Former Iraqi adviser to Post: Religious extremism is top threat to minorities

satellite.jpgBy BRENDA GAZZAR
Iraqis gather inside damaged St. Matthew Church in Baghdad following 2004 car bomb attack.
Photo: AP
Religious extremism is the biggest threat facing minorities in Iraq today and could ultimately see the war-torn country emptied of these populations, a former adviser to Iraqi President Jalal Talabani told The Jerusalem Post on Tuesday.

Christians are believed to have emigrated from Iraq since the fall of Saddam Hussein and Iraq was now seeing a mass migration of the Yazidi religious minority to Europe, said Mirzan Hassan Dinnayi, a Kurdish Yazidi who was Talabani’s adviser on minorities in the first half of 2005, and now lives in Germany.

Just last month, large numbers of Christians were driven out of Mosul in northern Iraq and other cities, he said.

“The biggest danger for them is Islamic religious extremism in Iraq and the ‘Islamization’ of the street – this is what scares religious minority communities,” Dinnayi said in an interview, before giving a lecture at the Hebrew University’s Harry S. Truman Center for the Advancement of Peace.

The danger “is the killing based on [religious] identity,” he said.

The worst-case scenario, he said, was “that the displacement that is happening will empty Iraq of its minority communities.”

Other religious minorities in the country include the Mandaeans, the Shabaks and a small number of Jews. Roughly 60% of Iraqis are Shi’ites, and 34% are Sunnis.

The Yazidis, for example, who make up an estimated 2.5% of Iraq’s population and practice one of the most ancient religions in the Middle East, were targeted in three large-scale attacks in 2007.

On February 15, 2007, in the Yazidi city of Shaikhan, “hundreds of radical Muslims” destroyed and burned the Yazidi temple, cultural centers, cars and shops, shot aimlessly at houses and citizens and demanded that the Yazidi people leave the area and emigrate, Dinnayi said in his lecture.

The next day, they beheaded a Yazidi mother of four children.

On April 22, 2007, 24 Yazidi workers were killed in Mosul by a group of gunmen. The attackers were aided by the police, whose headquarters ordered all checkpoints to move away from the area.

The next day, an intensifying anti-Yazidi movement caused 820 students to leave their faculties at the University of Mosul, where all Yazidi families have now left.

And in August 2007, extremists attacked in the Sinjar district, killing 311 people, wounding 800 and leaving 70 missing.

Not only was there a lack of laws to protect these minorities, Dinnayi said, there are few mechanisms to implement the laws that did exist.

While the Iraqi constitution protects the rights of all its citizens, “nothing from the constitution until now has been implemented regarding minorities,” he said.

One solution was “international solidarity” for all minorities, he said. Another would be the stabilization of the security situation in Iraq and an eventual transition to a democratic state and “a state of laws.”

In addition, one Kurdish official in northern Iraq has proposed establishing a “safe zone” in the Nineveh Plain for the Christian minority. The autonomous region, where Assyrian would be the official language, would have legislative and executive authorities.

However, Dinnayi said, there were many questions about the feasibility and even the wisdom of such a move.

“If this ‘Islamization’ of the street and radicalization in Iraq becomes stronger,” something he expects, “which written law can protect this small island in an ocean of Islamic radicalism?”

Meanwhile, most of the minority members who suffered from “Arabization” measures imposed by Saddam Hussein’s regime in northern Iraq, including displacement, forced relocation and confiscation of property, had still not been compensated, said attorney Said Pirmurat, a specialist in Iraqi criminal law who also lectured at the Truman Center on Tuesday.

While a solution to these policies was sought with the adoption of Article 140 of the Constitution of 2005, the measures have not been implemented.

In addition, Article 58 of the Iraqi Transitional Administrative Law of 2004 says that all confiscated lands must be returned to their owners or be compensated for, “but the Iraqi government has ignored this article,” said Pirmurat, a Yazidi who also lives in Germany.

Both Yazidis and Jews had suffered from measures instituted by Saddam’s regime, such as sequestration of property and displacement and destruction of villages. Yazidis in particular had suffered because they were both Kurds and members of a religious minority, he said.

One study from the University of Hanover in Germany estimated that some $18 billion worth of property was confiscated from the Jews, Pirmurat said.