Organized Expropriation of Christian Real Estate in Iraq

Asaad Zalzali
Iraqi Journalist
There has been much talk about ISIS’s expropriation of the lands and properties of religious minorities in Mosul and in some Iraqi provinces; however, the violations that started in 2003 are ongoing today and are not perpetrated by just one entity, as this investigation reveals.

This investigation was carried out with the support and supervision of the “ARIJ” network and is published in conjunction with the Kristeligt Dagblad newspaper in partnership with the “Media Bridge” project.

Properties of People Designated with the Letter (N) for Christian 

Sixty-seven-year-old Beronia Ibrahim Odisho spent more than a year and a half in courts and land registry departments to reclaim her family home located in Baghdad. She was surprised that it had been sold three times since 2012 through her forged signature and the signatures of her ten siblings.

Beronia is an Iraqi Christian who immigrated in the seventies of the past century. Her family members left Iraq and joined her in the nineties. A tenant had leased their house, which is located in the Assyrians quarter in the area of “Al-Dora” in Baghdad. In 2019, Beronia returned to visit her parents’ graves only to discover that their house had been sold in 2012 by forging her and her ten siblings’ signatures. One of the signatures belonged to one of her brothers who had died before the sale. 

Beronia resorted to a lawyer and repeatedly visited land registry departments and courts in the hope of reclaiming the family’s last remaining roots in Iraq.

Beronia says that dozens of Christians have lost their homes in the area in similar ways. She explains that her uncle was forced to vacate his house after a dawn raid (by armed men) one day in 2007, and he was not allowed to take anything with him. At that time, that part of Baghdad was under the control of Al-Qaeda. Men with weapons stormed into the house and told him to choose between immigrating, or paying a religious tax (for non Moslem) or convert to Islam. Her uncle fled to northern Iraq where he died with a broken heart.

There has been much talk about ISIS’s expropriation of the lands and properties of religious minorities in Mosul and in some Iraqi provinces; however, the violations that started in 2003 are ongoing today and are not perpetrated by just one entity, as this investigation reveals.

The marking of properties with the letter (N) “Nasrani” means Christian in Arabic are still fresh in the minds of Iraqis: This letter is painted on the walls of Christian homes in many other regions, including Baghdad, to distinguish their inhabitants as Christians. This signifies that they can be killed and that their properties or religious endowments could be expropriated. Ironically, the most recent incident coincided with the Pope’s historic visit last March when cameras captured a video of bulldozers working non-stop on a land belonging to the monastery of the Daughters of Mary. This took place despite all the protests which cited this process as illegal.

Expropriation by force through influential people and armed groups

Fifty-nine-year-old Salah Ghazalah, and his sixty-year-old wife, Diana Thomas invested everything they had in buying a piece of land where they had built a house on in Zayouna area in the heart of Baghdad. In 2000 and due to the deteriorating financial situation, Salah stopped building the final stages of the house and hired a guard to move in with his family to protect the property. 

Salah and his wife immigrated to Syria and then to the United States in 2007 and continued checking in with the guard on the house until 2018. A week after the last call, Salah was surprised when the guard told him that the house had been sold through a notarized deed and a Power of Attorney from his wife Diana (issued in) Erbil Governorate, even though they had not visited Iraq since their immigration.

Salah contacted all his acquaintances and the land registry department to learn after a lot of research that a local leader in an Iraqi armed group had taken over the house and transferred its ownership at the land registry department. Salah was afraid to mention a specific group, but the area where the property is located is under the control of the Shiite militias group known as the “Resistance.” The investigator obtained a copy of the document that proves the forgery and a government document that lists the name of the person (as the new owner). 

The land registry department had stopped the transaction and flagged it as suspicious because the woman who claimed to be Diana had a British passport and came in person to sign the transfer of ownership documents.

In 2018, when Salah was informed that the occupant had started to demolish the house to convert it to shops, he assigned a lawyer to follow up on the case.

A month after his appointment, the lawyer called Salah and told him that his bag has been stolen and he was attacked, beaten and threatened. The Lawyer apologized for not being able to complete the case. Then, Salah resorted to a Christian member of Parliament who is a specialist in the Christian Endowments issues. Also, he contacted the General Secretariat of the Council of Ministers to no avail.Salah despaired and his health deteriorated, so he preferred not to continue his attempts to retrieve the property which is valued at more than $700,000 today. While this investigation was being prepared, Salah’s house was turned into a commercial building with apartments and shops in the heart of Zayouna, which is one of the most expensive quarters in the capital, Baghdad.

