There continued to be reports local police and armed groups killed Sunni detainees. International and local NGOs reported the government continued to use the anti-terrorism law as a pretense for detaining Sunnis without access to due process. Yezidi, Christian, and Sunni leaders continued to report harassment and abuses by KRG Peshmerga and Asayish forces. Displaced members of certain religious groups were reportedly prevented from returning to their homes after their cities were liberated from Da’esh, while other IDPs were denied access to safe areas. KRG authorities continued to prevent members of some religious groups, which they deemed security threats, from entering the IKR. In some parts of the country, non-Muslim religious minorities, as well as Sunni and Shia in areas where they formed the minority, faced harassment and restrictions from the authorities, but they enjoyed government support in other regions. Christians in the south and Sabaean-Mandaeans in Basrah, Dhi Qar, and Maysan Governorates reported they avoided celebrating their religious festivals when those festivals coincided with Islamic periods of mourning. The Iraqi Security Forces (ISF), however, continued to deploy police and army personnel to protect religious pilgrimage routes and sites, as well as places of worship, during Muslim and non-Muslim religious holidays.
In January the KRG banned five Islamic preachers for defamation and hostility against Shia, Yezidis, and Christians. The KRG also offered support and funding to some non-Muslim minorities, but other minorities in the IKR, such as evangelical Christians, faced difficulties registering and proselytizing. Because religion, politics, and ethnicity were often closely linked, it was difficult to categorize many incidents as being solely based on religious identity.
In December the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) stated Iraqi security forces, affiliated popular mobilization forces, and KRG security forces were responsible for extrajudicial killings, abductions, illegal detentions, forced evictions, and looting and destruction of property belonging to Sunni Arab communities. There continued to be reports local police or armed groups under government control either killed Sunni detainees or failed to prevent deadly attacks on Sunni detainees.
Human Rights Watch (HRW) reported Shia Turkmen fighters from the PMF abducted and tortured between 150 and 175 Sunni Arabs from Tuzkhurmatu, killed between eight and 34 of those abducted, and kept approximately 50 in captivity as of year’s end, while releasing the rest.
Also in Tuzkhurmatu, PMF units (composed of Shia Turkmen, the Iranian-backed Badr Brigade, the Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq, and Kita’ib Hizballah) clashed with Peshmerga forces and the Asayish (Kurdistan internal security) after an October 22 car bombing and an exchange of fire on November 12. The two sides, supported by armed local residents from their respective communities, reportedly engaged in mass arrests, razed homes, and looted and burned villages.
In many cases Shia PMF reportedly operated independently and without oversight or direction from the government. According to Amnesty International (AI), on January 26, Shia PMF and government security forces killed at least 56 and possibly more than 70 Sunni men in Barwana, a village west of Muqdadiya in Diyala Governorate. Witnesses told AI Badr Brigades members, wearing green and red bandanas and armbands, went house to house and asked the men to come outside with their identification documents. They also said among the perpetrators were members of the Ministry of Interior’s Special Weapons and Tactics force, as well as the Muqdadiya police force. Witnesses heard gunfire and then found the bodies of the men shot and blindfolded with their hands tied behind their backs and some of their fingers amputated. On January 28, the prime minister ordered an investigation into these killings. On March 20, the Commission of Inquiry submitted its report to the parliament. AI reported as of April, the authorities had not contacted any of the victims’ families or informed them of any steps investigators took. There was no update on this case at year’s end.
International and local NGOs reported the government continued to use the anti-terrorism law as a pretense for detaining Sunni men – and their female relatives – for extended periods of time without access to a lawyer or due process. HRW and AI reported evidence of torture and ill-treatment of Sunni detainees, as well as deaths of Sunni men who were in custody, detained under the anti-terrorism law. On April 28, the Baghdad Center for Human Rights issued a statement detailing abuse of nine prisoners from al-Rusafa Prison in Baghdad. The statement said authorities beat detainees on the head, abdomen, face, hands, legs, and back with sticks, iron and plastic batons, and rifle butts. The statement included an account from an unnamed employee within the Iraqi Corrections Service, who said the prison director, internal affairs administrator, and a group of prison employees abused the detainees. In July local press reported Nasiriyah prison officials tortured Sunnis in an attempt to force them to identify as Shia. Religious organizations, such as the Association of Muslim Scholars spoke publicly about human rights abuses in prisons.
