Christians Struggle to be Counted in Iraq’s Democratic Process
By Keely Jahns
Published On January 17, 2022
Iraq is home to the oldest continuously practicing body of Christians in the world. In 1990, there were estimated to be 1.5 million, 3% of the total Iraqi population. Since then, the population has been decimated by war and sectarian violence, with generous estimates placing the number of Christians left in Iraq at around 500,000.
These Iraqis want to be a part of the democratic process, and want political representation in their home country. However, in the aftermath of October’s contested election, it is clear that the nation’s political system still hails to calls of sectarianism by the majority. This poses a challenge to integration and the democratic process.
Cardinal Louis Raphael Sako, the patriarch of the Chaldean Catholic Church, has called out inequality for the members of his community and other Christian communities in Iraq. He criticized the US-introduced “quota system,” in response to the contested October 2021 election.
Though the sectarian quota system or muhasasa was introduced by the US after it occupied the Middle Eastern nation in 2003, its foundations were laid out by Iraqi opposition at the beginning of the 1990s.
Under the muhasasa system, only nine of the 329 seats in the Council of Representatives in the country of 40.2 million people are allocated to minorities. Seats for Christian minorities are allotted to the provinces of Baghdad, Nineveh, Erbil, and Duhock. And together, the allowance of Christians in parliament is still only five seats, one for each province. In Kurdistan, which has a different system, there are five seats designated for Christians in their regional parliament.
Iraq held a snap election on October 10th, 2022, in response to anti-government protesters. Iraq’s independent election commission announced the final results of the October polls on Nov. 30 following weeks of recounting and allegations by the losing parties.
The alliance led by Shia leader Muqtada al-Sadr won the election. Five seats changed as a result of recounting and the political bloc, the Sadrist Movement, led by al-Sadr, a prominent Shia cleric, won a total of 73 out of the 329 seats. The conservative Islamic Sadrist Movement calls to govern Iraq using Islamic law and traditional tribal customs.
According to Cardinal Sako, the main obstacle to the democratic process is the sectarian mentality, which is reflected in the quota system under which electoral seats are divided on an ethno-religious basis in parliament as well as in public policy and government work.
The sectarianism feeds “corruption, poverty, unemployment and illiteracy,” Cardinal Sako said in a recent message.
There are around 14 different sects of Christianity within Iraq, and many are considered some of the oldest bodies of practicing Christians in the world, with roots dating back to the evangelism of the Apostle Thomas. The largest and oldest sects exist on the Nineveh Plain, and include the Assyrian Orthodox Church, Syriac Orthodox and Chaldean Catholic church.
When ISIS invaded the Nineveh Plain in 2014, the insurgents offered Christians few choices: convert, pay Jizyah (an Islamic tax), leave, or die. Most opted to flee their homeland and settle elsewhere, hoping to find better opportunities in lands free of violence. Most left with only the clothes on their backs and a hope in their hearts that they could escape sectarian violence for good. Even that was hard to come by – with the Middle East becoming an increasingly hostile place for Christians of all sects.
The Olive Tree Center in Madaba, Jordan, has been a safe haven for Iraqi refugees since its inception. The center offers programs to help heal the trauma that many of these resilient people have experienced due to sectarian violence, and continues to stand as a beacon of hope to refugees in Madaba, whatever the circumstances.
American FRRME is committed to long term self-sustaining programs and opportunities to help empower Iraqi refugees and Internally Displaced Persons. Donations to American FRRME toward programs that help these families are critical for their survival.