Written by Eric Pichon,
Iraqi minorities (Turkmens, Yazidis, Christians and other smaller communities) have long been discriminated against in Iraq. Violence against them has increased dramatically in areas of Iraqi territory that have fallen under the control of the Islamist terrorist group that has declared itself ‘the Islamic State’ (known variously as IS, ISIS or ISIL, and by the Arabic acronym ‘Daesh’ or ‘Da’esh’). After coming into power, this terrorist group called into question the very existence of several of these minorities, not least non-Muslim minorities, subjecting them to murder, rape, slavery and organ trafficking.
Fearing for their life, people have been fleeing in unprecedented numbers: mass killings have led to the displacement of more than 2 million people, mainly to refugee camps in the Kurdistan region, these displacements are tangible evidence that the country is going through a process of reconfiguration and fragmentation. Past experience has shown that few displaced people ever return to their homes.
This dossier provides an overview of the situation of ethnic and religious minorities in Iraq prior to the attacks by ISIL/Da’esh. It also documents their situation in the areas where ISIL/Da’esh seized power.
>> A briefing: Minorities in Iraq – Pushed to the brink of existence, based on some of the sources below, was published on February 11, 2015.
Overview: ethno/religious groups in Iraq
Compared to its neighbours, Iraq has a unique mix of ethnic and religious diversity.
The distribution of the population (July 2014) along ethnic and religious lines is schematically* illustrated in the figure below:
* Figures are difficult to interpret because ‘ethnicity’ – which is not a biological concept but rather a sense of belonging to a group – and religion do not fit into a single interpretative framework: their definition varies according to different viewpoints and interests.
For example: Chaldeans and Assyrians share an origin, but the former have assumed Arab identity, while the latter have not ; the population in the territories at the core of the dispute between the central government and the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), is under strong assimilative pressure, both from Arabs and Kurds, in view of a census and referendum (foreseen in Article 140 of the Constitution, but to date never carried out) to determine which government should have authority over them. This, in particular, is the case of the Shabaks and the Turkmens, who try to resist ‘Arabisation’ or ‘Kurdisation’; after decades of repression and prohibition, religious minorities such as the Kaka’i, the Baha’i and the Sabean-Mandeans, have been reluctant to declare themselves as such.
Besides, IS, a Sunni group persecutes non-Sunnis as well as non-Arab Sunnis.
The situation before the ISIL/Da’esh attacks
Iraq’s 2005 Constitution describes it as a federation (Section 1: Article 1; Section 3) and guarantees the rights of minorities (Section 1: Article 2; Section 2: Article 14, Article 41) in particular freedom of worship (Section 1: Article 10; Section 2: Article 43). In reality, minorities have been discriminated against by central and local government in all areas of life: access to public services, employment, property ownership, to name a few. Violence between the different ethnic groups has also been documented.
Harith Hasan Al-Qarawee. Iraq’s Sectarian Crisis: A Legacy of Exclusion . Carnegie Middle East Center, 04/2014, 34 p.
This report describes the various tensions between Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds that prevented Iraq from becoming a pacified federal state and, to the contrary put it ‘on the brink of collapse’.
The Institute for International Law and Human Rights has listed many abuses against minorities: Iraq’s Minorities and Other Vulnerable Groups: Legal Framework, Documentation and Human Rights . 05/2013, 152 p.
For shorter overviews:
UNPO Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organisation. Iraq: Situation of ethnic and religious minorities . Briefing paper [for the EP Delegation to Iraq], 20/06/2013, 5 p.
Annual report 2014 of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, Iraq chapter , 4 p.
Humanitarian situation after the ISIL/Da’esh onslaught
Since June 2014, IS has taken over Iraqi cities and whole regions where a significant part of the population is non-Sunni and/or non-Arab. IS has a very rigid (close to Saudi Wahhabism) and controversial interpretation of the Qur’an, which distinguishes ‘religions of the Book’ (Jews, Christians and Sabeans) and polytheists (mushrikun, such as Yazidis). The former can save themselves if they agree to recognize the superiority of Islam and pay a fee, although the conditions imposed by IS for such a conversion are harsh. The latter, however, are faced with the choice of either fleeing or almost certainly being killed.
A short overview – with further links:
Christopher M. Blanchard. Conflict in Syria and Iraq: Implications for Religious Minorities . CRS Congressional Research Service (USA), CRS Insights, 24/07/2014, 2 p.
Zack Beauchamp; Kirk Sowell . A guide to the bitter political fights driving the Iraq crisis . Vox.com, 15/06/2014.
Assesses the strengths and weaknesses of the various Iraqi groups.
How ISIS Justifies Genocide . Tony Blair Faith Foundation, 11 August 2014.Eve Conant.
Q&A: Why Sunni Extremists Are Destroying Ancient Religious Sites in Mosul . National Geographic (USA), 2 August 2014.
Mina al-Lami. Iraq: the minorities of Nineveh . BBC News, 21/07/2014.
Mosul and Nineveh plains were hosting a wide variety of religions, but upon IS arrival most of non-Sunnis were obliged to convert, leave, or were killed. At the same time IS destroyed, or attempted to do so, the major benchmarks of other beliefs, including Shia mosques and even shrines revered by Sunnis.
In Turkey, Pope Francis and Patriarch Bartholomew sign joint declaration . News.va Official Vatican Network, 1/12/2014.
