Summary paragraph: There were continued reports that ISF and Shia militia killed ISIS detainees and their alleged collaborators. NGOs reported the government continued to use the antiterrorism law as a pretext for detaining individuals without timely access to due process. International human rights groups said the government still failed to investigate and prosecute ethnosectarian crimes, including those carried out by armed groups in areas liberated from ISIS. Sunni Arabs continued to report some government officials used sectarian profiling in arrests and detentions and used religion as a determining factor in employment decisions. Some Yezidi and Christian leaders reported continued occurrences of harassment and abuse by the KRG Peshmerga and Asayish forces. According to various NGOs, the Asayish-imposed security permitting and check point requirements impeded the movement of Yezidis to and from the Sinjar area, resulting in a de facto blockade. Christians reported harassment and abuse at numerous checkpoints operated by various PMF and Peshmerga units that impeded movement in and around several Christian towns on the Ninewa Plain. Media and government officials reported the Peshmerga and PMF prevented displaced Sunni Arabs, Yezidis, Turkmen, and others from returning to their homes in some areas liberated from ISIS. Community leaders continued to state that forced conversion was the de facto result of the national identity card law, mandating the listing of children with only one Muslim parent as Muslim, even if that child was born as a result of rape. Representatives of minority religious communities continued to report that while the central government did not generally interfere with religious observances, and even provided security for places of worship and other religious sites, including churches, mosques, shrines, and religious pilgrimage sites and routes, minority groups continued to face harassment, including sexual assault, and restrictions from local authorities in some regions. Because religion, politics, and ethnicity were often closely linked, it was difficult to categorize many incidents as being solely based on religious identity.
There were continued reports that ISF, including the PMF and Peshmerga, and Shia militia killed Sunni detainees. International and local NGOs said the government continued to use the antiterrorism law as a pretext for detaining individuals without timely access to due process. For example, Arab residents stated that Shia Turkmen PMF units arrested, kidnapped, or killed Sunni Turkmen and Arabs in Tal Afar after the ISF liberated the city from ISIS rule in August. None of those responsible within PMF units were brought to justice by year’s end.
Yezidi community leaders reported that Yezidi captives of ISIS who were repeatedly raped and bore children were forced to register those children as Muslims and convert to Islam themselves in order to obtain ID cards, passports, and other governmental services. A Yezidi physician who provided psychosocial support services to numerous Yezidi women and children who were survivors of ISIS captivity for more than three years said more than 25 children of ISIS fathers and Yezidi mothers were relinquished by their rescued mothers and given to government authorities. All of those children were listed as Muslim. Christian leaders said, in some cases, Christian families formally registered as Muslim but privately practicing Christianity or another faith were forced to choose to register their child as a Muslim or to have the child remain undocumented, which would affect eligibility for government benefits such as school enrollment and ration card allocation for basic food items, which depends on family size. Larger families with legally registered children received higher allotments than those with undocumented children.
Representatives of minority religious communities said that while the central government did not generally interfere with religious observances, and even provided security for places of worship and other religious sites, including churches, mosques, shrines, and religious pilgrimage sites and routes, minority groups continued to face harassment, including sexual assault, and restrictions from local authorities in some regions. Christian religious leaders continued to publicly accuse the Iranian-backed Shabak Shia PMF militia 30th Brigade, controlled by Iraqi parliament member Hanin Qado and his brother Waad, of harassment and sexual assaults on Christian women in Bartalla and in Hamdanyah District. A Syriac Orthodox priest and the mayor of Hamdanyah attested to these repeated incidents. Arab Sunni leaders in Hamdanyah made similar allegations.
Some Yezidi and Christian leaders continued to report harassment and abuse by KRG Peshmerga and Asayish forces in the portion of Ninewa Province controlled by the KRG or contested between the central government and the KRG. According to various NGOs, the Asayish imposed security permitting and checkpoint requirements that impeded the movement of Yezidis from Dohuk Province to and from the Sinjar area. Local sources reported the Asayish required clearance letters for anyone to cross the main bridge from Dohuk to Ninewa. PMF units in the area also threatened Yezidi returnees and impeded their movement. Christians reported harassment, abuse, and delays at numerous checkpoints operated by various PMF units, which impeded movement in and around several Christian towns on the Ninewa Plain, including the 30th Brigade in Bartalla and the 50th Brigade in Bashiqa and Tel Kayf.