Yezidi, Christian, and Sunni political and civil society leaders continued to report harassment and abuses by KRG Peshmerga and Asayish forces against their communities in the portion of Ninewa Province controlled by the KRG or contested between the central government and the KRG. KRG security forces reportedly detained Yezidi advocates and others for prolonged periods without due process. Displaced Yezidis demanding increased services at IDP camps in Zakho, Shikha, and Aqra cities reported Asayish forces had beaten dozens of demonstrators using sticks and electric cables.
In March according to HRW, members of Shia PMF, including Kita’ib Hizballah and Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq, apprehended, and detained up to 200 Sunni residents from Jalam areas of ad-Dawr, Salah ad Din Governorate. A local member of parliament called for a government investigation; however, at year’s end the whereabouts of at least 160 abductees remained unknown.
As Kurdish forces liberated territory from Da’esh, media and government officials reported the Peshmerga prevented Sunni Arabs from returning to their homes in some liberated areas, particularly in Ninewa, Salah ad Din, Kirkuk, and Diyala Governorates. According to local and media sources, in October after clearing Da’esh from an area in Bayji, PMF arrested 30 Sunni tribesmen and accused them of being Da’esh collaborators. The PMF then released the tribesmen on the condition they did not return to Bayji.
UNAMI and OHCHR reported Sunni Arab IDPs from Salah ad Din and Ninewa were denied access to Kirkuk. For example, according to UNAMI, on January 4, checkpoint officials denied a 15-year-old Sunni boy displaced from al-Alam, Salah ad Din Province, permission to pass Maktab Khalid checkpoint to seek treatment at a hospital in Kirkuk. He returned to Hawija hospital where he died.
On August 23, the Kirkuk Provincial Council announced it would require IDPs, mainly Sunni Arabs from Diyala Province currently residing in Kirkuk, to leave within one month. Kirkuk Governor Najmaldin Karim subsequently told the UN he would not deport IDPs from his province. International organizations and NGOs continued to state the Kirkuk government was indirectly pressuring IDPs, many of whom were Sunni Arabs, to leave.
According to local reports, in January the KRG’s MERA banned five Islamic preachers from giving Friday sermons in IKR. The authorities cited the clergymen for defamation and hostility against Shias, Yezidis, Christians, and other minorities. Although banned from delivering sermons and on administrative leave, all five preachers continue to receive a salary from the KRG MERA.
While the government continued to support the establishment of armed volunteer groups to counter Da’esh, Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi repeatedly called for these groups to place themselves under the command and control of the security forces. On April 7, the Council of Ministers announced the PMF was an official body reporting to the prime minister. The prime minister’s ability to command the PMF remained a source of disagreement and debate.
Official investigations of abuses by government forces, armed groups, and terrorist organizations continued to be infrequent, and the outcomes of investigations which did occur continued to be unpublished, unknown, or incomplete, according to NGOs.
Advocacy groups and representatives of religious minority communities reported continued emigration following the 2014 failure of the ISF, including the KRG Peshmerga, to ensure protection for minority communities against Da’esh in Mosul and across the Ninewa Plain.
Members of religious minority communities, civil society organizations, and media continued to report some non-Muslims chose to reside in the IKR and areas under KRG control because they continued to consider these areas to offer greater security, tolerance, and protection for minority rights.
NGOs reported the apparent contradictions between the constitution and other legal provisions remained unresolved. For example, although the groups said constitutional provisions on freedom of religion would seem to override laws banning Bahai and the Wahhabi branch of Sunni Islam, no court challenges had yet invalidated them, and there was no pending legislation to repeal them.
