Religious minorities find protection, support in southern Iraq

Minority populations are suffering in areas under the control of militants in northern and western Iraq, where their temples have been destroyed and they are forbidden to build new ones. 

Meanwhile, these groups are enjoying freedom and safety in the predominantly Shiite southern areas, where the Iraqi government sponsors and supervises construction and renovation projects and allocates large sums to protect the holy places of minority groups.

The Iraqi Cabinet's Office of Christian, Yazidi and Sabean Endowments oversees several temple construction and renovation projects, including the construction of the administrative building of the Church of Saint Mari, the Apostle of the Assyrian Church of the East. 

This building has been allocated 250 million dinars ($214,000), and 90% of the project has been completed, the office's head Raad Kajaji said Oct. 1. One such project, a Sabean "mandi," was completed Sept. 20 in the predominantly Shiite city of Diwaniyah, south of Baghdad. Ayham Nasser, a Sabean Iraqi from Diwaniyah, told Al-Monitor, 

“The community members chose the Tigris River as the project’s location due to a link between their beliefs and the water.” He said that the mandi will begin operating in early 2017, adding, “The local government in Diwaniyah, in collaboration with the Ministry of Construction, has greatly helped facilitate the construction of the mandi.” Nasser said, "Many Muslims living nearby are proud of this achievement, which they see as a symbol of religious tolerance at a time when religious extremism is widely spread across the region." 

In the city of Hillah, located to the south of Baghdad, Christians celebrate Christmas every year in the Church of the Virgin Mary, the only church in the city, and they attend mass throughout the year. Suhaila Abbas, a member of the Babil Provincial Council, told Al-Monitor, “The provincial council is determined to support minorities in the province and work on the renovation and expansion of places of worship.” 

She stressed, “The Hillah church will be restored as soon as the financial crisis calms.” Christian Saeb Louay confirmed to Al-Monitor, “Christians in Hillah live in peace, have not faced any attacks and do not even need armed factions to protect them.” 

Louay went on, “Religious and sectarian diversity in Babylon intermingles cultures and contributes to building a world free of hatred,” and added, “The Church of the Virgin Mary, which was built in 1987 by the engineer Elias Boutros, needs reconstruction and renovation, and the local government has promised to do it.” 

In the city of Nasiriyah in southern Iraq, head of the Mandaean community Samer Naeem Handal told Al-Monitor, “Ever since the restoration in 2014 of the Sabean mandi in Nasiriyah, which is located on Habboubi Street and whose establishment was supervised by the Housing Ministry in 2011, … there has been a clear harmony between the Muslim majority and the Sabean minority, which freely practices its rituals and even enjoys cooperation from Muslims in the city.” 

The facilities, he said, are enormous and modern and include a conference hall. He added, “There is a common understanding of the social mores and religious traditions. A good example is that Christian and Sabean women willingly wear a veil in Muslim communities, especially during religious occasions. Also, Muslim women attend Christian and Sabean religious ceremonies.” 

Basra Governor Majed Nasraoui promised on March 16, 2016, to members of the Sabean sect that their religious celebration in the coming year would be held in the land allocated to them for the establishment of a mandi, and that the local government would contribute to its construction. 

Writer and civil activist Ali Abu Iraq told Al-Monitor over the phone that he was unsurprised by the interest in providing places of worship for minority groups. He said, “Flexibility and tolerance are among the most important characteristics of the Basra community. We see members of minority groups taking part in social and religious events, as Christians, Sabeans and other minorities peacefully coexist with the Basra community.” 

Harith al-Harthy, a parliamentarian for the Reform Front, told Al-Monitor, “The construction of places of worship for minorities is a right granted by the constitution, which guarantees in Article 2.2 the full religious rights of all individuals to freedom of religious belief and practice such as Christians, Yazidis and Sabean Mandaeans.” 

He went on, “According to Article 39, Iraqis are free to practice their religions, sects, beliefs or choices, and Article 41 says that the followers of all religions and sects are free in the practice of religious rites and management of their endowments and affairs.” This is the article on which the Office of Christian, Yazidi and Sabean Endowments has been established to sponsor the construction of places of worship. 

In the province of Maysan, the Om al-Ahzan ("Mother of Sorrows") Church, founded in 1880, is considered one of the oldest churches in the southern region. It was renovated in the 1990s. Jalal Daniel, the head of the Christian community in Maysan, confirmed to Al-Monitor, “They were promised that the church would be reconstructed and renovated by the local government as soon as the financial crisis experienced by the local and central government quiets.” 

Amar Francis, a Christian resident of Wasit, told the press Dec. 25 in Kut, north of Baghdad, “The provincial council adopted a plan to allocate a plot of land for the building of a church after the necessary approval was obtained upon the initiative of the human rights organization.” 

Cleric Ali al-Tai told Al-Monitor that this tolerance “stems from the spread of moderate Islam in those areas, where takfiri thoughts subside.” Mutual respect for religious beliefs as well as the reconstruction of old houses of worship and building of new ones have turned central and southern Iraq into exemplary areas in spreading the spirit of tolerance, cooperation and freedom across Iraq. 

Wassim Bassem is an Iraqi journalist who tracks social phenomena in investigations and reports for various media outlets, including Al-Esbuyia, Bab Nour and Elaph.
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