Christians’ future in the Iraqi Kurdistan

by Abdulla Hawez (Kurdistan)
As it becomes clear that one major outcome of the region’s revolutions will be the empowerment of Islamists, the Arab Spring threatens to become a nightmare for the Middle East’s Christian minority. Christians across the Arab world are afraid that a change of regime – specifically one resulting in a theocracy – will mean a removal or reduction of their rights. A large proportion of the Middle East’s Christian population lives in Egypt and Syria, both of which have seen big changes since the start of the Arab Spring. The Christians in Iraq, meanwhile, have suffered greatly as a result of the country’s security vacuum over the past decade. In the Arab Spring countries, the situation continues to look uncertain for the Christians, who have seen already the implementation of Islamist practices and policies in Egypt, including the jailing of actors and actress for their having starred previously in tongue-in-cheek movies about Islamists, Adel Emam, the most famous Egyptian actor for his movie The Terrorist jailed for four months is an excellent example. In Syria, the revolution is increasingly becoming a sectarian conflict. In Iraq, meanwhile, the targeting of Christians, often resulting in their displacement if not their deaths, has become an almost daily activity for terrorists.

While many Christians have left the country, those who preferred to remain in Iraq often sought refuge in the north. Kurdistan’s flourishing capital of Erbil has hosted many of those Christians who have had to flee from places such as Baghdad and Musil. Over the last few years, the Kurdish region has seen many crucial achievements that are still missing in other parts of Iraq, above all, security and attracting foreign investment. One of these achievements, or so the story goes, is the hosting of a large part of Iraq’s Christian minority, a phenomenon which has brought positive international attention to the region. Almost all of the reports on this subject give optimistic news about the Christians’ situation in Kurdistan; to put this to the test, I tried to go inside the Christian community (which is by and large a conservative one) to figure out how they feel about their current situation.

Iraqi Christians are barely 1% of Iraq’s population. At present they are mainly to be found in the predominately Christian town of Ankawa, which is located in the suburbs of Erbil, and in smaller concentrations around Musil and Baghdad. According to unofficial statistics, the population of Ankawa is currently around 35,000; of this, original residents make up 15,000, Muslims 4,000, and displaced Christians from all around Iraq the rest of the figure.

Christians in Kurdistan live in self-imposed isolation, remaining within community boundaries in order to feel secure. When one enters the Christian enclave which the building infrastructure development is evident the psychological pressure under which the inhabitants live can easily be felt. Speaking to Christians, one hears about how uncertain they are regarding their future, especially after the regime changes in the region. “The Arab Spring is a problem for Christians” says David Saka, 23, studying business and management at a British-style university in Erbil. The collective voice of Islamists in Kurdistan has become louder since the revolutions began; this in itself makes Christians scared. Saka is a close friend with the son of one of the Kurdish Islamist leaders that scares him. He says he has no problem with the father of his friend –rather, he has a problem with his ideology. Hilda Khorany, a clothing designer, also feels “threatened” when she hears the word “Islamists”. Khorany, showing a beautiful smile, said that she “loves Kurdistan” and that most of her friends are Kurds, but that she doesn’t wish to see the rise of Islamists in the province. Both Saka and Khorany feel happy with the current government in Kurdistan, and perceive it as liberal.

However two other young Christians, who preferred to remain anonymous, said that “there is a big conspiracy against us [Christians]”. For many years, the young man insisted, “it was forbidden for Muslims to buy lands in Ankawa, but now they are occupying our town through investments”. He mentioned a huge project by a Turkish company to build residential houses there – which, according to him, have been bought mainly by Arab Muslims. He complained also about plans to build a mosque in Ankawa to accommodate of the rapidly growing number of Muslims. He also indicated that their culture is being destroyed through the building of bars and nightclubs. Saka and Khorany each added their own complaints about the amount of bars in their town. The anonymous young Christian even stated that he wished to be ruled by Islamists rather than the current government, because “at least then we will live with dignity. While they may ask for Jizyah, we have lots of money to pay”.

Following up on the story of the expanding number of bars and clubs – a phenomenon which has led some to refer to Ankawa as Iraq’s red light district – shows a complicated situation behind the scenes. There was supposed to be a bill in the Kurdish parliament to limit the number of bars in Ankawa, but it couldn’t be passed for political reasons. According to sources, most of the bars belong to high-ranking Iraqi and Kurdish officials, meaning that no-one can close them, even though most of them are illegal. When the mayor of Ankawa, a Christian, closed a bar for being only 10 meters away from a church, he was told by an official: “you want to make Ankawa like Afghanistan”. When Christian activists tried to protest against the increasing number of bars and nightclubs, they were threatened with physical removal by unknown people, believed to from the men of bar owners. Christians are further handicapped by a reluctance to be involved in political life. While they have a number of small parties, these can normally barely gather 100 members, who seem to spend time collecting money and little else. Nevertheless, in the Kurdish parliament Christians have five secure seats according to the quota system in place, and non-Christian politicians are not unsympathetic. The Kurdish president, Masoud Barzani, has been recognized many times by the Vatican and by western countries for protecting Christians, who have been targeted elsewhere in Iraq on a daily basis.

Most of the Christians that I met complained of the gradual demise of their language and culture. The Syriac language, which is used on a day-to-day basis by the Kurdistan Christians, is taught in only two schools. This language has roots in the Assyrian civilization, whose presence in Iraq goes back several thousands of years; because of this, Christians may feel that on some level they are the “owners” of the land, and that they represent the strongest link to its most ancient heritage. However, like other sects in Iraq, the Christians are divided. The Christians of southern Iraq tend to speak only Arabic, and are distinct from the Christians of Kurdistan, who tend to speak Syriac, along with Kurdish and Arabic. All the Kurdistan Christians that I met complained about the Southern-Iraqi Christians, whom they saw as being careless on matters of religion and culture. Moreover, Kurdistan Christians mainly support the idea of an independent Kurdish state, while Southern-Iraqi Christians pray for a united Iraq.

When it comes to their own individual prospects, the Christians are diverse in their views. David Saka says he will stay in Kurdistan because he feels that he can build a future there, and because he feels that “It is [his] homeland.” He says that “Christianity was built with our blood, beginning with the blood of Jesus. The more they persecute us the more it grows.” Hilda Khorany also wishes to continue her career in Kurdistan, saying that she plans to put on a fashion show. On the other hand, the anonymous young informant sees the Christians’ destiny as one that will be lived outside Iraq. “We will be forced, whether directly through physical violence or indirectly through psychological pressure, to leave our homeland one day. Our future isn’t here anymore.”