Seizure by the government

The situation is not much different In Kirkuk in the north: The control over that area  alternated between armed Sunni groups until 2017, and Shiite militias after that, while (sunni groups have kept some influence). The investigator contacted Asa’ad Azaria Daoud, whose house was seized by armed groups, then was sold through forgery.

Azaria who lives in the United States and did not visit Kirkuk as he feared for his life as the area is not secure even today. He hired a lawyer to recover his house. A month later, that lawyer apologized and informed Azaria that he had been threatened and is worried of what might befall him.

The methods of expropriating Christian properties in Iraq vary. Yonadam Kana, the Iraqi member of parliament representing the Christian community says that these methods are “numerous and varied, some are done through fraud, forgery and others through seizure by force.” He added, “Recently, I came across a strange case where a mobile sweets merchant filed a lawsuit against a Christian immigrant who owns a house in a particular area. Along with witnesses he claimed that he had lent the owner of the house a sum of 600 million Iraqi Dinars, that is around $500,000. He demanded that the ownership of the house be transferred in compensation for that amount”. This could have succeeded if it was not for the MP’s and other Christians’ intervention to stop it. 

He highlighted that “other cases used fraudulent methods that initially would contact the owner of the property and deceive him into believing that they intend to buy it. They would later travel to meet the owner or contact his representative to sign an initial contract without paying any deposit. Then, they would forge the contract and transfer the ownership of the property.”

Forgery penalties in Iraqi law

Legal expert Ali Al-Tamimi explains that the Iraqi law is clear in punishing forgery cases severely if this was proven, documented and if witnesses come forward. According to Article (289/298) of the Iraqi Penal Code, penalties could reach fifteen years in prison with the arrest of all those accused in the case, whether they are the main perpetrators or their partners. Later such cases are usually transferred to the criminal court, where the aggrieved party files another civil lawsuit in the magistrate court to reclaim his original property and to get compensated by the defendants.

The investigator showcased by few simple examples violations committed by armed groups through fraud, and government entities who made Christians feel that they are second class citizens not protected by the law. We tried to obtain official statistics regarding the numbers of properties seized after 2003, but we failed due to fear of persecution. The MP Yonadam Kana pointed us towards statistics issued by the Baghdad military operations command, which had recorded that 36,000 homes were confiscated or hijacked from Christians, Sunni or Shiite Muslims in the city, stating that the exact number of Christian homes that were seized cannot be specified despite the fact that such practices continue to this day and openly.

According to the Chaldean Archbishop of the Erbil Diocese Bashar Wardeh, the number exceeds 25,000 properties in all Iraqi regions explaining the difficulty of endorsing such statistics as it is the responsibility of the state, but the government “always resorts to forming committees as a way to delay matters.” The archbishop highlighted that around one million Christians have left Iraq for good during the past years; today, there are no more than 400,000 Christians left out of a million and a half Christians who lived in Iraq before 2003.

According to unofficial figures obtained by former Member of Parliament Joseph Sleiwa, the number is actually more than 60,000 properties lost. These were seized in all governorates except for the Kurdistan region. Many of these are located in the central and southern governorates where ISIS did not even have a foothold.

The phenomenon continues and temporary committees are formed

Despite the government recognition that such manipulation of Christians properties existed, it took very limited action to stop it. ISIS’s control of part of Iraq led to the further spread of this phenomenon. And the judiciary and the Ministry of Justice issued a decision requiring the presence of a representative from the Christian Endowment Bureau or a Christian member of parliament when such sales operations take place, but to no avail. 

Former Member of Parliament, Sleiwa explains that the government set limits on the sale of Christian properties and required the approval of religious authorities to limit attempts to pressure and coerce individuals to sell their properties. However, these religious authorities are agreeing to the sale of the properties and even the sale of churches which made the government efforts redundant.

The Member of Parliament Yonadam Kana confirms that the phenomenon continues even today despite attempts to curb it through laws and the formation of special committees due to pressure from the Christian parties. Some political parties tried to stop this practice, and Kana say that the Sadrist movement created a committee to follow up on this issue and managed to return 60 such properties to their owners.

