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A haven for Iraqi Christians

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

The following article was published in the Church Times 18th February.


The plight of Christians in Iraq and the wider Middle East is very bad news, but we shouldn’t ignore the good news from the Kurdistan Region of Iraq. The All-Party Parliamentary Group on the Region, which I chair, has explored the issue during fact-finding visits there, and as a practicing Christian myself I am particularly keen to establish a full and truthful picture.


Recognised as an ethnic group the Kurdish people live mainly in Iraq, Turkey, Iran and Syria. While some Kurdish nationalists have long campaigned for a separate Kurdish state, Iraqi Kurds support the federal structure outlined in the Iraqi constitution. Clear and continued restatement of this by senior Kurdish politicians in Iraq has led to improved relationships with neighbouring Turkey. The Turks fear that a neighbouring independent Kurdish state would reignite demands within their own large Kurdish minority.  

The Iraqi Kurds comprise around 17% of the Iraqi population and mainly live in the north of the country, a beautiful mountainous area. They were brutally suppressed by Saddam Hussein, suffering mass deportation, having hundreds of their villages destroyed and large scale killing including the horrific gassing of thousands of civilians at Halabja in 1988.


The autonomous administrative area of Iraqi Kurdistan comprises the three provinces of Duhok, Erbil and Sulaymaniyah with around 40,000 square kilometres (15,000 sq mi) and a population of around 4.5 million. It was established in summer 1992 following a Kurd revolt against Saddam Hussein and the subsequent establishment of a ‘safe haven’ by the UN Security Council. This allowed them to run their own affairs and begin to develop democratic structures but it is only since the fall of Saddam Hussein that they have truly been able to develop as a region.


They regard the 2003 invasion of Iraq as their liberation, and consequently are very welcoming to UK visitors and have a high regard for Britain. This is exemplified by a wish to develop strong links. The Kurdish business community are keen to develop trade and investment and see the UK as their partner of choice. Similarly many public services are looking to the UK to help them develop their infrastructure.


When I was last in the Iraqi Kurdistan capital, Erbil, I spoke at length to the city’s Chaldean Bishop and to former Deputy Prime Minister Sarkis Aghajan Mamendu, who has received a papal knighthood for his services to Christians in Iraq. They both praised the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) which has pledged to “preserve and nurture a tolerant multi-ethnic, multi-religious society.”


Kurdistan Regional President Barzani told a press conference in Baghdad in November that: “I want to let Iraqi Christians know that the Kurdistan Region is open to them. If they want to come, we will protect them and provide them with all services. We are extremely sorry for the crimes to which they have been subjected in other parts of Iraq, and we condemn these criminal acts. They are innocent people and a precious community of this country. We urge the [federal Baghdad] government to provide security for them."


When I visited in early January last year the Christians churches were brightly lit and Christmas trees still in place as the community looked forward to celebrating the orthodox Christmas on the 6 January. Having suffered oppression under previous regimes the KRG parliament has implemented measures to protect all minorities giving political representation, education, free expression, and the fundamental right to safety and security. The Kurdistan Government has rebuilt 100 villages, and gives monthly stipends to around 10,000 families. It has provided new homes and community halls and rebuilt or renovated over 200 Christian churches in the Region.


The KRG supports the right to learn and study in people’s mother tongues with their first funded Syriac and Armenian primary schools opening in 1993, just a year after establishing control in the region. There are now 62 primary and preparatory Syrian and Armenian schools and more than 10 Syrian secondary schools in Erbil and Dohuk.


Five of the 111 seats in the Kurdistan Parliament are reserved for Christians. Seats for minorities are also guaranteed at provincial levels and the KRG seeks to recruit from minorities into the police and security forces. In the city of Sulaymaniyah the old Jewish quarter has had a preservation order imposed to ensure that it keeps its character; where else in the Middle East would this be possible outside of Israel?


The Region has become a safe haven for Iraqis of all ethnicities, religions and sects. In early December Ammar Ablahad fled Baghdad to northern Iraq determined to celebrate Christmas with his wife and baby without fear of attack. "There’s a 100% difference," said Ablahad, 32, a civil engineer who joined thousands of other Iraqi Christians fleeing to the safer north after deadly attacks and persistent militant threats against a dwindling Christian population.


Some critics attack Iraqi Kurdistan because they mistakenly confuse and conflate Northern Iraq and the Kurdistan Region. The most violent parts of Iraq in the north, not least for Christians, are outside the Kurdistan Region in areas such as the cities of Mosul and Kirkuk. Allegations that Kurdish ‘militia’ were involved in killing and displacing Christians in Mosul in 2008 are untrue. Both the International Crisis Group and Human Rights Watch investigated these murders and found no evidence for these accusations.


The KRG says it will continue to cooperate with international human rights organisations, which are welcome to visit and see for themselves. Recently the Vatican’s papal ambassador to Baghdad, Rev.  Georgio Lingua, on a visit to Kurdistan said Christians were enjoying "good security and living circumstances.”


There are some land disputes between individuals, a legacy of the Arabisation policies practised by previous Iraqi regimes’ which saw the forcible expulsion of Kurds, Turkmen and other non-Arab minorities from Kirkuk, Sinjar and elsewhere. However these disputes are not only between people of different nationalities and religions, but also within them. For instance, rival land claims by Kurds who left their homes during the decades of conflict with Iraqi governments returning to find other Kurd families living in their properties. Christian communities from the Kurdistan Region face similar problems.


The All-Party Parliamentary Group will itself continue to monitor the treatment of Christians in Iraqi Kurdistan and press the government to stick to its clear commitments. We seek to commend where possible and criticise where necessary. So far, we have been extremely impressed by the willingness of the Kurdistan Regional Government to show imaginative and humanitarian leadership and expect that this will continue. We hope that their example will be followed in the rest of Iraq and the wider Middle East where Christians are under real pressure.


Meg Munn MP

Chair of the Kurdistan Region of Iraq All-Party Parliamentary Group.

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