Last Updated 28 October 2020

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).

It is estimated that between 64% and 69% of the population are Shia Muslims and 29-34% are Sunni Muslims.1 It is believed that around 250,000 Christians live in the country, fewer than 2,000 Baha’is.2

Grave Violations
Severe Discrimination
Systemic Discrimination

Constitution and government

The Constitution establishes Islam as the official state religion and the foundation of legislation. Article 2 of the Constitution states that “[n]o law may be enacted that contradicts the established provisions of Islam” and that “[n]o law may be enacted that contradicts the principles of democracy.”3

Article 2 further states that the Constitution guarantees the “Islamic identity of the majority of the Iraqi people” and the rights to freedom of religion and practice “of all individuals such as Christians, Yazisis, and Mandean Sabeans”, with no mentions of other religions or non-believers. The law specifically prohibits the practice of the Baha’i Faith, as well as Wahhabism.

Freedom of religion is guaranteed in Article 41, which reads “Iraqis are free in their commitment to their personal status according to their religions, sects, beliefs, or choices.” Individuals are “free in the practice of religious rites, including the Husseini rituals” and “management of religious endowments (waqf), their affairs, and their religious institutions”, according to Article 43.

There are 17 religious groups recognized and registered with the government, including Islam, Syriac Orthodox, Seventh-day Adventist, Yezidi and Jewish. The registered groups, with the exception of the Yezidis, have their own personal status courts where marriage, divorce and inheritance issues are addressed.4 There are no regulations on how to obtain legal recognition for new groups, except for in Iraqi Kurdistan. Religious groups can obtain recognition if they have a minimum of 150 followers, document the sources of financial support and demonstrate that the group is not anti-Islam.5

The government is required by the Constitution to maintain the sanctity of holy shrines and religious sites and to guarantee the practice of rituals at the sites.6

National identity cards issued before 2016 stated religious affiliation. Individuals are still asked about their faith when applying for national identity cards and the chip in the card still contains the data, but their religious affiliation is no longer stated on the identity card. Religions that may be listed are Christianity, Sabean-Mandean, Yezidi, Judaism and Islam.7

Nine out of 329 seats in the parliament are reserved for religious and ethnic minorities. There are for instance five seats reserved for Christian candidates and one each for Yezidi and Sabean-Mandean.8


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.9

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. 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. Christian religious education is offered in at least 255 public schools in areas with higher concentrations of Christians.10

Christians and Yezidis have reported on the discrimination in the education system, the lack of minority input on the curricula and the fact that not all schools had incorporated lessons of religious tolerance, as instructed by the Ministry of Education in 2015.11

In Iraqi Kurdistan, the Ministry of Education funds religious instructions in schools for Muslims and Christian students.12

In 2019, thousands of children were prevented from enrolling in public schools because a family member was thought to be affiliated with ISIS.13

It is reported that the exploitation of children, for instance through forced begging and recruitment of child soldiers by some militias, is a recurrent problem.14

Family, community and society

Religious discrimination

Followers of the Baha’i faith have been persecuted for many years and the practice of the faith has been prohibited by law 105 of 1970 and prescribes 10 years’ imprisonment for practicing the religion, but usually net enforced. The regional government in Kurdistan recognizes Baha’is and the federal prohibition is not enforced in the region. 15 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.16

There are reports of harassment and physical abuse of Yezidis and Christians by members of the Popular Mobilization Forces, which is a state-sponsored organization, mostly consisting of Shia militias, formed to combat ISIS.17

ISIS was a perpetrator of a genocide of Yezidis. The attacks against the Yezidi community entailed mass killings, forced conversion, kidnapping and the sexual enslavement of women and girls. At least 3,000 Yezidi women and children remain in captivity or are missing.18

Several political leaders supported opening up for religious pluralism after ISIS was defeated. Sunnis living in areas liberated from ISIS have been able to practice their religions freely since.19 However, Sunni Muslims report that they face discrimination in public sector employment as a result of “de-Baathification”, which is described as a process originally intended to target loyalties of Saddam Hussein’s regime which favored Sunnis. Sunnis say the de-Baathification provisions are used to render them ineligible for government jobs and government contracts.20

