WASHINGTON (Reuters) -- Iraq is now one of the most dangerous places on earth for religious minorities, a U.S. government commission has said, accusing Iraq's leaders of tolerating attacks on Christians and others.
The very existence of these groups in mainly Muslim Iraq is now threatened, said a new report by the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, a body appointed by Congress and the president.
The report comes after 1,500 Christian families fled attacks and intimidation in the northern city of Mosul in October. The city's Christian archbishop was kidnapped and murdered this year. U.S. military commanders have blamed Sunni Islamist militants for the violence.
The bipartisan commission recommended that Iraq be designated a "country of particular concern" as a consequence of what it called the Iraqi government's tolerance of severe abuses of religious freedom.
Such a designation could in theory lead to sanctions being imposed, a commission official said. But it is more likely the U.S. government, if it accepts the recommendations, would use diplomatic channels or set benchmarks in an effort to change the Iraqi government's behavior.
Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki has met Christian leaders in Iraq and promised them government protection, but the United Nations said this month it remained concerned about targeted killings of minorities such as Christians.
The Vatican, however, remains unconvinced and has questioned the government's willingness to protect the minority. It has demanded more protection for Christians.
The commission urged the U.S. government to allow members of religious minorities to apply directly to the United States for asylum rather than through the United Nations, and to appoint a special envoy for human rights in Iraq.
Lack Of Action
"The lack of effective [Iraqi] government action to protect these communities from abuses has established Iraq among the most dangerous places on Earth for religious minorities," said commission chairwoman Felice Gaer.
The 10-member commission said four commissioners had dissented on designating Iraq a country of particular concern. They four agreed the Iraqi government had failed to take sufficient steps to protect minorities but said this was due to a lack of capacity rather than "willful indifference."
The commission said religious minorities were also caught in the middle of a struggle between the Kurdistan Regional Government and Baghdad for control of northern areas where their communities were concentrated.
The latest State Department figures show that the Christian population in Iraq has halved since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003. An estimated 700,000 remain, with the rest having joined the flood of Iraqis seeking refuge in neighboring countries.
Most Iraqi Christians are Chaldeans, a branch of the Roman Catholic Church that practices an ancient Eastern rite.
Sabean Mandeans, another minority, account for a tiny percentage of Iraq's estimated 28 million people, with their numbers dwindling from a high of around 30,000 in 2003 to around 3,500 to 5,000, the State Department says.
These minorities, and other such as the Yazidis, were caught up in a conflict that verged on a civil war between majority Shi'ite and minority Sunni Muslims that exploded in early 2006. Tens of thousands of people were killed and many more displaced.