According to international human rights organizations, some Shia militias, including some under the PMF umbrella, committed abuses and atrocities. The groups participated in operations against ISIS as part of the PMF and were implicated in several attacks on Sunni civilians, allegedly to avenge ISIS crimes against Shia. Human Rights Watch (HRW) reported in June that 52 civilians (22 men, 20 women, and 10 children) from the Sunni Imteywit tribe disappeared while in the custody of Yezidi fighters from the Ezidkhan Brigades, associated with the PMF. Yezidi officials alleged that Imteywit and Jahaysh tribal members participated in ISIS atrocities against Yezidis in 2014, allegations the tribal members denied.
Some government forces and militia groups forced alleged ISIS sympathizers from their homes in several governorates. For example, there were reports the PMF militia group Kata’ib Hizballah kidnapped and intimidated local Arab Sunni residents in Diyala and Babil Governorates and prevented Arab Sunni IDPs from returning to their places of origin.
According to HRW, beginning in August authorities detained approximately 1,400 foreign women and children who surrendered with ISIS fighters and then transferred them to overcrowded and exposed temporary facilities without sufficient access to information or freedom of movement. Sites included Ninewa’s Hamam al-Alil humanitarian transit camp, a repurposed school in Tel Kayf, and a prison in the Rusafa district of Baghdad. Families suspected of ISIS affiliation in Salah al-Din’s al-Shahama camp were also denied freedom of movement. In September HRW reported that Shia PMF fighters affiliated with the Badr Organization detained and beat at least 100 male villagers and allegedly shot and killed four who self-identified as ISIS-affiliated during counter-ISIS operations outside Hawija.
In August Shabak Shia PMF attacked and assaulted a delegation from U.S. and Canadian churches during its visit to Christian areas recently liberated from ISIS in the Ninewa Plain, according to first-hand accounts from KRG officials and the delegation. The delegation was accompanied by Khalid Jamal Alber, Director of Christian Affairs of the KRG MERA and Peshmerga. The delegation was stopped by the Shabak Shia PMF at a checkpoint between Qaraqosh and Bartalla, two Christian towns. According to the report, the PMF insulted the delegation and gunfire was exchanged between the Peshmerga and the PMF. The Peshmerga and ISF rescued the delegation after the KRG’s Ministry of Interior and the Prime Minister’s Office intervened.
The KRG continued to actively support and fund the rescue of captured Yezidis and provide psychosocial support services at a center in Dohuk Province. According to the KRG Ministry of Endowments and Religious Affairs director general for Yezidi affairs, since 2014, KRG authorities have funded the rescue from ISIS of more than 3,100 kidnapped Yezidis including 1,735 children, but more than 3,000 Yezidis captured by ISIS were still missing at year’s end. Rescued captives reported being sold multiple times, subjected to forced conversions to Islam, sexual exploitation, and violence.
In May a Yezidi COR member reported the KRG had paid more than 5.8 billion IQD ($5 million) in ransom to secure the release of 3,004 Yezidis from ISIS, and more than 69.9 million IQD ($59,900) to middlemen to arrange safe passage to IKR-controlled areas.
Yezidi groups said the presence of armed affiliates of the PKK, a U.S.-designated terrorist organization, PMF militias in Sinjar, and the KRG’s imposition of security restrictions on movements into and out of the district continued to hinder the return of IDPs.
According to Yazda, Yezidis in the IKR were discriminated against when they refused to self-identify as Kurdish and Muslim; only those Yezidis who considered themselves Kurdish and Muslim could obtain senior positions in the IKR leadership. In the IKR, those not identifying as Kurdish and Muslim said actions such as obtaining a residency card or a driver’s license were challenging. The KRG continued to offer support and funding to some non-Muslim minorities, but other minorities in the IKR, such as evangelical Christians, said they continued to face difficulties registering and proselytizing.
In some parts of the country, non-Muslim religious minorities, as well as Sunni and Shia in areas where they formed the minority, continued to face harassment and restrictions from authorities.
Nabaz Ismael, a spokesperson of the KRG MERA, said MERA was planning to reduce the number of mosques where Friday sermons were delivered by combining mosques located in the same neighborhoods. The spokesperson said the primary goal was to reduce the opportunities for extremist messages on Fridays and to prevent mosques from being used for political purposes.
