Iraqi Christian Politics Just As Divided + Messy As The Rest
This coming election in Iraq will be marked by political divisions. A closer look at local Christian parties shows that even this once-united block is splitting, as different groups ally with Iraq’s bigger parties.
A church service in Baghdad. (photo: البطرياركية البابلية الكلدانية )
Last week a doctor, his wife and their mother were killed in Baghdad. Four men apparently broke into the Christian family’s home, robbed them and then stabbed them. The authorities say it was most likely a criminal act, with robbery being the main motivation, but many Christians in Iraq see it as just the latest crime against them, with a sectarian motivation.
A number of Christian groups and churches condemned the act and called on the Iraqi government to better protect those of their faith in Iraq. In many ways, it is just another sign of how much things have changed for Iraqi Christians in their homeland over the past few years. Those changes are also reflected in politics.
Two things really reinforced the conflicts between the Christian forces in Iraq. The first was the boycott of the conference and the second was the different ways in which parties reacted to the Kurdish independence referendum.
There are five seats in the Iraqi parliament set aside for Iraqi Christian politicians, to represent their minority. In the past, Christian political parties all used to unite during the elections, but this year will be different. There are eight competing electoral alliances contesting for votes.
Although various actors, including the country’s own church leaders, have tried to get the parties to unite, their attempts have proven unsuccessful.
“The presence of eight different Christian alliances is not going to benefit Christians in Iraq,” says Sarkoun Khoshaba, a Christian civil society activist who lives in the northern province of Ninawa. “The parties themselves are only acting in their own interests, so that they can get one more of those five seats than the others.”
The parties do have different ideas about how to administrate Christian-majority areas and how best to protect Christians in Iraq, Khoshaba notes. But the biggest reason the divisions between the parties have arisen is because some of them are closer to the parties run by Iraq’s Kurdish politicians and others are closer to Sunni Muslim or Shiite Muslim-majority parties, Khoshaba explains.
All of these want to get the Christian politicians onto their side, he suggests.
During the past decade, Christian church leaders have usually abstained from supporting any particular party. But this election, the head of Iraq's Chaldean Catholic Church and one of Iraq’s best known Christian leaders, Louis Raphael Sako, has thrown his lot in with the Chaldean alliance.
There have been a number of disputes between the different political parties inside parliament over the past few years too. The last parliament had the Rafidain coalition in the seats for Baghdad and Kirkuk while the Chaldean Syriac Assyrian Popular Council had the two seats for Dohuk and Ninawa. Another group called Warka had the seat for Erbil. Sako has been involved in this, criticizing the head of the Warka list and also implying that the Rafidain coalition had not managed to fulfil promises it made. In return the church leader has come in for a drubbing from the political parties, who say he should not be getting involved in politics.
And other Christian politicians are, perhaps justifiably, upset about Sako’s new support for the Chaldean alliance. They say it will start a kind of sectarian conflict between Iraq’s three Christian sects: the Chaldeans, Syriacs and Assyrians.
A Christian youth group in Baghdad.
For example, the Rafidain coalition, led by one of the country’s long-serving, prominent Christian MPs, Yonadam Kanna, has remained close to the Shiite Muslim political parties. The Rafidain coalition believes that their alliance with the more powerful Shiite parties means they will be able to better represent their constituents’ interests by making deals with the more powerful. If they want to pass laws in favour of Iraq’s Christians, they won’t be able to do it by themselves, goes the reasoning.
Meanwhile the Chaldean Syriac Assyrian Popular Council is much closer to the Iraqi Kurdish and has often supported Iraqi Kurdish MPs in parliament; the Council has particularly good relations with the Kurdish Democratic Party, or KDP.
In June 2017, Christian parties and leaders held a conference to discuss the future for the country’s Christians after the extremist group known as the Islamic State had been pushed out. But the different parties fell out over the fact that the attendees at the conference were planning to call for the formation of an independent Iraqi-Christian region in Ninawa, one of the areas where Iraq’s Christians have traditionally lived. The Rafidain coalition and Sako both withdrew from the conference.
Three months after the conference the country’s Kurds held their ill-fated referendum on independence, in the face of much opposition, including the Iraqi government’s. The political parties belonging to the Chaldean Syriac Assyrian Popular Council declared their support of it though.
“Two things really reinforced the conflicts between the Christian forces in Iraq,” says Yacoub Korkise, a member of the Assyrian Democratic Party. “The first was the boycott of the conference and the second was the different ways in which parties reacted to the Kurdish independence referendum.”
The changed map of Christian alliances also reflects reality on the ground for the country’s Christians, many of whom have immigrated, or who have suffered from prejudice and sectarianism as well as the reality for those Christians who were displaced from the Ninawa area and who have not yet returned, Korkise continues.
And there is a further complication for Christian politicians in Iraq. For the first time in the modern history of Iraq, Christian fighters formed their own militias after 2014, when they were faced with the threat of the Islamic State group. One of these is the Babylon Brigade, headed by Rayan al-Kildani, and it was created with the support of the Shiite Muslim militias who are closer to Iran. Some would even say it was formed specifically to compete with another Christian militia, the Ninawa Plain Protection Units who are associated with the Rafidain movement and its leader, Yonadam Kanna, and who are considered closer to the Kurds in northern Iraq.
The relationship between the Babylon Brigades and the Ninawa Plain Protection Units is not warm. In fact, it has deteriorated to armed clashes more than once in 2017, most spectacularly during fighting in the town of Qaraqosh in July 2017.