Last Updated 12 November 2019

Iraq is surrounded by Saudi-Arabia, Jordan, Syria, Turkey, Iran and Kuwait, and has been at the centre and conflux of events not just in the region but worldwide for decades. Iraq is a member of the League of Arab States (LAS), as well as the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC).

Note: While terror group ISIS controlled several large areas within Iraq, this report applied several boundary conditions at the highest severity level, including for example “Complete tyranny precludes all freedoms of expression and thought, religion or belief”. With ISIS in retreat and routed from territorial control, these conditions have been removed in 2018.

Grave Violations
Severe Discrimination

Constitution and government

The constitution establishes God’s “right” over the people and government, and Article 2 emphasizes Islam as a “foundation source of legislation”. No law may be enacted contradicting the “established provisions of Islam.”

The constitution offers only partial and selective protection for freedom of religion, guaranteeing freedom of belief and practice for Muslims, Christians, Yezidis, and Sabean-Mandeans, but not for followers of other religions or atheists. The law specifically prohibits the practice of the Baha’i Faith, as well as Wahhabism.

Under the Saddam Hussein regime some religious minorities were favoured in a variety of ways, and the treatment continues to have repercussions. Christians and Yazidis were allowed to trade in alcohol, also the Sunni minority faced a flavoured treatment under Saddam Hussein, such that all these minorities became a target in the violent or strict developing Islamic society. Many of them have fled as exiles to Western Europe or United States, because they don’t see a future for themselves in Iraq anymore.


In June 2014, Sunni Jihadists declared the “Islamic State of Iraq and Syria” (ISIS). The forerunner group arose in 1999 and participated in military conflict against US-led forces. The militants eventually carved out significant territory in Iraq, and in 2015 drew increasing numbers of followers internationally. They were known for violent executions, sexual slavery, and the persecution of religious minorities, as well as of “apostates” and “blasphemers”, those they accused of homosexuality, and anyone who offered any opposition to their hegemony. They were largely routed by December 2017, with areas under their influence returning to government control.

Education and children’s rights

Islamic religious instruction in mandatory in public schools for “Muslim” students, at least in primary and secondary schools (with the exception of Iraqi Kurdistan). Non-Muslim students are technically not obliged to participate, however there are continued reports of educational discrimination from religious minorities, and tight social stigmas around apostasy or conversion probably hamper free exercise of any opt-out. Students report being pressured into conforming to religious instruction. It is unclear how an attempt to opt-out by a specifically non-religious student would be handled.

When it had assumed control, the terror group ISIS announced a new education regime in Mosul, rejecting all arts, music, history and courses about Christianity from the curriculum of public schools. Many parents decided to take children’s education in their own hands and to teach their children in homeschooling. With the retreat of ISIS the school system has returned to normal.
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Family, community and society

Religious persecutions

According to the US International Religious Freedom Report, in 2017:

“Community leaders continued to state that forced conversion was the de facto result of the national identity card law, mandating the listing of children with only one Muslim parent as Muslim, even if that child was born as a result of rape. Representatives of minority religious communities continued to report that while the central government did not generally interfere with religious observances, and even provided security for places of worship and other religious sites, including churches, mosques, shrines, and religious pilgrimage sites and routes, minority groups continued to face harassment, including sexual assault, and restrictions from local authorities in some regions. Because religion, politics, and ethnicity were often closely linked, it was difficult to categorize many incidents as being solely based on religious identity.”

Followers of the Baha’i faith has been persecuted for many years. Since 1970, Baha’is have been denied citizenship or other travel documents, such that it has not been possible for them to leave the country.

The almost complete emigration of the Jewish minority has brought to an end 2600 years of Jewish history in Iraq. Since 2003 only 10 Jews live in Baghdad and few families in Kurdistan.

2015 religious conversion law

In November 2015, a new law was enacted which directly discriminates against non-Muslim religion or belief minorities by obliging children to be registered as belonging to the religion of converting parents, but only if the parent converted to Islam, and also under marital laws which are already sexually and religiously discriminatory. The National Card Law law, Article 26, paragraph 2, says “children shall follow the religion of the converted parent to Islam”, which would in effect force non-Muslim children to become Muslims if the male parent converts to Islam or if the children’s non-Muslim mother marries a Muslim man. Non-Muslim step-children of a Muslim father would be forced to become Muslims. The law was protested vehemently by religious minorities in and out of parliament.

