Iraqi Kurdistan: A Safe Haven for Christians?
January 14, 2013
Iraq's Christian population has been the target of violence for several years. (Photo credit: Al-Monitor )
The Christian community in Iraq has suffered great loss in the decade since the U.S. invasion of 2003. Is there a ray of hope now that Iraq's Assyrian, Chaldean, Armenian, and other Christians can find a secure future in the Kurdistan region? This was the possibility contemplated at a December 5 conference sponsored by Catholic University in Washington, DC.
Since 2003, Iraqi Christian homes, businesses, and churches have been targets of repeated violent attacks-bombings, shootings, kidnappings, arsons-perpetrated by militias aligned with other religious and ethnic groups. The central government has often been unwilling or unable to provide effective protection.
Although other Iraqis may identify the Christians with the United States and its western allies, in fact the Christians have gained little from the now fading U.S. presence. Many have fled the country. Most estimates now place Iraq's Christian population at less than half of the million-plus that it was in 2003.
Traumatized Christians have also relocated within the country. The predominant flow of refugees has been away from the violence of central and southern Iraq and toward Kurdistan in the north, which had been the historic heartland of the ancient Mesopotamian Christian communities. There the refugees have encountered a somewhat better situation, although not without immediate problems and long-term uncertainties.
The questions engaged at the December 5 conference were: To what extent should Iraqi Christians tie their fate to the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) and support it against the federal government in Baghdad? Should they seek a Christian-friendly enclave in or near Iraqi Kurdistan, or should they aim to integrate themselves into the broader Iraqi or Kurdish society? Or will emigration abroad be their only option in the end?
'There Has to Be a Shining City on the Hill'
Many conference panelists were enthusiastic about prospects in Iraqi Kurdistan. It is "the place that displaced Christians run away to," according to Catholic University law professor Robert Destro, director of the program sponsoring the conference. "There has to be a shining city on the hill" exemplifying religious freedom in the Middle East, and Destro thought the Kurdish region could be that place.
The Very Rev. Dr. James Kowalski hailed "the possibility to build [in Iraqi Kurdistan] a society that would be a beacon of light that protects all people." Kowalski, dean of the Episcopal Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York, was a member of a Catholic University-sponsored delegation that visited the region in November 2012.
Also part of the delegation was Armenian Church of America Archbishop Vicken Aykazian. The archbishop recounted that he had expected to witness disorder in Iraqi Kurdistan; however, "to my surprise, I saw a real country-a beautiful country." Aykazian told how "Kurdistan became a safe haven for Christians," and "the [regional] government is building churches, schools, community centers for them." He reported that "Christians today feel very comfortable" in Iraqi Kurdistan.
Another member of the November delegation, evangelical communications consultant Larry Ross, was even more ebullient. "Kurdistan is a success story," he declared. "In Kurdistan we saw the principles of Jesus lived out." Ross described "the faith community there" as "a bouquet of flowers." He asserted a unity of the three Abrahamic religions: Judaism is "the faith of Jesus"; Islam is "faith with Jesus," because it holds him to be a prophet; and Christianity is "faith in Jesus," Ross remarked.
Iraqi-American activist Raad Ayar was more restrained. "Kurdistan is not a perfect place for us [Christians] to live," he admitted, "but it is the only place [in Iraq] we can live." Ayar contended that "we need to make Kurdistan a sample of democracy." He was hopeful, as "Kurdish people want to be democratic and secular." The Chaldean activist stated his conviction that "we need to support Kurdistan against aggressions" from Baghdad.
Brendan O'Leary, a Political Science professor at the University of Pennsylvania, presented results of surveys he had done of Christians in the Kurdistan region. O'Leary concluded that "the Kurdistan Regional Government treats the Christians of the Kurdish region very well." The Christians with whom he had talked expressed a high view of Kurdish President Massoud Barzani, and they voiced no complaints against the Kurdish military. Refugees from the rest of Iraq were grateful for their reception by the KRG. "My view is that they [Iraqi Christians] should align with the Kurdish region," O'Leary opined. "That is the best hope for a feasible future."
Troubles and Distrust
O'Leary and other speakers acknowledged difficulties that Christians had experienced in Iraqi Kurdistan. There were land disputes as Kurds driven out of their homes by former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein had occupied land belonging to Assyrian/Chaldean Christians. There were unsubstantiated accusations of corruption in the Kurdish Regional Government. And there were worries about poor employment prospects, especially for the refugees from other parts of Iraq. O'Leary insisted that these complaints all related to general conditions in Iraqi Kurdistan, shared by all groups alike, and were not particularly targeted at the Kurdish government.
Herman Teule, a professor of Eastern Christian Studies at the Catholic University of Leuven in Belgium, addressed some of the same concerns. Teule noted instances of violence against Assyrian and Chaldean Christians, including abductions, arson against Christian shops, and assassinations of political leaders. The Belgian professor attributed these incidents to non-governmental forces, and felt that Kurdish authorities had responded adequately.
Nevertheless, Teule said, "There are many Christians who simply do not believe in the sincerity of the Kurds." They remember Kurdish atrocities against Assyrian Christians in the early decades of the 20th century, and do not feel secure under Kurdish rule today. "Many Christians do not speak Kurdish or feel Kurdish," Teule added.
