Islam is the official religion of Iraq, and the majority of the population is Muslim (97%). There are also small communities of Christians, Yazidis and Mandeans. Religion is deeply intertwined with daily life, government and politics of Iraq. However, the numbers of non-Muslim minority groups have declined dramatically in recent decades as the country has been riddled with sectarian tensions and conflict. This is reflected in the statistics of religious affiliations of Iraqi refugees in English-speaking countries; the majority of those who have fled and been resettled belong to minority religions in Iraq. For example, the 2011 Australian Census recorded that the majority of Iraq-born people living in Australia identified as Catholic Christians (35.7%), 32% identified as Muslim and 11.9% identified as Assyrian Apostolic Christians. A further 20.4% affiliated with some other faith and 1.6% claimed to be non-religious.
Recognition and Recognition
The Iraqi constitution claims to recognise and protect the practice of the Muslim, Christian, Yazidi and Sabaean-Mandaean faiths. The public record does not reveal which religious denomination a person belongs to, or whether they are Sunni or Shi’a. However, to attain a national identity card, citizens are required to self-identify/register with one of these religions.1 Without an identity card, Iraqis cannot obtain a passport, register marriages or access public education and some other civil services. For example, the Iraqi constitution explicitly prohibits the practice of the Bahá'í faith, meaning any person who self-identifies as Bahá'í is unable to gain proper civilian status. As such, people belonging to an unrecognised minority faith often have to self-identify as Muslim. Unfortunately, even in the cases where religious minorities have constitutional recognition, this official status has not been able to protect many from intimidation and prosecution, such as kidnapping and destruction of property.
Islam in Iraq
Iraq has been a Muslim-majority country since the time period surrounding the Prophet Muhammad's death. As such, the cultural and national identity of the country is deeply shaped by the religion. Faith in Islam is expressed on a daily basis in Iraq, through dress, dietary codes, regular prayers and language. For example, an Iraqi man who is dedicated to Islam in politics and society may grow their beard quite long to indicate their religious association. Reverence to Allah is also very evident in the way many people speak; it is common to slip praise into casual conversation.
The Iraqi Muslim population is particularly complex as it has large populations of followers from both the Sunni and Shi’a sect. It is estimated that 55-60% of the population is Shi’a whilst roughly 40% are Sunni Muslims. Indeed, Iraq is the only Arab state in which Shi’a Muslims constitute the majority. However, many Sunnis dispute their minority status, and do not trust religious estimates. Most Shi’a Muslims are ethnically Arab, but there are some Turkomen and Kurdish Shi’a Muslims as well. Of the Sunni Muslim population, it is estimated 60% Arabs, 37.5% are Kurds, and 2.5% are Turkomen.2
Iraq has struggled with sectarian tensions between its Sunni and Shi’a populations. Sunnis and Shi’as differ theologically in that they hold different beliefs over who should have taken power after the Prophet Muhammad's death. However, today the contemporary differences generally centre around government representation and entitlement to political power in Iraq. The Sunni-Shi’a relationship deteriorated further during the US-led invasion of Iraq and subsequent intervention into the country’s politics. ISIS has harnessed the disputes between Sunnis and Shi’as to further their campaign. As a Sunni fundamentalist group, they have been able to mobilise support against the largely Shi’a Iraqi military framing the Shi’ites as the source of the Sunni people’s grievances.
Iraq has been home to Christian communities for thousands of years. Before Islam became the dominant religion (around 634 C.E.), Iraq was a majority Christian land. There are four main Christian church bodies: the Chaldeans (Chaldean Catholic Christians), Assyrians (Assyrian Church of the East) or Nestorians (Ancient Apostolic Church of the East), the West Syriac or Jacobite (Syriac Orthodox Church) and the Eastern Orthodox (Eastern Orthodox Patriarchate of Antioch and All the East).
Most Iraqi Christians are Chaldean (approximately 67%), and a further 20% are estimated to be Assyrian.3 These two churches are ethno-religious, whereby their followers are believed to be the descendants of some of the earliest Christian communities. Indeed, one’s Christian belief and following is often correlated with their ethnicity throughout Iraq, as almost all Iraqi Christians belong to an ethnic minority group. For example, most Armenians are Christian. Most of Christian communities also speak neo-Aramaic languages specific to their ethnicity instead of Arabic.
At the beginning of the 20th century it was estimated there were between 800,000 - 1.4 million Christians in Iraq. However, years of political instability and religious persecution has seen the population to decline to less than 250,000.4 Insurgent Islamic groups (such as ISIS) have sought to target Christians, often kidnapping or killing them and destroying their churches and communities. Iraqi Christians are also subject to continued harassment and abuses by regional militias and internal security forces. Many have had to flee as refugees or risk tragic consequences. As such, the Iraqi population in Australia is majority Christian as their claims for protection were well-founded. The 2011 census recorded that 36% of Iraq-born people living in Australia identify as Catholic Christians (including Chaldean) and 12% identify with Assyrian Apostolic churches.
The Yazidis (or Yezidis) are an ethno-religious group that practice a syncretic religion. Their faith combines aspects of Zoroastrianism, Islam, Christianity and Judaism. They believe in a single god that is helped by seven angels, the most prestigious of which is a Peacock King (Malak Tawous). In the Yazidi religion, one prays to this angel five times a day.
The Yazidis are endogamous in that they are expected to marry within the religion. A Yazidi who marries outside the faith is then considered to have automatically converted to the religion of their spouse. Yazidis identify as ethnically Kurdish and speak Kurdish. However, there remains dispute among both Yazidis and Muslim Kurds as to whether they form a distinct ethnic group separate from the larger Kurdish population.
The Yazidis religion and community originated in Iraq, however their population has declined. In 2014, ISIS sought to ‘purify’ Iraq of non-Islamic influences by massacring Yazidis, who they describe as infidels and “devil worshippers”. Thousands were killed or died of starvation as their resources were cut off. Thousands more have fled to escape religious persecution, abduction, enslavement and death. The most recent reports from Yazidi leaders estimate that between 350,000 and 400,000 people remain in the north of the country. Many have sought protection in Western Europe and some have settled in Australia.
1 Muslim, Christian, Yazidi or Sabaean-Mandaean
2 Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labour, 2017
3 Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labour, 2017
4 Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labour, 2017