Religious communities in Iraq have been severely weakened by the escalating tension between major political forces, which have dominated the country and undermined the rights of these minorities both at parliamentary and social levels.
The crisis-ridden situation is pushing them to a state of total despair. The feeling that a perilous future awaits them is widespread, making it impossible for them to foresee any political and social existence in a country which is originally and rightfully theirs.
Active political forces, especially Kurdish and Shiite, were able to extend their control over the weaker political actors of minorities and monopolize their representation, stripping the independent minorities’ leaders of any effective role.
Stolen Political Representation
This is the case for the Christian community, which enjoys the highest number of “quota” seats in Iraq’s parliament (5 seats). This representation, proportionately higher than the other communities, was subsumed by Shiite political parties after a Christian party, the Babylon Movement, allied with armed factions affiliated with the Popular Mobilization Forces. These Christian seats therefore became an extension of this powerful shiite political movement.
This Christian movement, headed by Rayan al-Kildani, has gradually become a key figure in the political block of Iraqi armed factions. This is especially the case since al-Kildani is officially registered as a militia leader, having founded an armed faction during operations to liberate Nineveh from ISIS control.
Al-Kildani’s monopoly over Christian representation created great strife between him and the Chaldean Church. On more than one occasion, the head of the Church, Cardinal Louis Sacco, attacked Christian members of the Council of Representatives, saying in one statement that, “The [Christian] quota cannot be relied upon directly, because those who previously occupied these seats have disappointed Iraqis in the past and failed to provide anything to Christians. They are from various parties and enjoy support from different actors, and most of them did not come to serve the people or provide services, but rather to obtain money and power.”
On this matter, Christian activist Khlapieel Bnyameen expressed his pessimism in an interview with The Red Line: “Major political parties in Iraq clearly and publicly control the fates of [religious] communities, especially Christians, despite numerous attempts to end this hegemony. There are no real solutions, and this foretells a dangerous future for Christians and Iraqi religious communities in general.”
This trend does not only concern Christians. Yazidis are also suffering from a deprivation of any true political representation, especially considering the Kurdistan Democratic Party’s (KDP) takeover of the Yazidi seat in the Council of Representatives, whose occupant is linked to the Kurdish party.
Vian Dakhil was the most prominent Yazidi parliamentarian associated with the KDP, along with other Yazidi MPs who enjoy ties to this party and advocate its policies in parliament.
In every election, conflict is renewed over Yazidi representation and who should receive the votes of the communities’ constituency. This is particularly true for those who still reside in internally displaced (IDP) camps and who are under the authority of the KDP in the Kurdistan Region (KRG). These IDPs, who are easily manipulated, fall into the hands of the KDP and not its rival, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), who controls other parts of the KRG’s territory. The KDP, led by the Barzani family, controls Erbil and Dohuk governorates as well as the northern areas of Nineveh province (including those with Christian, Yazidi and other communities). Meanwhile, Sulaymaniyah Governorate remains under the control of the Talabani family’s Patriotic Union.
Among other things, Yazidi independent candidates competing for the quota seat are prevented from campaigning in IDP camps which are subject to the authority of the KDP. Moreover, the vote over the sole Yazidi seat takes place only in the city of Mosul according to the multimember district electoral system. Thus, the majority of Yazidis, i.e. those residing in other governorates cannot vote for this seat, as points out Yazidi activist and former candidate Jassim Murad.
Speaking to The Red Line, Murad asserted that, “The issues of Yazidis and religious communities in general have never been a priority for Iraqi politicians, as the latter are concerned with confiscating the rights of communities and robbing us of our political rights/ This is especially true seen what we, as Yazidis, have been subjected to. The majority of religious communities no longer believe in a future for them in Iraq. There is no proper management, no real representation, and no one to care about our issues.”
It is worth mentioning that 15 Yazidis competed in the early elections that took place in October 2021, 7 of whom were openly nominated within the Kurdish parties, and the rest competed for the Yazidi quota seat.
Finally, members of the Sabean-Mandaeans community tell another story regarding the loss of their political rights. The representatives of this community, who only enjoys one parliamentary seat according to the quota system, are often subjugated by large political parties. This seat is often affiliated with one of the prominent Shiite forces: either the State of Law Coalition led by the head of the Da’wa Party, Nouri al-Maliki, or the Sadrist Movement bloc led by its leader Muqtada al-Sadr.
This is repeated in every election cycle, almost without fail. The MP representing Sabian-Mandaeans in the 2018 session was affiliated to the State of Law Coalition, and considered at the time to be one of the Coalition’s own MPs. The current representative of this religious community joined others who won the election as “independents,” and then joined the Sadrist movement’s bloc before its withdrawal from parliament.
According to Sabian activist Ihsan Manhal, speaking to The Red Line, “We have never sensed any real concern from the representatives of our community. They did not preserve our rights nor demand them, especially as we are among the indiginous people of this land, and our numbers in Iraq have dwindled due to immigration. Our parliamentary seat goes to big political parties, because even our constitutionally guaranteed representation has been stolen from us.”
Exploitation and Whitewashing
In the midst of this deprivation of rights of religious communities, a new form of exploitation has emerged which is the tendency of Islamic parties to use religious communities and their clerics to whitewash their image.
Many religious party leaders participated in religious activities and were keen to appear as being supportive of them.
Former Christian representative, Joseph Sliwa, explained to The Red Line that, “Islamic parties in central and southern Iraq, and Kurdish nationalist parties in the north, use the religious communities to whitewash their image. They involve us in government in a fictitious way and market themselves as believing in pluralism and democracy. However, they remained authoritarian in every sense of the word, and have reached the point of using clerics of other faiths for the purpose of whitewashing.”