Kana’s statement echo’s announcement made by the Supreme Judicial Council published on its official website claiming that at the beginning of 2021, it handed 6 and 7 years prison sentences to two members of a gang that defrauded dozens of Christian immigrants through obtaining a power of attorney from them claiming they were about to buy their properties. This happened one month prior to the Pope’s visit to Iraq.

Churches for sale or investment

In addition to seizing the properties of individual owners, some of the churches and monasteries were also sold while others were offered up for expropriation. This happened in full view of government institutions that should be looking out for the interests of all its citizens.

In early 2021 world attention was focused on the Pope’s historic visit to Iraq in the hope it would help bring peace and respect for all religions in the country and to help invite the Christians to return to their homeland. Parallel to that bulldozers were seen razing land property No. (35/22) “Raghibat Khatoun” that belong to the monastery of the Chaldean Daughters of Maryam in the Adhamiya quarter in the center of the capital Baghdad after it had been sold as residential plots. Before its demolition, the property housed an orphanage and a small church for its residents.  

Takeover in the name of the law

The fight over the ownership of the monastery’s property lasted about five years. Official documents and correspondences this investigation obtained from 2016 show that the land belongs to the monastery of the Chaldean Daughters of Maryam of the Latin Jesuit monastic order.

At the beginning of 2016, this investigation obtained a document that shows that the head of the Latin community in Iraq, Bishop Jean Suleiman, sent a letter to the Bureau of Christian Endowments and to the Yazidi and Sabean-Mandaean Endowments in Iraq calling for their rapid action to stop the sale of the Adhamiya property.  He attached a copy of the title deed showing it was owned by the Iraqi-American Scientific Friendship Society in Baghdad affiliated with the sect.

In July of the same year, the Endowments Bureau sent a letter to the land registry Department in Adhamiya quarter, informing the department that the sale of lands belonging to the monastery is illegal. Another letter was sent to the Tax Authority demanding a ban on endorsing the sale or the disposal of the property. This was signed by the head of the bureau at the time. 

Five months later, the same bureau sent a letter to the same department declaring that it allowed the endorsement process, but the legal department in the land registry and the Baghdad Municipality refused to endorse the sales transaction because of the monastery’s ownership and its status. 

After five years of such official correspondences, the land registry Department of the Ministry of Justice allowed the sale of the property. The property was demolished and turned into residential plots of land that were sold to citizens, and the construction process began.

The story of the monastery: Its establishment and repeated expropriation 

The process of buying and selling Christian properties, especially religious endowments is a complicated process that requires forming committees and complex feasibility studies before any sale or refurbishment plan. Bishop Bashar Matti served as head of the Church of Divine Wisdom adjacent to the monastery for a year in 1995 and followed up on the particulars of this case confirming that any such transactions are (usually) conditional on getting a replacement for the sold plot. 

Bishop Bashar Wardeh says, “The monastic land next to the Unity Church and Baghdad College was built by the Society of the Jesuit Fathers. The government expropriated, confiscated and nationalized it several times since its establishment after 1932 by the Society of Jesuit Fathers. It was built by Ali Jan and then changed hands several times, the most recent of which was the conflict that erupted upon its sale between the monastic community and the Friendship Society.” He added that “the Endowments Department sent a letter of approval to endorse the sale in the end, after agreeing to grant certain funds to the society in return. This happened even though the endowment management law does not state that it has the right to intervene in the sale or grant approval since the law does not allow that.”  

On the other hand, the Heritage Authority of Iraq says that “churches are subject to the Antiquities and Heritage Law No. (55) of 2002, which strictly prohibits changing the functional status of churches and heritage buildings or changing the purpose for which they were once established, except with the approval of the Heritage Authority and by the exclusive permission of the minister. It is considered a crime punishable by imprisonment and by mandating the return of the property to its original status, even if the owners decided to sell it. The church, the archaeological and heritage site must be preserved without expansion or addition. However, the investigator’s documentation shows that the exact opposite process happened.

Churches available for business investments

Not far from the Adhamiya monastery, in the heart of Baghdad and a few meters from the Iraqi government buildings, the Syriac Catholic Church lies in Shorja market, which is the largest market in Iraq. The church is one of the oldest in Iraq that was founded in 1834. It was not spared from business investments and sales operations either; the church’s surroundings was turned into shops for rent, leaving only the areas designated for worship intact while its surroundings turned into a commercial area.

