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Executive Summary

The constitution declares Islam to be the official religion, and states no law may be enacted contradicting the “established provisions of Islam.” The constitution guarantees freedom of religious belief and practice for Muslims, Christians, Yezidis, and Sabaean-Mandeans. The law, however, prohibits the practice of the Bahai Faith and the Wahhabi branch of Sunni Islam. The constitution provides for freedom from religious coercion and requires the government to maintain the sanctity of religious sites. International human rights groups said the government failed to investigate and prosecute ethnosectarian crimes, including those carried out by armed groups in areas liberated from ISIS. International and local nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) reported the government continued to use the antiterrorism law as a pretense for detaining Sunnis and others without access to timely due process. Sunni Arabs reported some government officials used sectarian profiling in arrests and detentions and used religion as a determining factor in employment decisions. In response to concerns about controversial convictions based on information provided by secret informants, a new law allowed reinvestigation and retrial of detainees convicted under the antiterrorism law. Some Yezidi and Christian leaders reported continued harassment and abuses by Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) Peshmerga and Asayish (internal security) forces. Media and government officials reported Peshmerga and Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) prevented displaced Sunni Arabs, Yezidi, Turkmen, and others from returning to their homes in some areas liberated from ISIS. Community leaders said that forced conversion was the de facto result of the national identity card law which mandated children with only one Muslim parent be listed as Muslim. The KRG suspended 14 Islamic preachers for what it said was defamation and incitement against religious minorities. Representatives of minority religious communities reported while the government did not generally interfere with religious observances, and even provided security for places of worship, including churches, mosques, shrines, and religious pilgrimage sites and routes, minority groups continued to face harassment and restrictions from authorities in some regions. Members of religious minority communities, civil society organizations, and media continued to report some non-Muslims chose to reside in the Iraqi Kurdistan Region (IKR) and areas under KRG control because they continued to consider these areas to offer greater security, tolerance, and protection for minority rights.

Throughout the year, the government fought numerous battles to regain control of significant terrain lost to ISIS. At the same time, ISIS pursued a campaign of violence against members of all faiths, but against non-Sunnis in particular. In areas under its control, ISIS continued to commit individual and mass killings, and to engage in rape, kidnapping, random detentions and mass abductions, torture, abduction and forced conversion of non-Muslim male children, and the enslavement and sex trafficking of women and girls from minority religious communities. ISIS also continued to engage in harassment, intimidation, robbery, and the destruction of personal property and religious sites. In areas not under ISIS control, it continued suicide bombings and vehicle-borne improvised explosive device (VBIED) attacks against all segments of society. ISIS also targeted religious pilgrims and pilgrimage sites for attack. The United Nations Assistance Mission to Iraq (UNAMI) reported ISIS IEDs caused at least 5,403 casualties (1,167 killed and 4,236 wounded), amounting to half of all verified casualties in the first half of the year.

According to media and human rights organizations, the deterioration of security conditions was accompanied by societal violence, mainly committed by sectarian armed groups, in many parts of the country. Armed groups continued to target Sunnis for execution-style killings and the destruction of homes and businesses. Non-Muslim minorities reported threats, pressure, and harassment to force them to observe Islamic customs. In many regions, minority groups, whatever their religious adherence, said they experienced violence and harassment from the majority group in the region.

The U.S. President in a speech at the UN again called on the country’s political, civic, and religious leaders to take concrete steps to address the danger posed by religiously motivated extremists, to reject sectarianism, and to promote tolerance between religious groups. The Secretary of State said that in his judgment, ISIS was responsible for genocide against religious groups in the areas under its control, including Yezidis, Christians, and Shia Muslims. Senior officials, including the Deputy Secretary of State, the Special Presidential Envoy for the Global Coalition to Counter ISIS, and the Deputy Special Envoy, visited the country to urge the government to protect the country’s diverse religious communities. The U.S. Ambassador, embassy officers, and consulates general officials met regularly with government ministries and members of parliament to emphasize the need for the security, full inclusion, and protection of the rights of religious minorities. They also held regular discussions with government officials, waqf (religious endowment) leaders, and UN officials coordinating international assistance to address the distribution of humanitarian aid. The Ambassador, embassy officers, and consulates general officials issued public statements condemning ISIS abuses of religious freedom. Embassy and consulate general officials maintained an active dialogue with Shia, Sunni, and religious minority communities, emphasizing tolerance, inclusion, and mutual understanding. Embassy assistance programs supported minority religious communities and ethnosectarian reconciliation.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Abuses by Foreign Forces and Nonstate Actors

