US criticizes PMF, Iran, Saudi Arabia for abrogating religious freedoms

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken speaks to reporters in Washington. (Photo: AFP/Mandel Mgan)
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken speaks to reporters in Washington. (Photo: AFP/Mandel Mgan)

WASHINGTON DC (Kurdistan 24) - On Wednesday, the State Department released its report on International Religious Freedom (IRF), an annual review, mandated by the US Congress.

Religious freedom was an important value for the Trump administration, and that remains so for the Biden administration. As Secretary of State Antony Blinken affirmed in introducing the report, “Religious freedom is a human right” which “goes to the heart of what it means to be human—to think freely, to follow our conscience, to change our beliefs if our hearts and minds lead us to do so, to express those beliefs in public and in private.”

Blinken, and the report itself, were sharply critical of several actors in the Middle East for their abrogation of religious freedoms and their repression of religious minorities. That includes Iran, and the militias it backs in Iraq, as well as Saudi Arabia.

Northern Iraq: Continuing Persecution by Shia Militias, PKK

Christians have been among Iraq’s most persecuted minorities in recent times. According to the IRG report, before 2003, there were some 800,00 to 1.4 million Christians living in Iraq. Today, they number less than 250,000.

The IRF report repeatedly describes the abuses committed against Christians by Iranian-backed militias, elements of the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), originally mobilized to fight ISIS.

Two units, in particular, stand out, both of which are described in the report as “larger, Iran-aligned militias.” One such militia is the 30th Brigade, which consists of Shabaks, an ethnic, largely Shi’a, group in northern Iraq, and the other is the 50th “Babylon” Brigade.

The leaders of each of them—Waad Qado, a Shabak, who heads the 30th Brigade and Rayan al-Kildani, a Christian, who heads the 50th Brigade have been sanctioned by the US for human rights abuses.

A major abuse carried out by the militias is population transfers. According to the report, they are involved “in making demographic changes” (which are likely related to Iran’s effort to build a “land bridge” to the Mediterranean.) The report charges that both militias are involved in “facilitating and giving permission to Arab and Shabak Shia to move into Christian areas in the Nineveh Plain.”

At the same time, Christians, who formerly lived in such areas, “refused to return” to their homes, “because they feared these forces,” it explains.

In Bartella, a traditionally Christian city, with a Shabak minority, the 30th Brigade harasses Christians, while members of the Christian community in Bartella “said the brigade’s actions threatened their way of life and could change the area’s demographics.”

The 30th Brigade has also plastered Bartella with posters of Iranian and Iraqi militia figures. That includes Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and Qasim Soleimani, head of the Qods Force of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), until his assassination in January 2020; as well as militia leaders, like Qais al-Khazali, head of Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq (AAH), which the US has designated a terrorist group.

In 2019, the Iraqi government ordered the 30th Brigade to withdraw from Bartella. but it has ignored the order. As a recent Pentagon report noted, even the Iranian-backed militias are formally under Baghdad’s control and it actually pays their salaries, but, in reality, they operate independently of the Iraqi government.

The report also details the security challenges posed by the Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK), which both the US and European Union have designated a terrorist organization. Although the PKK commits serious abuses against the Yezidis—against whom ISIS launched a genocidal assault in 2014—the PKK, nonetheless, has established some significant support among them. In short, it has assumed the position of both the persecutor and oppressor of Yezidis, reflecting divisions among the Yezidis themselves, with the pro-PKK group being the better armed.

Thus, as Yezidis in Sinjar (Shingal) have complained, the PKK has “kidnapped hundreds of Yezidi children, with the aim of recruiting them in the years since ISIS was defeated in Sinjar in 2015,” and “70 children were still missing,” the report explains.

The PKK has also taken control of local schools and turned them into “military camps and indoctrination centers,” the report states.

Still, the PKK has organized local Yezidis and Christians into the Sinjar Resistance Units (YBS) and it, along with the Shia militias, rejected the agreement reached last October between the federal government and KRG to reestablish federal control in Sinjar.

Read More: KRG and Baghdad reach administrative, security agreement on Sinjar

Consequently, the agreement has not been implemented.

The Kuristan Region: More Religious Tolerance than rest of Iraq

As in previous International Religious Freedom reports, the Kurdistan Region comes across as demonstrating a high degree of religious tolerance, especially in comparison to its neighbors, including Iraq’s federal government.

Read More: Amb. Sam Brownback hails Kurds’ religious tolerance

Thus, as the IRF report explains, “Societal violence perpetrated by sectarian armed groups, mainly pro-Iran Shia militias, continued, although there were not reports of religiously based violence in the IKR [Iraqi Kurdistan Region.]”

Iraqi law, while explicitly allowing religious practice for Christians, Yezidis and Sabean-Mandeans, “prohibits the practice of the Baha’i Faith” (as does Iran.) However, the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) “does not enforce the federal ban on the Baha’i Faith and recognizes it as a religion.”

“Christian and Yezidi leaders outside the IKR reported continued discrimination in education and the lack of religious minority input on school curricula and language of instruction,” it said.

“Outside the IKR, [Iraqi] law does not provide a mechanism for a new religious group to obtain legal recognition,” the report explains, but in the Kurdistan Region there is a specific procedure for doing so.

The report also notes that northern Iraq, particularly the Kurdistan Region, hosts the largest number of Internally Displaced Persons [IDPs] who have fled the several conflicts within Iraq. There are some 1.2 million IDPs (down from 1.5 million at the end of 2019), and the majority—700,000—live in the Kurdistan Region.

Iran and Saudi Arabia

When he introduced the report, Blinken cited Iran and Saudi Arabia as particularly egregious examples of countries that violate religious freedom.

“Iran continues to intimidate, harass, and arrest members of minority faith groups, including Baha’i, Christians, Jews, Zoroastrians, Sunni and Sufi Muslims,” Blinken stated.

On December 16, as the report notes, “the UN General Assembly approved a resolution on the situation of human rights” in Iran. It “expressed concern about ‘ongoing severe limitations and increasing restrictions on the right to freedom of thought, conscience, religion or belief, restrictions on the establishment of places of worship, undue restrictions on burials carried out in accordance with religious tenets, attacks against places of worship and burial, and other human rights violations.’”

That included “harassment, intimidation, persecution, arbitrary arrests and detention, and incitement to hatred that leads to violence against persons belonging to recognized and unrecognized religious minorities, including Christians, Gonabadi dervishes, Jews, Sufi Muslims, Sunni Muslims, Yarsanis, Zoroastrians and members of the Baha’i faith,” who have been “subjected to mass arrests and lengthy prison sentences.”

Blinken also stated, “Saudi Arabia remains the only country in the world without a Christian church, though there are more than a million Christians living in Saudi Arabia.

And Blinken noted the imprisonment—and physical flogging—of a prominent, liberal Saudi dissident.

“Authorities continue to jail human rights activists like Raif Badawi, who was sentenced in 2014 to a decade in prison and a thousand lashes for speaking about his beliefs,” Blinken stated.

Editing by John J. Catherine