According to NGOs, in the IKR there were several cases of families affected by the law on conversion and the registration of religion on identity cards, which applied to all religious minorities. Families who had converted to Christianity from Islam were unable to change their religious affiliation on their own identification documents or register their children as Christian. In some cases, families formally registered as Muslim, but actually practicing Christianity or another faith, reportedly fled to avoid being forced to register their child as a Muslim or to have the child remain undocumented.
According to evangelical Christian representatives, evangelical Christian groups could not register with the Ministry of Endowment and Religious Affairs in the IKR without first obtaining clearance from the KRG Ministry of Interior. Evangelical Christian pastors in Erbil stated other religious groups were not required to undergo this step. The evangelical Christians also reported they were unable to meet the minimum requirements for registration, resulting in their nonrecognition by the Council of Iraqi Christian Church Leaders. They said the inability to register also constrained the ability of evangelical Christians to proselytize and subjected them to unfair scrutiny by the government.
The KRG provided several religious groups with offices within the KRGMERA following the passage of the KRG Rights of National and Religious Minorities Protection Law. On October 11, the KRGMERA announced a representative of the Jewish community would join the Ministry to represent Jewish interests. Additionally, representatives from the Zoroastrian and Bahai faiths were provided with offices housed within MERA. While many observers applauded these steps and the passage of the new law, some critics stated their disappointment the law did not define how minorities would be represented in police and security services. The KRG reportedly provided funding to some religious groups without endowments. For example, Sabaean-Mandaeans reported that the KRG provided a monthly government stipend to fund temple maintenance and cultural activities for their community in the IKR.
The ISF continued to deploy police and army personnel to protect religious pilgrimage routes and sites, as well as places of worship, during religious holidays. For example during the Shia holy ceremony of Arbaeen, ISF deployed security to protect pilgrims walking to Karbala. Even with added protection, many worshippers said they did not attend religious services or participate in religious events, because of the repeated attacks on religious pilgrims in the past and the continued threat of violence.
The spokesperson for the KRG MERA stated financial support for the Hajj and the Umrah pulled significant funds out of the region as devotees spent money abroad during their pilgrimage instead of in the IKR. In response, the ministry announced a policy requiring individuals wishing to perform consecutive Hajj and Umrah trips to donate 500,000 Iraqi Dinar ($430) to Peshmerga troops.
Sabaean-Mandaeans in Basrah, Dhi Qar, and Maysan Governorates reported they avoided celebrating Sabaean festivals which coincided with Shia religious holidays, and some Sabaean-Mandaeans felt community pressure on women to wear the hijab. Non-Muslims also said they had difficulties persuading local authorities to take steps to resolve issues involving their holy sites, such as evicting squatters from the grounds of churches, temples, and cemeteries.
The government reportedly continued its policy of not interfering with Christians’ right to observe Easter and Christmas. The government continued to provide increased protection to Christian churches during these holidays. Bahais reported they continued to celebrate the festivals of Naw-Ruz and Ridvan without government interference or intimidation. Provincial governments also continued to designate these as religious holidays in their localities. Followers of the Bahai and Yezidi faiths reported the KRG allowed them to observe their religious holidays. Yezidis used Kurdish, one of the languages officially sanctioned by the constitution, in their worship services. The Maysan Provincial Council reportedly continued to recognize a Sabaean-Mandaean holiday as an official holiday, to provide physical protection for the Sabaean-Mandaean community during times of worship, and to excuse the group from Shia Muslim dress codes during times of mourning. The provincial council also granted land to the Sabaean-Mandaean community for places of worship, according to provincial sources.
An advocacy group reported the government maintained its ban on construction on the site where the former home of the founder of the Bahai Faith had been located, while the Ministry of Antiquities continued its investigation into the home’s destruction. Discussions between the government and the advocacy groups involved in the possible reconstruction of the site remained ongoing as of year’s end.
