Iraqi Kurdistan No Longer Refuge for Christians

Article Summary
Feeling increasingly marginalized, Iraqi Christians residing in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq consider emigration more and more each day.

Many Christian leaders and activists, as well as Kurdish and Arab leaders, once believed that Iraqi Kurdistan would serve as a temporary safe haven for Christians. Christians could reside there until Iraq's political and security situations stabilize.

According to reports, the number of Christian families who fled to cities in Iraqi Kurdistan and the Ninevah Plains is estimated at more than 65,000. These people, including civil rights activist Sadi Kiryakos, were correct in their assessment — Kurdistan was in fact a safe haven for Christians, but it was only seen as a "last stop" before the final migration out of Iraq.

Christians living in Iraqi Kurdistan do not usually confront risks such as kidnapping or murder. They do not often fall victim to car bombs and improvised explosive devices. The most serious risk they face is traffic accidents, according to Kiryakos. Still, emigration via Iraqi Kurdistan is ongoing, sometimes accelerating or decelerating, but "it never stops."

Violence is not always the cause behind emigration

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This means, according to Rev. Peter Hajji, that violence was by no means the reason behind the exodus of Christians from Iraqi Kurdistan out of Iraq.

Hajji believes that Christians who come from communities like Baghdad and Ninevah that are relatively open and mixed find themselves forced to live in a conservative tribal society. According to Hajji, this has triggered a “sense of alienation” among Christians who face difficulties adapting to a society whose language they do not even understand.

According to the Christian researcher Fabien Naoum, migration is also triggered by problems such as the employment system, which grants jobs to Kurds before other minorities, and cultural problems related to language and lifestyle.

Naoum says that the violence in Zakho and Dahuk in 2011 that impacted the Christians is the main cause behind migration from Iraqi Kurdistan. According to him, this violence was a natural consequence of rising religious extremism in the Kurdish community. This community produced one of the first militant organizations in Iraq, Ansar al-Islam, which preceded al-Qaeda's violent attacks in Iraq.

Naoum recalls that Christian families used to consider Iraqi Kurdistan an ideal place to live. This, however, is no longer the case following the events of Zakho, which resulted in a local struggle between Kurdish parties and eventually led to operations that targeted Christians.

Pascal Wardeh, a former minister in the central government, mentions another factor: lack of interest in finding a haven for all those targeted Christians.

Diaa Boutros, secretary of the National Chaldean Council, believes that most Christians who had taken refuge in Iraqi Kurdistan were downtrodden workers and ordinary employees. As far as the capitalists are concerned, the situation has improved for some here, but the economic conditions of most have deteriorated because they left all their possessions in Baghdad or other provinces. These individuals, according to Boutros, are the ones to worry about because their desire to emigrate will increase amid current difficulties.

Journalist Namik Rayfan says that Christians who have sought refuge in Iraqi Kurdistan usually face major problems at work, especially hard-working ordinary people. They suffer from competition with Asian labor in the restaurants and stores, knowing that the public jobs are often granted to Kurds before Christians.

The desire to travel is not limited to low-income Christians; it affects even the rich who own huge capital ventures in the region.

Fares Hanna, a contractor in his 40s, lives in Iraqi Kurdistan and is very concerned about the political situation and its potential to degrade further. The situation “does not bode well,” says Fares, especially after the escalation of the conflict between the two ruling parties and the opposition forces, which drove their supporters to the streets in the spring of 2011. Fares says that the overall situation could lead to a repeat of the civil war that broke out between the two main parties in Iraqi Kurdistan between 1994 and 1998.

Francis Zia, an Iraqi trader, mentions another source of concern, namely some cases of extortion suffered by prominent Christian traders at the hands of a number of greedy and influential politicians. Zia was repeatedly forced to enter into partnerships with some of these politicians, whereby Zia would have to provide the money. The officials' mission would be limited to providing protection for Zia and the project.

For his part, Aboulhed Afram blamed the Iraqi political blocs for the marginalization of Christian citizens and for making them feel like second-class citizens. In most cases, Christians do not receive high-status public positions, instead these positions are reserved for dominant Iraqi political parties.

Politicians, clergymen and Christians who were interviewed by the author of this investigation all agree that a large part of the operation to convince Christians to stay in Iraq depends on the Iraqis themselves, and that the major part of the responsibility must be assumed by the governments of Baghdad and Erbil.

The two governments must work to provide enough jobs for Christians, stop the abuses, facilitate internal resettlement, overcome educational difficulties and issue laws to protect them from attacks and accusations of blasphemy. Failure to do this makes it more difficult to convince Christians to stay in Iraq.

Patriarch Louis Raphael I Sako made a speech in which he called on the Muslims of Iraq to be more compassionate toward their Christian brothers. “We Christians are your partners in humanity. We share the same homeland. We were here before the advent of Islam, and we have stayed by you in sickness and in health. Keep us here for your own good. Our emigration from Iraq harms you more than it harms us.”

Rafael Aichoa, who is in his 40s, has lived in Baghdad his whole life. He knows that his culture and sense of belonging to Iraq and the East will completely disappear after a few years in exile, but he will never be able to forget his parents and his brother, Edmond.

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Found in: religion, iraqi kurds, immigration, christians
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