“People throughout the region will see a new Iraq that’s determining its own destiny -- a country in which people from different religious sects and ethnicities can resolve their differences peacefully through the democratic process,” Obama told reporters after his closed-door meeting with al-Maliki.
But Obama’s own State Department and a federal religious-freedom watchdog say that violence and threats against Iraqi Christians and other religious minorities is a continuing problem.
In a Dec. 7 letter to Obama, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), a federal body appointed by the president and congressional leaders, urged the president to take up the issue of religious freedom with the Iraqi prime minister.
“Since 2008, and most recently in May 2011, USCIRF has recommended that Iraq should be designated as a ‘country of particular concern’ under the International Religious Freedom Act for systematic, ongoing, egregious violations of religious freedom,” the letter said.
“Despite an overall decrease in violence in the country, members of Iraq’s smallest religious minorities, including Christians, Sabean Mandaeans, and Yazidis continue to suffer from targeted violence, threats, and intimidation, against which the government does not provide effective protection.”
The letter noted that sectarian violence between Sunni and Shi’a Iraqis continues, yet the perpetrators of sectarian and religiously motivated attacks are “rarely identified, investigated, or punished, creating a climate of impunity. In addition, the smallest minorities experience a pattern of official discrimination, marginalization, and neglect,” particularly in disputed areas of northern Iraq.
“For Iraq to become a secure and stable democracy, it must guarantee and enforce the human rights of all Iraqis, both in law and in practice,” USCIRF wrote to the president, urging Obama to discuss with al-Maliki “the need for his government to protect Iraq’s most vulnerable religious minority communities, who face the threat of religious cleansing, and ensure them justice.”
In its latest International Religious Freedom report on Iraq, which covers the six-month period July 1- December 31, 2010, the State Department said Muslim Iraqis who convert to another religion face death:
“In practice, government institutions do not acknowledge conversion from Islam for official purposes, and persons who leave Islam often face severe social persecution, including death, often by assailants known to the victims.”
The State Department also noted that it is a crime in Iraq for any person to promote “Zionist principles” or to associate with Zionist organizations. People who do so are subject to punishment by death, the report said.
During the six-month reporting period ending Dec. 31, 2010, at least 12 Christians were killed and an unknown number were injured in ten separate incidents in Baghdad and other population centers, according to the State Department.
The State Department says Iraq has a population of 28.9 million people, 97 percent of whom are Muslim. The remaining three percent is composed of Christians,
Yezidis, Sabean-Mandaeans, Bahais, Shabaks, Kaka'is (sometimes referred to as Ahl-e Haqq), and a very small number of Jews.
The report noted that Iraq’s Christian population has decreased by almost half since the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. In that year, Iraq’s Christian population was estimated at 800,000-1.4 million, but now it’s estimated by Christian leaders to be in the 400,000-600,000 range.
The report stated that there are only 14 officially recognized Christian churches in the country.
The 2010 report put the number of Jews in Iraq at eight – down from 150,000 in 1948, around 35 in 2004, and fewer than 10 by 2008.
U.S. ground forces are expected to leave Iraq by December 31 in accordance with an agreement signed by then-President George W. Bush, bringing an end to a war that began in 2003.
President Obama officially announced the troop withdrawal and the war’s end in October. Negotiations to extend the U.S. troop withdrawal deadline fell through after the Iraqi government refused to grant U.S. forces legal immunity, which would have prevented them from being tried in Iraqi courts and being subjected to Iraqi repercussions.
“In the coming days, the last American soldiers will cross the border out of Iraq, with honor and with their heads held high,” Obama said on Monday.