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Iraq ‘s minorities face terrible choice

3/1/07 Iraq (Alert Net) Several of Iraq ‘s minorities risk being wiped out as they face unprecedented levels of violence, according to Preti Taneja, author of a new report by Minority Rights Group International.


Some of Iraq ‘s religious and ethnic minorities have lived in the region for two millennia. Yet the violence gripping the country means many now face a terrible choice: convert, leave or die.

Minority priests, politicians and civilians are being targeted and killed simply because of their ethnic or religious affiliations.

For the Christians, still speaking in Aramaic, the language of the Bible, the threat comes from the fact that their faith associates them with the West and with the Multi-National Force in Iraq .

Who felt the immediate force of the backlash when the Pope made his comments about Islam last year? Iraq ‘s Christians. How are they identified? In some cases, by the jobs they do. Allowed by Saddam Hussein’s Ba’ath party to trade in alcohol, many of them run businesses that make them obvious targets to fanatics.

What about Mandaeans, followers of John the Baptist, whose faith is pre-Christian? They are unable to protect themselves as others in Iraq have been forced to, because their faith forbids them to take up arms.

FLASHPOINT

The numbers leaving Iraq are disproportionately high.

Since 2003, the United Nations refugee agency has recorded that 44 percent of Iraqi asylum seekers to Syria are Christian. Christians were also the largest group of refugees arriving in the Jordanian capital Amman this time last year.

But those who flee are still at the mercy of international case-by-case asylum policy. The United States and Britain were quick to invade Iraq – but are nevertheless remarkably reluctant to shoulder the refugee burden that has resulted as a consequence of their actions.

Even Northern Iraq – including the autonomous region of Kurdistan – is not safe for minority groups. One flashpoint in the coming year will be the referendum in December to decide the future of the oil-rich city of Kirkuk .

DETERMINED TO STAY

The commitment shown by many from minority communities towards their homeland is humbling. At a conference in Amman last year, I heard members of Iraq ‘s minority communities describe the terror they suffered under Saddam. Many had hoped things would change when he was toppled, but today they remain at grave risk.

“Saddam Hussein used to have one head, now he has 3,000,” said one Assyrian Christian woman.

Many knew of female relatives and friends who had covered their heads with hijabs to hide their actual faiths, or stopped going out altogether. Some had experienced the daily terror of threatening text messages and lived with the risk of abduction, torture, rape and death.

They spoke about the real fear that their communities would be permanently eradicated from Iraq – Mandaeans, Palestinians and Jews are among those at particular risk.

But they displayed a fierce determination to remain in their homeland, to be involved in its new parliament and constitution process and to help build a democratic future in Iraq for their children. As one told me: “I am scared for my son, he may be kidnapped or killed, but we will not run. We have to resist and we have to stay in our homes.”

Some people might say that everyone is suffering in Iraq , so why pay special attention to these groups? But that is to miss the point. Amid the horrific levels of threats and violence, these groups are specifically targeted and because of their smaller numbers, particularly at risk. Unlike Shi’ites, Sunnis and Kurds, they have little political clout and little or not access to tribal justice or militia protection.

The Iraqi government and the Multi-National Force in Iraq must act immediately to protect them if Iraq is to have any future as a multi-ethnic, religiously diverse state.

Governments where Iraqis are seeking asylum must take seriously the threats that minorities are facing, and not return them to places where their lives are threatened.

And as the referendum on Kirkuk ‘s future draws nearer, the government must ensure Iraq ‘s minorities are able to cast their votes as they choose.