Members of a Kurdish family from Ranya District in Sulimaniyah Governorate who had converted to evangelical Christianity in 2000 said they had to hide their religion and move frequently to avoid harassment, including from some of their own family members. Several members of the family were physically assaulted in incidents where their conversion to Christianity from Islam and their public distribution of Bibles were mentioned by the attackers. Family members said they received no assistance from local police, ostensibly because of their religion. The family moved to Turkey later in the year.
According to the Assyrian Democratic Movement (ADM) – a group politically opposed to the ruling Kurdistan Democratic Party – the Peshmerga looted houses of Christians and public service infrastructure, including electric cables, water pumps, and water pipes in Bashiqa, Teleskof, and Batnaya. Also the ISF and PMF looted Christian property and public service infrastructure in Tel Kayf, Qaraqosh, and Bartalla during their liberation. Yezidi properties were looted in Bashiqa.
In July Christian civil society organizations reported the Assyrian Christian mayors in Al Qosh and Tel Kayf were replaced, reportedly due to corruption, with KDP members who also were Christian. At the direction of the mayor, security forces in Al Qosh arrested and threatened a group who publicly protested this decision. Christian groups stated this was part of a “Kurdization” of their towns.
In May Syriac Orthodox Archbishop Dawood Matti Sharf accused the ISF and PMF of destroying the second century CE tomb in Qaraqosh of religious notable Youhana al-Delimi and filed a lawsuit against ISF and PMF commanders assigned to the area.
In July the KRG used official funds to open a new church in the Ankawa neighborhood of Erbil for Christian IDPs on 1,000 square meters (10,800 square feet) of land donated by the KRG at a cost of 3.55 billion IQD ($3.9 million).
Advocacy groups and religious minority representatives reported continued emigration. Estimates ranged from 10 to 22 Christian families leaving the country, including the IKR, every day. Several Christian MPs said 20-22 Christian families were leaving the country daily. Some Yezidis and Christians formed their own protection militias. Some of these received support from Baghdad through the PMF, while others received assistance from KRG Peshmerga units. Some representatives of religious minority groups, such as Yezidi and Sabean-Mandean MPs, stated they must have a role in their own security and requested government support to create armed groups from their own communities; others asked to join regular law enforcement units.
According to the Jewish leader in Baghdad, in addition to the prohibition by law for Jews to hold government jobs or to serve in the military, there was widespread discrimination against Jews, causing the remaining Jews to avoid publicly self-identifying for fear of violence.
NGOs continued to state that constitutional provisions on freedom of religion should override laws banning the Bahai Faith and the Wahhabi branch of Sunni Islam, but there continued to be no court challenges lodged to invalidate them, nor was legislation proposed to repeal them.
The KRG and the central government continued to provide increased protection to Christian churches during the Easter and Christmas holidays. Bahais reported they continued to celebrate the festivals of Naw-Ruz and Ridvan in the IKR 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.
Government policy continued to require Islamic 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 at least 150 public schools in Baghdad, Ninewa, and Kirkuk. Private Islamic religious schools continued to operate in the country, but had to obtain a license from the director general of private and public schools and pay annual fees.
In the IKR, private schools were required to pay a registration fee of 750,000 to 1,500,000 IQD ($640 to $1,300) to the Ministry of Education or Ministry of Higher Education, depending on the type of school. To register with the KRG, private schools needed to provide information on the school’s bylaws, number of students, size, location, facility and safety conditions, financial backing, and tax compliance, and undergo an inspection. In October the Catholic University in Erbil, which opened in 2016 with KRG approval, received accreditation from the Ministry of Higher Education. The Catholic University remained open to students of all faiths.
While the government did not 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 that some non-Muslim students felt obliged to participate because they could not leave the classroom during religious instruction. Christian and Yezidi leaders outside the IKR reported continued discrimination in education and lack of minority input on school curricula and language of instruction. By year’s end schools still had not universally adopted the 2015 Ministry of Education curriculum incorporating lessons of religious tolerance. Many Christians who spoke the Syriac language said it was their right to use and teach it to their children as a matter of religious freedom. Seeking to establish private Christian schools, the Chaldean church in Basrah said local authorities mandated the inclusion of Islamic religious instruction in their curricula for the Muslim students enrolled.
The KRG Ministry of Education continued to fund the religion curriculum for Islam and Christian classes for students of those faiths. The KRG Ministry of Education continued to fund Syriac-language public elementary and secondary schools, which was intended to accommodate Christian students; the curriculum did not contain religious or Quranic studies.
