By Sylvain Mercadier
For many years to come, the world will remember this short moment of history in March 2021, when despite a resurging coronavirus epidemic, 84-year-old Pope Francis travelled across continents to meet the Iraqi people.
The unprecedented visit from the leader of the Catholic Church led to a moment of general jubilation, from Baghdad to Mosul, from the ruins of Ur, the city of prophet Abraham, to the Nineveh plains, the cradle of Assyrian culture.
The Vatican had been eager to organise such a visit for more than twenty years in order to reassert the Catholic Church’s support for local Christian minorities as well as to send a message of peace and coexistence towards the Muslim world. In this regard, Pope Francis’ visit to Iraq was a major success.
Having recently overcome the brutal Islamic State (IS) group, Iraq remains scarred by the effects of ceaseless war in the country between 2003 and 2017. Hundreds of thousands of Iraqis have yet to return to their homes while religious minorities once again suffered traumatising events from which they still struggle to recover.
The number of Christians has continued to dwindle in Iraq due to discrimination, land grabs and, of course, acts of terrorism. While Iraq’s Christian community numbered 1.5 million people twenty years ago, today it has plummeted to an estimated 250,000, many of whom remain displaced.
Meeting the Ayatollah, Praising the Kurds
One of Pope Francis’ great successes during the visit was to have secured a fatwa from Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the most prominent figure of Shia Islam, calling on believers to ensure the safety and preserve the constitutional rights of Christians. During his meeting with al-Sistani in his home in Najaf, Pope Francis did not omit mentioning that Iraqi Shia militias in the Nineveh plains had engaged in discriminatory actions towards the Christian community of the area, which he hoped the Ayatollah could help prevent.
“Christian communities living in areas controlled by Kurdish forces have long suffered discrimination and instrumentalisation”
Al-Sistani did not react badly to this request, although he has limited influence on the actions committed by local militias on the other side of Iraq. Yet, the new edict by the Ayatollah may play a significant role in curbing the stigmatisation of Christians from Iran-backed Shia armed groups.
The next day, Pope Francis left southern Iraq to visit Iraqi Kurdistan and the Nineveh province, where the Christian community still has a significant presence. The Pope’s message to the local Kurdish authorities (mostly the Barzani family, which dominates the Kurdish institutions through their party, the Kurdistan Democratic Party) was significantly different from the one he shared with the Shia cleric. Indeed, the Pope had only praise for the Kurdish leaders regarding their relationship with Christian communities in the country.
Pope Francis thanked the Kurdish leaders for having welcomed displaced Christians during the worst phases of IS’ expansion in Mosul and Nineveh, calling Iraqi Kurdistan a “home for displaced Christians”, according to a pro-KDP outlet controlled by the president of the Kurdish region, Nechirvan Barzani.
The Pope’s different perception of the treatment of Christians by Kurdish groups in comparison to Iraqi militias is not surprising and follows a narrative that Kurds are more tolerant and pro-coexistence than their Arab counterparts, who are often reduced to their Sunni or Shia identity. But how accurate is this perception?
The KRG’s Mixed Record with Christian Minorities
Beyond the image of tolerance and coexistence that the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) is trying to convey, Christian communities living in areas controlled by Kurdish forces have suffered discrimination and instrumentalisation. The KRG’s rulers have long sought to expand their control to disputed territories which should be divided between the KRG and the federal government.
These ethnically and religiously mixed areas hold vast resources and would increase the size of the KRG, making it a more viable state. But that would require the local communities to agree with such a nation-building project, which they don’t necessarily do. In 2017, the Assyrian Confederation of Europe published a detailed report describing how the KRG was undermining democracy and conquering minority homelands.
“The language of coexistence is often deployed by rulers to paint a rosy picture of life under their rule”
At an institutional level, although minorities enjoy a quota system ensuring representation in regional institutions, the arrangement has been systematically manipulated by the main Kurdish parties (and by other parties in Baghdad) to ensure that it plays in their favour, as Max Joseph, an Assyrian writer and policy expert, explains.
“During elections, the KDP orders thousands of Kurdish party cadres to vote for Christian KDP members standing in areas to oppose independent candidates,” he told The New Arab. “They can do this legally, and it makes sense for them, because you need fewer votes to win a quota seat than a regular seat. This all makes a joke of the quota system, and it’s why secondary parties like the PUK and Goran want to erase it in the KRG; because it’s totally bought by the KDP.”
