by Madeleine Davies
On the streets: Kurds celebrate in Duhok, Iraq, on the night of the referendum on Monday
A KURDISH Anglican priest described this week how his memories of growing up under Saddam Hussein’s rule had influenced his decision to vote in favour of Kurdish independence.
An overwhelming majority — more than 90 per cent — voted “Yes” in the referendum held on Monday.
The Vicar of St Richard of Chichester, Langney, the Revd Timothy Ezat, left Iraq, aged 16. As a child, he heard “whispers on the streets” about Halabja, the Kurdish town where thousands of people were killed in chemical attacks in 1988.
He can remember learning of the discovery of bodies of people killed in the al-Anfal campaign, and also fleeing towards Halabja during the 1991 Kurdish revolution. He was ten when his father, a civil servant, was killed, after being ordered by the Iraqi government to defend the city against the Peshmerga. He arrived in the UK as a refugee in 1999.
“People say, ‘Can’t you just make this work, and live together?’” he said on Tuesday. “The reality is, no, because the scars are still fresh.”
Both he and his wife, a Chaldean Christian, voted in favour of independence. “I can hardly think of a Kurd who is not supporting this,” he said.
Iraq was a new country, he said, “a new experiment; and the reality is that you have put groupings of people together who are very dissimilar. . . We were always a persecuted minority.” The situation was even worse for Kurds in Turkey and Syria, he said, and the Iraqi government had consistently refused to deliver on promises to hold referendums. There was also a sense, he said, that the Kurds had been “betrayed” by the international community during decades of persecution.
Brought up as a “nominal Muslim”, and an atheist as a teenager, he became a Christian at 16, after watching a film about Jesus. It would be “misleading” to suggest that there was one Christian voice on the referendum, he said. But Christians had been able to live and practise their religion freely in Kurdistan. Life was better than in the rest of Iraq, he said, “but all this progress is hampered by instability in the rest of Iraq. . . It is time to realise our dream for governing our own affairs, and, as President Barzani says, if we cannot live with each other, we can be good neighbours.”
The Washington Post’s Baghdad bureau chief, Tamer El-Ghobashy, tweeted on Monday that the Chaldean Archbishop of Erbil, Mar Bashar Warda, had voted in favour of independence. But Open Doors reported that Christians “feared fresh violence” in the wake of the referendum, which is fiercely opposed in the region. The Prime Minister of Iraq, Haider el-Abadi, has rejected it as “unconstitutional”.
One source of conflict is the inclusion in the referendum of the “disputed areas”: places captured by Kurdish forces during the anti-IS campaign, including the Nineveh plains, where many Christians lived. The United States has described this decision as “particularly provocative and destabilising”.
The chief executive of the Foundation for Relief and Reconciliation in the Middle East, Mike Simpson, said this week that the desire for independence was “understandable”, but emphasised that any Kurdish independence or change in the degree of autonomy for the region must address the needs of Christians and Yazidis, “who are, after all, also indigenous to the area”.
Elliot Grainger, who chairs and is the founder of the Ankawa Foundation, which is focusing on providing mental-health support for Christians in the region, said that anxiety in the disputed areas was “well-founded”, and noted that some Christians in Iraq were pushing for their own autonomous region.
It is estimated that Kurds make up at least 15 per cent of Iraq’s population. The 2005 constitution of Iraq recognised the autonomy of the Kurdistan Region under the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG). It has a population of about 5.2 million, including 100,000 Christians and 1.8 million refugees and IDPs.
In her 2017 report, the UN Special Rapporteur on the human rights of internally displaced persons, Cecilia Jimenez-Damary, praised the KRG for “supporting and providing a safe haven for displaced communities”, and noted “generally good relations between different . . . religious communities”
This week, Baroness Nicholson of Winterbourne, who chairs and is the founder of AMAR International Charitable Foundation, a British NGO that runs health and education projects in the region, praised the “continuing generosity and warmth of spirit the Kurdish people have shown to the IDPs. . .
“Rather than concerning ourselves with the politics, the world should be concentrating on how we are going to continue to help all these poor homeless people.”
The vote is not binding, but the President of the KRG, Masoud Barzani, has said that it would provide a mandate for negotiations about a peaceful secession.