AINA News
US State Department 2017 Report on Religious Freedom

(AINA) -- The US State Department published its annual International Religious Freedom Report for 2017 on Tuesday. The following are excerpts from the report concerning Assyrians in Turkey, Iran, Syria and Iraq.

Iraq

Christian leaders estimate there are fewer than 250,000 Christians remaining in the country, with the largest population -- at least 200,000 -- living in the Ninewa Plain and the IKR. The Christian population has declined over the past 15 years from a pre-2002 population estimate of between 800,000 and 1.4 million persons. Approximately 67 percent of Christians are Chaldean Catholics (an eastern rite of the Roman Catholic Church), and nearly 20 percent are members of the Assyrian Church of the East. The remainder are Syriac Orthodox, Syriac Catholic, Armenian Catholic, Armenian Apostolic, and Anglican and other Protestants. There are approximately 3,000 evangelical Christians in the IKR.

Related: Timeline of ISIS in Iraq
Related: Attacks on Assyrians in Syria By ISIS and Other Muslim Groups

According to the Assyrian Democratic Movement (ADM) -- a group politically opposed to the ruling Kurdistan Democratic Party -- the Peshmerga looted houses of Christians and public service infrastructure, including electric cables, water pumps, and water pipes in Bashiqa, Teleskof, and Batnaya. Also the ISF and PMF looted Christian property and public service infrastructure in Tel Kayf, Qaraqosh, and Bartalla during their liberation. Yezidi properties were looted in Bashiqa.

In July Christian civil society organizations reported the Assyrian Christian mayors in Al Qosh and Tel Kayf were replaced, reportedly due to corruption, with KDP members who also were Christian. At the direction of the mayor, security forces in

Al Qosh arrested and threatened a group who publicly protested this decision. Christian groups stated this was part of a "Kurdization" of their towns. In May Syriac Orthodox Archbishop Dawood Matti Sharf accused the ISF and PMF of destroying the second century CE tomb in Qaraqosh of religious notable Youhana al-Delimi and filed a lawsuit against ISF and PMF commanders assigned to the area.

In July the KRG used official funds to open a new church in the Ankawa neighborhood of Erbil for Christian IDPs on 1,000 square meters (10,800 square feet) of land donated by the KRG at a cost of 3.55 billion IQD ($3.9 million).

Advocacy groups and religious minority representatives reported continued emigration. Estimates ranged from 10 to 22 Christian families leaving the country, including the IKR, every day. Several Christian MPs said 20-22 Christian families were leaving the country daily. Some Yezidis and Christians formed their own protection militias. Some of these received support from Baghdad through the PMF, while others received assistance from KRG Peshmerga units. Some representatives of religious minority groups, such as Yezidi and Sabean-Mandean MPs, stated they must have a role in their own security and requested government support to create armed groups from their own communities; others asked to join regular law enforcement units.

As coalition forces advanced towards Mosul in June, ISIS destroyed with explosives the al-Nuri Mosque in Mosul, which had dominated the skyline for eight centuries. In July authorities announced UNESCO had started the first stage of the restoration of the ancient city of Nimrud. The city was liberated from ISIS in November 2016, and is associated with the Assyrian civilization dating from the 13th century B.C. Additionally, in November UNESCO hosted a meeting with the minister of culture in attendance where an agreement was reached over the reconstruction of the fourth century Mar Behnam Monastery and the Mar Mattai Monastery, founded more than 1,600 years ago.

Christians in the south and those in PMF-controlled towns on the Ninewa Plain and Sabean-Mandeans in Basrah, Dhi Qar, and Maysan Governorates reported they continued to avoid celebrating their religious festivals when they coincided with Islamic periods of mourning. There were continued reports that non-Muslim minorities felt pressured by the Muslim majority to adhere to certain Islamic practices, such as wearing the hijab or fasting during Ramadan. Non-Shia Muslims and non-Muslim women continued to feel societal pressure to wear hijabs and all-black clothing during Muharram, particularly during Ashura, to avoid harassment. 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 Sabean-Mandeans, said they opted to wear the hijab after continual harassment.

Following the liberation of the Ninewa Plain in early March, in mid-March the Ambassador, Special Presidential Envoy for the Global Coalition to Counter ISIS, and the Consul General in Erbil traveled to Bashiqa to visit destroyed churches, Mar Matta Monastery, and a Yezidi temple, and to meet with Yezidi religious leaders and activists and Christian and Yezidi families in several minority IDP camps. On August 23, the Ambassador, Special Presidential Envoy for the Global Coalition to Counter ISIS, and the Consul General in Erbil visited Teleskof , which was controlled by ISIS August 7-18, 2014, and whose population of 4,000 is almost 100 percent Chaldean Catholic. The delegation reiterated U.S. government support for Christians and other minorities. In December senior embassy officials visited Bashiqa and Sheikhan to meet with Christian and Yezidi leaders as well as Christian, Yezidi, and Shabak IDPs, while attending the opening ceremony of a restored church in Teleskof. The Erbil Consul General visited Yezidi leaders in Sinjar and al-Qosh. Members of the Bahai Faith met with embassy officials in November to urge U.S. government support and advocacy on their behalf to the Iraqi government to officially acknowledge the religion.