The KDP also exerts a lot of effort into promoting loyal Christian figures even though they often lack legitimacy within their own community. “The KDP recently elevated a loyal Christian individual named Ano Abdoka to the position of minister and made a big deal about it – this is an individual who has never stood for any election, and who is unpopular within his community,” Joseph says.
The Chaldean Bishop of Duhok, Raban al-Qass, is another figure affiliated to the KDP. His loyalty dates back to 2004, when Massoud Barzani protected the bishop from a vendetta after he had allegedly killed a Kurdish family of five in a car accident.
“The Bishop al-Qas likes to drive big and fast cars. One day, he killed an entire family on the Mosul-Erbil road. Massoud Barzani compensated the tribe of the victims himself while offering protection to the bishop in exchange for his loyalty and advocacy for the KDP in the future,” a Christian NGO coordinator in Erbil alleged to The New Arab, under the condition of anonymity. Since then, al-Qas has been one of the most subservient Christian religious figures in Kurdistan, even calling upon his Chaldean flock to refer to themselves as Christian Kurds and not as Chaldeans anymore.
While Kurdish leaders have successfully managed to position minority leaders in key positions, they also target those that oppose their expansionist policy. “Myself and many other Christian activists regularly receive threats for exposing the KDP’s practices,” admitted Alqosh resident Athra Kado, a member of the Assyrian Democratic Movement (ADM), an independent organisation that opposes the KDP’s grip on Assyrian lands just as it opposed Saddam Hussein’s brutal policies back in the eighties.
“Followers of the KDP are a minority in our community yet have managed to appoint a mayor in our town,” Kado said. Lara Youssif Zara was appointed mayor of Alqosh in 2017 and launched a vast project of land sale around the town which locals fear might bring serious demographic changes in the area.
“The Kurdish rulers are wearing us as a fancy suit in front of Europe to whitewash their image”
Christians and Yazidis share the same fractious relationship with the KDP, after Kurdish peshmerga fighters failed to defend them in 2014 when IS launched attacks on their communities. At that time, the peshmergas had taken over their land and sworn to defend them from any aggression. But as the terrorists approached, they abandoned their positions without fighting or even informing the communities, leading to the Yazidi genocide in the Sinjar mountains and the destruction of many Christian villages in the Nineveh plain.
Since IS was defeated, the KDP has resumed its policy of expanding its patronage and proxy armed groups network at the expense of local and independent actors. “Although there is a successful model of [local administration and self-protection], it is being sabotaged because the KDP wishes to annex these territories,” Max Joseph says. “The KDP understands that an independent local security presence coupled with an independent political representation, whether Assyrian or Yazidi, scuppers their long-term chances of doing so.”
A ‘Fancy Suit to Wear’
The Kurdish policy is to offer protection to minorities in exchange for submission and adherence to the project of a greater Kurdistan, as envisioned by Massoud Barzani in his failed Kurdish independence project of 2017. Minority groups are thus being instrumentalised by larger actors to achieve their goal of wider power.
It seems probable that Pope Francis did not have this understanding when he visited Erbil and Qaraqosh, but many local Christians, despite being overwhelmed with joy by the Pope’s visit, have expressed their disappointment at seeing him greeting the Kurdish rulers as protectors of the Christians.
“We are honoured to welcome the pope here. Maybe it will strengthen our community, but it’s a shame he had to give the Barzanis his benediction,” said Alqosh resident Athra Kado. “The Kurdish rulers are wearing us (the Christian communities) as a fancy suit in front of Europe to whitewash their image.”
In this regard, it is likely that the Pope’s trip will further legitimise the Kurdish leadership. “The language of coexistence is often deployed by rulers to paint a rosy picture of life under their rule. Yet, the numerous cases of abuses, both on an individual level with the targeting of critics and journalists with threats and violence, but also at a higher level, with the continued occupation of Assyrian towns outside the KRG with party militias, make coexistence lose all meaning,” Joseph said.
Sylvain Mercadier is a freelance journalist. Follow him on Twitter: @Sylv_Mercadier