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USCIRF Annual Report 2003 - Iraq

Publisher United States Commission on International Religious Freedom
Publication Date 1 May 2003
Cite as United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, USCIRF Annual Report 2003 - Iraq, 1 May 2003, available at: [accessed 18 October 2017]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

For decades, Saddam Hussein's regime in Iraq had conducted a brutal campaign of murder, summary execution, arbitrary arrest, and protracted detention against the religious leaders and followers of the majority Shi'a Muslim population. The government had also sought to undermine the identity of minority Christian (Chaldean and Assyrian), Yazidi, and Sabean Mandaean groups. The regime also completely repressed the Baha'i community, and all Baha'i activity was punishable by death. Although Shi'a Muslims are the largest religious group, Sunni Muslims have historically dominated economic and political life. Shi'a Muslims faced summary execution, arbitrary arrest, long prison sentences, harassment, destruction and desecration of property, and decimation of leadership. Sunni Muslim Kurds and Turkmen also suffered harshly at the hands of the Saddam Hussein regime. Christians also faced repression, forced relocation, and denial of political rights. The Constitution does not provide recognition for Assyrians, Chaldeans, Yazidis, or Baha'is.

Whether the regime's motivation was political or religious, government repression devastated Shi'ism within Iraq. According to the State Department's religious freedom report, the Iraqi regime "systematically killed senior Shi'a clerics, desecrated Shi'a mosques and holy sites, interfered with Shi'a religious education, and prevented Shi'a adherents from performing their religious rites." There was considerable government control over and interference with Shi'a mosques and religious observances. Traditional Shi'a practices such as the distinctive Shi'a call to prayer and ritual food preparations during the holy month of Muharram were banned in several Shi'a districts. Iraqi security forces interfered with the performance of religious pilgrimages, both to the Shi'a holy cities of southern Iraq and for those Shi'a Muslims wishing to travel to Mecca for the Hajj. Moreover, as religious scholarship in Shi'a Islam is passed from one generation of clerics to another, Iraq's policy of eliminating senior Shi'a clerics threatened the very future of Shi'ism in Iraq.

Historically, Iraqi Christians have generally enjoyed freedom of worship. However, in early 2002, the Iraqi government reportedly passed a law placing all Christian clergy and churches under the control of the Ministry of Islamic Property. In addition, the issue of religious freedom for Christians in Iraq is complicated by the fact that lines between ethnic and religious identification are often blurred. Assyrians, for example, regard themselves as ethnically distinct from the majority Arab Iraqis, though the regime does not recognize them as such. Chaldeans, however, are generally more integrated into Iraqi society than Assyrians and have at times even been favored by the current regime. Local churches often deny the existence of religious persecution, though Christians reported increasing vulnerability in the face of growing anti-Western sentiment and fear that their communities could become scapegoats due to their churches' perceived association with the West. There have been occasional reports of Muslim Kurds, themselves victims of harsh repression at the hands of the Iraqi government for political and ethnic reasons, attacking Assyrian Christians in northern Iraq. Other religious communities have varied experiences. The Yazidis, whose unique religion contains elements of paganism, Zoroastrianism, Christianity, and Islam, have historically been subjected to persecution due to the prevalent view, among both Christians and Muslims, that they are "Satan worshippers" and hence, heretical.

As of the writing of this report the situation in Iraq is in flux following U.S.-led military action that brought an end to the Saddam Hussein regime. Since the fall of the regime, Shi'a Muslims have begun to enjoy religious freedom for the first time in more than two decades. In April 2003, hundreds of thousands of Shi'a Muslims participated in an important religious pilgrimage into the holy city of Karbala. At the same time, however, some segments of the Shi'a community have been vociferously demanding the implementation of Islamic law in a manner that reportedly threatens to preclude respect for freedom of thought, conscience, religion, or belief for others in contravention of commitments to human rights and individual freedoms.

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