Sliwa added that, “Large political parties trade in religion and people’s issues through the clergy, who are used both by the federal authority of Baghdad as well as the Regional government in Erbil. The authorities in Erbil grant themselves as Kurdish nationalists, while an Islamic sectarian Shiite covers all of central and southern Iraq.”
Communities or Minorities?
Considering the political dominance of large parties over non-Muslim sects in Iraq, the question always springs to mind as to whether these sects are religious communities or minorities.
Regardless of the historical transformations of these sects in Mesopotamia, today they are exposed to intense security and social pressures that push them to emigrate from Iraq in large numbers, which has greatly diminished their population numbers.
In this regard, Sliwa pointed out that, “Religious communities have had a prominent role in building civilization on this land, but today we are unable to express ourselves and our ambitions through real representation in state institutions. On the contrary, some figures and clerics are recruited to speak on behalf of these religious communities, receiving benefits and money in return for being tools in the hands of the dominant power.”
Sliwa continue, stressing that, historically, non-Muslim religious communities were not minorities in Iraq. “They have deliberately been rendered such after massacres were committed against them and their lands were stolen, and demographic shifts took place in their areas. They were subsequently displaced, persecuted and imprisoned, and this forced them to opt for emigration, and to become a minority in their mother country.”
Fear of the Unknown
Even as they accept this fait accompli and endure all forms of marginalisation and persecution, members of religious minorities feel insecure in a country on the brink, shaken by successive crises. Therefore, they are constantly worried about the prospect of total chaos and lawlessness, which makes them easier prey for gangs and armed groups.
Khlapieel Bnyameen explained that, “The political situation in Iraq is currently in its worst stage. Crisis is not new to Iraq, but it was less severe in the past. This time, there is a struggle for power and influence, not only for economic interests, and now it is reaching the level of armed clashes, placing us in a state of constant fear from the future of this country.”
Bnyameen believes that, “Al-Sadr’s recent moves undermined the political process, and it seems that he regretted leaving parliament and is therefore demanding its dissolution. It would have been better for him to wait until the new Iraqi government was formed to carry out his demonstrations, but he took his usual step and used the Sadrist popular movement, considered the strongest political movement in Iraq today. This is what brought the political process to a near total halt.”
In regards to political vision, Yazidi activist Jassim Murad supports the Sadrists’ demands to go to early elections “because the current parliament is powerless.” However, he does not agree with the Sadrist movement’s current choices and the resulting disruption of daily life, adding, “We also disagree with the Coordination Framework’s measures that preceded these latest developments.”
He added that, “The movement should have been given the opportunity to form a majority government with others while maintaining parliamentary opposition. But after the Sadrists resigned, they should have given the new government space and not obstructed or prevented its formation.”
The population numbers of religious minorities in Iraq have greatly diminished since 2003. Available statistics indicate that the country is on its way to having no presence of religious minorities, as most stay in the diaspora.
Mustafa al-Omran, a journalist interested in the affairs of religious minorities, said in an interview with The Red Line that, “The situation of religious minorities in Iraq is in its terminal stage, and there is not much time left before Iraq is devoid of non-Muslim religious communities.”
Al-Omran explained that, “The Christian population in Iraq has decreased to less than 250 thousand people. Their political rights have been seized along with much of their properties, and there is a demographic shift in their areas,” noting that, “the situation of Yazidis is no different from that of Christians, and they are still suffering from the extermination that caught up to them in 2014, and currently there is a new wave of migration towards Europe.”
He explains that, “The number of Sabeans has decreased to less than 15 thousand, while the Kaka’is (Yarsanists) and the Shabak community suffer from the political strife between Kurds and Shiites.” Al-Omran predicted that “the situation of minorities will not change much after the end of the current crisis, due to sectarian division of political power in the country. Therefore, I do not think that the situation will change for the better for Iraqis in general.”
The Weakest Link
The presence of minorities in Iraq is directly related to the strength and weakness of the state. As the state weakens, minorities seek a stable life outside the country’s borders, and thus their numbers continue to decrease day by day.
Saad Salloum, an expert on religious diversity in Iraq, told The Red Line that, “In all cases, minorities are the weakest link today in Iraq, and the looser the grip of the state and the weaker trust in its institutions, the greater the number of people who think of immigration as a final resort.”
Salloum added, “They do not seem to see a light at the end of the tunnel of recurring crises, especially since they have no significant impact on the shape of the Iraqi political system, its reform prospects, or its balance of power.”
Researcher Muhammad Abdul-Rida explained the religious communities’s deprivation of rights through the quota system that dominates the political process: “The quota system, as in the sharing of state positions and resources on the basis of identity, causes major demographic religious communities, i.e. Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds, to monopolise these positions and resources, thus depriving other religious communities of their rights to participate in State administration, placing the fate of these communities in the hands of the major demographic groups.”
As for the coexistence that leaders of Islamic parties claim to advocate with the other religious communities, Abdul-Rida said: “This does not represent the real positions of Islamic parties towards the religious communities. They use this only to give a perception that their rule and jurisprudence differs from that of the Islamic State. But if you were to inspect very closely, you would find little difference between them and that terrorist organization.”
As long as the representatives of minorities will not be elected by the minotirites themselves only, majority groups and parties in Iraq will keep coopting them, further emptying the meaning of democracy in Iraq, and pushing these vumlnerable communities on the road to exile.