While the law does not prohibit conversion from Islam to another faith, there are no systems in place recognizing a change in one’s belief. However, open conversions are reported to be rare as it can lead to ostracism.21

Atheism is very rare in Iraq, but there are reports saying that an increasing number of people are non-believers. According to a poll from 2011, 67% professed a belief, 21% stated they probably believed, 4% said they probably didn’t believe in God, and 7% stated they did not believe in a god. Atheism is not prohibited by law, but atheists have been prosecuted for blasphemy and other related chargers. There is a low social tolerance of atheism which is why many atheists keep their views secret.22

While importing and distributing alcohol is legal for non-Muslims, it is reported that restaurants and liquor stores face harassment and attacks.23 Muslims are banned by law to consume alcohol and are often denied permits allowing them to carry and sell alcohol.24

Family law

Citizens have, according to the Constitution, the right to choose between a civil or religious court in matters of personal status, like marriage, divorce, inheritance and custody. Should a religious court be chosen, and one of the parties to the dispute is from an unrecognized faith, Islamic law will apply. If the same dispute were taken to a civil court, the court is required to consult the religious authority of a non-Muslim party for its opinion and use it as the basis of its judgement.  In Iraqi Kurdistan, there are separate courts used for personal disputes between members of the same religion, while the civil status courts handle all other cases.25

The law allows non-Muslim women identified as such in official documents to marry Muslim men, however, Muslim women cannot marry non-Muslims.26

Discrimination against women and minorities

About one in four women between the ages 20 to 24 were married by the age of 18 and forced marriages are common. The laws regulating marriage and divorce favor men over women. Gender-based violence is a widespread problem, but rarely prosecuted.27 According to Human Rights watch, a husband can legally punish his wife “within the limits prescribed by law or custom” and the law provides for mitigated sentences for various acts, including so-called “honor killings” or extramarital acts.28

Rapists can avoid prosecution if they marry their victims, and spousal rape is not prohibited by law. Honor-killings are rarely punished and the law also opens up for reduced sentences for those convicted for honor-killings.29

Non-Muslim women have reported that they feel pressured to wear a hijab during Ramadan and other Muslim holidays. Others are harassed for wearing western clothes or not adhering to strict Islamic norms.30

While a prohibition on same-sex sexual relations is not codified, there are several vague provisions that can be used to target the LGBTQI+ individuals. According to Human Rights Watch, there are no cases documenting such prosecution.31

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:

“Any person who attacks the creed of a religious minority or pours scorn on its religious practices.

“(5) Anyone who publicly insults a symbol or person who constitutes an object of sanctification, glorification, and respect to a religious community.”32

While there are blasphemy laws on the book, reports indicate the law is rarely enforced.33

Freedom of expression

A report by Human Rights Watch states that, recently, there has been a spike in violations of the right to freedom of expression in Iraq, including the Kurdish region. The authorities have reportedly used vague laws to charge individuals expressing dislike or criticism of the authorities.34

Press freedom

Freedom of media is guaranteed by the Iraqi Constitution, but it is restricted in practice by the threat of violence. The threats against journalists have increased since the anti-government protests began in October 2019. According to Reporters Without Borders, the coverage of religious and political leaders seen as untouchable, can lead to prosecution or media bans for disrespecting “national or religious symbols.”35

In April 2020, the news agency Reuters’ licence to work in Iraq was suspended after reporting on the numbers of COVID-19 cases in the country. The licence was reinstated again later that month.36

2019 Government crackdown on protesters

In early October 2019, violent protests erupted in Iraq as citizens took to the streets demonstrating against corruption, high unemployment, dire public service and foreign interference.37 The demonstrators, who reportedly set fire to public buildings and political party headquarters, were met by anti-riot police and security forces used excessive lethal force to end the protests.38; Dozens of people were beaten and arrested, and at least 500 were killed and 19,000 injured during the violent crackdown, including members of the security forces.39 The government also periodically shut down the internet in several regions and restricted the access to social media channels.40 According to Human Rights Watch, the protest movement came to an end as a consequence of the outbreak of COVID-19 and the government’s measures to minimize the spread of the virus.41

Highlighted cases

In 2014, 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

In September 2014, ISIS terrorists publicly executed a leading female lawyer and human rights activist. 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


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