“Even if parents basically ignore the law and raise their child in their faith, upon turning 18 these young adults will have to deal with the fact that their religion is officially listed as Islam. If they attempt to change that listing, they will be accused of apostasy and be subject to persecution or worse.”

However, it was reported in December 2015 that the new law may repealed, with some parliamentarians citing the need to restore “unity”. Kadhim al-Shammari, MP from the National Coalition, struck a positive note, saying, “We hope it culminates with the amending the article once and for all, including giving full freedom for all groups in the selection of the religion that suits them according to the principle of no compulsion in religion.”

Everyday discrimination

Non-Muslims report systematic discrimination, which are especially related to employment opportunities.  Iraqi women are often objects of sexual and social discrimination in workplaces. It took a long time for women in Iraq to obtain the rights to work, but a 2013 report made by the Central Bureau of Statistics indicated that a high number of high educated women didn’t enter the labor market:

Freedom of expression, advocacy of humanist values

Blasphemy law

Iraq’s penal code prohibits “insult” to religious rituals, symbols or sacred persons and objects.

Under Article 372 of the penal code:

“The following persons are punishable by a period of imprisonment not exceeding 3 years or by a fine not exceeding 300 dinars:

Anyone who publicly abuses the beliefs of any religious community, or insults any of its rituals…

Anyone who publicly insults a symbol or person who constitutes an object of sanctification, glorification, and respect to a religious community.”

Advocating secularism

It is not illegal to advocate secularism as such, however secularist politicians and others face an uphill battle, with ‘secularism’ tainted by association with Saddam Hussein, and largely misunderstood.

Restricted religious identities

National Identity cards record the ‘Religion’ of the card holder, but only Christian, Sabean-Mandean, Yezidi, and Muslim are valid options. Regardless of actual religion or belief, anyone wanting a card must choose one of these designation. Anyone without a card cannot register a marriage, enroll their children in public school, acquire passports, or obtain some government services

Non-religious identity

While there does not appear to be an explicit law corresponding to apostasy, restrictions on non-religious identity, exclusion from ‘religious freedom’, discrimination in family law, and social stigma against atheism, make coming out as non-religious extremely difficult. It is also possible that overt declarations of apostasy may be treated as blasphemous or seditious.

Being openly atheist is risky and rare, making estimates of irreligiosity extremely hard to make. The now defunct Kurdish news agency, AKnews, released a poll in 2011 on Iraqi belief in God. The answers surprised many Iraqis, with 67% professing belief, 21% probably believing, 4% saying they probably didn’t believe in God, and 7% who didn’t.

“Apostates” report finding it difficult to speak out, facing accusations or insinuations of moral corruption or western influence. Often they are only able to identify as non-religious online or with close intellectual friends.

Between around 2014 and 2017, in areas controlled by the terrorist militia ISIS the crime of “apostasy” had been punishable by summary execution at the hands of the militants.

Press freedom

Freedom of media is guaranteed by the Iraqi constitution but it is restricted in practice by the threat of violence. Many journalists received threats and a number of them were killed in 2013 and after proclamation of Islamic State.

2019 Government crackdown on protesters

In early October 2019, violent protests erupted in Iraq with people initially demanding jobs and services before starting to call for “the fall of the regime”. The demonstrators, who also burnt public buildings and political party headquarters, were met by anti-riot police and security forces which were told by the government to use “all necessary measures” to end the protests. Dozens of people were beaten and arrested since the protests began, while more than 200 have been killed so far, including members of the security forces and ministry members.

Highlighted cases

A 15-year old atheist Ahmad Sherwan was imprisoned in solitary confinement, tortured by electric shock, and threatened with murder, after a discussion in which he told his father that he no longer believed in God, after undertaking “extracurricular” reading. His father then reported him to the police who held and tortured him. He was released after 13 days.

ISIS terrorists publicly executed a leading female lawyer and human rights activist in September, 2014. Samira Salih al-Nuaimi lived in Mosul. She criticized ISIS online in Facebook posts and shortly afterwards she was seized from her home and tried by an ad hoc Sharia court for apostasy. She was finally sentenced to public execution.

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