Leadership Council for Human Rights

~ Feet in the mud, head in the sky ~

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Iraqi minorities are in grave danger

On Wednesday morning, the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom hosted a hearing entitled, “Threats to Iraq’s Communities of Antiquity” in which they discussed the plight of some of Iraq’s religious and ethnic minorities.

“The situation is unbelievably bad for minorities. It is difficult to imagine how much worse things could become, but in reality they could become considerably worse,” said Reverend Canon Andrew White, the Vicar of St. George’s Anglican Church in Baghdad. White was serving the church as recently as two weeks ago before he was forced to flee for his own safety and was at the hearing to testify on the status of the Mandaean, Yazidi, Assyrian, Christian and Jewish minorities in Iraq. White noted that these minorities are being specifically targeted now, and have no means of protection. Thousands of these minority members have fled because they fear for their security. Many have refused to pay the Jezera tax, which is an Islamic tax imposed on non-Muslims, leaving them only the options of conversion to Islam, fleeing their homes or death. Many of those that have remained in Baghdad are now living in churches with little food and water. In White’s church alone, 36 members have been kidnapped on the past month and only one has returned.

“As a coalition, we must accept that we have contributed in a major way to the sufferings and demise of Christians in Iraq. We must accept that we have played a major role in creating the problem but our contribution to dealing with this huge problem has been minimal. In reality, we have done nothing,” White exclaimed. He cited a lack of understanding between the western world and the religious leaders in Iraq. The Coalition has been much too hasty in their plans, and not accurately accounted for the complexity of the religious climate in Iraq. He warned that people on the ground in Iraq have the best understanding of what is happening there, and that outside forces should be very careful in who they’re seeking advice from when it comes to strategy in Iraq. Finally, White called for a need for engagement with Islamic leaders by explaining that Islam and politics are so closely intertwined, and cannot be dealt with separately by the West. The western powers must address religion equally with politics in order to begin to remedy the situation.

White also tried to explain some of the difficulty of dealing with the many parties in Iraq, and how their violence is an expression of their sentiments of loss. Loss of land power is being felt by all parties and is fueling the violence against one another. Also, the radical Islamic notion of equating the West with Christianity has created much animosity towards the Christian minorities, as many feel they are to blame for current conditions.

After White, the hearing also featured testimony from Christian minority leaders expressing the urgency of the situation in Iraq. Pascale Warda, former Minister for Migration and Displacement in Iraq, spoke on behalf of the Assyrians, a Christian minority in Iraq. She stated that according to the United Nations, an estimated 40 percent of the 2.2 million Iraqi refugees are Assyrians. She urged the U.S. government and coalition forces to protect minorities, encouraging them to remain on their ancient lands in Iraq, and aid them with reconstruction and development projects. Warda’s sentiments were resonated in the testimony given by her fellow Assyrians, Donny George who worked for the State Board of Antiquities and Heritage and Michael Youash, director of the Iraq Sustainable Democracy Project. George lost his job as the director general of the Iraqi Museums as a result of his religious beliefs and was forced to flee to Syria, and eventually to the U.S. Youash spoke of the persecution of the Assyrians in the north an requested that the U.S. government take action to protect the Assyrians and provide them with aid money to ensure they can provide for their basic needs.

Suhiab Nashi, secretary of the Mandaean Society of America spoke on behalf of the Mandaeans in Iraq. He discussed the threats facing the few remaining Mandaeans in Iraq today and asked that the U.S. government take more steps in the way of protection, as well as granting refugee status to Mandaeans from Iraq.

All of the witnesses shared stories unique to their communities, but each had the same message. The U.S. neglect of the religious situation in Iraq has contributed to the state of chaos the nation finds itself in today. Steps must be taken to ensure that these minorities are provided for and protected. It is past time to take action, and if the international community waits much longer, it will be too late.



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