(Photo: Reuters/Azad Lashkari)
The year 2011 did not bring respite for Christians and other religious minorities in Iraq as hundreds of thousands of migrants who fled the country are still unwilling to risk returning due to reports of continued discrimination, fear of renewed violence and the government's apparent inability to protect citizens.
In addition to the lack of life opportunities in Iraq, Assyrian Christians and other minorities experienced a significant rise in hostile acts and riots in the country's northen region in 2011 compared to 2010, according to a newly released Human Right Watch report. Northern Iraq has traditionally been considered a safe haven for minority groups, but the uptick in violence indicates conditions are changing.
The human rights agency also warned that "Given the huge exodus of minorities and continuing threats and violence in 2011," there is a probability that Assyrians, an ethnic indigenous minority which is mostly Chrisitan, "may not survive the current conflict and that their unique culture and heritage will slowly disappear from Iraq."
A young female Assyrian Christian who moved to the United States in 2004 agreed with the reports' findings. The woman, who agreed to speak with The Christian Post under the condition of anonymity, is a 33-year-old graduate student whose family now lives in northern Iraq – after being chased out of their home in Baghdad.
"Right now, I don't feel safe and welcome in my own home anymore," she shared. "Just because they [conservative Muslims] built so much discrimination against us, so much hate."
The Christian community in Iraq is traditionally non-violent, the woman claimed – they do not have a militia or carry guns, which makes them the easier a target, she suggested.
"After the invasion we were directly linked to Americans, as Christians, and Muslims just turned against us," thinking that Americans would "prefer" them, the woman said. In 2004, her brother was kidnapped, and miraculously returned for a ransom. But many kidnapped people would never be seen again, she said.
In 2007, the year of greatest violence against Christians in Baghdad, the woman's family was pushed out of the house they owned upon receiving a message that they would be killed and their home blown up if they did not leave.
"By then, they've already done it to our neighbors," the woman said. "I personally know people who got killed" because they refused to leave or were still living in the neighborhood. The family had to oblige and having packed minimally, moved to Northern Iraq, which saw little persecution at the time, but has now seen an increase in such cases. The neighborhood her family left, once mostly populated by Christians, is now Muslim, the woman told CP, and her family fears re-claiming their house because of potential violence.
Christians find the Iraqi government's affirmations that it is working toward democracy and eradicating terrorism unconvincing.
"I don't think that the government is really doing their best," the young woman said. Although she acknowledged that the government indeed cannot be expected to eradicate all terrorism at once, she believes its members are "busy dividing power" as the new democracy is being formed. "I don't think they're doing their job," she said.
The grad student sees the Iraqi government as moving "from a secular government and a dictator, to an Islamic government and a dictator," alluding to Prime MInister Nouri al-Maliki, who has been criticised for not being efficient in ensuring security in the country still filled with terrorists. Recently, a string of bombings throughout the country killed 52 people, with one of the targets being a church.
Incidentally, reports of religious rights violations throughout the country emerged as Iraq was preparing to host the Arab League summit, currently taking place under tight security in Baghdad.
Iraq is keen to present itself as more stable and re-assert its clout in an often hostile Arab region, according to reports. The summit also comes at a sensitive time of renewed regional fears Iraq might slide once again into sectarian violence.
Iraqi officials deny the situation is as bad for religious minorities as reports suggest.
Permanent Representative of Iraq to the United Nations, Dr. T. Hamid Al-Bayati, who met with an interfaith group of New York-based religious leaders on March 22 to discuss such concerns, insisted that the Iraqi government was doing its best to curb violence, which he said harms not only minorities, but all of society.
"We know that there are reports about Christians leaving Iraq," Bayati said. "But to be honest, this is a general phenomenon." Many Iraqis are leaving the country because of fear of violence or in search of better economic opportunities, the U.N. ambassador said. "We still have challenges, we still have problems, and the situation is not perfect in Iraq," but it has "improved dramatically," for Christians and other minority communities, he suggested, adding that ending violence is one of the government's main goals.
"A car bomb will not distinguish between a Muslim, or a Christian or a Jew," he said. The ideology of violence is clearly wrong, he emphasized, as "It's very clear in the Quran that whoever killed a person will be in hell forever. Nobody could justify killing a person."
