Iraq’s Christians ponder future in wake of Kurdish independence vote

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Iraqi Christians are divided over whether their areas in northern Iraq should be a part of Kurdistan, the Iraqi central government or an entirely new autonomous area.
REUTERS/Alaa Al-Marjani
An Iraqi priest holds the first Mass at the Grand Immaculate Church since its recapture from the Islamic State in Qaraqosh, near Mosul, Iraq, Nov. 2, 2016.

BAGHDAD — The Chaldean Catholic Patriarch Louis Rafael Sako, in an Oct. 16 press interview, expressed his concern that the Kurdish crisis would put at risk the Christians’ presence in Iraq. He said the current conflict in the disputed areas between Baghdad and Erbil would impede the Christians’ return to their areas, and prompt Christians to rush to leave their country for good.

Sako appealed to Christians to unite their ranks and engage in dialogue to preserve the Christian component in Iraq. Nevertheless, the church’s calls for a dialogue that would have Iraq’s Christians discuss the future of “the Christian component” may not gain much traction because of the great divide among this religious grouping, particularly following the referendum on independence for the Kurdistan region that took place Sept. 25.

There are three main political stances among Christians. Ryan Chaldean, the leader of the Popular Mobilization Units’ (PMUs) Babylon Brigade, represents Christians close to the Shiites and federal authority. They are committed to Iraq’s unity and oppose the secession of Kurdistan, where the largest part of the Christian minority in Iraq lives.

Furthermore, there are those Christians who favor secession and becoming part of a Kurdish state. They are made up of a large number of Assyrian and Syriac parties, most notably the Chaldean Syriac Assyrian Popular Council.

The third stance is expressed by those who say there is a need for Christians to have an internationally sponsored special status within a federal Iraq. Sako is one of them.

There are an estimated 450,000 Christians in Iraq, mainly in Dahuk and Erbil provinces in the Kurdistan region and in Alqosh and Bartella in the Ninevah Plains in Ninevah province. There are also are some Christians in Baghdad and other Arab-majority provinces.

People in Christian areas were subject to captivity and forced displacement after the Islamic State (IS) seized parts of northern and western Iraq in 2014, particularly Mosul. This caused a majority of Christians to move to the Kurdistan region in the past three years. Earlier, other Christians had fled to the Kurdistan region as sectarian violence erupted in Baghdad. Presently, they hold an important card in the Iraqi-Kurdish equation, and many Christians voted in the referendum on Kurdish independence.

Halan Hermez, a member of the Chaldean Syriac Assyrian Popular Council, told Al-Monitor, “Christians are an important component in the Kurdistan region. They are even the indigenous people of this territory. Based on that, taking part in the referendum on the Kurdistan independence was imperative.”

Hermez, who is also a member of the Supreme Council for the Kurdistan Region Referendum, said, “The vast majority of this Christian component is in favor of the independence, as they were subjected to killings and displacements in the rest of the Iraqi areas. This is while they have found security and stability in Kurdistan.”

Commenting on the Chaldean Syriac Assyrian Popular Council’s perception of Christians’ future, Hermez said, “An independent region within the Kurdish state is what we seek. In case independence does not succeed, we seek to have a province that includes the Ninevah Plains established, provided that this province be within the Kurdistan region.”

Of note, Christians do not form a majority in all areas where they have a strong presence, particularly outside the Kurdistan region. For instance, Christians make up about 15% of the Ninevah Plains population, while the Yazidis consist of nearly 40%. The Shabak people represent 25% and Arabs 20%. In addition, there are 65,000 Christian citizens in Qaraqosh, also known as Hamdaniya, alongside 175,000 Shabak and Kurdish people in the Ninevah province.

There are about 25,000 Christian citizens out of 175,000 people in Tel Keppe district, while there are 7,000 Christians out of 37,000 people in the Shekhan district. Both are in Ninevah.

Based on that, Joseph Saliwa, a Christian member of the Iraqi parliament for the al-Warka bloc, said, “It is not to the Christians’ advantage to have a region established at present or to support the Kurdistan region’s secession from Iraq.” He told Al-Monitor, “The referendum has ignited many crises within the country and problems with neighbors and the rest of the world’s countries. It is not in the advantage of a minority, such as the Christian minority, to be involved in that.”

Saliwa said, “The establishment of a new province affiliated with the Baghdad central government is the most suitable solution for Christians — a province that would include the Ninevah Plains, and all of its neighboring areas inside and outside the region. It would also accommodate the area’s other components, such as the Shabak people and Yazidis, under the umbrella of the international community. It would be a province that would become a model of development in Iraq.”

He said, “The Iraqi Cabinet had previously decided to turn the Ninevah Plains into a province. We will be seeking to activate such a decision in parliament.”

He said, “Significant pressure placed on Christians by parties in control of their areas is behind the differing Christian stances.”

The Babylon Brigades’ Ryan Chaldean opposed the referendum and Christians’ secession from Iraq. He also rejected the idea that they should be given special status. He argued in Oct. 13 statement that Kurdish authorities are “further entrenching the Kurdish character” in the Kurdish areas, adding that the independence issue is like “a fire” ignited in Iraq.

Iraqi Christians’ pursuit of living in security and having their civil rights safeguarded exceeds their search for a political and administrative independence. This is due to the harassment they have suffered at the hands of armed groups and militias, as well as their political exploitation by various Iraqi parties that view the minority card to be of a major importance in acquiring land and obtaining international support and sympathy.

In order for minorities, particularly the Christian minority, to have a special status or have their social and security problems resolved, they are required to take part in a “historic” political settlement that may require that amendments be added to the Iraqi constitution, that ensures security, guarantees political stability and puts a halt to the demands that independence be achieved and a region be established.

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