Major Religious Communities

Source: US Government

Iraq has one of the most diverse populations in the Middle East. Its population of 31 million is comprised of 97 percent Muslims, approximately 60 percent of which are Shi’ite and 40 percent Sunni. The remaining 3 percent are a multiethnic, multi-religious mix that includes Christians, Yazidis, Sabean-Mandeans, Bahai’s, Shabaks, Kakai’s (also referred to as Ahl-e Haqq), and others (US Department of State International Religious Freedom Report 2010). Kurds, a non-Arab Indo-European people, comprise approximately 17 percent of the population, while the rest are Arab. Ninety percent of Iraqi Kurds are Sunni, and the remainder is Shi’ite. Most Kurds live in northern Iraq; the majority of the country’s Shi’ite Arabs live in the south; Sunnis Arabs are concentrated in the central regions of the country. Along with Shi’ites and Kurds, many of Iraq’s religious minorities under Saddam Hussein faced marginalization and extreme brutality, including expulsion, summary executions, kidnapping, imprisonment, and ethnic cleansing.

Ethnic distribution, Baghdad

In spite of such violence, Iraq has remained an important religious center and destination for millions of Muslims, especially since the fall of the Saddam-regime. On this background, Iraq’s rich religious landscape continues to shift under the opposing pressures of tension and war, and the simultaneous process of inevitable, albeit mitigated, assimilation between communities living in each other’s midst. Despite the bloody rift, which has separated Iraqi Sunnis and Shi’ites both under the Saddam regime and after its fall, many still live in mixed communities, and nearly one-third of marriages in Iraq are between Sunnis and Shi’ites. In recent years, however, such intermarriages have been threatened by the growing influence of Islamic fundamentalists—both Sunni and Shi’ite. In addition, significant numbers of non-Muslim communities including Christians, Baha’is, and Yazidis have been forced to flee Iraq as a result of ongoing victimization. In March 2013, the Iraqi Council for Interfaith Dialogue was established by Muslim, Mandaean, and Christian leaders in response to attacks on a Syriac Baghdad church.  Since then, the group has sponsored a number of intercommunal events, including a discussion of the repercussions of the film Innocence of Muslims.

Meanwhile, leaders within each community compete to wield power over their respective constituencies as well as on a national level within Iraq’s new post-Saddam social-order. The success of such religious leaders, or lack thereof, has thus far played a preeminent role in shaping Iraq’s political landscape and government. These power struggles will undoubtedly play a critical role in determining the future of Iraq absent its former dictatorial regime.

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