The Oppression of Minorities in Iraq

The following speech was delivered to a meeting of the Parliament's Delegation for Relations with Iraq in the European Parliament in Brussels on 20 June.

Welcome and thank you for coming to the present meeting of our Delegation, which is going to be entirely dedicated to the situation of ethnic and religious minorities in Iraq. Let me welcome our distinguished guests: Mr Kamel Zozo, Chair of the Christian Human Rights Organisation for the Assyrian Community in Iraq; Mr Delavar Ajgeiy, Head of the Mission of the Kurdistan Regional Government in the European Union; Mr Sheth Jerjis, Chairman of the Iraqi Turkmen Human Rights Research Foundation, located in The Netherlands; Mr Chris Chapman, Minority Rights Group, which is a non-governmental organisation based in London; and Mrs Thirsa de Vries, Senior Programme Officer for Iraq, from the IKV Pax Christi, based in Utrecht. I also warmly welcome the European External Action Service representation, and the representation of the Iraqi embassy in Brussels.

Before we start, I would like to reiterate my strongest condemnation of the horrible and coward terrorist acts, which continue to target all sectors of Iraqi society, and I would like to express my deepest sorrow and condolences to the families of the victims. Violence is not an acceptable mean of protest. Our Delegation, and the European Parliament as a whole, supports the Iraqi struggle against the terrorist plague and wishes to see a pacified nation living in harmony, where children can go safely out on the streets and to school without fear of being dismembered by an explosive device.

Iraq is a rich mosaic of cultures, ethnicities and religions. If you allow me, I would like to make a short overview of this extremely interesting picture, showing that the fertile plains of Mesopotamia can rightfully be considered the cradle of civilization. Indeed, many of the peoples living there today are descendants of ancient civilizations, which flourished and built complex social systems at the times in which we in Europe still lived, physically and intellectually, in the Stone Age.

If we exclude Arabs and Kurds, which can be considered the two ruling populations in their respective areas of competency, the largest minority ethnic component are the Turkmens. Community representatives estimate there are 2.5 to 3 million Turkmen in the country, though international sources indicate a lower number, between 500.000 and 600.000. This is quite a large discrepancy, due to the unavailability of reliable statistical researches. Turkmens reside mainly in the North of the country, and South-East of Baghdad. They adhere mainly to the Sunni and Shia’h faiths, though there is reportedly a minority of 30.000 Christian Turkmen as well. Turkmen have been targeted by both Kurdish and Iraqi authorities for their presence in the disputed territories. Clashes in Kirkuk, Mosul and more recently in Tuz Khurmatu have seen the targeting of Turkmen communities by car bombings, murder, kidnapping, harassment, arbitrary arrest, torture, and intimidation.

Beyond clashes in the disputed territories, Turkmen have also been targeted on religious grounds by both Sunni and Shia’h militant groups. Community members report that Turkmen women are particularly vulnerable to violence. Systematic efforts by Kurdish and Arab authorities to intimidate Turkmen communities, along with Ba’ath era policies of Arabization have threatened the preservation of the Turkmen language and culture.

The Yezidi community counts around 500.000 inhabitants. Yezidis are an ancient ethnic and religious group, though many consider them ethnically Kurdish. This identity question has created conflict within the community and reportedly subjects Yezidis to political and economic pressure from Kurdish officials and Kurdish-identifying community members, as well as death threats. Yezidis have been present in the Middle East since approximately 4000 BC. Community members suggest that Yezidism is the oldest religion in the world today, as it is a combination of pre-Islamic Zoroastrian, Manichaean, Jewish, Nestorian Christian and Muslim elements. Radical and even moderate Muslims consider the Yezidi devil worshipers due to misinterpretations of some elements of their religion. This has subjected the Yezidi to numerous attacks, including the single largest attack against the community which, in 2007, killed 400 civilians, wounded 1,562 and left over 1,000 families homeless. Yezidis speak their own language, Ezidi, and live principally in Northern Iraq, though they are also present in Syria, Turkey, Russia, Armenia, Georgia, Germany, and other European countries. Unfortunately, there is apparently an ongoing harassment and marginalization of the community by the Kurdish authorities.

The Iraqi Christian community includes Armenians and Chaldo-Assyrians belonging mainly to the Chaldean Catholic, Syriac Orthodox, Syrian Catholic, Armenian Catholic, Armenian Orthodox churches and the Assyrian Church of the East. Nearly two-thirds of Iraqi Christians belong to the Chaldean Catholic Church, and close to one-third belong to the Assyrian Church of the East. Many consider the Assyrians and Chaldeans to be distinct ethnic groups as these communities speak a distinct language, preserve Christian traditions, and do not define themselves as Arab. Since 2003, thousands of Christian families have fled Iraq and thousands more have been internally displaced—largely to the North—due to targeted violence by extremists and other groups. By some estimates, over half the total population of Iraqi Christians has left the country, leaving approximately 500,000 down from 1.4 million.