Government policy continued to require Islamic religious instruction in public schools, but non-Muslim students were not required to participate. In most areas of the country, primary and secondary school curricula included three classes per week of Islamic education, including study of the Quran, as a graduation requirement for Muslim students. Syriac and Christian religious education was included in the curricula of 152 public schools in Baghdad, Ninewa, and Kirkuk. Private religious schools continued to operate in the country, but had to obtain a license from the director general of private and public schools and paid annual fees.
While the government continued not to require non-Muslim students to participate in religious instruction in public schools, some non-Muslim students continued to report pressure to do so from teachers and classmates. There were also continued reports some non-Muslim students felt obliged to participate because they could not leave the classroom during religious instruction. Christian and Yezidi leaders reported continued discrimination in education and lack of minority input into issues such as school curricula and language of instruction. By year’s end, schools had not universally adopted the new Ministry of Education curriculum incorporating lessons of religious tolerance. Many Christians who spoke the Syriac language stated it was their right to use and teach it to their children as a matter of religious freedom. Christian leaders in Basrah seeking to establish private Christian schools said local authorities mandated the inclusion of Islamic religious instruction in their curricula.
IDPs, including religious minorities, reported they continued to face obstacles completing their education. For example, Yezidi sources reported many children residing in IDP camps opted to terminate their studies because they lost, on average, a year of schooling, due to their displacement and the continued instability. Christian leaders reported the KRG provided land and financial support for construction of new, and renovation of existing, structures for use as educational facilities.
Non-Muslims did not hold positions in the Council of Ministers (COM), or in the KRG’s COM. Members of minority religious communities held senior positions in the national parliament and central government, as well as in the KRG, although minority community leaders said they were proportionally underrepresented in government appointments, in elected positions outside the Council of Representatives, and in public-sector jobs, particularly at the provincial and local levels. Minority community leaders said this underrepresentation continued to limit minorities’ access to government-provided economic opportunities. The federal Supreme Court continued to represent a cross-section of ethnicities and religions in its nine-member composition.
Some Sunni Muslims continued to say they perceived an ongoing campaign of “revenge” by Shia government officials against them in retribution for the Sunnis’ favored status and abuses against Shia during the Saddam Hussein regime. Sunni continued to complain about discrimination in public sector employment due to de-Baathification, a process originally intended to target loyalists of the former regime. According to Sunnis and local NGOs, the government implemented the de-Baathification provisions of the law selectively and used the law to render many Sunnis ineligible for government employment. Vice President Usama al-Nujaifi told local press the Ministry of Industry had fired 34 of 38 directors general during the year, all of whom were Sunni. The government had established a committee to rectify sectarian imbalances in the ministries but it reportedly had not implemented any reforms by year’s end.
Human rights NGOs and Yezidi leaders repeated previous allegations that KRG authorities discriminated against some minority communities in providing humanitarian assistance in the IKR.
On October 27, the Council of Representatives passed a new national identity card law, which stated children of one Muslim parent would be automatically identified as Muslim. President Masoum returned the bill to parliament for further debate, however, following protests from minority communities. The new law did not clarify whether the national identity card would continue to identify the holder’s religion.
On September 9, Council of Representatives Speaker Saleem al-Jabouri and the Iraqi High Commission for Human Rights organized a conference with representatives of religious and other minority communities for the stated purpose of raising awareness of the rights of minorities, the protection needed by these minorities, and the action necessary to empower and include these groups in the government. Sunni, Shia, and Kurdish leaders also attended, as well as foreign embassy representatives. Speakers at the conference condemned Da’esh atrocities committed against all religious minorities in Iraq, and some characterized Da’esh’s crimes against Yezidis as “genocide.”
On November 16, a range of religious endowment leaders and government officials participated in the United Nations Day of Tolerance and called for the protection of all ethno-religious communities, and for unity in the fight against Da’esh.