The investigator has been conducting research on those churches for several years. In 2017, he visited the head of the Heritage Authority and the deputy minister of Culture for Antiquities and Heritage Affairs at the time, Qais Rashid. The visit took place after the transformation took place, and he was informed that the permit for the project has been granted according to a permit by the Sunni endowment since the church’s surroundings belong to the Sunni endowment and not to the Christian one. In theory, the commission prevented this operation, but Rashid said, “The Sunni endowment committed an unforgivable mistake when it gave investment licenses to church facades without consideration to their religious and archaeological status. This is not the only violation that took place, as we identified other cases and filed lawsuits in courts on the issue. The problem is that the authority that granted the investment license to the Shorja Church is also a government entity just like us.”

In the previous interview, the former deputy minister stated, “There are more than 3,000 archaeological and heritage buildings that were seized after 2003 in Iraq. Some are churches, religious and heritage buildings belonging to different religious endowment .” He pointed out that “the government and the owners of those buildings bear full responsibility for the loss of these buildings.”

Map of churches

These two churches in Baghdad were not the only ones that were sold and parts of which were turned into business dwellings. Former Christian member of parliament Joseph Sleiwa says, “Four other churches or lands belonging to them were sold: Two of these were in Basra, one in Babylon and another in Nasiriyah.”

Sleiwa cited an incident that took place in the last days that followed Pope Francis’s visit to Iraq. A police station in Baghdad subpoenaed Patriarch Louis Sako, Patriarch of the Chaldean sect in Iraq who had accompanied the Pope throughout his visit to Iraq. The summons was related to his approval of the sale of land that belong to a church in Basra, which was later abandoned for failing to obtain official approvals. The person who filed the complaint was the investor whom Sako granted approval to sell the church land.

The subpoena issued against Sako by the Salhiya Police Station describes him as “the defendant” and summoned him pending an arrest warrant in three days if he were to fail to appear at the station based on a complaint filed by the investor Mahdi Naji. The Patriarchate’s media office clarified the matter with a statement that denied the validity of the case against him. It also explained that the granted land does not belong to the church and the Power of Attorney granted to the investor is for reviews purposes and not for selling the property. The statement also said that the investor was paid by a political party. The Supreme Judicial Council dropped the lawsuit when the patriarch’s lawyer appealed the case.

When asked about the number of churches that were sold or turned into business investments, member of parliament Yonadam Kana denied such statements. He said that the only church some of whose parts were allowed to be turned into business investments while preserving its identity is the Church of the Virgin Mary in Bab Al-Moatham. He reiterated that he had some reservations on the issue of business investment but said that it was legal. 

Between Sleiwa’s and Kana’s statements, there are six churches whose lands have been sold or parts of which were turned into business dwellings.

Legal differences

The laws on the nature of religious assets and the right to own and manage these vary, which make the issue more complex. The Christian religious authorities reiterates its right to dispose of its real estate assets based on Paragraph B of Article (43) of the Iraqi constitution that stipulates the responsibility of Christian Endowment  for “managing endowments, their affairs and religious institutions once this is regulated by its own law specifically addressing those matters,” as stated by Bishop Bashar Wardeh. Wardeh also said that Paragraph (8) in Article (1) of the Iraqi Endowments Administration Law of 1966 mentioned Islamic endowments specifically and did not mention other religions, and this gives Christians the freedom to regulate and manage them.

The investigator asked the General Authority for Antiquities and Heritage for its comments on the findings. The response was that churches are subject to the Antiquities and Heritage Law No. (55) of 2002. They asserted that they filed lawsuits against the Municipality of Baghdad and other entities for the violations committed and indicated that the law permits buying and selling properties from the owners provided that they are preserved without expansions or additions.  

Internal strife

Former Representative Joseph Sleiwa accuses religious authorities and parties within the Endowment Department of complicity in the sale and demolition of churches in Iraq. He published a statement about the monastery land and the business investment in the vicinity of the church in Al-Bab Al-Sharqi in Baghdad.

Sleiwa also criticized the official silence since a number of churches in various areas of Baghdad were sold with the help of persons working for the Christian Endowment Department and the Chaldean Catholic Patriarchate. He explains that “incomprehensible” agreements are taking place between the Christian Endowment Department and Christian political figures whom he did not name. These agreements led to the sale of a large number of churches and properties, including the monastery land. 