Several Iraqi-American members of the conference audience spoke up with a darker view of the situation. In a later interview, Juliana Taimoorazy, head of the Iraqi Christian Relief Council, cited recent cases of violence and property confiscations directed against Christians. "The clear issue is anti-Assyrian sentiments" among the Kurds, Taimoorazy said. "There is systematic ethnic cleansing of Assyrians." She perceived Kurdish hostility to Assyrian/Chaldean Christians to be based more on ethnicity than on religion.
Iraqi Christians Few, But Divided
Differences within the Iraqi Christian community emerged repeatedly during the conference. Though few in number, they are divided among Assyrians belonging to the autonomous Church of the East, Chaldean Catholics in communion with Rome, and Armenians. There are disputes about how to name the first two groups, which share a common Syriac language and culture. Are they two separate groups, Chaldeans and Assyrians, as named in the Iraqi constitution? Or are they all "Chaldo-Assyrians," as named in an earlier version of the constitution?
There are two main political parties-the Assyrian Democratic Movement and the Chaldean Syriac Assyrian Popular Council-competing for seats set aside for Christians in the Iraqi and Kurdish parliaments. The parties disagree on important questions: Should Christians concentrate their efforts within the Kurdish region, or should they participate in the national Iraqi government? Should they integrate into the broader society, or should they seek to establish a Christian enclave? Would such an enclave be located in the Christian heartland of the Nineveh Plain, now disputed between Iraq and the Kurdish region? Or would it include Christian villages elsewhere in Iraqi Kurdistan? What degree of autonomy might such an enclave exercise?
Brendan O'Leary judged that the small and scattered Christian communities could hope for nothing more than "special administrative autonomy" of non-contiguous municipalities in Kurdistan. "Anyone who knows the demography on the ground knows that it is incredible for Christians to ask for a governorate," O'Leary maintained. He deemed it unlikely that either Baghdad or the KRG would allow a truly autonomous political unit to grow in their border area.
Chaldean Archbishop: Confident Now, Uncertain about the Future
The most telling remarks of the conference came in a videotaped presentation from Bashar Matti Warda, the Chaldean archbishop in the Kurdish capital of Erbil. Archbishop Warda characterized Iraqi Christians as having "a history that has been written in blood," with repeated waves of "killing and forced displacement" over the past century. Nevertheless, his current assessment was: "The situation of Christians in [Iraqi Kurdistan] is better compared to that in Baghdad, Mosul, Basrah, and Kirkuk. There is a relatively better security situation and less cultural, political, and religious harassment. There is, however, an inexorable emigration in both areas."
Warda commended the "enlightened leadership" of the two main Kurdish parties for their "noble humane stances" in receiving Christian refugees from elsewhere in Iraq. He urged, "The West has to support this young and unique experiment to build a democratic and civil entity in contrast to all Islamic, extremist, and Salafi orientation that is sweeping the area [the Middle East] and trying to take us back to the Middle Ages."
"The basic problem of [Middle Eastern] Christians throughout history ... is that they are subject to the disposition of the ruler," the archbishop observed. "Hence they may live at times in peace due to a good ruler, and [then] experience periods of persecution because of a bad ruler." Warda saw the same pattern today: "We are confident that we live in peace and security under the present Kurdish leadership. However, there is no guarantee as to what the future holds in case of a change in power."
"The solution," according to the archbishop, "lies in a constitution that promotes and supports citizenship and indiscriminately safeguards everybody's dignity." He called for revisions in school curricula that now "advocate discrimination and hatred" against Christians. He also pleaded with western countries to support Iraqi Christians through "scholarships for their top students and encouraging churches to run educational and health centers that provide secure job opportunities to help them stay rather than think of emigration."
Democracy and Christian Presence 'Inextricably Intertwined'
Discussion at the conference touched repeatedly on U.S. influence in the situation of Iraqi Christians. John Desrocher, Director of Iraq Affairs at the U.S. State Department, expressed appreciation for "the richness that these minority communities bring to the region [the Middle East]." Desrocher assured the audience that "we are very aware of the direct physical threats to minority populations" in Iraq. "We are grateful to the KRG for its willingness to host Christian refugees," he said. The State Department official also mentioned over $72 million in humanitarian aid that the United States had supplied to minority communities in Iraq.
Tamara Cofman Wittes, a former State Department official now at the Brookings Institution, saw the future of democracy being contested in Iraq and elsewhere across the Middle East. There has been "an embrace of the procedural elements of democracy," she noted, but the cultural values that undergird democracy "are not so well understood, much less embraced." Attitudes toward religious minorities and women are tests of rising Islamist movements' commitment to democracy. "The fate of Christians in the Arab world and the fate of democracy in the Arab world are inextricably intertwined," Wittes declared. She added that advocacy for Christians and other minorities should not come across as "special pleading for favored groups."
Thomas Farr, Director of the Religious Freedom Project at Georgetown University's Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs, argued that "it's perfectly appropriate for Christians to stand with their co-religionists" overseas. Farr, an Institute on Religion and Democracy board member, affirmed that "the United States in its foreign policy has an opportunity, which it has not taken, to improve the lot of Christians and others in the Middle East."
He concluded: "Stable, lasting democracy is in our [U.S.] interest. It will not happen without religious freedom.
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