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IRAQ: Minorities living tormented days under sectarian violence

BAGHDAD, 4 January 2007 (IRIN) - Like other minority members in Iraq, Mardon Matrood, a 44-year-old Assyrian shopkeeper in Baghdad, has had enough of the country’s sectarian violence.

“Minorities in Iraq are targeted by insurgents and militias, who want us out of the country as they promote what they call the ‘cleansing of Iraq, of non-Muslim communities’,” said Matrood who is living with his family of six in an abandoned government building.

Four months ago Matrood’s family failed to pay a ransom of US $50,000 to kidnappers who had abducted his nephew. The nephew was later found dead.

“We are a poor family…we couldn’t pay [the ransom money] and after two weeks we were informed that the police had found his body near a mosque in Adhamiyah district (northern Baghdad). It was totally mangled, burned and tortured,” Matrood said.

Spiralling sectarian violence has threatened the decades-long peaceful coexistence in Iraq between members of different religions, sects and tribes. Now Sunni and Shi’ite extremists are targeting minorities in a bid to force them out of the country.

Local NGOs have said that the government has not done enough to stop this, and have called on the international community to help stop the attacks. In particular, there has been a dramatic rise in the number of attacks against women who do not wear the veil. The kidnapping of minority members in return for ransom money has become common.

“Some of these minority groups are specific to Iraq and have been an important part of the country’s history. During the regime of the former president, Saddam Hussein, they were living in peace with the Muslims and they held important posts in the government,” said the Christian cleric and spokesperson for Christians Peace Association (CPA), Lucas Barini.

“Minorities in Iraq have found that living under the dictatorial regime of Saddam Hussein was better than living under the current sectarian violence and without the protection of the government or of the US forces. And when we ask for help the only answer we get from both sides is that we are like other Iraqis and should not be considered as a special group,” Barini said.

“Our children no longer go to school and we can’t get healthcare and good food. We get our food from some local Assyrian or Catholic NGOs and associations which are trying to help us. But their assistance is being reduced after these organisations were targeted and some of their volunteers were killed,” Matrood said.

An official from the UN refugee agency (UNHCR), speaking on condition of anonymity, told IRIN that minorities in Iraq make up four percent of the country’s total population. However, they make up about 30 percent of Iraqi refugees, whose total number is thought to be 1.8 million.

In Syria alone, the UNHCR official said 36 percent of the roughly 700,000 Iraqi refugees who arrived there between October 2003 and March 2005 were members of religious minorities.

Iraq's religious minorities include Chaldean Catholics, Eastern Rite Catholics, Orthodox, Assyrian, Syriac, Sabaean-Mandeans, Kaka’I [sometimes known as Ahl-e-Haqq], Armenians, Yazidis, Bahais, and Hebrews.

According to Iraq’s last census in 1987 there were 1.4 million Christians in Iraq at that time. But, the Ministry of Migration and Displacement has said that nearly half of that population has fled Iraq since 2003.

“Each day more Christians and members of other ethnic and religious minorities flee from Iraq because they are scared of the violence. Because they are not Muslims many foreign countries in the West help them by giving them visas. In a way, it is sometimes easier for them than for Muslims to leave the country. But then there are many Christians who are stuck here because they don’t have enough money to process their exit from Iraq,” said Mowafaq Abdul-Raoof, a spokesman for the Ministry of Displacement and Migration.

“According to our estimates, nearly half of the minority communities have already fled to other countries,” Abdul-Raoof added.

Although there are no official statistics on the total number of gypsies in Iraq, their tribal leaders say that there are more than 60,000 in the country and all of them are living like displaced persons, with very few having financial conditions to flee Iraq.

Yazidis, Bahais, Jews, Sabeans and Kaka'I communities are believed to have nearly totally fled the country in the past three and a half years.

Analysts, the International Crisis Group (ICG), has said that most of these minorities have been seeking protection by fleeing to Kurdistan in northern Iraq, where they are relatively safer than in other parts of the country.

“Such [non-Muslim] minorities don’t have a strong external protector as the Kurds, Shi’ite and Sunnis have,” said Joost Hiltermann, ICG Middle East director.

Associations and aid organisations representing such minorities in the country have launched an international campaign to highlight the problems.

The campaign, called ‘Human Rights and Respect for Minorities is Fundamental’, was launched on 18 December after the discovery of the bodies of two women, a Christian and a Sabean, in the outskirts of Baghdad. They had been raped before they were killed.

“Most of the Christian communities and other minorities displaced in Iraq require urgent assistance and need help to leave the country,” said Carlo Mastury, a spokesman for the Baghdad-based Christian Brothers Association.

“We call on international organisations to help us in get visas to protect our lives,” Mastury added.

“I had my face burned by acid because I went out of my house to buy things without wearing a hijab (a veil),” said Abadia Waleyee, a 34-year-old Sabean woman resident of Baghdad.

“I’m not a Muslim but there is no choice in this crazy country which has forgotten what it means to respect a human being,” Waleyee, who is preparing to leave Iraq, added.

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Theme (s): Conflict, Human Rights, Refugees/IDPs,

[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations]

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