“We express our common concern for the current situation in Iraq, Syria and the whole Middle East […] we call on all those who bear responsibility for the destiny of peoples to deepen their commitment to suffering communities, and to enable them, including the Christian ones, to remain in their native land. We cannot resign ourselves to a Middle East without Christians, who have professed the name of Jesus there for two thousand years.”
Qui sont les chrétiens d’Irak ? Le Monde.fr, 6/08/2014.
Catholics make up the majority of Iraqi Christians but there are also Protestant and Orthodox Christians.
Margaux Bergey. La fuite éperdue des chrétiens d’Irak – Un exode provoqué par la guerre américaine et accéléré par l’État islamique . Orient XXI.info, 1/12/2014.
The articles describes the situation of Christians who found a temporary refuge in Lebanon. It also highlights that Christians are the main losers in the ethno-religious division put in place by the US-inspired regime in 2003.
Nicolas Hautemanière. Le lent déclin des communautés chrétiennes d’Irak (2003-2014) . Les clés du Moyen-Orient, 24/11/2014.
Balint Szlanko. In Their Own Words: Christian Minorities Under ISIS . Tony Blair Faith Foundation, 6 October 2014.
In Erbil’s refugee camps, the author gathered testimonies from displaced Christians about IS’s violence as abduction of women and children.
Allan Kaval. Chrétiens d’Irak, instrumentalisation et compassion amnésique . Orient XXI.info, 9 septembre 2014.
An historical view on Iraqi Christians. The author also considers that Western countries don’t address correctly Christian needs, as they favour their exile instead of helping them stay in Iraq.
Kurds and Yazidis
Besheer Mohamed. Who are the Iraqi Kurds? Pew Research Center, 20/08/2014.
Most Iraqi Kurds say they are Sunni – but the Kurdish identity seems to be prevalent among them.
Eric Pichon. Irak : le sort des Yézidis [keysource] . EPRS, mis à jour le 01/10/2014 .
Other groups (including Arab Shiites)
Iraq: Divided They Prosper. Geopoliticalmonitor.com, 29/09/2014.
The author’s assumption is that, if the current conflict leads to the creation of a Sunni state and a Kurdish state, the Shiites would largely benefit from the split, as the main oil resources are on the remaining portion of Iraq they control.
Ali Mamouri. IS threatens Iraq’s minority Shabak community . Al-Monitor, 22/08/2014
Shabaks, a small minority existing only in Iraq is in danger of disappearing, after IS took over their villages around Mosul and in Nineveh plains, killing and kidnapping hundreds of them, while thousands fled to other regions.
Tulin Daloglu. Iraqi Turkmens fleeing from Sinjar receive no help from Turkey . Al-Monitor, 8/08/2014.
Hundreds of Turkmen families fled from Sinjar after it was taken over by IS but were reportedly not allowed to enter Turkey.
Apart from killings and other violence, displacements alone show the scale of the humanitarian crisis triggered by the ISIL/Da’esh attacks.
The Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC) endeavours to compile on a regular basis data about displaced persons , from UN and other humanitarian bodies.
The displacement overview (International Organization for Migration) clearly shows the dramatic increase of displacements triggered by IS’s advance in Iraq, beginning with the seizure of Mosul by IS on 10 June 2014.
Cf in particular the maps and infographics tracing the camp locations and the origins of the refugees and displaced persons:
- IOM. Iraq Displacement Tracking Matrix (DTM), January 1 to November 9, 2014
- Displacement – Humanitarian Snapshot (as of 07 November 2014)
- The maps reporting the area of origin and intentions of IDPs interviewed at entry point to the different camps
Human rights reports
Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights; United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI) Human Rights Office. Report on the Protection of Civilians in Armed Conflict in Iraq: 6 July – 10 September 2014 . OHCHR, 2 October 2014, 40 p.
This reports lists IS’s acts of violence and also violations from the Iraqi security forces combatting it. Over only nine weeks, human rights abuses and violence reached an impressive high, and affected in particular the Iraqi minorities.
A comprehensive report on the situation of minorities in Iraq, as of October 2014 :
From Crisis to Catastrophe: the situation of minorities in Iraq. Minority Rights Group International and Ceasefire Centre for Civilian Rights, 14/10/2014, 36 p.
ECOI.net lists several human rights reports and news on the situation of religious minorities in Iraq
Iraq: Ethnic cleansing on historic scale: the Islamic State’s systematic targeting of minorities in northern Iraq . Amnesty International, 2/09/2014, 30 p.
To capture the on-field reality, Amnesty international interviewed (between June and September 2014) witnesses, survivors, victims’ families, local authorities or NGOs in several places taken over by IS.
Resolution on the situation in Iraq 2014/2716(RSP)
The President of the European Parliament
Speech by Martin Schulz, President of the European Parliament , Special meeting of the European Council, 30 August 2014.
“We must not abandon the people of Iraq to their fate. The refugees, particularly the Yazidis, Christians and Turkmens, need substantial quantities of aid. We must provide this quickly and subject to a minimum of formalities.”
Council, Commission and EEAS
Council conclusions on Iraq . Foreign Affairs Council Meeeting, 15/08/2014, 2 p.
Special meeting of the European Council – Conclusions . Council of the European Union. 30/08/2014.
“The European Council is appalled by and firmly condemns the indiscriminate killings and human rights violations perpetrated by this and other terrorist organisations, in particular against Christian and other religious and ethnic minorities”
ECHO factsheets on Iraq are regularly updated
EEAS EU action in Iraq