Kurdish Referendum May Imperil Christian and Minority Safe Haven in Iraq

Leaders and advocates fear a new war over Kurdish independence is poorly timed and could be the last straw for Iraq’s remaining Christians.

Cross erected in Telekuf-Tesqopa, Iraq
Cross erected in Telekuf-Tesqopa, Iraq (photo: Patriarchate of Babylon via CNA)

ERBIL, Iraq — The Kurdish referendum vote for independence from Iraq has raised the specter of all-out war that, Middle East Christian leaders and advocates warn, could land the final blow to the future of Christianity in its historic Mesopotamian homeland.

The Sept. 25 non-binding referendum in the autonomous zone ruled by the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) saw 92% of 3 million Kurds cast their ballots for independence, despite the pleas of the KRG’s allies, including the United States, to postpone the vote. The determination of Kurdish authorities led by President Massoud Barzani to carry forward the vote has provoked the landlocked KRG’s neighbors to threaten economic sanctions and military invasion. Iraq’s central government has ordered the KRG to annul the results of the vote and hand over control of its airports. Turkey has threatened to close off the oil pipeline that the KRG depends upon for its economic lifeline, while Iran has closed its airspace.

Both Turkey and Iran have threatened military action against the KRG and are holding joint military drills with the Iraqi army. Iraq’s central government has authorized the use of military force against the KRG if it moves forward with secession. Other than Israel, which supports the KRG’s independence bid, a broad array of parties ranging from Hezbollah to the U.S. have found common agreement that Kurdish independence at this stage would only lead to more catastrophic war.

The KRG’s main ally, the United States, has sent a clear signal that it will not support its unilateral bid for independence.

“The vote and the results lack legitimacy, and we continue to support a united, federal, democratic and prosperous Iraq,” Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said in a statement. He said the U.S. was “concerned about the potential negative consequences of this unilateral step” and called on all parties in the region to avoid the use of force.


Christian Leaders Alarmed

The prospect of a clash between the Iraqi government and the KRG — both of which are still fighting Islamic State (ISIS) terrorist holdouts in the country — has alarmed Christian leaders.

Patriarch Louis Raphael I Sako of Baghdad, the head of the Chaldean Catholic Church, at a Sept. 28 international conference in Rome hosted by Aid to the Church in Need, said Christians are facing the prospect of being caught in a disaster that would “certainly result in another exodus of Christians from their homeland.”  

“We can almost hear the beats of war drums,” Patriarch Sako said. “Today, our people are living with fear of being engaged in another war, which means more chaos, more bloodshed, destruction and refugees,” he said.

“They are concerned about stability, security and worried about going back to live with daily crimes of robberies, gang rapes, torture and murder of Christians that has become so common.”

“We must clarify: If there will be a new military conflict in Iraq, the consequences will be a disaster for everyone — Christians and minorities will once again pay the highest price.”

Nina Shea, director of the Center for Religious Freedom at the Washington-based Hudson Institute, told the Register that the Kurdish referendum has already been a setback for the region’s Christians “in the medium term.”

More than 100,000 Christians took refuge in Iraqi Kurdistan fleeing ISIS’ campaign of genocide, and they have been waiting to return to their homes on the Nineveh Plain, which had been occupied by ISIS. An invasion of the KRG by its neighbors would put those Christians right in the middle of the conflict.

Shea said genocide survivors are right now stranded in the KRG and cannot get out because personal and economic transport by air and land has been cut off in the wake of the referendum. Human-rights advocates seeking to bring to justice the perpetrators of the Islamic State’s atrocities, Shea added, are no longer able to get into Iraqi Kurdistan to interview survivors and gather evidence.

Shea said the national aspirations of the Kurds are “understandable.” However, she said, “the timing is wrong for it.”

Christians need to remain in Iraq, she added, if the region is to have hope for a stable peace.


Safe Zone in Jeopardy

Part of the aspirations of indigenous Christians in a post-ISIS Iraq has been the formation of an autonomous or semi-autonomous safe-haven province in northern Iraq administered by the Yazidi, Turkmen and Christians, which would encompass their traditional homelands of Sinjar, Tal Afar and the Nineveh Plain.

