Why Iraqi Christians Disagree With the World on Kurdish Independence Referendum

Kurds rally in Beirut in support of the referendum.
Image: Hassan Ammar / AP

Despite intense opposition, a referendum that could lead to the establishment of an independent Kurdish nation appears set for Monday, September 25.

Upwards of 35 million Kurds—a majority-Muslim community and the fourth-largest ethnic group in the Middle East, spread across Turkey, Iran, Iraq, and Syria—are on the verge of setting their century-old dream of a homeland on the path to reality.

Victimized by the Ottomans during the Armenian (and Kurdish) genocide of the 1910s and regularly persecuted since, the Kurds have long been a marginalized population. Ironically, the recent upheaval in the Middle East has presented them with an opportunity. Many are moving to take advantage of regional mayhem and political malfeasance, filling a void of security and governance with self-determination.

The idea of a free Kurdistan isn’t popular among non-Kurds. Turkey has openly fought with its Kurdish population in a decades-long conflict that has killed between 30,000 and 40,000 since 1984; the Syrian regime readily repressed Kurdish rights; and Saddam Hussein’s Iraq murdered tens of thousands of Kurds in the country’s north.

But as war has ravaged Syria and Iraq, and as ISIS swept from Raqqa to Mosul and nearly to Baghdad, the Kurds are not throwing away their shot.

Kurds in Syria have declared autonomous enclaves collectively called Rojava. In neighboring Iraq, where Kurds have claimed a level of autonomy since 1970, the recent turmoil has given Iraqi Kurdistan new territory and greater autonomy. It has also given Iraqi Kurds momentum to finally push the long-desired referendum.

Christians in the Middle East share a bond with the Kurds, both being minorities. That doesn’t mean they’re always political bedfellows, but they often share common interests.

Whether an independent Kurdistan is among those interests is a point of dispute.

“Everyone has a different opinion,” says Grady Pickett, an American pastor in Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, who has lived in the region for more than a decade. “Usually what we hear is, ‘Baghdad has done nothing to help us the past three years. The Kurds welcomed us and helped us. We would rather be under Kurdish rule.’”

Local politicians like Romio Hakkari, leader of an Assyrian Christian party in Iraq, echo that sentiment. “We support the referendum, and we also have a plan for post-independence in Kurdistan,” he told Kurdistan24 last year.

There are 200,000 to 250,000 Christians left in Iraq, many of whom fled from Mosul and the Nineveh Plains to Kurdish-controlled territory in the wake of ISIS’s rampage. Many Iraqi Christians don’t view themselves as loyalists to the Kurdish cause, but see Kurdish governance as an alternative to the corruption and dysfunction in Baghdad.

“The problem is not the Kurds or the Arabs,” says Haitham Jazrawi, an evangelical pastor in Kirkuk, a city officially controlled from Baghdad but effectively governed by Kurdish leaders and defended by Kurdish militias. “The problem is our central government in Baghdad. They are very weak. They cannot protect the ministers, so how can they protect me?”

Jazrawi emphasizes the great need Christians have for law and order. As a dwindling minority, they are dependent on the government and police forces for safety.

“Who will defend me?” Jazrawi asks. “At least the Kurds are stronger than the central government. They are governing the three major cities of their own—Erbil, Dohuk, and Sulaymaniyah—in a very good way. So we prefer, at least in this period of history, to be under the Kurds.”

But the pro-Kurdish perspective isn’t the only one among Iraqi Christians. Some have a vision for a single united Iraq—one in which Christians are free to travel wherever they please. Other Orthodox and Catholic Iraqis have a bolder dream: their own autonomous region.

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SOURCE: Christianity Today, Griffin Paul Jackson