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U.S. Panel Spotlights Plight of Religious Minorities in Iraq

BY Larisa Epatko  December 24, 2008 at 10:30 AM EST

Although progress has been made to reconcile differences between Shia and Sunni Iraqis, other non-Muslims there are suffering “severe abuses of religious freedom,” a U.S. advisory group recently reported.

The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom recommended that the State Department designate Iraq as a “country of particular concern,” or CPC, for violations of religious freedom among minority groups and for the government’s tolerance of such abuses. The designation opens the way for possible sanctions against the country.

Richard Schmierer, deputy assistant secretary of state in the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs, said shortly after the report’s release that this is the first time the panel has recommended Iraq be given the designation, so the department would have to study the reasons behind its recommendation.

“Our own assessment is that things are actually improving, and while there certainly are challenges for minorities and all Iraqis, that it’s not the Iraqi government, obviously, it’s the terrorists and extremists who are at fault,” he said.

The vast majority of Iraqis — 97 percent — are Muslim and 3 percent are Christian or other religious groups, according to the CIA World Factbook.

The USCIRF said non-Muslim religions in Iraq, particularly ChaldoAssyrian and other Christian groups, Sabean Mandaean: a small religious sect tied to John the Baptist, and Yazidi: a religion with influences from Islam and Christianity, are experiencing targeted violence and have had to relocate to other parts of Iraq or other countries.

The most recent attack cited in the report occurred in October in Mosul where at least 14 Christians were killed, causing an estimated 13,000 people to flee to surrounding villages.

The minority groups have no militia or tribal structure to protect them, and little official protection, so they leave Iraq in disproportionately high numbers to other refugees, according to the advisory panel.

“The combined effect of all of this has been to endanger these ancient communities’ very existence in Iraq,” the report says.

The minority groups also are caught in a political battle of wills. Minority religious populations are concentrated in the North, where a struggle is occurring between the Kurdish minority, who are looking to gain more political clout, and majority Arabs who back a centralized Iraqi government.

Efforts to bolster minority representation in the government by setting aside seats for such groups were derailed by Arab parliamentarians, who were concerned that the minority groups would likely vote with the Kurds and increase their power, according to Michael Wahid Hanna, a program officer at The Century Foundation, a non-profit public policy research institution based in New York City.

Successful provincial elections, scheduled for the end of January, would help give the minorities a political voice, and they should be closely monitored to ensure a fair vote, Hanna said. Otherwise, the unresolved conflict has the potential to boil over into widespread violence, he said.

The State Department is set to release its next list of CPCs, taking into account the panel’s recommendation on Iraq, in fall 2009.

USCIRF is a congressionally funded entity whose 10 members are appointed by the White House and Congress. It was enacted under the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998, along with the Office of International Religious Freedom within the State Department.

Earlier in the year, the USCIRF recommended labeling 11 other countries as CPCs: Myanmar, North Korea, Eritrea, Iran, Pakistan, China, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Vietnam.

In September, the State Department listed eight of them, except Pakistan, Turkmenistan and Vietnam, as CPCs.

The advisory panel’s recommendation is just one element that the State Department considers when deciding on the designation, Schmierer said.