In the months leading up to the U.S. invasion of Iraq in March 2003, scholars from around the world urged the war planners in Washington to take steps to protect Iraq’s priceless archaeological heritage.
But the widespread looting of museums and other cultural sites happened anyway. Now, warnings from minority communities in Iraq are also ringing clear: the U.S. must help protect Iraq’s diverse religious heritage or these communities will be decimated in the country’s internal power struggle.
A movement among some of Iraq’s minority groups is calling for U.S. support for a semi-autonomous province, with extra security, which would provide a safe haven near the Nineveh Plains northwest of Mosul.
Four Iraqis and an Anglican priest testified before the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom last week that Iraqi Christians, Jews, Assyrians, Yazidis, and Mandaeans face near extermination in their homeland as the violence in Iraq escalates.
A tall man who walks with a cane and speaks with a distinctly British accent, Rev. Canon Andrew White heads the Foundation for Reconciliation and Reconstruction in the Middle East and is the vicar of St. George’s Anglican Church in Baghdad, the last remaining Anglican Church in the Iraqi capital. He told the commission that in the past three to four months, things have deteriorated considerably for the minorities of Iraq.
White wore a large cross around his neck and spoke with a passion that often made his voice tremble. He described how Assyrians are literally living on the floor of Assyrian churches in Baghdad and how 36 members of his congregation were kidnapped in a single week, with only one of them returned.
These communities are specifically targeted by militias because they are seen as being particularly close to the occupying Coalition forces. Christians are perceived as practicing a Western religion and adhering to immoral traditions. "In Iraq there is no concept of the separation of church and state," White said.
Pascale Warda was the only other witness who currently lives in Iraq. A petite woman, she is a Chaldo-Assyrian Christian, the largest religious minority in Iraq. Originally comprising about 4 percent of the Iraqi population, Assyrians make up 40 percent of the Iraqis who are fleeing their homeland.
Warda lives in Baghdad and serves as the president of the Iraqi Women’s Center for Development. Her testimony, read by an interpreter, described horror stories about the persecution faced by her fellow Christian women in Baghdad.
"Over 30 churches have been destroyed; priests have been kidnapped, killed, or beheaded," Warda said. "Christian women are forced under the Islamic hijab, a practice being rejected even by a large number of Muslim women as well."
Iraqi Mandaeans, another religious minority, were also represented at the hearings. Dr. Suhiab Nashi is a Baghdad-born pediatrician living in the U.S. state of New Jersey who is an advocate for the dwindling Mandaean population in Iraq.
Mandaeism is a pacifist faith that follows the teachings of John the Baptist. Adherents have lived in the region that is now Iraq for thousands of years, but these days they face death squads that "kill people according to last names and religious affiliations," Nashi testified.
"Mandaeans are targeted by both sides," he said, referring to the warring Shia and Sunni Muslims in Iraq.
Michael Youash is the project director for the Iraq Sustainable Democracy Project, an advocacy organization based in Washington. Like his fellow witnesses, Youash said clearly that the U.S. is not doing enough to protect vulnerable populations.
He described the State Department’s latest annual report on religious freedom around the world as "almost willfully neglectful of the situation of the minorities," and referred to the violence against religious minorities as "soft ethnic cleansing."
The ancient land of Mesopotamia that is now Iraq was the birthplace of the early civilizations of Sumer, Assyria, and Babylon. It was a cultural epicenter for early Islam and the Ottoman Empire. Because of this rich past, Iraq’s minorities once made up 14 percent of the country’s population. Their traditions are one of the foundations of Iraqi society, the witnesses said.
But now these groups now make up a disproportionate number of the victims and refugees both within the country and those spilling across its borders. A report last year from the UN High Commissioner for Refugees estimated that a third of the refugees fleeing Iraq are from minority populations.
These include Yazidis, Bahá’í, and Shabaks, all of whom face violence and displacement that threaten their very existence. The tiny population of Jews that remains in Iraq was referenced by White more than once. One of world’s oldest Jewish populations, their numbers have dwindled to fewer than 100 since 2003.
"I know every single one of the Jews left," White said.
Though this commission focused exclusively on the religious minorities in Iraq, there are thousands of other minority populations, like Palestinians, Turkmens, Armenians, Roma, and Persians, who are also facing persecution in Iraq amid the sectarian warfare that grips the country.
The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom makes policy recommendations to the president, the secretary of state, and Congress.
Earlier this summer the commission released its annual report on worldwide religious freedom. The report found that for the first time since the fall of Saddam Hussein, freedom of religious worship in Iraq is under threat. The report notes that most abuses are carried out by gangs and sectarian militias, but also pointed out that the Iraq government has been a party to some of the violations, ignoring attacks on Sunnis and other religious minorities.
The hearing broached some of the controversial topics that surround the war in Iraq. Commissioner Richard Land, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, the public policy arm of the Southern Baptist Convention, asked what would happen if there was a drawdown of U.S. forces in Iraq.
"There would be more blood flowing in the streets," White said matter-of-factly, but "we also have to face the facts that the American military is doing barely anything to protect minorities."
The testimony before the committee proposing an autonomous province in the Nineveh Plains area follows a weeks-long campaign in the U.S. seeking support for the idea of a region that is a traditional homeland to many of Iraq’s minorities and protected safe haven from the violence they face.
But the idea is controversial in Iraq, with some groups arguing that it would only deepen the divisions within the country.
"The problem is not between Christians and Muslims," Dr. Louis Sako, the Chaldean Archbishop of Kirkuk, told Britain’s Daily Telegraph earlier this month. "The problem is fundamentalism which excludes others, annihilates them for religious or ethnic reasons. The solution is to encourage a culture of pluralism, help people acknowledge one another as humans and recognize in each other an absolute value."
In June, the U.S. House of Representatives budgeted $10 million to assist the religious minorities of the Nineveh Plains. The amendment’s sponsor, Congressman Mark Kirk from Illinois, said specifically that he hopes the funding will help prevent the "de-Christianization" of Iraq. The funding must be included in the Senate budget as well for the provision to pass.
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