But the showdown between the KRG and the Iraqi government places that plan in jeopardy. KRG Peshmerga troops control the northern part of the Nineveh Plain, while the Iraqi army, along with Nineveh Plain Protection units, controls the southern portion.

Juliana Taimoorazy, an Assyrian Catholic who leads the Iraqi Christian Relief Council (ICRC), is a senior fellow at the Philos Project, which has been involved in drafting a proposal for a safe-haven province in a federated Iraq. The new uncertainty injected by the Kurdish referendum has thrown those plans up in the air.

“We fear a regional war, or as [Turkish President Recep] Erdogan called it ‘an ethnic war,’” Taimoorazy told the Register. She explained that Christians in this region have been suffering from “ethnic war” for more than 100 years. At the turn of the 20th century, Christians accounted for approximately 25% of the Middle East’s population and are now reckoned at 10%-15% of the region’s population, although the population varies dramatically by country.

The Ottoman Turks, with the aid of the Kurds, launched a genocide in 1914 against the Christians of the Middle East under its imperial domains, which nearly wiped out its Assyrian, Armenian and Greek populations. After the Christian genocide, the Turkish government subsequently turned on the Kurds to repress them.

Taimoorazy said she is concerned that after all Iraq’s Christians have suffered from ISIS, a new war in the region could be “the last straw that will break the camel’s back” for Christians’ continued existence in Iraq.

The various Christian political parties in Iraq, she added, are split on the issue of Kurdish independence. She said a delegation had met with the Barzani government to ask for their rights to the Nineveh Plain to be observed, the autonomy to manage their own affairs, the official recognition of their Aramaic languages, and the right to educate their children in their own history.

Taimoorazy said that while the government has acknowledged these requests, that has not translated into facts on the ground. The KRG has expanded its controlled territory by 40% fighting ISIS, and Peshmerga generals have maintained they have no plans to relinquish the Nineveh Plains and other territory wrestled from ISIS — a serious problem for Christians and other indigenous minorities that have historic claims to the land.

“If they don’t leave, we’re afraid they’ll take that part of the Nineveh Plain,” Taimoorazy said. She pointed out that the KRG is more than $22 billion in debt and cannot “sustain itself independently,” let alone take care of all its citizens and internally displaced persons taking refuge within its borders. Christians, for instance, have to rely on Christian international aid organizations to support them. Taimoorazy said ICRC is trying to get food and fuel to them — a process that will only get more difficult as tensions escalate.

“We’re asking the world for a diplomatic solution because this will be a disaster for the region and the West,” Taimoorazy said.


U.S. Leadership Requested

The Washington-based Middle East Christian advocacy group In Defense of Christians (IDC) issued a statement asking both the Iraqi government and KRG to be mindful of their next steps, given the impact they will have on minority communities that have just experienced genocide at the hands of ISIS. The organization said the increased tensions demonstrated the need for “the United Nations and the community of civilized nations to work for the establishment of a safe zone, or interim zones of stability, in northern Iraq during this period of return, rebuilding and possible political transition.”

Philippe Nassif, IDC’s executive director, told the Register the U.S. needs to take a greater role in mediating between the two sides.

“Any kind of conflict in northern Iraq would send out another wave of refugees,” he said. However, these refugees, Nassif added, have nowhere to go, other than try to flee to the United States or Europe. Nearby Lebanon and Jordan are already at the breaking point in caring for millions of refugees from the conflicts in Syria and Iraq.

Nassif said the future of Christianity in Iraq is at stake, and members of Congress need to know their constituents care about what happens to them.

The world cannot afford conflict fatigue, Nassif said. War in Kurdistan would lead to the kind of catastrophic destruction that has leveled Syria and set up the region for continued conflict if Iraq’s Christians, the traditional peacemakers of these societies, were gone once and for all from their ancestral land.

He said, “A conflict between all these people would do what ISIS couldn’t do, and drive out all of them from Iraq.”

Peter Jesserer Smith is a Register staff writer.

Catholic News Agency contributed to this report.