There were reports of KRG authorities discriminating against minorities, including Turkmen, Arabs, Yezidis, Shabaks, and Christians, in the disputed territories. For example, courts rarely upheld Christians’ legal complaints against Kurds regarding land and property disputes.
Christian leaders reported the KRG continued to provide land and financial support for construction of new and renovation of existing structures for use as educational facilities, although budget cuts halted some projects. The KRG said it planned to allocate land for a Jewish cultural center in Erbil and for a Bahai religious and cultural center near Erbil. According to Bahai and Jewish representatives, MERA had “committed” to providing land for construction of community centers for those faiths. According to KRG MERA Director of Co-Existence Amir Othman, his ministry’s recommendation for lands was passed to the Ministry of Municipalities, which reviews such recommendations and allocates appropriate public land parcels. Both recommendations remained pending at year’s end.
While there remained no legal bar to ministerial appointments for members of religious minorities, in practice there were few non-Muslims in the Iraqi Council of Ministers (COM) or the KRG COM. Members of minority religious communities continued to hold senior positions in the national parliament and central government, although minority community leaders said they were still underrepresented in government appointments, in elected positions outside the COR, and in public sector jobs, particularly at the provincial and local levels. Minority community leaders continued to say this underrepresentation limited minorities’ access to government-provided economic opportunities. The Federal Supreme Court’s nine members included Sunni and Shia Muslims and one Christian.
Some Sunni Muslims continued to say they perceived a campaign of “revenge” by Shia government officials in retribution for the Sunnis’ favored status and abuses against Shia during the Saddam Hussein regime. Sunnis said they faced discrimination in public sector employment as a result of de-Baathification, a process originally intended to target loyalists of the former regime. According to Sunnis and local NGOs, the government continued the selective use of the de-Baathification provisions of the law to render many Sunnis ineligible for government employment, but did not do so to render former Shia Baathists ineligible.
Human rights NGOs and Yezidi leaders stated KRG authorities discriminated against organizations providing humanitarian assistance to Yezidis. KRG authorities continued their blockade, started in April 2016, of goods into Sinjar District that, together with the volatile security situation in Sinjar, prevented the return of most Yezidi families. The KRG said the blockade was designed to constrain the PKK, which maintained an established presence in the Sinjar area. Security forces restricted items such as food, medicines, and farming supplies needed for local livelihoods. Yazda reported the deaths of several Yezidi women in Sinjar because of lack of access to medicine and medical care. Since the October 16 withdrawal of Peshmerga from the Sinjar area, it was possible, though not necessarily safe, to access Sinjar from central government-controlled areas.
Sabean-Mandeans and Christians said they continued to face discrimination that limited their economic opportunities, such as their inability to sell alcohol following the central government’s implementation of its alcohol ban in many parts of the country. Basrah, Dhi Qar, Maysan, and Muthanna Provinces continued to prohibit the import, sale, or transport of alcohol, although southern Iraqis were still allowed to legally consume and own alcohol. The KRG stated the ban would not be applied or enforced within the IKR. According to a Deutsche Welle article, minority communities considered the prohibition of alcohol an affront to religious freedom. In the article a Christian member of parliament stated, “The ban on alcohol is part of a war against religious minorities that aims to force them out of the country through exclusion, marginalization, and harassment policies.” According to a 2017 report sponsored by the Konrad Adenauer Foundation, Iraq’s ban on alcohol sales imposed “massive restrictions on Christians, Yazidis and Sabaean Mandaeans who sell spirits, since it affects their choice of livelihood and effectively leads to their financial ruin.”
The 2015 national identity card law, adopted by the COR, did not clarify whether the national identity card would continue to identify the bearer’s religion. The law continued to prevent Yezidis, many of whom consider themselves to be a distinct ethnic group as well as a religious group, and Shabaks from self-identifying with their religious and ethnic group and from official government recognition through official documentation.
According to HRW, since June KRG forces expelled at least four Yezidi families and threatened others because of their relatives’ participation in the IDF or the PMF. The KRG’s security forces, Asayish, returned the displaced families to Sinjar, where access to basic goods and services was very limited. According to the Yezidi International Human Rights Organization, at the end of July the number of Yezidi IDPs expelled to Sinjar in this manner was more than 150.
The KRG MERA Director General for Christians confirmed that a 2016 Dohuk court decision returning lands to Christians had not yet been implemented.