Leaked US Cable: Kurdistan ‘Model’ For Minority Rights

Saint Joseph Chruch in Ainkawa, Erbil. Photo by Rozh Ahmad.
AMSTERDAM, the Netherlands — A WikiLeaks cable from the US Regional Reconstruction Team (RRT) in October 2008 shows that the US saw the Kurdistan Region as “the region that has best protected Iraqi minority communities since 2003.”

In the cable, the RRT calls the Kurdistan Regional Government’s (KRG) policies a “model” for protecting Christians in Iraq. US officials interviewed Chaldean and Assyrian leaders, Kurdistan Regional Government authorities, long-time Christian residents of the KRG and Iraqis who had sought refuge in the Kurdish north.

“The Kurdish model provides lessons in how to craft communitarian rights that might be applicable to other regions of Iraq,” the cable read.

The cable added, “Christians do not feel that they suffer discrimination as a result of religious and ethnic identification and believe that Kurdish leaders value their presence.”

Qubad Talabani, KRG’s representative to the United States, told Rudaw in an e-mail interview, “We like to think we treat everyone well; however, at times we have given more attentive treatment to Iraqi Christians because they are a persecuted minority in other parts of Iraq. The attacks against them in Basra, Baghdad and Mosul are deplorable, and we are proud that Kurdistan has proven to be a safe haven for many who have fled persecution elsewhere.”

There is also mistrust between Kurds and Christians, however, resulting from perceived Christian connections with the Baath regime.

Many Christians told US officials that the mostly-secular former regime provided some stability whereas the community has faced unprecedented threats since 2003, forcing tens of thousands to flee to northern Iraq or leave the country altogether. However, the secular nature of the Kurdistan Region’s ruling parties provides some comfort to the Christian communities, the RRT maintained.

The Christian community in the Kurdistan Region primarily resides in Duhok province, with smaller numbers in Erbil, and even fewer in Sulaimani. Christians have a quota of five seats in the KRG’s Parliament and hold two ministerial posts. The region has Aramaic-language schools which are run by Christians in the KRG’s Education Ministry.

According to the KRG, since 2003, over 10,000 Christian families have found refuge in Kurdistan.

The US suggested that Christians are assured a minimum level of political representation through quotas in the Kurdistan region, dedicated KRG funding, and in some instances special legal status for Christian communities.

In the Ainkawa township of Erbil Christians have special rights, and non-Christians cannot buy land there. While Christians have churches in mixed Christian and Muslim neighborhoods, the attempts by Muslims to build a mosque in Ainkawa was thwarted by Ainkawa’s mayor.

Still, Christians can face financial hardships in the KRG. Many coming from Baghdad or Mosul complain they cannot find jobs because they lack connections or don’t speak Kurdish, forcing them to live on their savings.

Father Basha Warda, Director of the St. Peter Chaldean Seminary, stated that there were 3,000 youths who had graduated from high school but were unable to continue onto university in the region because they did not speak Kurdish.

“Life for Christians in the Kurdish region is safer than in other parts of Iraq but provides them with only limited economic opportunities,” noted the RRT in Erbil.

According the US, the Kurdistan Region’s established Christian residents are better off financially and politically, but many still want to emigrate or return to their original homes rather than settle in Kurdistan.

Iraqi Christian MP Yonadam Yousef Kanna, in a meeting with the former US ambassador Christopher Hill in June 2009, laid the blame for mass Christian emigration on immigration policies in the United States and Europe. He argued that in order for minorities to stay in Iraq they needed not only security, but jobs as well.

Savina Dawood 23, a Christian who lives in Ainkawa, told Rudaw, “To some extent, yes they [KRG] have been protecting us better than other parts of Iraq.”

However, she added, “Christians coming from the other parts of Iraq who don’t know Kurdish are not been employed by the government.”

Dawood argued that ultimately, Christians need to be better represented in politics “so that we feel that we are treated as the original people of this land and we are given our rights fairly.”