Baghdad — In little more than a year more than 120 properties and buildings originally belonging to Christians and Sabeans, previously expropriated by force or deception by mafias or local gangs, have returned to the hands or under the control of their legitimate owners, according to the Committee for the Restitution of Christian and Sabaean Property, which, in collaboration with the Mahdi Army [the former Saraya al-Salam Peace Brigades, ed], both under the orders of the Shiite leader Muqtada al-Sadr, supervised the restitution process. The property was returned to Christians “after the completion of the review of the documents that proved permission” and the subsequent expropriation by gangs or groups linked to the “land mafia”.
The official act of restitution took place on 21 February in the presence of some members of the committee including Awn Al-Nabi (a close collaborator of al-Sadr), the first vice president of parliament Hakim al-Zamili and Hassan al-Kaabi, vice president of the Sadrist bloc. The handover, those in charge explain, involved a number of houses, land, factories and shops that were meticulously restored before being returned to their owners.
Early last year, al-Sadr, leader of the Sadrist faction that represents the main bloc in parliament and won the last general election in 2021, created a committee to collect and verify news and complaints about the expropriation of Christian property. Property scattered in different parts of the country and expropriated from its legitimate owners in recent years. The Shiite leader himself described the initiative as aimed at restoring justice and putting an end to violations of the property rights of his “Christian brothers”.
The phenomenon of the illegal theft of Christian homes and property by organised mafias supported by corrupt officials is a consequence of the exodus of a large part of the Christian community following the 2003 US invasion to remove Rais Saddam Hussein from power. This phenomenon has reduced the Christian population by a third (today less than 500,000) and has left the field open for “legalised” expropriation and theft of property, as denounced by the highest Catholic authorities in the country.
In his pastoral letter sent to the faithful on the occasion of Christmas 2015, Chaldean Patriarch Card. Cardinal Louis Raphael Sako, Chaldean Patriarch of Chaldea, described the phenomenon in a broad and widespread manner, listing it among the evils that “afflict society”, some of which affect “Christians in particular”. His Beatitude had spoken of “families subject to targeted attacks and expropriation by thugs and extremist groups”, appealing to the authorities for greater security and protection.
In April 2017, former Christian MP Yonadam Kanna, leader of the Assyrian Democratic Movement, returned to the issue and in an interview with AsiaNews spoke of “criminals who make false documents and forged certificates in order to claim the property, homes or activities of Christians who have emigrated from the country in recent years because of war and violence”. A mafia,” he explained, “that operates according to a pattern: they falsify the certificates, go to court and before the judges claim possession of property that is not theirs. And the judges end up giving in”.
Today, at least some of these assets and properties have returned to their rightful owners. Al-Zamili spoke of the “real estate mafias” that have “taken advantage of the precarious security conditions” to “get their hands on property”, but minorities will not be “left without support”. Finally, the Committee for the Restitution of Christian and Sabean Properties expressed hope for ‘a prompt return’ of all displaced Iraqis, whether Christian, Sabean or others, after completing ‘the restitution’ of all their properties ‘within legal parameters and the improvement of security conditions’.