From Arbil to Zahko: Christian Communities in Iraqi Kurdistan
From Arbil to Zahko: Christian Communities in Iraqi Kurdistan
James M. Quirk
On December 5, 2012, the Columbus School of Law at The Catholic University of America brought together scholars and policymakers to examine the history, challenges and prospects for Christians in Iraqi Kurdistan today. James Quirk provides a detailed description of the topics, panelists and attendees of the conference, entitled “The Status of the Christian Communities in Iraqi Kurdistan.” The complete program can be found on the university’s website, and a digital archive of the conference, including videos, photos, and supporting materials, will be available soon.
"In the third millennium BC…" Conference presentations that start with such a phrase seem likely to lack critical importance, innovative thinking and passionate debate. However, The Catholic University of America’s conference, "The Status of the Christian Communities in Iraqi Kurdistan," had all of these. Discussions that ranged from Iraq's oil laws to nomenclature debates on historic Christian groups to the conflict in Syria energized the recent gathering in Washington, DC.
Equal parts as an academic conference and a Washington policy forum, it brought together leading historians of Christianity in the Middle East, constitutional scholars on land, oil, and religious freedom, demographers of Christian populations on the move, a delegation of American Christian leaders reflecting on their visit last month to the Iraqi Kurdistan Region (IKR), and inside-the-Beltway policy analysts and advisors. Panelists and presenters hailed from Austria, Belgium, Indonesia and the US (including the Kurdish diaspora), and the program included a message from His Excellency Bashir Matti Warda, Chaldean Archbishop of Arbil, Iraq. The presenters were engaged by a lively group of attendees from Canada, Europe, Iraqi Kurdistan and the US, who represented US and foreign government organizations, academic institutions, and over a dozen NGOs.
Presenters and panelists expressed a diversity of perspectives on the Christian communities themselves, Iraq’s Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), and the broader Middle East context. Some posed historical questions that are still relevant today, like, "What is a Chaldean? An Assyrian? A Syriac?" Others made political assessments, such as, "The KRG is deeply committed to building a just society," or asked politically-weighty questions, including, “Is the Middle East in the midst of an ‘Arab Awakening’ or ‘Islamist Awakening’?” Reflecting on his first visit to the region, one panelist said he returned to the US as "a self-appointed ambassador for Iraqi Kurdistan."
Historical topics ranged from the ebb and flow of empires, civilizations and religions across Eurasia, to competing 20th-century narratives of Kurds, Christians, Kurdish Christians, and others in Iraq. Maps and data of an extensive survey of Christian communities in Iraqi Kurdistan were unveiled, detailing current conditions for historic Christian communities and for Christian internally displaced persons (IDPs), and were illuminated with commentary from a former resident of the Nineveh Plain.
More policy-oriented discussions ranged from disputes between the KRG and Baghdad, like oil, Kirkuk, and the legal status of the Nineveh Plain, to the "crisis" for religious freedom in most of the Middle East and around the world. Former State Department officials agreed that it was a problem that the US Government typically treats religious freedom as a humanitarian issue instead of a security issue, and that human rights issues get less attention than pressing security, stability and economic concerns. One panelist referred to religious freedom as a “diplomatic backwater.” However, the former officials disagreed on what should be done differently.
Archbishop Warda addressed the attendees via video, noting the "noble, humane" policies of the KRG, which help Christians in the IKR, including IDPs, and he called on Christian churches from around the world for support. Archbishop Warda and others commented on their concerns about the number of Christians who have fled Iraq altogether. They noted that the reason for Christian emigration from the IKR is not poor security or threats to religious freedom but a lack of employment opportunities, which is a concern not limited to Christians, although some Christians feel that finding employment is more difficult for them.
Questions from the audience, and especially from members of the diaspora, addressed a range of practical issues. Foremost was concern with the most recent escalation of tension between Baghdad and the KRG. Other questions were asked about the difficult economic situation in the IKR, the perception that some projects for IKR Christians do not get adequate funding, and competing strategies to improve Christians' role in governance. Audience members agreed that conditions were far better in the IKR than elsewhere, but urged that more needed to be done. Some suggested that Christians in Iraq could work together more effectively, while others asked what the rest of the world should be doing to help.
Attendees and panelists alike complimented the day’s discussions, which addressed pressing concerns of the Iraqi Christian community as well as topics rarely examined in such a public forum.
Larry Ross, a communications advisor to American Christian leaders and organizations, indicated in the final panel that most people do not know much about Christianity and religious freedom in Iraqi Kurdistan, as he himself did not as of a few weeks ago. "As far as I knew, Iraq is Iraq is Iraq," he said. However, he concluded by emphasizing that the story is a compelling and promising one that needs to be told.
The Catholic University of America's Columbus School of Law and Interdisciplinary Program on Law and Religion owe special thanks to the United States Government Printing Office and the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom for their help coordinating the event. Special thanks are also due to Fair Observer for its role as a media partner.
The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.