ISIS continued to target victims on the basis of their religious identity, killing and subjecting people of all faiths to violence, abductions, and intimidation. Media reported the security situation remained precarious as a result of ISIS’s occupation of territory and the escalation of fighting between ISIS and government forces in Ninewa and Kirkuk; although the Iraqi military and progovernment forces retook large amounts in territory in both provinces, fighting continued in some areas of Anbar and Salah al-Din. In areas under its control, ISIS continued to commit individual and mass killings, and to engage in rape, kidnapping, and detention, including mass abductions and enslavement of women and girls from minority religious communities. ISIS also continued to engage in harassment, intimidation, robbery, and the destruction of personal property and religious sites. In areas not under ISIS control, it continued suicide bombings and VBIED attacks against civilians. ISIS also targeted religious pilgrims and pilgrimage sites for attack. ISIS enforced strict rules on dress, behavior and movement on the inhabitants who remained in the areas it controlled, and severely punished infractions. Its fighters carried out execution-style public killings and other punishments, including after its “courts” condemned people for transgressing its rules or its interpretation of Islamic law. ISIS fighters burned or destroyed Shia, Yezidi, and other religious shrines and cultural artifacts.

UNAMI reported in December that 12,038 people were killed during the year and another 411 were wounded as a result of bombings and acts of violence, mostly in Baghdad and in the northern and western provinces. ISIS claimed responsibility for the majority of these bombings.

After forcibly transferring large numbers of civilians from subdistricts of Mosul to Tal Afar, ISIS killed 172 civilians held in al-Jazeera secondary school in the Hay al-Khadraa neighborhood of Tal Afar, according to UNAMI. Reportedly, among those killed were 43 Yezidi and Shia girls and women who had been enslaved by the group since June 2014.

In November ISIS posted on its Wilayat al-Jazeera website photos of victims killed under the slogan Iqamat al-hudud’(imposing legal penalties) for allegedly committing breaches of sharia, including smoking. One of the victims portrayed in the photos was reportedly a cigarette merchant. The exact dates of the killings are not known. In some photos, children are seen witnessing the executions.

ISIS posted a video on the Wilayat al-Jazeera website showing four children between the ages of 10 to 12 shooting and killing four civilians accused of spying for the ISF and Peshmerga. The video shows two children aiming their guns at the heads of two kneeling civilians and then shooting them. The other two children performed the same act against two other civilians in a location near a river. The video identifies two of the children as originally from Uzbekistan and Russia and the other two from Iraq, while the victims were identified as shop owners from the Baaj District of Ninewa Governorate. One of the children in the video was recognized by his Yezidi parents, having been abducted from his family by ISIS at an earlier date.

ISIS targeted all religious minorities who refused to convert to Islam or who opposed the terrorist group. ISIS also targeted Sunni civilians who cooperated with the ISF. The Iraqi High Commission for Human Rights reported cases of ISIS killing women for not wearing a veil. According to multiple reports from international NGOs and the local press, ISIS fighters continued to question members of detained groups to determine if they were Sunni, and then killed or abducted the non-Sunnis.

Coordinated ISIS bomb attacks continued to target Shia neighborhoods, markets, mosques, and funeral processions, as well as Shia shrines. On July 3, a coordinated bomb attack in Baghdad resulted in the deaths of more than 300 and injuries to hundreds more. A few minutes after midnight, a suicide bomber in a truck targeted the mainly Shia district of Karrada, busy with late-night shoppers for Ramadan. A second roadside bomb was detonated in the suburb of Sha’ab, killing at least five. On April 4, there were multiple coordinated suicide bombings, including two in the Shia-majority southern provinces of Basrah and Dui War. Five people died in Basrah and in Dui War, and 14 people were killed and 27 wounded at a restaurant popular with Shia PMF fighters. ISIS claimed responsibility for the attacks.

ISIS fired chemical weapons into the Salah al-Din villages of Tara and Basheer on March 16 and May 2, respectively. The attacks injured more than 400 victims, who were primarily Turkmen Shia civilians. ISIS fighters continued their practice of claiming responsibility for these attacks via social media postings.

