Christian property in Iraq seized fraudulently

Christian property in Iraq seized fraudulently
5 min read
19 August, 2015
Feature: Scores of Iraqi Christians have lost their homes in Baghdad to fraud and forced sales, with the capital's desirable Karrada district seeing the most crooked property transactions.
Many Iraqi Christians have been left with nothing but their faith [AFP]
Iraqi expatriate Yonadam Albert suffered a stroke that led to the partial paralysis of the right side of his body.

His son says that the stroke happened after the 57-year-old heard his house in Baghdad's Karrada district had been seized and sold using falsified documents.

Albert no longer speaks to people, including the therapist that comes to visit them in their small apartment in the Swedish city of Malmo.

The daily security threats and the targeting of Iraqi Christians after the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, forced Albert to leave his affluent home in the Iraqi capital. He lived in the Jordanian capital, Amman, for three years while he and his family waited for their immigration papers to Sweden to be processed, and finally move there nine years ago.

Fadi Albert, Yonadam's eldest son, told al-Araby al-Jadeed the story of his family's dispossession:

"We closed off our 1,000sqm house in the al-Wahda neighbourhood of the Karrada district and handed the keys to a neighbouring family that has lived next to us for a long time.

"We were recently shocked to get a call from them saying that maintenance work was taking place in our house and that the supervising architect showed them a document proving the transfer of the property title to someone that is unknown by anyone in the neighbourhood."

As soon as the family heard the news from Baghdad, they hired a lawyer specialising in property disputes with the help of friends in back home, and sent him all the documents that prove ownership of the house - including pictures of the family in the house.

However, after the first court hearing, the family's lawyer refused to continue the case, and Fadi Albert said the lawyer sounded like he had been threatened.

Billions in seized property

Fadi Albert later found a number of other Iraqis across Sweden who had gone through similar experiences. They banded together and presented their testimonies and ownership documents to Swedish human rights organisations, in the hope they could contact the Iraqi government and help regain seized properties with a combined worth of possibly the billions of dollars.
     A network of civil servants in the land registry office identify vacant Christian-owned properties and falsify ownership transfer documents

Imad Youkhana, an Iraqi Christian MP and a leading member of the al-Rafidain parliamentary bloc, confirmed that many lawyers hired in Baghdad Christian property seizures have received death threats, on top of the well-publicised sectarian campaign to scare Christians against coming back to Iraq.

According to Youkhana, a network of civil servants in the land registry office identify vacant Christian-owned properties and falsify ownership transfer documents in collaboration with local officials, security officers and corrupt judges.

However, despite hundreds of expensive properties being sold in this way, Youkhana said that he had never heard of anyone being punished. He believes one solution to such fraud would be to have sale documents include a letter from the Church that proves the property owner agrees to the sale and transfer.

The Iraqi-Christian MP said he hoped that these "devastating and shameful" frauds would be addressed by the proposed reforms announced by Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, especially since they have left many Christian families with nothing - after they had owned expensive properties in affluent and desirable neighbourhoods.

Under threat

Father Hermez Naoum from the Assyrian Church in Baghdad, who currently lives in Iraqi Kurdistan, receives daily complaints from families who have been forced to sell their properties under threat for a quarter of their market value.
     We were recently shocked to get a call from them saying that maintenance work was taking place in our house
- Fadi Albert

He showed al-Araby al-Jadeed a $100,000 sale contract written in 2010 for a 600sqm home in a bustling commercial street in Baghdad's Karrada district that was transferred from the helpless owner who lives in Turkey.

Naoum said that the house was really worth $850,000 at the time.

According to Naoum, people belonging to an influential political party with military ties contacted the homeowner and gave him a choice of either selling at the price they set - or they would seize the house using "their own methods".

The emigrant homeowner decided to sell up instead of losing it to the party - which transformed the house into a local party headquarters, where people are lectured on the importance of being trustworthy, according to Naoum.

The Assyrian priest fled Baghdad after receiving death threats, and believes that those who forcibly seize Christian properties know full well that Christians do not have a military force or a strong political or media figure that can defend them.

Naoum said that Iraq had gone through "major surgery", in which the demography of various parts of Iraq, including Baghdad, had changed - and Christians no longer exist in areas in which they once used to be the majority.

Karrada sees the most forced sales

The director of the Baghdad Centre for Human Rights, Muhannad al-Issawi, has been collating the forged documents that have been used to sell Christian-owned properties in Baghdad.

But he cannot promise that properties can be regained after being taken over by influential groups.
     The upmarket Karrada district has seen the largest number of forced sales and seizures of Christian properties.

Issawi told al-Araby al-Jadeed that the upmarket Karrada district had seen the largest number of forced sales and seizures of Christian properties.

The law does, however, allow for owners to challenge the authenticity of the documents that have been used to sell the properties, using testimony from neighbours and witnesses to the sale.

Issawi accused the government of neglecting its constitutional responsibility to protect private property, especially given that a parliamentary investigation had exposed rampant fraud in the land registry office that has allowed for the ownership of numerous properties to be transferred to influential groups.

Al-Araby al-Jadeed
spoke to an Iraqi MP and a member of the parliamentary integrity committee who oversaw the parliamentary investigation and wished to remain anonymous.

The MP said that the investigation came up with good results - but committee members did not want to continue their investigations, for fear of clashing with the "influential political groups" responsible for the fraudulent sales of Baghdad's most expensive properties.