Christian politician discusses pros and cons of Kurdistan referendum

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By A.C. Robinson
Abdulahad Afram Sawa meeting Pope Benedict. Photo: Courtesy of Abdulahad Afram Sawa
Abdulahad Afram Sawa, 69, General Secretary of the Chaldean Democratic Party in Kurdistan and twice a former Iraqi MP sat down with Rudaw on Tuesday to discuss the obstacles his community faces in Iraq and the Kurdistan Region as well as around the world. The Chaldeans are a Christian sect with their own distinct language and beliefs.Sawa believes Chaldeans like himself see independence for the Kurdistan Region as a form of protection. He adds that some 35 million Kurds in the four parts of Kurdistan remain stateless and this is due to problems after World War I. He is encouraging Chaldeans in diaspora to vote in the September 25 referendum, while acknowledging that the Christians in Kurdistan have not yet reached  a“full-fledged democracy.” He is of the opinion that many Chaldeans who sought shelter from ISIS in the Kurdistan Region would like to stay.

The native of Duhok has resided there most of his life. He also previously held the position as Deputy Minister of Health and Social Affairs for the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG). He studied at the University of Baghdad receiving his Bachelors of Arts in Kurdish Language. Sawa said that he took a break from university in 1974 to take part in the Kurdish Revolution but returned to university and graduated in 1975.

Who are the Chaldeans of Kurdistan and Iraq and have they faced challenges?

The Chaldeans are an ancient community. Their original country used to be in the area from Babylon to Yemen between the years

  This referendum is a good opportunity for the Kurdish people to know what will happen to them 

3,000-2,000 years BCE. Now the Chaldeans are spread mostly throughout the Kurdistan Region and Iraq.

Chaldeans in Kurdistan have a certain freedom to practice our religion but as others minorities here, our community in Kurdistan has not yet reached a level of full-fledged democracy, so it’s not uncommon that we sometimes encounter problems.
What about discrimination? 


Not these days. It’s not like it used to be. But if we [Chaldeans] and even other Kurds don’t have freedom of speech, freedom to work or the freedom to be integrated it would be possible that there would be problems.

What is the current population of the Chaldean community within Iraq and the Kurdistan region?

I had a number in 1992, but now as the government decided to open the doors for others to immigrate here, the number increased and isn’t like before. In the year 1992 there were 28,000 Chaldeans, but now there may be up to 150,000.

Where do most of the Chaldeans live?

Most of them are in Baghdad, after that Nineveh and here in Erbil and Duhok after that, in Sulaimani in Kurdistan and Iraq. But as far as other countries, there are more than 250,000 in the US, and there are also Chaldean communities in Australia and in European countries, so they are spread around the world.

Is the Chaldean community a very close community or do they integrate with other communities?

The Chaldeans in general are a very open community.  We have good relations with people all over Kurdistan and even the ones in Iraq gave good relations with Arabs and Turks. In Kurdistan we are even more integrated with our brothers no matter if they are Muslims or Yezidis.

What do you expect from the Kurdistan Region’s independence referendum?

Me as a politician, I look at things differently. I am interested in history, so that’s why I have knowledge about the situation in

  I would like that my community goes and votes for independence in the referendum, like other Kurds.  

Kurdistan and around Kurdistan. This area of Kurdistan was not a part of Iraq before WWI, I can’t say for sure but I believe that the Kurdish population is about 35 million so the Kurds have the right to have their own country. Other countries that have a lower population have their own country, but Kurdistan wasn’t made a country because of a certain problem after WWI and became divided. And this referendum is a good opportunity for the Kurdish people to know what will happen to them, will they become a country or stay like this, and be spread around Iraq, Iran, Syria, Turkey and Russia.

Chaldeans have lived here for about 2,000-3,000 years. My father, my grandfather lived here and the same way I want to protect myself, I have to try to protect others as well. Kurds want their own country and we as Chaldeans in Kurdistan are for independence.

Are you in contact with the Chaldeans in diaspora? What do they think about the upcoming referendum?

