Christians reticent to comment on politics

servlet.jpgPeople play dominoes in front of a café in mainly Christian-inhabited Ankawa town, west of Erbil. GLOBE PHOTO/Ako Muhammed
By Qassim Khidhir
The Kurdish Globe

Political process vital for Christians in order to protect rights their rights

Some Christians express disbelief that their representatives will be able to “obtain all their rights.”

In Ankawa town, a largely Christian town at the western edge of Erbil city, thousands of posters of different Christian political parties have covered the walls. Very few people want to talk about politics, however.

People on the streets and in the shops and cafes refuse to comment on the upcoming Kurdistan parliamentary and presidential elections set for July 25.

“We are not interested in politics.” “We don’t know who we are voting for.” This is what people in Ankawa say when asked to comment on the elections.

A number of youths sitting in front of a shop selling CDs near the main Ankawa town church at first refused to talk. Later, however, one of the youths, a confident engineering student who spoke fluent Kurdish, said, “Our main concerns are housing problems, unemployment and difficulty getting married.”

Although he said it is good to have their representatives in Kurdistan Parliament, he was not confident that their representatives will be able to obtain all their rights.

“Protecting security” was the only demand uttered by Abdul-Kareem Hanna, a 73-year-old retiree who, along with two of his relatives and a Kurdish friend, was playing dominoes at an Ankawa café. All he knew about the election–or all he pretended to know–was that he and his family will vote on July 25. He could not even name electoral lists competing in his town to win the five seats dedicated for the Christian minority in Kurdistan Region’s Parliament. Four Christian lists are competing for these seats.

Dr. Thaair A.Ogisteen, head of the National Council of Chaldean Syriac Assyrians List, told “The Kurdish Globe” he is surprised that people in Ankawa say they are not “interested in politics.” “If we don’t participate in the political process in Kurdistan Region, how can we obtain and protect our rights,” Dr. Ogisteen asked.

He refused for the Christian people to be called simply “Christians.” “As a religion we are Christian, but as a nationality we are Chaldean Syriac Assyrians.” Dr. Ogisteen said calling the Chaldean Syriac Assyrians people simply “Christians” is like calling Kurds just Muslim people.

He pointed out that the priorities of his list are to achieve all national rights for their people (Chaldean Assyrian Syriac) including autonomy for their people who are living in their historical areas, in Kurdistan Region, and in the disputed areas (Mosul and Kirkuk).

Additionally, he said his list works to designate the name of Chaldean-Syriac- Assysrians in the Kurdistan Constitution as one nationality.

Concerning basic services, he mentioned that the National Council of Chaldean Syriac Assyrians list works to solve the housing problem, create jobs, and pave the way for Chaldean Assyrian Syriac investors who are currently living outside the country to come back and invest in their country (Kurdistan Region).

“Also, we work to regain all our people’s lands, rebuild their villages and protect the archaeological sites that symbolize our people, and to make those areas a tourist destination.”

Christians used to live in the mountainous area in Kurdistan Region; however, after the Iraqi government in the ’70s and ’80s destroyed most of the Kurdish and Christian villages, accusing them of feeding and giving shelter to Kurdish rebels, the Christians emigrated to Baghdad, Mosul, and Basra. Some of their land was seized by Kurdish farmers and villagers.

As the Christian situation deteriorated after 2003, they were constantly attacked by extremists; many of them left Baghdad, Basra, and Mosul, and left either to Europe or Kurdistan Region.

When they returned to Kurdistan, the Kurdistan Regional Government and other humanitarian agencies rebuilt almost 120 villages for them (their original villages), but still they have not regained some of their lands and villages.

According to Christian sources and reports, 40% of Iraqi Christians left for Europe or Kurdistan Region since 2003; currently, the Christian population in Kurdistan is approximately half a million.

Kurdistan Constitution

The Christians are divided; some want the Chaldean, Syriac, and Assyrians to be mentioned as one nationality; other want to be separated.

Ruel Dawood Jamil, the first candidate of the Unified Chaldean List, which is composed of the Chaldean Union Party and the Chaldean National Council, said that the Chaldeans are “different from Syriac and Assyrians; we don’t want all of us to be mentioned in the Kurdistan Constitution as one nationality.”

According to Jamil, 75% of Christians in Kurdistan Region are Chaldean. He remarked that the priority of the Unified Chaldean List is to protect the rights of Chaldean people and to designate the name of Chaldean in the Kurdistan Constitution as one nationality.

If Kurdistan Parliament and leaders do not separate the name of Chaldean from Syriac and Assyrians, the Chaldean parties will file suit in Iraqi federal court, he noted.

Regarding autonomy for Christians, he said Christians should decide through a referendum whether they want autonomy.

The Unified Chaldean List wants Article 140 of the Iraqi Constitution to be implemented because Christians in the disputed areas were removed from their lands and replaced by Arabs, Jamil stated. “We demand the land to be returned to our people.”

The other side, which is demanding the Chaldean, Syriac, and Assyrians be mentioned in the Kurdistan Constitution as one nationality, proclaim that their aim is to unify their people.

“We are one people; we live in the same land, we speak the same language, and we have the same religion. Why we should be separated?” said Aziz Amanuel Zebari, a high-ranking member of the National Council of Chaldean Syriac Assyrians.

Zebari added that if they are united they can gain more rights, including autonomy. “Now we are struggling to find a name for our people.”

He believes that autonomy for Christians is possible since it is written in Kurdistan’s draft Constitution that Christians can have their autonomy. Moreover, he believes most of the Christians in Kurdistan Region and in the disputed areas will vote in favor of autonomy when the referendum is voted for.

During a meeting with a large number of the Christian community on July 15, Kurdistan Region President Massoud Barzani said that Christians are free to choose any name for themselves. “We (Kurds) don’t want to choose a name for you; you have to tell us how you want to be mentioned in the Kurdistan Constitution,” Barzani told them.

He advised the Christians to hold a conference in Erbil city and invite all of the Christian politicians and intellectuals from both inside and outside Iraq, so that they can come to an agreement on what name they want to be mentioned under in the Constitution.

It is currently written in Kurdistan’s draft Constitution that the people of Kurdistan are Kurds, Turkmen, Arabs, Chaldeans Syriac Assyrians, and Armenians who are citizens of Kurdistan territory. Thus, Christian nationalities are not named separately.

Also, the draft Constitution says that Christians can have autonomy within Kurdistan Region.