Large celebrations of Ashura in Najaf and Karbala were violence free, in part because of extensive security efforts.

According to the mayor of Sinjar, as of September 27, mass graves containing the remains of ISIS victims were under investigation, others were located, and potentially dozens more remained in ISIS-controlled territory in Sinjar district. On April 26, Yezidi religious leaders in Lavish published an open letter to diplomats and human rights organizations reporting 410 Yezidi men had been missing for a year after the men were directed to a mosque in the ISIS-controlled city of Tal Afar and taken away by truck.

In August the Associated Press reported that analysis of satellite imagery identified a possible mass grave site at Badmouth Prison near Mosul, where more than 600 inmates died. The KRG exhumed 67 remains from a mass grave in Sinjar for DNA analysis.

According to the KRG MERA, 3,735 Yezidis captured by ISIS remained in ISIS captivity or were unaccounted for at year’s end.

The Yezidi Organization for Documentation reported ongoing cases of rape, forced labor, forced marriage, forced religious conversion, material deprivation, and battery by ISIS. ISIS provided videos of its fighters continuing sexual assaults on captured Yezidi women. ISIS repeatedly said it had conducted the “large-scale enslavement” of Yezidi women and children because of their religious beliefs.

NGOs reported ISIS continued to kidnap religious minorities for ransom. According to officials from a Turkmen Women’s Association, ISIS militants had kidnapped and held 500 Turkmen women and children from Tal Afar and Mosul since June 2014. A Shabak member of the Ninewa Provincial Council said ISIS held over 250 Shabak people (most of whom are thought to be Shia) captive, and had executed three Shabaks in October. UNAMI reported that between October 27 and the beginning of November, ISIS had relocated between 64 and 70 abducted Yezidi women from Aaliyah subdistrict of Tal Afar, Muhalabiya subdistrict of Mosul, and from Qayrawan subdistrict of Sinjar, to the Seventeen-Tamouz area in Mosul city. On November 4, ISIS allegedly brought an unspecified number of Yezidi women to Tal Afar and placed them in one of the schools. ISIS reportedly gave some of the women to its militants and sent others to Raqqa, Syria.

According to religious leaders, killings, forced conversion, threats of violence, and intimidation continued to motivate many minorities to leave ISIS-controlled areas. Yezidi civil rights activists reported 400,000 Yezidis were displaced to Dahuk Province in the IKR because of ISIS in 2014. Yezidi and Kaka’i IDPs largely remained in place during the year, with a limited number returning to liberated areas of Ninewa. Sources said between 10 to 15 Christian families were leaving the country daily.

In an October report, UNAMI stated ISIS’s attacks against Christians, Faili (Shia) Kurds, Kaka’i, Sabaean-Mandeans, Shabak, Shia Arabs, Turkmen, Yezidis, and others appeared to be part of a systematic campaign to suppress, permanently expel, or eradicate entire religious communities from their historic homelands now under ISIS control. ISIS continued to publish open threats via leaflets, social media, and press outlets of its intent to kill Shia “wherever they were found” on the basis of being “infidels.”

In Mosul, ISIS fighters reportedly continued to threaten with death local residents who did not convert to Islam. They also continued to punish those who failed to adhere to the group’s strict interpretation of sharia. ISIS continued to impose severe restrictions on women’s movement and dress, and enforcement patrols by ISIS forces were reportedly routine occurrences. According to local press reports, in June the director general of Yezidi affairs at the Ministry of Waqf said ISIS compelled captured Yezidis to fast during Ramadan, and beat those who refused to perform Islamic prayers five times daily.

ISIS fighters continued to attack mosques and other holy sites, including Sunni religious sites, rendering many of them unusable. They converted Christian churches into mosques, and looted and destroyed religious and cultural artifacts. In January UNESCO reported ISIS destroyed the Monastery of Saint Elijah, which was more than 1,400 years old, and the oldest Christian monastery in the country. In April ISIS destroyed Mosul’s “Clock Tower Church” with explosives. Based on their interpretation of Islam, in June ISIS members removed Islamic motifs and Quranic verses on Mosul’s mosques, and also converted churches to weapons storehouses or offices after destroying crosses and religious motifs in the churches. ISIS also damaged many churches and Yezidi temples located in the Ninewa plains during its occupation, including 17 Yezidi shrines in the towns of Bashiqa and Bahzani in the Bashiqa subdistrict. In addition, ISIS blew up the clock tower of the Roman Catholic Church of Al-Sa’a in Mosul city and the Church of Al-Qiayama in Bakhida city in al-Hamdaniya District. The terrorist organization also destroyed the Christian Shrine of Bahnam and Sara in the Nimrud subdistrict.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