Turkey

In June a Mardin court denied appeals from the Syriac Mor Gabriel Foundation regarding the Treasury's ownership of expropriated Syriac community properties, including churches, graveyards, and village homes not registered to a Syriac foundation. Current law does not allow the Syriac community to transfer such community-owned (unregistered) properties from the Treasury to a religious foundation. The government offered to transfer the religious properties to the GDF and to give the Syriac community long-term leases, but the community rejected the proposal and was seeking a legal framework that would give it full ownership. A Syriac member of parliament in July called for the government to adopt policies to protect citizens of different faiths.

Related: The Case of the St. Gabriel Assyrian Monastery in Midyat, Turkey

Non-Sunni Muslims said they continued to face difficulty obtaining exemptions from compulsory religious instruction in primary and secondary schools and often had to choose from electives concerning different aspects of Sunni Islam, particularly if their identification cards listed their religion as "Muslim." The government said the compulsory instruction covered a range of world religions, but some religious groups including Alevis and members of the Syriac Orthodox community, stated the courses largely reflected Hanafi Sunni Islamic doctrine and contained negative and incorrect information about other religious groups. Some Alevis stated that schools taught Alevi students incorrect information about their own faith, which parents had to correct at home.

In Nusaybin, the Syriac community restored three of the seven Syriac churches damaged or destroyed over several years during government clashes with the PKK. Two of the seven churches were completely destroyed during the clashes; renovation work on the two others continued at year's end. In November Deputy Prime Minister Hakan Cavusoglu stated the government was working on a plan to transfer Syriac churches to the Syriac foundations in the Taskoy (Arbo) village of Mardin, noting the law would also facilitate the transfer of properties under the Mor Gabriel Foundation in Mardin. The churches in Taskoy, Mardin include Mor Dimet, Mor Salito, Meryem Ana, Mor Gevargis, Mor Batlo, Mor Simuni, and Mor Semun.

The Syriac Orthodox community continued to seek agreement with the Roman Catholic community to build a second church in Istanbul to accommodate its growing population. The Syriac Orthodox community to date had only one church in Istanbul to serve an estimated local population of 17,000 to 20,000. Because the land offered by the Istanbul municipality to the Syriac Church Foundation to build a second church previously belonged to the Roman Catholic Church, the Regional Board for the Preservation of Cultural Heritage required a written agreement between the two communities. The two communities had not reached agreement by year's end.

Iran

Since the law prohibits citizens from converting from Islam to another religion, the government only recognizes the Christianity of citizens who are Armenian or Assyrian Christians, since the presence of these groups in the country predates Islam, or of citizens who can prove they or their families were Christian prior to the 1979 revolution. The government also recognizes Sabean-Mandaeans as Christian, even though the Sabean-Mandaeans do not consider themselves as such. The government often considers Yarsanis as Shia Muslims practicing Sufism, but Yarsanis identify Yarsan as a distinct faith (known as Ahle Haq or Kakai). Yarsanis may also self-register as Shia in order to obtain government services. The government does not recognize evangelical Protestants as Christian.

On June 11, Judge Ahmadzadeh sentenced Victor Bet Tamraz, the former leader of Iran's Assyrian Pentecostal Church, along with Christian converts Hadi Asgari and Kavian Fallah Mohammadi, to 10 years in prison. The judge sentenced Christian convert Amin Afshar Naderi to 15 years in prison. MOIS agents allegedly arrested these converts for participating in Christian activities or rituals.

According to human rights organizations, Christian advocacy groups, and NGOs, the government continued to regulate Christian religious practices. Official reports and the media continued to characterize Christian house churches as "illegal networks" and "Zionist propaganda institutions." Christian community leaders stated that if the authorities found Armenian or Assyrian churches were baptizing new converts or preaching in Farsi, they closed the churches. Authorities also reportedly barred unregistered or unrecognized Christians from entering church premises, closed churches that allowed them to enter, and arrested Christian converts.

Christian advocacy groups stated the government, through pressure and church closures, had eliminated all but a handful of Farsi-language church services, thus restricting services almost entirely to the Armenian and Assyrian languages. Security officials monitored registered congregation centers to perform identity checks on worshippers to confirm non-Christians or converts did not participate in services. In response, many citizens who had converted to Protestantism or other Christian faiths reportedly practiced their religion in secret. Other unrecognized religious minorities such as Bahais and Yarsanis were also forced to gather in private homes to practice their faith in secret.

Sunni leaders reported authorities banned Sunni religious literature and teachings from religion courses in some public schools, even in predominantly Sunni areas. Other schools, notably in the Kurdish regions, included specialized Sunni religious courses for the students. Assyrian Christians reported the government continued to permit their community to use its own religious textbooks for use in schools, after the government reviewed and authorized their content. Unrecognized religious minorities, such as Yarsanis and Bahais, reported they were unable to legally produce or distribute religious literature. The UN special rapporteur's August 14 report said, "Adherents of recognized religions also continue to face severe restrictions and discrimination, and are reportedly prosecuted for peacefully manifesting their religious beliefs."

Syria

In March, according to multiple media outlets, the Democratic Union Party -- the political arm of People's Protection Units (YGP) -- shut down the headquarters of rival Kurdish and Assyrian parties and announced there would be no gatherings in al-Qamishli to celebrate the Nowruz festival, which had Zoroastrian religious origins.

Human rights groups reported unidentified militias in July killed Dr. Elias Kafarkis Isaq, an Assyrian Christian and former dean of Al-Furat University in Hasakah Province. He was the second Assyrian Christian from that university killed, and the Assyrian Observatory for Human Rights and press reports stated the crimes were part of a campaign targeting Christians.


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