The current government is a democratic one, not an Islamist one and not one that encourages discrimination against minorities, he claimed. Bayati also insisted that the new constitution, "which is the foundation of the political process in Iraq," guarantees "all kinds of freedoms," including religious and women's freedom.
It is the extremists that consider Christians, Jews, and other religious minorities to be infidels who deserve to be killed, and they do target them, he acknowledged, but denied the government actively participates in discrimination.
Despite Bayati's denial, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) 2012 report, released last week, claims the Iraqi government "continues to tolerate systematic, ongoing, and egregious religious freedom violations." While it has made "welcome efforts to increase security, it continues to fall short in investigating attacks and bringing perpetrators to justice," the report claims.
The Christians who have not emigrated "face official discrimination, marginalization, and neglect, particularly in areas of northern Iraq," the USCIRF report claims. "Religious freedom abuses of women and individuals who do not conform to strict interpretations of religious norms also remain a concern."
According to the Human Rights Watch report, minorities are subjected to a pattern of official discrimination, marginalization and neglect, and suffer from the effects of corruption and a policy based on sectarian interests.
The seemingly indifferent political attitude has not changed since Saddam Hussein's dictatorial rule came to an end in 2003, the Iraqi Christian who spoke with CP said. Christians were and are discriminated against in schools and in the workforce equally now as under Hussein, the woman, who comes from an educated family, claims. Under Hussein, teachers would order her in school to wear a head scarf and pressured her to convert to Islam, all the while insisting that "Islam is right, Christianity is wrong."
"They push you in any way they can to become a Muslim. To identify yourself as an Arab," she said.
But in the woman's opinion, based on what relatives tell her, that has not changed under al-Maliki's government. However, under Hussein, "It was not visible violence against Christians, it was more built-in – within government institutions, within government policy."
"When you finish college, university, you won't have the same opportunities as a Muslim person to get hired or to get higher position," she told CP, revealing that she was aware of very few Christians holding managerial positions, or working for the government.
According to the Human Rights Watch report, Assyrians perceive that they do not belong to the current Iraq and are being excluded from civil society.
"Because of the continuing displacement processes, many Assyrians are not able to sustain themselves, lacking a regular source of income, opportunities and education, and neither the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) nor the central Iraqi government provides sufficient assistance," the report's authors write.
Despite a general decrease in violence in 2011, Assyrians and other minorities are "constantly experiencing targeted violence, threats and intimidation," according to the human rights report, which confirms "they do not have their own militias to defend them and do not receive effective protection or justice."
"Feeling desperation, Assyrians have become restless people moving from one place to the other, and often express the desire to emigrate," the report reads.
As many as one million Christians have left Iraq in the years following the 2003 U.S.-led invasion, according to experts. According to the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), minorities make up more than 30 percent of the two million Iraqi refugees seeking sanctuary in Jordan, Syria and across the world; the majority of these are Assyrian Christians.
Violence against Christians and other religious minorities skyrocketed in Iraq in 2004 (115 Assyrians were killed that year, according to Human Rights Watch). The Christian who spoke with CP said that although Hussein did not allow democracy, he was a secularist and "was equally bad to everyone."
Hundreds of thousands of refugees who moved to neighboring countries remain "trapped in poverty and chronic uncertainty," according to Human Rights Watch. "Unable to return home or to resettle elsewhere, many face growing desperation with each passing year in exile."
The Assyria Council of Europe (ACE) documented dozens of attacks against Assyrians during 2011, according to Human Rights Watch. As a result of these attacks, at least nine people were killed and more than 72 were wounded. In contrast to 2010, the violence was concentrated in the northern part of Iraq. The situation in Baghdad remained relatively calm compared to 2010.
While violence against Assyrians in 2011 was lower than in 2010, attacks on churches increased. Since 2004, when the first church bombing occurred, more than 70 churches have been attacked, although no one died in a church attack in 2011.
Attacks on religious sites are still used as a tool to suppress the practice of the Christian religion, to intimidate religious minorities in order to compel them out of the country, the Human Rights Watch report assesses.
Image credit: Images used in the audio file come from Mourning in the Garden of Eden - a documentary film by Gwendolen Cates currently in post-production; and Reuters.