There were continued reports of societal violence, mainly by sectarian armed groups in many parts of the country. Non-Muslim minorities reported abductions, threats, pressure, and harassment to force them to observe Islamic customs. In many regions, minority groups, whatever their religious adherence, said they experienced violence and harassment from the majority group in the region.

Sabaean-Mandaean leaders reported threats and robberies. On November 27, an unidentified gunman shot and killed a Sabean-Mandaean goldsmith.

On July 21, an unknown group kidnapped the head of the Seventh-day Adventist Church in the country, and released him on July 27. The leader believed he was targeted for both religious and economic motives.

Authorities made no arrests in the 2015 case of four Sunni clerics who were killed in a drive-by shooting in Basrah’s Zubayr District, and observers stated there was no indication the case was being actively investigated.

Shia religious and government leaders urged PMF volunteers not to commit abuses.

Christians in the south and Sabaean-Mandaeans in Basrah, Dhi Qar, and Maysan Governorates reported they avoided celebrating their religious festivals when those festivals coincided with Islamic periods of mourning.

There were continued reports that non-Muslim minorities felt obliged to adhere to certain Islamic practices, such as wearing the hijab or fasting during Ramadan. Non-Shia Muslim and non-Muslim women felt societal pressure to wear hijabs and all-black clothing during the month of Muharram, particularly during Ashura, to avoid harassment. Shia Muslims consider it inappropriate and disrespectful to wear bright colors or to hold public celebrations during this month when they mourn the death of Imam Hussein, (who was killed, along with all of his followers, in Karbala in 680), holding funeral processions and gathering to mourn together publicly. According to representatives of Christian NGOs, some Muslims continued to threaten women and girls, regardless of their religious affiliation, for refusing to wear the hijab, for dressing in Western-style clothing, or for not adhering to strict interpretations of Islamic norms governing public behavior. Numerous women, including Christians and Sabaean-Mandaeans, reported opting to wear the hijab after being harassed.

Minority religious leaders continued to report pressure on minority communities to cede land rights to their businesses unless they conformed to a stricter observance of Islamic precepts. This included demands to close liquor stores and nightclubs. At times, shopkeepers were subject to violence for noncompliance. Since 2012, Basrah’s government has refused to renew liquor licenses for any stores and nightclubs that previously sold alcohol, and Basrah, Dhi Qar, Maysan, and Muthanna provinces have made it illegal to sell or transport alcohol, though southern Iraqis could legally consume and own alcohol. Christian churches continued to be allowed to have wine for communion, but they could not buy any locally and needed to rely on foreign contacts and coreligionists in the north to bring bottles of wine when they came south. Public reaction to the new national law banning the sale, import, and production of alcoholic beverages was overwhelmingly negative, with opponents declaring it violated language in the constitution that guaranteed the personal freedoms of minority groups.

Leaders of non-Muslim communities said corruption, uneven application of the rule of law, and nepotism in hiring practices throughout the country by members of the majority Muslim population continued to have detrimental economic effects on non-Muslim communities and contributed to their emigration. Sabaean-Mandeans said they continued to face discrimination that limited their economic opportunities, such as their inability to sell alcohol because of the law. Sunni Muslims also reported continued discrimination based on a public perception that the Sunni population sympathized with terrorist elements, including ISIS.

Zoroastrian activists stressed the importance of adopting the broad concept of freedom of religion or belief, giving them the right to choose their religion and the right to convert from one religion to another without harassment or discrimination from the government and society. Journalists reported Zoroastrians who converted from Islam to Zoroastrianism continued to carry their Islamic identity cards because of the additional rights afforded to Muslims.

During the year, civil society and religious institutions held numerous conferences and workshops to promote religious tolerance. In April an NGO in Samawa organized a workshop to train clergy, teachers, journalists, and civil activists to promote peaceful coexistence and religious tolerance in Muthanna Province.

International Religious Freedom Reports
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