The Shabak community, which numbers around 400,000 people, lives mainly in the Ninewa plain area on a large strip of land between the Khazir and Tigris rivers, and near Mosul. Shabak are culturally distinct from both Kurds and Arabs and have their own customs, traditions and clothing. Shabak also have their own language, Shabaki, which is a mixture of Farsi, Arabic, Kurdish, and Turkish. Shabaks are majority Shia’h Muslims with approximately 30 to 40 percent Sunni Muslims, though some Islamic militias view them as infidels and target them for being un-Islamic. The Shabak community reports pressure to identify as Kurdish and suffer targeted persecution from both Kurds and Arabs because it is caught in the broader struggle over the disputed ownership of territory in Ninewa. All this, coped with the fact that Shabaki is not taught in schools, puts their language at risk of extinction, despite the fact that the Shabak have been recognized as an Iraqi component since 1952.

Black Iraqis are thought to have emigrated from East Africa around 1,500 years ago, largely trafficked as slaves. They are located predominantly in Southern Iraq, and live in extreme poverty with nearly 80 percent illiteracy and reportedly over 80 percent unemployment. Black Iraqis civil society advocates report systematic discrimination and prejudicial treatment in the exercise of political, social, cultural and economic rights. Due to a history of slavery and dominance by powerful Sheiks in the South of Iraq, many black Iraqis today lack birth records or nationality documents, as well as marriage certificates. This prevents many from voting, gaining access to public employment and public services, owning property, or participating in a host of other activities. Poverty and a high illiteracy rate also limit access to educational opportunities, employment, and institutions charged with providing documentation, justice, and other services. Today, black Iraqis do not have reserved seat quotas for provincial or national governments and report facing legal and practical barriers to bringing claims of discrimination on the grounds of race or ethnicity. Their population is estimated to be very consistent, around 1.5 to 2 million individuals.

Little is known about the Bedouin of Iraq. They include numerous large and small tribes living a traditional nomadic life, but many have also developed a more settled life, seeking improved living standards, better healthcare, and broader integration into public life. Most Iraqi Bedouin reportedly live throughout the western and southern areas of the state. Bedouin suffer from disproportionately high rates of illiteracy, poverty, and unemployment. The government of Iraq has made negligible progress in addressing the human rights and humanitarian needs of Bedouin peoples, some of whom face challenges in accessing documentation, including citizenship documents. Though the government has made progress to address statelessness in Iraq in recent years, reliable maps of statelessness and access to documentation, and a comprehensive strategy to address the problem, remain in development. As of the last Iraqi census of 1997, Bedouins were estimated at 100,000, though this number is probably largely inaccurate due to decades of government neglect.

Not many people in Europe know about the existence of Faili Kurds. They are Shia’h Muslim Kurds rather than Sunnis, which is the predominant religion among Iraqi Kurds. Under the Ba’ath regime, Faili Kurds were persecuted and accused of being agents of Iran. A 1980 Revolutionary Command Council order stripped Failis of Iraqi citizenship and 300,000 of them were expelled to Iran. There are an estimated 1 million Faili Kurds currently living in the greater Baghdad area. The Ministry of Human Rights reports that 97 percent of Faili Kurds have had Iraqi nationality restored since 2006.

Though many Faili Kurds have returned to Iraq since their right to nationality was restored in 2006, the process to obtain nationality documentation and reclaim lost property is reportedly cumbersome. Iraqi Faili Kurds still in Iran report undue delays in the process, leaving hundreds of families stateless.

I listed here only the numerically most consistent minorities in Iraq, to which others, less numerous, but facing similar problems, can be added: the Palestinian refugees; Circassians, originally from Northern Caucasus region; a Roma community; the Mandean-Sabean communities practicing, by the way, one of the oldest surviving Gnostic religions in the world. Moreover, there are followers of the newer Baha'i and Kaka'i religions, and even some Jewish families living in the country.

So, as you can see, we are in the presence of a very coloured rainbow of peoples and confessions when we speak about Iraq, which unfortunately lives, nowadays, in a situation of conflict and instability. The purpose of this meeting is to try to find some possible solutions to improve the situation, or at least some ideas about how the EU, the European Parliament and the present Delegation could be useful in catalysing positive and constructive forces to build peace in the country.

Struan Stevenson MEP is the President of the European Parliament's Delegation for Relations with Iraq