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USCIRF: Religious liberty in Iraq marked by ‘severe abuses’

WASHINGTON (BP)–A bipartisan U.S. panel has recommended Iraq be returned to a list of the world’s worst violators of religious liberty for the first time since an American-led invasion liberated the Middle East country from Saddam Hussein’s rule in 2003.

The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) announced Dec. 16 its recommendation that the State Department should designate Iraq as one of its “countries of particular concern” (CPCs), a category reserved for governments that have “engaged in or tolerated particularly severe violations of religious freedom.”

Iraq should receive such a designation based on the “ongoing, severe abuses of religious freedom [in the country] and the Iraqi government’s toleration of these abuses, particularly abuses against Iraq’s smallest, most vulnerable religious minorities,” USCIRF Chair Felice Gaer told reporters at a Capitol Hill news conference. “The lack of effective government action to protect these communities from abuses has established Iraq among the most dangerous places on earth for religious minorities.”

The lack of protection for these minorities — which include ChaldoAssyrian and other Christians, Sabean Mandaeans and Yazidis — has resulted in many of their members fleeing to other parts of Iraq or into neighboring countries. In addition, problems remain between the Shi’a and Sunni Muslim sects in Iraq, according to USCIRF.

The decision to recommend Iraq as a CPC was the next step in a progression for the commission. In 2003, the State Department redesignated Iraq as a CPC barely two weeks before the U.S.-led offensive began. By the next year, USCIRF declined to recommend Iraq as a CPC, and the State Department obliged by dropping the country from the list.

In 2006, the commission expressed concern about religious liberty conditions in Iraq but refused to recommend it as a CPC or for addition to the “watch list,” which is reserved for regimes the panel does not believe should be designated as CPCs but require close monitoring. USCIRF, however, added Iraq to the “watch list” in 2007 and warned it might recommend it as a CPC the next year.

Only five members of the nine-member USCIRF voted to recommend Iraq as a CPC, the commission said in its latest report. The other four commissioners voted against CPC designation in the belief that Iraq’s failures do not meet the standards required for CPC designation. Among other reasons it gave, the minority contended the Iraqi government has a “serious lack of capacity” to deal with terrorist and insurgent actions against religious minorities, according to the USCIRF report.

The minority agreed, however, the Iraq government has not done what is required to combat the problem. The four commissioners also approved of the policy recommendations made by the entire panel.

“[T]here’s no disagreement on this commission when it comes to the serious plight of religious minorities and the fact that they are being abused,” Richard Land, one of the members of the USCIRF minority, told reporters.

“There’s no disagreement about what we think needs to be done,” said Land, president of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission “The only disagreement here was on whether the Iraqi government’s failure to address this adequately is a product of will or a product of lack of capacity to do so.”

Urging Washington to keep religious freedom high on its agenda in Iraq, the commission included these among numerous, unanimous recommendations to the U.S. government:

— Call for the Iraqi government to build representative police units to protect religious minorities.

— Take the lead in providing security for just provincial elections in January.

— Encourage Baghdad to approve constitutional amendments that will promote human rights, including the removal of a section that says a law may not contradict “the established provisions of Islam.”

— Designate and send quickly to Baghdad a special envoy for human rights.

Rep. Frank Wolf, R.-Va., spoke at the news conference and was particularly distressed at the Bush administration’s failure to press Iraq for religious freedom for its citizens while American troops are risking their lives. He said he believes Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice “has failed.”

Religious minorities are in danger of extinction in Iraq, USCIRF said. The Christian population of the country has fallen from as many as 1.4 million Christians in 2003 to a total of 500,000 to 700,000. Nearly 90 percent of Sabean Mandaeans have either left the country or been killed in that time period. In addition to Yazidis, other minorities that have been repressed are Baha’is and Jews.

Sabean Mandaeans follow the teachings of John the Baptist, while Yazidi rituals include worship of a fallen angel who repented.

The USCIRF report on Iraq is available at the commission’s website, www.uscirf.gov.

Under the 1998 International Religious Freedom Act, the commission makes CPC recommendations to the State Department, which makes CPC designations. The State Department has not issued a CPC list in more than two years.

USCIRF advises the White House and Congress on religious liberty conditions overseas. The president selects three members of the panel, while congressional leaders name the other six. The State Department’s ambassador at large for international religious freedom serves as a non-voting member of the panel.
Tom Strode is Baptist Press Washington bureau chief.