their interest to invest in services there, the MRG said.
Al-Qado said minorities are "suffering a lot" in these areas and stressed that government should control these areas and protect minorities in them.
Minorities' access to basic services has also been affected by conflict in the area. A July 2011 attack on a Shabak village by a tribe from the Kurdistan region left around 12,000 people without water and the authorities had not addressed the issue, MRG said.
Sabean-Mandaean and Faili Kurds complained that they could not access education in their language in parts of the country, the report added.
Women minority members are vulnerable to physical and verbal harassment and often hide their identity outside their homes.
The 40-page report, Iraq's Minorities: Participation in Public Life, is based on 331 interviews with members of 11 minority communities in Iraq's northern self-ruled Kurdish region and six provinces in 2010.
Fewer than half of respondents said they felt safe visiting places of worship; 87 percent said school curricula did not portray minorities in a positive light or at all; and 38 percent had experienced discrimination in accessing government jobs.
The MRG report recommended that a number of legal and policy changes be made by involving all minority groups in the drafting of an anti-discrimination law.
It also recommended introducing a new national identity card that did not indicate ethnicity or religion and eliminating the requirement that Arabic be the only language used in all employment, and providing bilingual education for minorities in areas where they form a significant proportion of the population.
"Many members of minorities in Iraq find themselves effectively in ghettos as they are excluded from whole areas of public life. Greater dialogue, reconciliation and the development of a comprehensive legal framework must be ongoing to have a real impact," the MRG's Chapman said.
This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions