International Religious Freedom Report: Iraq
The Baathist regime of Saddam Hussein was militarily overthrown by a U.S.-led Coalition in Operation Iraqi Freedom on April 9, 2003. UN Security Council Resolutions 1483, 1500, and 1511 provide that the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) administer the country, working closely with the Iraqi Governing Council (IGC), until "an internationally recognized, representative government established by the Iraqi people is sworn in and assumes the responsibilities of the Authority." This report covers religious freedom under the Saddam Hussein regime, which was in control of Iraq for most of the reporting period.
Under the former regime, an interim constitution provided for individual freedom of religion if it did not violate "morality and public order." However, in practice, the Saddam regime severely limited freedom of religion, repressed the Shi'a religious leadership, and sought to exploit religious differences for political purposes.
Islam is the majority religion in Iraq, though other religions are practiced. The Government exercised repressive measures against any religious groupings or organizations that were deemed as not providing full political and social support to the regime.
Although Shi'a Arabs are the largest religious group, Sunni Arabs dominated economic and political life during the Hussein regime. Sunni Arabs were at a distinct advantage in all areas of secular life. The Government also severely restricted or banned outright many Shi'a religious practices and for decades conducted a brutal campaign of murder, summary execution, arbitrary arrest, and protracted detention against religious leaders and followers of the majority Shi'a Muslim population and sought to undermine the identity of minority Christian (Assyrian and Chaldean) and Yazidi groups. The 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.
Shi'a Arabs, the religious majority of the population, have long been disadvantaged economically, politically, and socially. Christians have also reported various historical abuses including repression of political rights.
Prior to the fall of the Saddam Hussein regime, the United States had no diplomatic relations with Iraq and thus was unable to raise directly with the Government the problems of severe restrictions on religious freedom and other human rights abuses. However, the U.S. Government made its position clear in public statements and in diplomatic contacts with other states. In 2003, the U.S. Secretary of State designated Iraq a country of particular concern under the International Religious Freedom Act for the Government's severe violations of religious freedom. The country was similarly designated in 1999, 2000 and 2001.
Section I. Religious Demography
According to best estimates, approximately 97 percent of the population of 22-28 million persons are Muslim. Shi'a Muslims--predominantly Arab, but also including Turkoman, Faili Kurds, and other groups--constitute a 60 to 65 percent majority. Sunni Muslims make up 32 to 37 percent of the population (approximately 18 to 20 percent are Sunni Kurds, 12 to 15 percent Sunni Arabs, and the remainder are Sunni Turkomen). The remaining approximately 3 percent of the overall population consists of Christians (Assyrians, Chaldeans, Roman Catholics, and Armenians), Yazidis, Mandaeans, and a small number of Jews.
Shi'a Arabs, although predominantly located in the south, also compromise a majority in Baghdad and have communities in most parts of the country. Sunnis form the majority in the center of the country and in the north. Shi'a and Sunni Arabs are not ethnically distinct.
Assyrians and Chaldeans are considered by many to be distinct ethnic groups as well as the descendants of some of the earliest Christian communities. These communities speak a distinct language (Syriac). Christians are concentrated in the north and in Baghdad.
The Yazidis are a syncretistic religious group (or a set of several groups). Many Yazidis consider themselves to be ethnically Kurdish, though some would define themselves as both religiously and ethnically distinct from Muslim Kurds. Yazidis predominately reside in the north of the country.
The Mandaeans are a small sect, concentrated mostly in southern Iraq, but with small communities in Baghdad, Kirkuk and elsewhere. The Mandaeans have been present in the country since pre-Christian or early Christian times.
Section II. Status of Religious Freedom
The interim constitution provided for freedom of religion; however, the Government severely restricted this right in practice. Islam was the official state religion and the Constitution did not provide for the recognition of Assyrians, Chaldeans, or Yazidis.
During the Saddam regime, Government registration requirements for religious organizations were unknown. New political parties had to be based in Baghdad and were prohibited from having any ethnic or religious character. The Government did not recognize political organizations that had been formed by Shi'a Muslims or Assyrian Christians. There were religious qualifications for government office; candidates for the National Assembly, for example, were required to "believe in God."
There were no Shari'a courts as such. Civil courts were empowered to administer Islamic law in cases involving personal status, such as divorce and inheritance. In 2001 in northern Iraq, an Islamic group called the Ansar al-Islam (AI) seized control of several villages near the town of Halabja and established an administration ruled by Shari'a Law; however, the Coalition and Kurdish military forces forced AI and its associate organizations out of the North during Operation Iraqi Freedom, and Shari'a courts ceased to operate in Iraq.
Restrictions on Religious Freedom
Although Shi'a Arabs are the largest religious group, Sunni Arabs dominated economic and political life under the Hussein regime. Sunni Arabs were at a distinct advantage in all areas of secular life, be it civil, political, military, or economic.
The Ministry of Endowments and Religious Affairs monitored places of worship, appointed the clergy, approved the building and repair of all places of worship, and approved the publication of all religious literature. This ministry was dissolved after the fall of Saddam Hussein.
The following government restrictions on religious rights remained in effect up until the fall of the Saddam Hussein regime: restrictions on communal Friday prayer by Shi'a; restrictions on Shi'a mosque libraries loaning books; a ban on the broadcast of Shi'a programs on government-controlled radio or television; a ban on the publication of Shi'a books, including prayer books and guides; a ban on many funeral processions other than those organized by the Government; a ban on other Shi'a funeral observances such as gatherings for Koran reading; and the prohibition of certain processions and public meetings commemorating Shi'a holy days.
