By Ano Jawhar Abdoka 14 hours ago Palm Sunday in the Christian neighborhood of Erbil, the capital city of the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, on April 14, 2019. File photo: Safin Hamed | AFP Palm Sunday in the Christian neighborhood of Erbil, the capital city of the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, on April 14, 2019. File photo: Safin Hamed | AFP
With the fall of Saddam’s regime in Baghdad in 2003, around 2 million Christians lived in Iraq — nearly 1.1 million in Baghdad alone. In 2004, terrorists, armed militias, and organized criminal gangs started targeting Christians, spreading misinformation that the Christians had helped the so-called “Crusader invaders”. They disregarded the fact that the Christians of Iraq are the original citizens of Mesopotamia, the descendants of the great civilizations of Babylon and Assyria, the descendants of Hammurabi, Ashurbanipal, Esarhaddon, Shamiram, Nebuchadnezzar, and Sargon. According to the ‘Iraqi Human Right Organization in USA’, more than 1,350 Christians were assassinated and killed in the non-Kurdish governorates of Iraq between 2003 and 2014. Thousands were kidnapped and tortured—and only released once they agreed to pay massive ransoms. More than 35,000 Christian properties, houses, and businesses were appropriated and sold without consent. Clergymen, bishops, and priests were also killed, kidnapped, and humiliated, and more than 150 churches were attacked. Christian students and workers were persecuted and harassed on a daily basis, with discrimination particularly severe in Mosul and Baghdad. As a result of this persecution, the vast majority of Christians fled the country entirely, while a significant proportion moved to the stable, tolerant, and secure region of Kurdistan. Barzani ordered: The doors are wide open… The Kurdistan Region of today was historically the land of the Chaldean Assyrian Syriac people. Kurdistan is considered one of the first and foremost ancient Christian centers on Earth. In the first century of Christianity, Erbil, then known as Erba-Eillo or Hediab, named its first bishop, Fqeeda, in 99 A.D — proving that Kurdistan embraced and continues to embrace, one of the world’s oldest Christian communities. Following the targeting of Christians across the rest of Iraq, tens of thousands of Christian families decided to join their Christian brethren in Kurdistan and start a new life in their ancestral lands. The first waves of Christian families were internally displaced in the Kurdistan Region from 2004–2006, after a string of attacks on several churches in Baghdad and Mosul, as well as on individual Christians. Masoud Barzani, then president of the Kurdistan Region, declared the Region was officially ready to embrace Christians and other minorities. Kurdistan Region Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani began a campaign to rebuild and reconstruct ancient Christian villages and towns in Kurdistan. He called for new arrivals to be employed in KRG institutions, resulting in thousands of newly arrived Christians becoming government employees with stable sources of income. Additionally, thousands of Christian families were granted plots of land to build houses on. These initiatives provided enough impetus to encourage many Christians to make the brave decision to stay in Iraq, instead of seeking refuge elsewhere. Perhaps the most important element of life in the Kurdistan Region for Christians is its stability and security. If you ask any Christian in Kurdistan how the Peshmerga treat them at checkpoints, they will tell you that as soon as the security officer distinguishes you as a Christian, even from the Cross on your chest or hanging on your car mirror, they are met with warm, welcoming greetings. On every Christmas or Easter evening, you will witness the Peshmerga protecting churches at prayer time. As such, not a single attack has been recorded against Christians and their churches in the Kurdistan Region. Nineveh Plains, the tragedy of ISIS, and the surprise of the armed militia When ISIS invaded Christian towns and villages in Mosul and the Nineveh Plains, more than 150,000 Christians fled to Kurdistan. Supported by churches, the KRG, and the international community, Christian IDPs lived in rented houses and camps, holding out for the liberation of their homeland for more than three years. The IDPs started returning home from the beginning of 2017 – but an unpleasant surprise awaited them. Christians witnessed the theft of their territory in the Nineveh Plains by the Shiite militia known as the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) during the vacuum of government authority that came immediately after the liberation from ISIS. The PMF stayed put, controlling the Nineveh Plain territories and starting a systematic and violent wave of demographic change that pushed the Christians out of their territories, resulting in the return of only 35 percent of Christian IDPs. The rest either fled the country entirely, or decided to settle in the Kurdistan Region. The Region became a refuge for the Christians of the Nineveh Plains who are still yet to decide whether to return to their villages because of the unstable security situation; they represent 40-50% of the Nineveh Plains population. Kurdistan … the other Iraq Last Christmas in the Kurdistan Region, more than 120 churches celebrated Easter and the resurrection of our Almighty Jesus Christ. In one week, more than 650 holy services and prayers were organized in the Kurdistan Region’s churches and monasteries. While dozens of churches have been closed in Baghdad, Mosul, and other Iraqi provinces in recent years, the Kurdistan Region has seen many churches built, inaugurated, and opened, including 14 Evangelical churches, four Chaldean Catholic churches, two Syriac Catholic churches, a Syriac Orthodox Church, an Armenian Orthodox Church, and one Assyrian Church of the East. The Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) has, in coordination with church leaders, supported many initiatives to empower the Christian community. It ordered the grant of large plots of land to different churches and NGOs to empower Christians in the region, through the creation of radio stations, hospitals, schools, a university, cultural institutions, and residences for vulnerable people. Many other projects are currently under development. Kurdistan Region, Christianity’s 21st century Coenaculum The Coenaculum of Mount Zion is considered to be the sanctuary of the disciples of our almighty Lord Jesus Christ, who were persecuted, frightened, and awaiting the power of the Holy Spirit. It is considered to be the site of a series of landmark New Testament events, and the first church of Christianity. For Christians all over the world, the Coenaculum is a symbol of gathering and a symbol of security. After the genocide committed against the Christians of Iraq by ISIS, the Kurdistan Region became their sole stable sanctuary. Just as the apostles of Jesus Christ waited for the Holy Spirit in the Coenaculum of Zion, today our Christian brethren from the Nineveh Plains wait in Kurdistan for their eventual return to their home. The Christians of Kurdistan, Chaldean Assyrian Syriacs, and Armenians who represent more than 70 percent of Christians in Iraq, are looking forward to the new formation of the KRG, optimistic that it will continue to be a source of support. The Christians are optimistic that the KRG will continue working to strengthen their existence in Kurdistan by resolving current problems surrounding land ownership, and include the full rights of Christians in the Kurdistan Region’s constitution. Christians are optimistic that both Kurdistan’s President and Prime Minister to-be will always remain committed to the current President’s consistent policy of preserving and empowering peaceful ethnic and religious co-existence, so that Kurdistan will always be a flourishing and thriving center for the Christians of the East. Ano Jawhar Abdoka is head of the Shlama Trend for Christians Affairs. He is completing a PhD in Politics and International Relations at UKH. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of Rudaw.