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Critics: Limited number of Iraqi polling places in United States disenfranchises Christians

WASHINGTON (BP)–Iraqis in the United States and 13 other countries have begun registering to vote in their home country’s election, but the process in this country has disenfranchised Christians, critics charge.

Iraqi expatriates are eligible to vote in the Jan. 30 election that will determine the make-up of a transitional national assembly. That body will draft a constitution and elect a president.

The 14 countries with large Iraqi communities began the registration of voters Jan. 17 and will continue it until Jan. 23. Eligible voters will return to the polls to cast their ballots between Jan. 28 and 30.

Some observers say, however, the number and locations of the polling places in this country disfavor the immigrants from an ancient Christian community in Iraq, and the United States government seems indifferent to the problem. Chaldo-Assyrians compose more than 80 percent of the Iraqi population in the United States, said a spokesperson for the Chaldo-Assyrian American Advocacy Council, but the allotment of voting sites does not reflect their dominance in this country, critics charge.

There are only five places for Iraqis to vote in the United States, while Iran has six polling locations.

Those sites –- Chicago, Detroit, Los Angeles, Nashville and Washington, D.C. -– are not helpful to two large communities of Chaldo-Assyrians in California, critics contend. About 40,000 Iraqis, primarily Chaldo-Assyrians, live in the Central Valley area around Modesto, making two lengthy trips within two weeks to Los Angeles difficult. Another 25,000 Iraqis, again largely Chaldo-Assyrians, live in San Diego.

Members of Congress have complained unsuccessfully.

The five sites “are inadequate,” said Rep. Dennis Cardoza, D.-Calif., in a written statement, adding the Central Valley “certainly qualifies as a precinct of its own. How can we expect to run a decent election in Iraq without giving people a reasonable opportunity to vote? We wouldn’t require people to travel six hours by car to vote in America, so we can’t require Iraqis living in our country to do that for their election.”

Rep. George Radanovich, R.-Calif., said in a written release, “Isn’t it ironic that we are asking our soldiers to risk their lives to enable these elections to occur, and yet we are not providing sufficient numbers of voting booths for the Iraqis in this country who will be casting their ballot for the first time?”

The International Organization for Migration, a United Nations agency that is conducting the out-of-country voting, has refused to add Modesto and San Diego as polling sites in the United States despite complaints, a critic said. Two of the cities, Nashville and Washington, have virtually no Chaldo-Assyrian presence, said Jacklin Bejan, spokesperson for the Chaldo-Assyrian American Advocacy Council.

There are only about 3,000 eligible voters, mostly Kurds, in the Nashville area, critics say. This reflects the U.S. government’s “ethnic favoritism” toward the Kurds, religious freedom advocate Nina Shea told Baptist Press. Kurds are a favored Iraqi minority, and Christians “are seen as an inconvenient minority,” said Shea, director of the Washington-based Freedom House’s Center for Religious Freedom and a member of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom.

Iraqi Christians have been fleeing their homeland in increasing numbers since Aug. 1, when five church bombings marked the beginning of a campaign of heightened violence, including kidnappings and murders, by Islamic militants. It is estimated about 40,000 Chaldo-Assyrians have left Iraq during this wave of persecution.

The U.S. government is paying for all of the out-of-country voting in the Iraqi election, but it seems indifferent to the plight of a pro-democracy group of Christians whose participation could advance Washington’s goals in the Middle East, critics say.

“I think [U.S. officials] are indifferent; a lot of people are indifferent,” Shea said. “They don’t push back when this United Nations entity say it’s impossible. I think it’s an ignorance of the importance of religion in the Middle East. A lot of people in the government have a tin ear towards religion.”

Bejan told Baptist Press, “We need these expatriate votes, because there is an equal, if not bigger, Christian Chaldo-Assyrian population outside Iraq than inside the country.”

Shea said, “Why aren’t we empowering them by giving them a vote? It’s so heartbreaking.”

Shea urged Christians to call the White House and seek President Bush’s intervention. The phone number is (202) 456-1414.

More than 18,000 Iraqi expatriates signed up to vote Jan. 17, the first day of registration, in the 14 countries, according to the International Organization for Migration.

In addition to the United States and Iran, other countries conducting out-of-country voting are Australia, Canada, Denmark, France, Germany, Jordan, The Netherlands, Sweden, Syria, Turkey, the United Arab Emirates and the United Kingdom.

In order to vote, a person must be an Iraqi citizen, be eligible to reclaim Iraqi citizenship or have an Iraqi father.