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Christians in Iraq and the Kurdistan Region of Iraq

Thursday, December 23, 2010

The plight of Christians in Iraq and the wider Middle East is very bad news, but we shouldn’t ignore the good news from the Kurdistan Region in Iraq. The All-Party Parliamentary Group on the Region, which I chair, has explored the issue during fact-finding visits there, and as a practicing Christian myself I am particularly keen to establish a full and truthful picture.

Some critics blast Iraqi Kurdistan because they mistakenly confuse and conflate Northern Iraq and the Kurdistan Region. The most violent parts of Iraq in the north, not least for Christians, are the cities of Mosul and Kirkuk, but both are outside the Kurdistan Region.

When I was last in the Iraqi Kurdistan capital, Erbil, I spoke at length to the city’s Chaldean Bishop and to former Deputy Prime Minister Sarkis Aghajan Mamendu, who has received a papal knighthood for his services to Christians in Iraq. They both praised the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) which has pledged to “preserve and nurture a tolerant multi-ethnic, multi-religious society.”

Kurdistan Regional President Barzani told a press conference in Baghdad in November that: “I want to let Iraqi Christians know that the Kurdistan Region is open to them. If they want to come, we will protect them and provide them with all services. We are extremely sorry for the crimes to which they have been subjected in other parts of Iraq, and we condemn these criminal acts. They are innocent people and a precious community of this country. We urge the [federal Baghdad] government to provide security for them."

Having suffered oppression under previous regimes, particularly Saddam Hussein’s, the KRG leadership and parliament have implemented measures to protect all minorities giving political representation, education, free expression, and the fundamental right to safety and security. The Kurdistan Government has rebuilt 100 villages, and gives monthly stipends to around 10,000 families. It has provided new homes and community halls and rebuilt or renovated over 200 Christian churches in the Region.

The KRG supports the right to learn and study in people’s mother tongues with their first funded Syriac and Armenian primary schools opening in 1993. There are now 62 primary and preparatory Syrian and Armenian schools and more than 10 Syrian secondary schools in Erbil and Dohuk.

Five of the 111 seats in the Kurdistan Parliament are reserved for Christians. Seats for minorities are also guaranteed at provincial levels and the KRG seeks to recruit from minorities into the police and security forces.

The Kurdistan Regional Government says it will continue to cooperate with international human rights organisations, which are welcome to visit the Region and see for themselves.

Many Christians from Arab Iraq have already made that decision. The Region has become a safe haven for Iraqis of all ethnicities, religions and sects, including thousands of Christian families.

There are some land disputes between individuals, a legacy of previous Iraqi regimes’ policies whose Arabisation policies saw the forcible expulsion of Kurds, Turkmen and other non-Arab minorities from Kirkuk, Sinjar and elsewhere. However, disputes are not only between people of different nationalities and religions, but also within them. For instance, there are rival land claims by Kurds who left their homes during decades of conflict with Iraqi governments, and on their return years later found other Kurds living in their properties. Christian communities from the Kurdistan Region face similar problems.

The KRG has never had a policy of taking lands or properties from Christians. Many disputes in the Kurdistan Region have been resolved by land being returned to Christians and others.

The KRG supports the principle of autonomous regions for minority nationalities where they form a majority in an area but does not believe in imposing the idea.

Allegations that KRG ‘militia’ were involved in killing and displacing Christians in Mosul in 2008 are untrue. Both the International Crisis Group and Human Rights Watch investigated these murders and found no evidence for these accusations.

The All-Party Parliamentary Group will itself continue to monitor the treatment of Christians in Iraqi Kurdistan and press the government to stick to its clear commitments. We seek to commend where possible and criticise where necessary. So far, we have been extremely impressed by the willingness of the Kurdistan Regional Government to show imaginative and humanitarian leadership and expect that this will continue. We hope that their example will be followed in the rest of Iraq and the wider Middle East where Christians are under real pressure.


Meg Munn MP

Kurdistan Region of Iraq All-Party Parliamentary Group.

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