From 1991 to April 2003, regime security forces were encamped in the shrine to Imam Ali in Najaf, one of Shi'a Islam's holiest sites, and at the city's Shi'a theological schools. The shrine was closed for "repairs" for approximately 2 years after the 1991 uprising. The adjoining al-Khathra mosque, which also was closed in 1994, also remained closed. The closure coincided with the death of Ayatollah Sayed Mohammed Taqi al-Khoei, who was killed in what observers believe was a staged car accident; before his death, Ayatollah al-Khoei led prayers in the al-Khathra mosque.
The Saddam Hussein regime consistently politicized and interfered with religious pilgrimages, both of Iraqi Muslims who wished to make the Hajj to Mecca and Medina and of Iraqi and non-Iraqi Muslim pilgrims who traveled to holy sites within the country.
Shi'a pilgrims from the country and around the world commemorate the death of the Imam Hussein in Karbala twice a year. In past years, the former regime denied visas to many foreign pilgrims for the Ashura, and severely limited or denied observance of the pilgrimage--for several decades the regime interfered with the ritual walking pilgrimage to Karbala to mark the end of the 40-day mourning period. In 2000, the Government issued orders prohibiting the walking pilgrimage to Karbala and reportedly deployed more than 15,000 Republican Guard troops armed with light weapons and in civilian clothes on the main roads leading into both cities to enforce the prohibition. Travelers later reported that security troops opened fire on pilgrims who attempted the walk from Najaf to Karbala as part of the 40th day ritual. Shi'a expatriates reported that groups as small as 10 to 20 pilgrims attempting to make their way into the city at other times were arrested.
Assyrian religious organizations claimed that the Saddam Hussein regime applied apostasy laws in a discriminatory fashion. Assyrians were permitted to convert to Islam, whereas Muslims were forbidden to convert to Christianity.
The Saddam Hussein regime did not permit education in languages other than Arabic and Kurdish. Public instruction in Syriac, which was announced under a 1972 decree, was never implemented. Thus, prior to the fall of the regime in areas under government control, Assyrian and Chaldean children were not permitted to attend classes in Syriac.
Abuses of Religious Freedom
For decades the Saddam Hussein regime conducted a brutal campaign of murder, summary execution, and protracted arbitrary arrest against the religious leaders and followers of the majority Shi'a Muslim population and sought to undermine the identity of minority Christian (Assyrian and Chaldean) and Yazidi groups.
Despite supposed legal protection of religious equality, the regime repressed severely the Shi'a clergy and those who follow the Shi'a faith. Forces from the Intelligence Service (Mukhabarat), General Security (Amn al-Amm), the Military Bureau, Saddam's Commandos (Fedayeen Saddam), and the Ba'ath Party killed senior Shi'a clerics, desecrated Shi'a mosques and holy sites (particularly in the aftermath of the 1991 civil uprising), arrested tens of thousands of Shi'a, interfered with Shi'a religious education, prevented Shi'a adherents from performing their religious rites, and fired upon or arrested Shi'a who sought to take part in their religious processions. Security agents were reportedly stationed at all the major Shi'a mosques and shrines and searched, harassed, and arbitrarily arrested worshipers.
Security forces also forced Shi'a inhabitants of the southern marshes to relocate to major southern cities and to areas along the Iranian border. Former Special Rapporteur van Der Stoel described this practice in his February 1999 report, adding that many other persons were transferred to detention centers and prisons in central Iraq, primarily in Baghdad. The regime also forcibly moved Shi'a populations from the south to the north to replace Kurds, Turkomen, and Assyrians, who had been expelled forcibly from major cities.
With the fall of Saddam Hussein, thousands of religious prisoners were released. While no firm statistics are available regarding the number of religious detainees held by the former regime, observers estimate that the total number of security detainees was in the tens of thousands or more, including numerous religious detainees and prisoners. Some individuals had been held for decades. Others who remain unaccounted for since their arrests may have died or been executed secretly years ago.
Forced Religious Conversion
There were no reports of forced religious conversions, including of minor U.S. citizens who had been abducted or illegally removed from the United States, or of the Government's refusal to allow such citizens to be returned to the United States.
Section III. Societal Attitudes
The country's cultural, religious, and linguistic diversity was not reflected in its political and economic structure. Various segments of the Sunni Arab community, which itself constitutes a minority of the population, effectively controlled the Government since independence in 1932.
Shi'a Arabs, the religious majority of the population, have long been disadvantaged economically, politically, and socially.
Section IV. U.S. Government Policy
Prior to the fall of the Saddam Hussein regime, the United States had no diplomatic relations with Iraq and thus was unable to raise directly with the Government the problems of severe restrictions on religious freedom and other human rights abuses. However, since the establishment of the Coalition Provisional Authority in May, the U.S. government has discussed religious freedom issues with prominent Iraqi leaders in the overall context of the drafting of a new constitution for Iraq.
In 2003, the U.S. Secretary of State designated Iraq a country of particular concern under the International Religious Freedom Act for the Government's severe violations of religious freedom. The country was similarly designated in 1999, 2000 and 2001.
1. It is the policy of the Coalition Provisional Authority
to help the Iraqi people create a democratic, representative government
that respects the fundamental rights of all its citizens, irrespective
of ethnicity or faith.
Source: U.S. Department of State, 2003 Annual Report on International Religious Freedom, Released by the Bureau for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor Washington, DC, December 18, 2003.