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Christians in Iraq and Syria still at risk in Kurdish-controlled areas after centuries of persecution

Christian Persecution

Christians in Iraq and Syria still at risk in Kurdish-controlled areas after centuries of persecution

Islamic State destroyed Christian properties in Qaraqosh, northern Iraq, following its capture in 2014. Qaraqosh had previously been the largest Christian-majority town in Iraq. Photo credit: Barnabas Fund

The Kurds have been maligned and subjugated throughout their history, but the perception that Christians in Iraq and Syria today live safely as equal citizens in Kurdish-controlled areas is a myth.

Many individual Kurds are welcoming and treat Christians with equality. However, as Global Christian News has exposed, the Kurdish government in northern Iraq and Kurdish militia in Syria openly discriminate against Christians. This narrative of discrimination is nothing new, but a continuation of centuries of prejudice.

In 1261, historic Assyrian Christian communities in the Nineveh Plains of northern Iraq were forced from their homes by a mass migration of Kurds from the mountains of Turkey. In a powerful parallel with events that followed the rise of Islamic State in 2014, Christian families from towns such as Qaraqosh, Bartella and Karemlash fled to the ancient walled citadel of Erbil to seek safety. Many of those that did not escape were massacred, while the homes they had left were looted by the invading Kurds.

In the ensuing decades, Kurds repeatedly attacked Christian communities. When the Mongols conquered Iraq they enlisted the help of Kurds to capture Erbil. The city fell on 1 July 1310 and the Kurds set about slaughtering the Christians. A contemporary account records that Assyrians who gave themselves up were brutally murdered: “They went out at daybreak on the Sabbath, with their sons, and daughters, and wives, without any weapon, and without a sword, and without a knife … the Arabs saw that they had come down, they were filled with a fierce passion, and they drew their swords, and they slew them from the greatest of them to the least, without pity.”

Kurds also played a central role in genocide of Armenians and Assyrians in Ottoman Turkey, which peaked in 1915. Sometimes acting on their own initiative, and sometimes employed by the Turkish government, Kurds slaughtered Armenian and Assyrian Christians who had been deported from their homes and forced to walk through the desert. Kurdish armed gangs acquired a reputation for targeting the ragged convoys of starved Christians.

American Ambassador Henry Morgenthau, who campaigned against the genocide, recorded how Kurds would sweep down from the mountains and rob men, women and children, taking everything from them, including food and even their clothes. They would also “freely massacre, and the screams of women and old men would add to the general horror.”

Assyrian Christians driven from their homes, August 1919 (image courtesy of Library of Congress)

The Assyrian genocide, known as the Seyfo (sword), lasted 30 years, during which time up to 750,000 were killed, while an estimated 1.5 million Armenians perished between 1914 and 1923.

Christians in Iraq and Syria today, many of whom can trace their ancestry to survivors of the genocide, are not able to live safely or as equal citizens in areas under Kurdish control. Kurdish forces hold sway over a significant part of northern Syria, while Iraq Kurdistan, including the city of Erbil, is run by the Kurdish regional government.

Kurdish militia in northern Syria have kidnapped young Christian men for use as conscripts in the Kurdish YPG (People’s Protection Units) militia’s ongoing war with Turkish forces in north western Syria, while Christian properties have been sprayed with graffiti to mark them for confiscation by the self-proclaimed administration of the YPG. One Assyrian Christian stated, “They are confiscating rather than protecting our homes … They are treating us like second-class citizens … employing various tactics to frighten and subject our people with the aim of taking possession of our final remaining properties and lands, thereby transforming our ancestral homeland into an autonomous Kurdish region.”

Christians in Iraqi Kurdistan also face discrimination and have even been the targets of violence in recent years. A Kurdish mob attacked Christian-owned businesses in Dohuk in December 2011. The violence took place after Friday prayers when young men were reportedly incited to attack the Christian community by Muslim clerics.

In June 2018, the Kurdish regional government began requiring shops and businesses in Ankawa, a predominantly-Christian neighbourhood of Erbil in Iraq, to pay an extra fee when they renew their business licences. The tax was also imposed in Semel, another Christian-majority town. Christian residents and businesses owners have also reported that they are charged an extra tax when selling properties and also face discrimination and harassment from KDP political police.

Sadly, there is documented historical precedent for Kurdish persecution of Christians. But the discrimination against Iraqi and Syrian Christians enacted by Kurdish authorities taking place today is largely ignored and underreported. If history is not to repeat itself, the rights of vulnerable, shrinking Christian communities in Kurdish-controlled areas of Iraq and Syria must be protected.