WASHINGTON (CNA)—Several dozen members of Congress sent letters to President Barack Obama urging him to raise the issue of religious freedom in Iraq during his Dec. 12 meeting with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.
A White House spokesperson told CNA on Dec. 14 that the president has not yet received the letters and declined to comment on whether religious freedom was discussed in the meetings between Obama and al-Maliki.
Leonard Leo, chairman of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, warned that the Iraqi government “does not provide effective protection” against the violent attacks and intimidation directed towards religious minorities in the country.
Speaking on behalf of the commission, Leo voiced concerns over religious freedom in Iraq in a Dec. 7 letter to President Obama, arguing that if Iraq is to become “a secure and stable democracy,” it must ensure that the human rights of all Iraqis are respected.
Since 2008, the commission has recommended that Iraq be designated as a “country of particular concern” under the International Religious Freedom Act over its “systematic, ongoing, egregious violations of religious freedom.”
Leo noted that Prime Minister al-Maliki has made public statements affirming the rights of religious minorities and criticizing violent acts against them.
Still, he insisted, “concrete action” is needed to turn “rhetoric into reality.”
Leo’s concerns were echoed in a Dec. 9 letter from 37 members of the U.S. House of Representatives to President Obama.
Reps. Frank Wolf, R-Va., Henry Waxman, D-Calif., and Chris Smith, R-N.J., were among the bipartisan signatories of the letter urging the president “to raise the plight of Iraq’s besieged ethno-religious communities” in his meeting with the prime minister.
Continued violent attacks on religious minorities are too often “not adequately investigated, prosecuted or punished,” the representatives said.
They cited a recent report by the U.S. State Department, which found that the Iraqi Christian population has decreased by at least 50% since 2003.
“This is a staggering depletion of a community that dates back thousands of years,” they said.
The congressmen encouraged President to address issues relating to the prosecution of violent acts against religious minorities, increased representation of minorities in government and the protection of vulnerable sites, including places of worship. They also emphasized the need for ongoing discussion of a possible administrative region for religious minorities.
Protecting its religious minorities is “critical” to Iraq’s alliance with the United States and constitutes “a key component” of future bilateral relations, the legislators said.
President Obama and Prime Minister al-Maliki held a joint press conference on Dec. 12 after their meeting.
The subject of religious freedom was not raised, although President Obama mentioned his hope that Iraq could become a nation in which “different religious sects and ethnicities can resolve their differences peacefully through the democratic process.”