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2.14. Individuals considered to have committed blasphemy and/or apostasy

Last updated: June 2019

This profile refers to persons who are considered to have abandoned or renounced the religious belief or principles of Islam (apostasy), individuals who have converted from Islam to a new faith, based on their genuine inner belief (converts), those who disbelieve or lack belief in the existence of God or gods (atheists), as well as persons considered to have spoken sacrilegiously about God or Islam (blasphemy). It can be noted that, often, the grounds related to conversion and atheism would be invoked sur place (Article 5 QD).

COI summary

[Targeting, 3.2; COI query on atheism and conversion in the KRI]

Islam is the official state religion of Iraq. According to the Iraqi Constitution, no law may be enacted that contradicts the provisions of Islam. The Iraqi Constitution also guarantees freedom of religious belief and practices for Muslims, Christians, Yazidis, and Sabean-Mandaeans, but not for followers of other religious or atheists. The Constitution further guarantees freedom from religious coercion, and states that all citizens are equal before the law without regard to religion, sect, or belief.

a. Conversion and apostasy

Apostasy is uncommon in Iraq and is generally seen as unnatural. Despite its acknowledgment of religious diversity, the Personal status laws and regulations prohibit the conversion of Muslims to other religions. Whilst civil laws provide a simple process for a non-Muslim to convert to Islam, conversion of a Muslim to another religion is forbidden by law. Article 26 of the National Identity Card Law affirms the right of non-Muslims to convert to Islam but does not grant the same rights to Muslims. Converts from Islam to other religions cannot change their religion on their identity cards after conversion and must continue to be registered as Muslims. Children born to a Muslim and a non-Muslim parent are legally deemed Muslim.

According to COI sources, people who convert from Islam to Christianity may be at risk of being killed in Iraq. While converts may encounter difficulties with the authorities, the main source of problems is usually the community and family, with reactions varying from one family to another. In some cases, family members are open-minded and do not react to the conversion in any way. In others, the convert may be disowned, receive death threats or even be killed. According to some sources, problems typically arise within the extended family. The treatment of female converts is reportedly much worse than the treatment of men. The situation of the convert may also vary somewhat depending on the person’s social status and tribal background. Kurdish tribes could be more permissive towards the convert compared to Arab tribes. There are also regional differences, with reactions being generally harsher in the countryside.

The situation for converts is reportedly worse in other parts of Iraq as compared to the KRI. In 2015, the KRG passed a law to protect the rights of different religious groups. There are no reported cases of anyone being tried in the KRI for changing religion. Although the KRG supports the Christian converts residing in the KRI, state authorities cannot provide the converts constant protection against the possible threat posed by their own tribe. Kurdish authorities are fairly tolerant of the Christian converts but it has not been possible for converts to, for example, change the official status of religion for their children. Some years ago, Kurdish authorities did, however, register a Kurdish Christian group that had converted from Islam. The number of Christian converts in the KRI is generally thought to be around a few hundreds.

See also the profile Christians.

b. Atheism

Atheism is not illegal in Iraq, but State actors typically equate atheism with blasphemy. Although there are not any articles in the Iraqi Penal Code that provide for a direct punishment for atheism, the desecration of religions is penalised. In March 2018, arrest warrants were issued in Dhi Qar against four Iraqis on charges of atheism. According to COI sources, no recent examples of prosecution of atheists in the KRI have been reported.

In Iraq, atheists are reportedly viewed with disdain and face threats. It is reported that persons who openly admit they are not religious would risk arrest in, for example, Baghdad and the South, whereas in the KRI there would be more freedom of expression with regards to religious beliefs. According to COI sources, Kurds primarily identify themselves in terms of their ethnicity and not their religious affiliation.

While atheism is rare in Iraq, the number of atheists is reportedly growing. Secularism is also on the rise amongst Iraq’s youth. A poll released in 2011 recorded that 67 % of Iraq’s population answered that they believe in God, 21 % answered probably, whilst 7 % answered that they did not believe in God. There are many Iraqi websites and blogs that cater to atheists, but membership lists are kept secret for fear of persecution by extremist religious groups or the surrounding society.

Atheism is in general not well perceived in the KRI. However, according to some sources, it is somewhat more acceptable to be an atheist than an apostate. Criticism of religious functionaries in general is quite widespread in KRI and is not looked upon as something scandalous. Criticising Islam on social media, particularly on Facebook, has become something of a social trend in the KRI, whereas up until recently it was not acceptable. However, proclaiming oneself as an atheist publicly could cause problems. There have reportedly been cases in which atheists have been physically threatened, harassed or rejected by their families. According to COI sources, atheists who suffer harassment due to their beliefs prefer to hide than to report to the police. Although the Kurdish government is secular, society in general, especially in Erbil, is conservative and people are generally expected to respect Islamic norms.

Risk analysis

The acts to which individuals under this profile could be exposed are of such severe nature that they would amount to persecution (e.g. killing, violent attacks).

When considering such applications, the case officer should take into account that it cannot reasonably be expected that an applicant will abstain from his or her religious practices in order to avoid persecution.[21] It should be noted that the concept of religion shall in particular include the holding of theistic, non-theistic and atheistic beliefs (Article 10(1)(b) QD).

In the case of those perceived as apostates (e.g. for reason of conversion to Christianity or due to atheism) or blasphemers, in general, a well-founded fear of persecution would be substantiated. However, the risk assessment should take into account the religious or non-religious practices the applicant will engage in and whether those would expose him or her to a real risk,[22] also taking into account his or her home region (the risk is generally lower in the KRI), family and ethnic background, gender, etc.

See also Religious and ethnic minorities, and stateless persons.

Nexus to a reason for persecution

Available information indicates that persecution of this profile is for reasons of religion.



[21] CJEU, Bundesrepublik Deutschland v Y and Z, joined cases C-71/11 and C-99/11, judgment of 5 September 2012, para 80.  [back to text]
[22] Ibid. [back to text]