In response to Sleiwa’s accusations, the Chaldean Catholic Patriarchate of Babylon in Iraq posted a statement on its website denying that sales of churches in order to invest its proceeds   in commercial businesses are taking place in Iraq. The Patriarchate asserted that it is careful to protect old and new churches and that it continues to maintain them.

Member of parliament representing the Christian community, Yonadam Kana sees that what is happening is normal and that the sale and investment are done with the approval of the owners and that this was done legally. Despite this endorsement, he pointed out that he had reservations about the issue. 

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“Rainfall” wiped out the house of Sassoon Ezekiel

Christian churches and their estates were not the only minority assets targeted. Sassoon Ezekiel’s house that lies close to the Shorja Church was one of them too. Ezekiel was the first Iraqi finance minister between 1921 and 1925 and was known as Sassoon Effendi. The house holds a special religious importance for the Jewish community whose members were forced out of Iraq in the 1940s and 1950s.

The house is considered a heritage site, a prayer site and also a burial site for the Jewish community as per photo archives obtained exclusively by the investigator who had started his research on that property four years ago when he noticed that the residents of Al-Rashid Street woke up one day to an empty square that was a Jewish religious and heritage house just the day before its demolition and without the knowledge of the government. 

At the time, the investigator met with Shafiq Al-Mahdi, the director of the Department of Visual Arts in the Ministry of Culture, Tourism and Antiquities and held an exclusive interview with him. Al-Mahdi died two years later and had been an avid defender of the status of this house. He tried hard to stop this business investment project but to no avail. The Municipality of Baghdad granted a license to develop the land to the contractor Hussain Al-Quraishi.

This is documented in a letter issued by the municipality and signed by the Secretary Nai’m Ab’oub addressed to the Investment Authority and its head Shakir Al-Zamili confirming the transfer of the land. We obtained exclusive documents issued by the following entities: the Police Directorate for the Protection of Antiquities and Heritage; the Director of the Heritage Department; the Heritage Survey Department in the Ministry of Culture, Tourism, Antiquities and Heritage; the Legal Department in the Ministry; and the Office of the Inspector General. All of these documents confirm that the property known as 16-17 of Saba’a Abkar has illegally been manipulated.

However, the investor and the municipality have erased all traces and archaeological evidence related to the house to escape prosecution. At the time, Al-Mahdi pointed out, “It is shameful that they are trying to take us, Iraqis, for fools. How can rain wipe out an entire house along with its ruins, foundations and its steel? They are violating the sanctity of all religions in broad daylight because they were drooling over its location situated in the middle of Al-Rashid Street across from the Tigris River.”

At the time, the Municipality of Baghdad used the justification that the house had been earmarked for investment since the eighties of the last century during the rule of Saddam Hussein and that it had been demolished before and is not a heritage site. 

The house was cordoned off by a special fence, and access to it is denied to this day. A seven-year imprisonment sentence in absentia was issued against the former mayor of the capital relating to other corruption cases, and the head of the Investment Authority Shakir Al-Zamili was arrested and imprisoned at the beginning of this year on corruption charges.

Right to respond 

The Iraqi Ministry of Justice was contacted via its official email and the phone number of its official spokesperson, Ahmad Laibi, who is the only person in the ministry authorized to give statements. The investigator asked for a response on the findings of this investigation, but the ministry refused. ARIJ sent a letter by registered post to get such answers, but the ministry refused to accept receipt of the letter.

The Christian Endowment Bureau agreed to respond but only to deny any sales of churches. The bureau explained that “all the actions (sales of Churches assets) taken by the guardians of the endowments were carried out on assets that do not bear the status of a church and with the careful application of the regulations necessitating the replacement of such assets in accordance with the laws in force in Iraq.”

He explained that the Bureau relies on “several laws” that authorize it to act: These include Law No. (64) of 1966 on Endowment trust; Law No. (46) of 1970 on the System of Guardianship; and Law No. (58) of 2012, especially Article (18), which states the following: “The Bureau replaces the dissolved Ministry of Endowments and Religious Affairs in matters related to endowments and funds.” Regarding the sale of the monastery land, he replied, “It is a religious institution, and it was not sold. Assets belonging to the monastery were sold, and the objections by the Latin Patriarchate were due to internal reasons related to determining the guardian in charge of giving the needed approvals.”

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