We are in contact. But as I said before Chaldeans are spread around, so the way of thinking of a Chaldean who lives in Kurdistan is different than a Chaldean that has lived in Jordan. But the Chaldeans in Kurdistan are different, because it’s their home and they have lived with Kurdish people for years. So they have to protect the Kurdish people the way they want to protect themselves.

The flag of the Chaldean Christians.

In general, does the Chaldean community in Kurdistan support the referendum for independence?

Yes, we support the referendum.

What would you say to your community or the people of Kurdistan regarding the referendum?

I want to send a message to my people. They have their freedom so we should not step away from the Kurdish community. I would like that my community goes and votes for independence in the referendum, like other Kurds. There might be people that don’t like it, but at least they have to go and vote, whether it’s “yes” or “no”. I want to encourage them all to state their opinion.

What does the Chaldean community want to see post-ISIS?

We as Chaldeans and Christians in general, we wish for peace everywhere. After ISIS coming to Iraq we and especially the Yezidis

  But we always had certain freedoms especially in Syria where we were more accepted than other countries such as Turkey.   

faced a tremendous disaster because we are not Muslims. There are not any Christians left in the cities that have been in control by ISIS, and if there was anyone left ISIS killed them without any doubt. That’s why I think, these people will not go back to these cities like Mosul and the cities around Mosul, where ISIS has tortured these people. The Muslims in these areas will not see the Christians the way they used to, that’s why it’s difficult for them to return back there. But I think even if you ask the ones around Mosul, they would rather stay in Kurdistan and not return to their homes.

Why did most of the Chaldeans move to Ainkawa and Duhok when ISIS came in 2014?

This belongs to them. Maybe some of them want to return back home and their area. They thought maybe in the future that it will be a problem for them if they return back to Nineveh, to Mosul or to another place. But here in Kurdistan in Duhok, Erbil, Sulaimani or in other places, I think most of them as I heard from people, they want to stay here.

Is the Chaldean Christian community accepted in other countries within the region?

We have people everywhere, in Turkey, in Syria, in Lebanon, in Jordan and in Iraq. But to be honest there are more in Kurdistan and Iraq than the other places [in the region]. Before WWI there were more [Chaldeans] living in Turkey, but due to the Christian

  Our church is trying to find a loophole but for now the U.S government is insisting on their return to Iraq.  

massacres from 1915-1919 there are now less Chaldeans in this area. But we always had certain freedoms especially in Syria where we were more accepted than other countries such as Turkey. In Lebanon there is a law that ensures the freedom of everyone to practice their own religion. It’s not like in other countries. But in Iraq, especially in southern Iraq, year by year the situation is getting worse because the Christians, Chaldeans or not, are forced to leave the area. It’s a really big problem to leave our home country and our fortune behind without knowing what will happen to us.

In order for Iraq to be removed from the original US travel ban, the Iraqi government agreed to accept nationals in the US who had legal problems in the past or are currently in jail for breaking the law. Do you believe that America will allow this community to remain in the country or return them to Iraq?

It’s a really big problem, because there are about 250-300 people in jail that are affected with legal problems. These people don’t have anyone here in Iraq or the countries around Iraq. If they come here they might get lost or get into bigger problems. And we see this as a big oppression, leaving their parents behind and coming here without money, a house and no one that they know. How are they supposed to live here? That’s why we really do not support this, and our church is trying to find a loophole but for now the U.S government is insisting on their return to Iraq.

If returned, I understand these Iraqis will be sent to Baghdad. Is there any chance they can then be relocated to Erbil?

I think they will be directly flown in to Bagdad, not to Erbil but I do not have further knowledge. But this is huge inhumane issue. Some of them have been there [in America] for about 30 years, and because they have a problem, like mental illness or have broken the law, now they are in custody. And if they are brought here they don’t have anyone [to care for them] and no housing. This is a really big problem, but we don’t know what to do about it.

Abdulahad Afram Sawa with Kurdistan Region President Masoud Barzani. Photo: Courtesy of Abdulahad Afram Sawa