“Do you think they will kill us too?” This was the disturbing question posed by his ten-year-old son, Karol and it was a query that made up Bader al-Din’s mind. The Christian man, resident in the semi-autonomous Northern state of Iraqi Kurdistan, decided that he would have to leave his ancestral land soon and never return.
Al-Din’s family’s anxieties really began late last year when riots erupted spontaneously in the northern city of Zakho, near the Turkish-Iraqi border, after prayers one Friday afternoon. The riots, which spread further afield too, resulted in the destruction of stores selling alcohol, a massage parlour and tourist accommodation.
And at first, it appeared as though there were religious motives at work: many of the businesses attacked were owned by local Christians or practitioners of the Kurdish Yazidi religion. However it was also possible that this was due to the nature of the businesses: both of these religions do not prohibit alcohol consumption.
Historically Zakho is a city known for the potential for peaceful coexistence between different religions: Muslims, Christians, Yazidis and Armenians live together here. Even Iraqi Jews used to have their own neighbourhood in this city, up until 1948 when a major campaign began against the Jewish in Iraq. However the riots early last December have caused some to re-evaluate Zakho’s friendly image.
Straight after the riots, various political parties began to blame one another for the disruption. The state government blamed a cleric, part of the Kurdistan Islamic Union, for inciting the violence and destruction. But the Kurdistan Islamic Union itself, which is a powerful opposition party in the province, said it was part of political ploy by the ruling parties to discredit it.
Several months have passed and as yet, there has still been no conclusive evidence as to who was behind the riots. It has remained hard to say whether the attacks were politically or religiously motivated.
Regardless of this though, one thing remains clear when one visits Zakho now: businesses owned by members of these two minority religions were attacked and local security forces did not appear interested in assisting them.
There have also been wider ramifications. Up until those incidents in Zakho, the Christians of Iraq had always seen the semi-autonomous region of Iraqi Kurdistan, which has its own legal system, military and government, as a safer option than other places in the country where they may have become targets for violent, religious extremists.
In fact, over the past few years many Iraqi Christians had decided to relocate into the area, which is far more secure than any other parts of the country, and the region’s Minister of the Interior, Karim Sinjari, has said that according to his figures, around 1,600 Christian families had sought refuge in Iraqi Kurdistan due to terrorist violence targeting Christians elsewhere.
But now, following the attacks on the Christian and Yazidi businesses late last year, many of those who fled to what they thought was relative safety have started to re-think their options. Although the Iraqi Kurdish government has offered various forms of social welfare and assistance to refugees, many of the Christians immigrating here also have concerns about unemployment and the economy.
A lot of the businesses in the northern Iraqi town of Zakho, near the Iraqi-Turkish border, where the attacks took place remain closed. But some have decided to re-open.
“The repairs to my shop cost money and time,” Marcus Yousef, one of the Christians who owns a bottle store, told NIQASH. “But I have to repair the place because I and my family – there are seven of us – have not had an income for three months,” he explained.
Yousef decided to re-open his store and was back at work three days ago. “It’s really strange though,” he added, while selling half a dozen beers to a customer, “because most of my customers are actually Muslim!”
Before the attacks on the stores and the rioting, Yousef used to keep his business open until midnight. But now he finishes at 9pm. “I’ve never had any problems before,” he said. “But now it seems things have changed and I need to be more careful.”
The head of the Christian Rafidain bloc in Iraq’s Parliament agrees that previously many Christians had left their homes in central and southern Iraq because of violence there and moved to Iraqi Kurdistan, instead of leaving the country altogether.
“But the situation has now changed,” the politician explained. “Christians no longer feel secure in the Kurdish region. We are facing a high risk and we believe that something should be done to stem the exodus of Christians out of Iraq. There should be a safe environment and good employment opportunities provided for them as soon as possible,” concluded the man, whose walls are decorated with pictures of religious figures, including the Pope.
The Christian politician said he was very worried that the Christian minority would go the same way that Iraq’s Jewish minority had: today only a very small number of Jews still live in Iraq – most likely, not more than ten. Nobody really knows where they’re living and they’re all very old.
Christianity is the second most popular religion in Iraq after Islam and at the end of the 1980s, it was estimated that there were around 2 million Christians around the country. But due to Western sanctions against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, many migrated. The outbreak of sectarian violence after the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq and attacks that deliberately targeted Christians, including the deadly suicide attack on Our Lady of Salvation Church in Baghdad in October 2010, caused even more Christians to flee the country, or leave their homes for what they saw as a relatively safe haven, Iraqi Kurdistan.
As the New York Times reported earlier this month: “Estimates by the United States and international organizations say that Iraq’s pre-war Christian population of 800,000 to 1.4 million now stands at less than 500,000.”
Several points – Articles numbered between 33 and 38 – of the draft constitution (as yet ungratified due to geo-political issues) of Iraqi Kurdistan define various rights to religious freedom for minorities in the province. However as one professor of law at Erbil\'s Salahaddin University told NIQASH, this would not be enough, “unless there are laws that ensure the Constitution is implemented and respected”.
According to information obtained by NIQASH, investigations into the riots and shop burnings that targeted Christians and Yazidis in Zakho and other parts of Iraqi Kurdistan, have continued. While officials of the biggest Islamic party in the region, the Kurdistan Islamic Union, categorically state that they have no problem with Christians at all – they still maintain that the riots were a political ploy against them – local security did arrest some of their members.
However the security forces did not press any charges related to the attacks on stores, arson or rioting.
Additionally the locals who incurred losses because of the riots were not offered any compensation by the state.
“We have our Lord to protect us and guarantee our rights,” two women coming out of a Zakho church declared. “God is our only guarantor,” they said, raising their hands to the skies.
Nearby is Wasim Hanna, a Christian man in his twenties. In many ways, he feels as though he’s been abandoned in Iraq. Three of his best friends immigrated to Europe. “So now I am searching for a way to emigrate too, to leave Iraq and to leave Iraqi Kurdistan forever,” he told NIQASH. “Sometimes,” he added quietly, after a moment of silence, “I think that others want to see us extinct.”