The security situation in the country deteriorated sharply during the year and the government lost effective control of significant terrain to the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). This resulted in increased levels of violence and lawlessness in that territory, as well as a destabilization of security throughout the country. Freedom of belief and practice was severely limited in areas beyond the government’s control, where ISIL targeted religious groups it considered heretical in a systematic campaign of atrocities and forced expulsion.
The constitution guarantees freedom of religious belief and practice, and freedom from intellectual, political, and religious coercion. While representatives of various religious communities, including Sunni Muslims, reported that the government did not generally interfere with religious observances and devoted considerable attention to the protection of religious sites and events, many Sunnis considered themselves targeted by the government and the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF). International human rights groups and Sunni Muslims reported that the ISF tortured, abused, arrested, illegally detained, and harassed Sunni Muslims on the basis of their religious affiliation. Activists also said the government failed to investigate and prosecute ethno-sectarian crimes, including those carried out by Shia militia and Kurdish forces against Sunnis in areas liberated from ISIL. There were also reports that some officials misused their authority, for example, in using sectarian profiling in arrests and detentions or in using religion as a determining factor in employment decisions. The government that was formed in September, however, publicly called for tolerance for all religious communities and implemented reforms to rectify sectarian imbalances and hiring standards in government offices. The government provided security for places of worship including churches, mosques, shrines, and religious pilgrimage sites and routes. Despite efforts to protect religious communities and sites, continued violence affected all religious groups throughout the year.
ISIL sought to exterminate Shia Muslims and religious minorities from seized Iraqi territory under its control. Many of ISIL’s atrocities in areas it did not control targeted Shia mosques, funerals, religious shrines, and Shia neighborhoods. Beginning with ISIL’s advances into northern Iraq in June, attacks targeting religious and ethnic minority communities intensified. ISIL abuses, which targeted people on the basis of their religious identity, included killings, rape, kidnapping, enslavement, theft, and destruction of religious sites. ISIL’s targeting of Christians, Sabean-Mandaeans, and Yezidis also resulted in killings, sexual slavery, forced conversion, ransom demands, property seizures, and forced business closures. Many members of religious minority groups fled from their homes as a result. In June ISIL killed as many as 670 Shia and other non-Sunni prisoners who had been detained in a prison in Mosul. ISIL also imposed strict interpretations of Sunni Islam in areas it controlled, such as Mosul, and targeted dissenters with torture, rape, and execution. In multiple cases throughout the year, ISIL and other armed groups attacked Sunni religious leaders whose ideology differed from that of ISIL.
The deterioration of security conditions was accompanied by numerous instances of societal abuse of religious freedom throughout the year. For example, Shia militias near Samarra reportedly killed previously abducted Sunni men in June according to Amnesty International (AI). Local media reported that Shia militias and Kurdish forces in some instances prevented internally displaced Sunnis from returning to their homes, which in some cases had been looted and burned, in predominantly Sunni Arab towns retaken from ISIL control. There were also credible reports of Shia militia groups intimidating or abusing Sunni and religious minority populations, as well as unknown actors kidnapping or killing members of religious minority groups.
The President, the Secretary of State, other senior Department of State officials, the Ambassador, and embassy and consulate officers promoted religious freedom in speeches, meetings, coordination groups, and assistance programs. Their public statements and meetings condemned ISIL’s religious freedom abuses. They urged both the central government and the Kurdistan Regional government to protect members of religious minorities and ensure their inclusion in the political process. Embassy and consulate officials maintained an active dialogue with Shia, Sunni, and religious minority groups, emphasizing tolerance, inclusion, and mutual understanding. The embassy designed and managed programs to address religious minority concerns in economic development, essential and humanitarian services, and capacity development. The U.S. government provided funding to the ongoing international humanitarian effort to assist more than two million Iraqis, many of whom were from religious minority communities, who had been displaced during the year.