Iraq’s Christians seek refuge with Kurds
Armed Kurds are winning favour by protecting religious minorities.
Alqosh, Iraq – The world appears serene and tranquil when looking out from the mesmerising 1,400-year-old Rabban Hormizd Monastery here in the heart of the vast rocky plains of Nineveh in northern Iraq.
This is a land where Christianity once thrived. And it has survived numerous bloody forays by generations of kings and rulers.
The calm here seems a world away from Mosul, just 50km to the south, a city now taken over by the al-Qaeda offshoot known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).
What has kept Alqosh safe from the mayhem is the presence of the armed forces of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) – the Peshmerga.
Yusef and his wife have first-hand experience of how the situation here might develop should the jihadists take over. The newlyweds were among hundreds of Christians who fled Mosul after ISIL and other Sunni fighters stormed the city. “There is no life in Mosul,” said Yusef, visibly shaken. “ISIL might kidnap us, kill us, take away our women. “But here, we feel safe,” he said, sitting in a small living room adorned with pictures of the late Pope John Paul II.
The recent takeover of Mosul – and of large parts of northern and central Iraq – has set in motion dynamics that have broadened and deepened Kurdish control in the Nineveh plains and other northern areas.
This might even end up bolstering prospects of Kurdish independence, as their control appears – for the time being, at least – largely unchallenged.
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The oil-rich, fertile and historic plains of northern and eastern Nineveh have a population of around half a million. Most are Christians, followers of the ancient Mesopotamian Yazidi faith and members of the ethno-religious Shabak community.
The Kurdish Peshmerga has been present here since the US-led invasion in 2003 and is now the force that many residents look to for protection against armed groups.
ISIL forces have launched small-scale attacks on certain targets in Nineveh plains including an attack on Wednesday on Christian-dominated district of Hamdaniya, east of Mosul. But, according to Halgurd Hikmat, a spokesman for the KRG ministry of Peshmerga affairs, the Peshmerga repulsed the attack and prevented ISIL forces from making any avdances.
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In recent weeks, the Peshmerga expanded its reach by maintaining control of a key strategic area around Rabia, including a major border crossing between Iraq and Syria.
The KRG has also dispatched thousands more troops to confront any ISIL push towards the Nineveh plains, and has, in effect, consolidated its de-facto grip on the territory.
Such actions in the past would have drawn significant local opposition. There have been tensions between the KRG and segements of the local population over the past decade as Kurds have tried to solidify their control over the Nineveh plains.
Most parts of the disputed territories have suffered from negligence by the Baghdad and Kurdish governments due to their unclear administrative status. Many roads and buildings here appear in need of urgent repair.
But the deadly mix of the rise of ISIL and the ongoing sectarian war between Sunni armed groups and the Shia-dominated Iraqi army has generated unprecedented support for the Peshmerga among vulnerable religious minorities here out of pragmatic considerations.
Kurds, aspiring to build an independent state, welcome the change of heart, having long desired to include the Nineveh plains in such a state.
Iraqi Kurdistan’s President Massoud Barzani has repeatedly said that he regards independence a “natural right” of Kurds – and, as the rest of Iraq descends into even greater carnage, Kurds might be tempted more than ever to push for their independence.
The Nineveh plains have been among a wide swathe of disputed territory, control of which has been contested by both officials in Baghdad and the KRG.
The Peshmerga is now also in control of other disputed areas in Kirkuk, Salahaddin and Diyala.
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Father Jebrail Gorgis Toma is in charge of Alqosh’s 19th-century Virgin Mary Monastery, which hosts dozens of Christian refugees from Mosul.
The eloquent, Vatican-educated priest is worried about the fate of the ancient community here.
“We are fed up with the conditions in other parts of the country,” he said. “But Kurdistan has proven itself in terms of stability, economic development and democratic measures.”
Kurdistan hosts tens of thousands of Christians, many of whom have fled the violence across the country in the past decade. Some Christians living in Kurdish controlled areas say they freely practise their religion, with their own schools and media outlets. Their children can also learn the ancient Syriac language, a derivative of Aramaic, still spoken by local Christians here.
Politically, however, the community has been divided.
Some Christian groups are close to the KRG and its biggest party, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) – led by Barzani.
People fear the ISIL ... We, as a community, are under threat. It's the duty of the Peshmerga to protect the population in the area.
Others criticise KDP’s alleged involvement in Christian affairs and either favour greater autonomy for Christians in Nineveh or hold outright pro-Baghdad tendencies.
For many here, it is not a matter of idealism and ensuring ideal outcomes, but making the most of the difficult conditions they grapple with. A number of residents interviewed by Al Jazeera say they feel caught up in a desperate situation and have little option but opting for the best possible choice available to them under the current circumstances.
Yet, in the face of the recent transformative events on the ground, even the critics of the Kurds among the Christian community seem to have few misgivings about where the future lies for them – at least in the short term.
“People fear the ISIL,” said Yunadem Kanna, head of the Assyrian Democratic Movement (ADM), a party that enjoys considerable support among religious minorities. “We, as a community, are under threat. It’s the duty of the Peshmerga to protect the population in the area.”
Kanna believes the areas populated by religious minorities in Nineveh should be allowed to form their own province, and then decide to whether join the Kurdish region or remain autonomous.
The Iraqi government agreed this year to form such a province, but municipal arrangements have yet to change.
Kanna said his party had been marginalised in Kurdistan and was not given a share in the newly-formed KRG cabinet. But, he believes in light of the turmoil in the country and with a genuine partnership guaranteed, most Christians in Nineveh might well choose to become part of the Kurdish region.
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Nearly 50km south of Alqosh, a string of villages and towns populated largely by the Shabak community stretches through the dusty plains. The majority of Shabaks identify as Shia Muslims and the rest adhere to Sunni Islam.
They speak a distinct language understood to have a close affinity with certain Kurdish dialects – and have been no strangers to the violence that has blighted the area. An April attack on a village claimed the lives of seven Shabaks.
Terrified by ISIL’s reputation for brutality, 70-year-old Saadoun moved with his family of 10 to a small settlement near the rundown town of Bartalla, just 20km east of Mosul.
He lost a son to an attack by an armed group on a family funeral in 2005. “Our future is in God’s hands,” said Saadoun, a Shia Shabak. “Shia here are afraid of the ISIL.”
Around 500 other Shabak families have sought refuge in the mixed Shabak-Christian district of Bartalla, say local authorities.
The mayor of Bartalla, also a Shabak, says his town is facing a crisis as more people pour in, making the provision of public services highly difficult.
Cut off from Mosul, a 20-minute drive away where the ISIL flag flies high, his administration is now increasingly reliant on the KRG. And he does not hesitate to say joining Kurdistan is the best option for his district.
“We are a threatened people,” said Mayor Ali Mohammed Fathi. “Without Peshmerga forces, our future as Shabaks and Christians here will be genocide.”