Iraqi Christians’ future threatened by referendum crisis

By John Pontifex
Briefing to our Donors

CHURCH leaders in northern Iraq have issued a stark warning that the crisis triggered by the Sept. 25, 2017 Kurdistan independence referendum could endanger the region’s Christian presence.

Christian militia protecting procession in Qaraqosh, Nineveh Plains; ACN photo

Following the referendum, which scored an overwhelming yes vote and which could be a prelude to the KRG (Kurdistan Regional Government) area seceding from Iraq, five senior Catholic and Orthodox bishops issued a statement appealing to the international community to protect Christians and help them stay in their ancestral lands, especially the Nineveh Plains, which straddle the border between Iraq proper and semi-autonomous Kurdistan.

In the statement, a copy of which was sent to us, they wrote: “We cannot hide our concern that the situation for the Christians has become very difficult and leads to uncertainty.”

They added: “It is a clear fact that this situation has created in Christians a state of fear and concern about the possibility that the struggle may develop into a crisis that will have far reaching repercussions for all.”

The declaration was signed by Chaldean Catholic Archbishop Bashar Warda of Erbil, Kurdistan; Syriac Orthodox Archbishop Nicodemus Sharif of Mosul; Archbishop Apris Jounsen of the Assyrian Church; Chaldean Bishop Rabban Al-Qas of Amadiyah and Zaku; and Syriac Orthodox Archbishop Timotheos Mousa of the Archdiocese of Mor Mattai.

The prelates’ message stressed the precarious situation of Nineveh’s Christians—many of whom are still displaced in Erbil, the capital Kurdistan, where they found shelter after they were driven out of their homes by ISIS in 2014.

With many Christian settlements located in disputed territories, the bishops cautioned: “Care should be made not to involve the last remaining Christian land in political bargaining, as our vulnerable community cannot withstand further schism and division in addition to the ongoing political and sectarian fights.

The statement warned that given the community’s vulnerable situation, further upheavals could trigger new waves of emigration—threatening its very survival.

Notably, the bishops called for the Nineveh Plains not to be split between Iraq and an independent Kurdistan. “The future Nineveh Plains should be maintained as a unified territory; it is critical to not divide it into parts,” the Church leaders insisted.

The bishops expressed fears that the restoration of the towns and villages on the Nineveh Plains may be brought to a standstill as the area now faces an uncertain political future.

“While both the federal government and the KRG are engaged in struggle over the disputed area, including the historical areas of our people, the areas liberated from the control of the criminal ISIS gangs are in an appalling condition in terms of reconstruction, public services, and security.

“There are no serious attempts at reconstructing the area at all by the governments. This makes it difficult for the IDPs to return, thereby prolonging their plight.”

Meantime, in a separate interviews, Archbishop Warda, fellow bishops and aid coordinators assured us of their commitment to enabling the resettlement program to continue in spite of the post-referendum setbacks

Expressing concerns that Christian areas risked losing their historic identity, the bishops in their statement called for dialogue between the Iraqi Federal Government and the KRG.  They wrote: “Amidst the crisis that the country experiences today following the referendum of Kurdistan Region, we call upon all parties involved to opt for dialogue and moderation and to stop the escalation of the conflict through the media.”

The bishops expressed their hope that both sides could work on the disputed issues “to reach a suitable solution apart from spreading the feelings of hatred that fuel conflicts.”

Fearing that Christians could be caught up in an armed struggle between factions vying for power, the bishops added: “We demand that the use of arms be restricted to the official government security forces, which we encourage our young men to join.”

The bishops also paid tribute to the Kurdish people who had assisted the Christian community after they were driven out of their homes on the Nineveh Plains. “Undoubtedly, we Christians can never forget how our brothers in Kurdistan Region, as a people and government, received us and supported our displaced persons, not only Christians but also other components of the Iraqi people.”

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