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USCIRF Report Highlights Plight of Assyrians in Iraq and Iran

5/4/2010 Iraq, Iran (AINA) — The Unites States Commission on International Religious Freedom released its 2010 report on April 29. The following are excerpts relevant to Assyrians in Iraq and Iran.

Iraq:

· In Iraq, the government continues to commit and tolerate severe abuses of freedom of religion or belief, particularly against the members of Iraq’s smallest, most vulnerable religious minorities — Chaldo-Assyrian and other Christians, Sabean Mandaeans, and Yazidis. Members of these groups continue to suffer from targeted violence, threats, and intimidation, against which they receive insufficient government protection. They also experience a pattern of official discrimination, marginalization, and neglect.

· The religious freedom situation in Iraq remains grave, particularly for the country’s smallest, most vulnerable religious minorities. The violence, forced displacement, discrimination, marginalization, and neglect suffered by members of these groups threaten these ancient communities’ very existence in Iraq. These minorities, which include Chaldo-Assyrians and other Christians, Sabean Mandaeans, and Yazidis, continue to experience targeted violence, receive inadequate official protection or justice, and suffer discrimination. Since 2003, many have fled to neighboring countries, where they represent a disproportionately high percentage of registered Iraqi refugees. The diminished numbers remaining in the country are now concentrated in areas in the highly dangerous Nineveh governorate over which the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) is seeking to extend its control, and they suffer abuses and discrimination as a result. Although the Iraqi government has publicly condemned violence against these groups, it continues to fall short in investigating the continuing attacks and bringing perpetrators to justice, and its efforts to increase security to minority areas are not adequate.

· Today, only half of the pre-2003 Iraqi Christian community is believed to remain in the country, with Christian leaders warning that the result of this flight may be “the end of Christianity in Iraq.”6 In 2003, there were approximately 1.4 million Chaldean Catholics, Assyrian Orthodox, Assyrian Church of the East members, Syriac Orthodox, Armenians (Catholic and Orthodox), Protestants, and Evangelicals in Iraq. Today, that number is estimated to be only 500,000.

· To address their lack of security and political and economic marginalization, some Iraqi minority groups, both inside and outside Iraq, have been seeking what is variously described as a protected, semiautonomous, or autonomous area for Christians, and some say for other minorities as well, in the Nineveh Plains area. These options are proposed to give effect to Article 125 of the Iraqi Constitution, which “guarantee[s] the administrative, political, cultural and educational rights of the various nationalities, such as Turkomen, Chaldeans, Assyrians, and all other constituents,” and provides that this “shall be regulated by” a future law. However, the specifics of what such a law would entail, including the territory that such an area would cover, its religious and ethnic make-up, how it would be secured, what governance and economic powers it would have, and how it would relate to the KRG and the central government remain disputed even among those who say that they favor autonomy. Many members of the smallest minorities also have urged reforms to provisions in Article 2 of the Iraqi constitution that give Islam a preferred status, which provides a potential justification for discrimination against non-Muslims. As far as is known, the Iraqi government has made no serious efforts to consider or address any of these proposals. Additionally, some evangelical Christian groups urged less onerous requirements for government registration. To register, a church must have 500 members and must obtain approval from the Council of Iraqi Christian Church Leaders, which consists of representatives from the 14 officially-recognized churches.

Iran:

· During the reporting period, there has been a significant increase in the number of incidents of Iranian authorities raiding church services, detaining worshippers and church leaders, and harassing and threatening church members. Christians, particularly Evangelical and other Protestants, continue to be subject to harassment, arrests, close surveillance, and imprisonment; many are reported to have fled the country. Indigenous Assyrian and Armenian Christian religious leaders also have been targeted. Since becoming president, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has called for an end to the development of Christianity in Iran. The government requires Evangelical Christian groups to submit congregation membership lists.

· In February 2010, Hamid Shafiee, a Christian priest, and his wife, Reyhaneh Aghajari, were arrested in the central city of Isfahan. Security agents seized their personal belongings, including books, telephones, CDs, and a number of Bibles in Persian. Their whereabouts and the charges against them are unknown. The same month, nine Christians, including Assyrian pastor Wilson Issavi, were arrested in Isfahan. Issavi was released in late March, but the whereabouts of the others are unknown and no charges have been filed. Also in February, an Armenian Christian pastor, Vahik Abrahamian, was arrested in Tehran; reportedly, he is being held in Evin prison. In January, Reverend Issavi’s Assyrian Evangelical Church in Kermanshah, western Iran, was shut down by authorities. Also in January, in the southwestern city of Shiraz, seven Christians were detained, and, according to the Farsi Christian News Network, most face charges of apostasy; their status is unknown. In late December 2009, at least 15 Christians were arrested in Tehran; 12 were released in January while three — Maryam Jalili, Mitra Zahmati, and Farzan Matin — were released in March after almost three months in prison.

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