Iraq is a religiously and ethnically diverse country, even though the diversity has lessened because of the country’s recent history of Islamist insurgency, political instability, and sectarian violence. Majority of Iraqis classify themselves as Muslim with 64 to 69% being Shi’a Muslim and 29 to 34% being Sunni Muslim. The country is also home to approximately 200,000 Christians which vary from Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant who are from a pre-2003 population of around 1.5 million. It is also home to around 700,000 Yazidis and most of them are still internally displaced.
In the Iraqi context, religion and ethnicity are usually strongly associated together. Many of the country’s smaller communities like the Turkmen, Sabean-Mandaeans, Shabaks, and Kak’ais have faced serious threats in the more recent years that cannot be easily characterized as solely religious or ethnic. Many communities experienced brutal hardship under the ISIS rule or fleeing from it. This includes Turkmen and Yazidis from whom ISIS captured thousands of women and children and trapped into sexual or domestic slavery.
These women and children still work hard to find their place in a post-ISIS Iraq. Some internally displaced people (IDPs) have found stable though imperfect refuge alongside indigenous communities in the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) territory. Others have resorted to return to their traditional towns and villages that are gradually, but relentlessly recovering and rebuilding.
The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) recommended Iraq for the special watch list. Though the religious freedom conditions have improved in key areas, there is still concern overall. Religious minorities in Sinjar and the Nineveh Plains encountered major barriers to their safe return in the short term and their secure, continuing presence in the long term.
Even though the US military, Kurdish Peshmerga, and other multinational groups effectively ended the threat of ISIS, many of the areas that were controlled by the group remain under or abandoned. Considerable humanitarian aid from the US and other international donors helped the stabilization and reconstruction in those areas. Unfortunately, thousands of civilians from ethnic and religious minorities are still at serious risk.
Majority of the Iraqi Christians are still displaced and still face challenges. Similarly, the Yazidis, 500,000 of whom fled ISIS barbarisms in 2014 still face suffering in 2019. The collective trauma that the have experienced under ISIS still remains unaddressed. Particularly, the fates of around 3,000 Yazidi women and children who were abducted remain unknown today.
There still remains a large lack of security. This is because of the Iranian-supported militias of the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) which is the al-Hashd al-Sha’bi or the Popular Mobilization Units (PMU). The PMF continue to stand in the way of the progress toward improved religious freedom.
There are also factions such as the 30th (Shabak) and the 50th (Babylon) brigades who make key towns like Qaraqosh and Bartella hostile to minority returnees. The 30th brigade placed a curfew on Christians in Bartella during Ashura which is a provocative action in a community that already had sectarian conflict. The two brigades have caused so much destruction to the point that the US Treasury had to place Global Magnitsky sanctions on Waad Qado and Rayan al-Kildani who are the leaders of said brigades.
The USCIRF has four recommendations for the US Government. First, to maintain pressure on the Iraqi government to implement a policy against the PMF.
Second, to impose direct sanctions on PMF leaders whose groups still engage in violations on religious freedom. Third, to highlight religious freedom as a part of the US engagement with President Barham Salih and the new prime minister which urges them to prioritize the country’s preservation, rehabilitation, and representation of religious groups. Lastly, to aid in the empowerment of Iraqi ethnic and religious minorities by the respective leaders and for the protection of freedom of religion.
Freedom of religion is a big human rights issue of 2020, where even democracies such as South Korea have been the point of international concern due to freedom of religion violations as a result of COVID-19 prevention protocols that were enacted. The current Moon administration, including the Minister of Justice, Chu Mi-Ae, are currently busy justifying the actions that were taken in the beginning of the pandemic in Korea, such as the decision to not stop travel incoming from China into Korea, and for enacting illegal search and seizures against religious minority groups. Although the mainstream media has not reported much on this aspect of the issue, it can be found on online community boards such as Reddit and Naver where citizens can post their honest opinions and viewpoints about what is going on. Online community boards, however, are not necessarily platforms of truth, for they also face accusations of restricting content that is deemed unpopular or disagreeable with community standards of content. There are even people who have created online anti-Reddit signature petitions to ask for more transparency in its community standards.