Minorities in Iraq & Kurdistan discussed in EP – With KRG Representative (FEYLI KURDS et.al.)

By Roni Alasor / Lorin Sarkisian – Brussels, 20 June 2013 – Ararat News (ANP) – The situation of ethnic minorities and religious groups in Iraq has been discussed in a meeting of the Delegation for Relations with Iraq in the European Parliament in Brussels. The meeting has been opened by Struan Stevenson, Chair of the EP-Iraq Delegation, Among the speakers were Mr Kamel Zozo, Chair of the Christian Human Rights Organisation for the Assyrian Community in Iraq, Mr Delavar Ajgeiy, Head of Kurdistan Regional Government Mission to the European Union, Mr Sheth Jerjis, Chairman of the Iraqi Turkmen Human Rights Research Foundation (Netherlands), Mr Chris Chapman Minority Rights Group, (London) Mrs Thirsa de Vries, Senior Programme Officer Iraq, IKV Pax Christi (Utrecht).

The current situation of several ethnic minorities and religious groups widespread in different areas in Iraq has been discussed, including Turkmen, Assyrians-Syriac-Chaldeans, Armenians, Kurdish Yezidi, Shabak, Kakayis, Feyli Kurds, Black Iraqis, Mandaeans, Jewish and Palestinians. While the central Iraqi government has been strongly criticized in EP resolution adopted in March 2013 and by the speakers at the meeting for not protecting minorities and religious groups from terror and violence, Kurdistan Regional Government also received critics and requirements to do more.

Members of the European Parliament and European minority experts do believe that despite the Kurdish young democracy born over the tragic past of terror, violence and massacres, the KRG should continue building stronger multicultural society based on democracy, tolerance and freedom.

In response on behalf of Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), Mr Delavar Ajgeiy, Head of KRG Mission to the European Union, analyzed the current minority situation in Kurdistan Region and presented the main government priorities in this regard :

“If we look at Iraq, we unfortunately see a country that has always had troubles with the notion of peaceful co-existence. Subsequent rulers have sought to maximize their power and authority at the expense of others who were then brutally marginalised and oppressed. The most apparent example of this was the Kurds. As the second biggest nation and (and at same time the largest minority group) the Kurds have suffered enormously under different rulers in Iraq. The worst of them was of course the bath regime of Saddam Hussein which embraced a fascist ideology where there was simply no place for non-Arab groups in Iraq.

A widespread campaign of Arabization started in the beginning of the 1960s whereby Kurds were forced out of some strategic places such as Kirkuk, Sinjar and Khanaqin. This campaign intensified throughout 70s and the 80s and went hand in hand with physical and physiological suppression that lead to hundreds of thousands of casualties and thousands of villages being destroyed. At the height of this campaign and with the purpose of eradicating the Kurdish population in Iraq, Saddam’s Ba’th regime used chemical weapons in the town of Halabja killing 5000 innocent people in a matter of hours. Saddam furthermore captured and deported some 8000 members of the Barzani clan and did the same in other areas and he started a brutal campaign of oppression with Feyli Kurds. Under the name of Anfal operation, some 182000 Kurds were captured only to be killed or put alive under the Southern Sahara of Iraq.

Now coming back to the present situation, analyzing the situation of minority groups in Iraq, we have to differentiate between two areas in Iraq; The areas that are under the administration of the Kurdistan Regional Government and those outside, ‘’The rest of Iraq’’. Any account of human rights and minority rights that do not take into account the differences in these two regions, would in our opinion, be severely invalid and inaccurate.

The Kurdistan Region currently covers the three Northern provinces that are under administration of the Kurdistan Regional Government (Eribl, Soulaimaniya and Dohuk). These three provinces were liberated in 1991. Right after the liberation, Kurdistan region held its first Parliamentary elections in 1992. Consisting of 111 seats, the Kurdistan Parliament was composed right from the beginning as a true reflection of the diverse population of Kurdistan comprising not only Kurds, but also Turkmen, Assyrians, Chaldeans, and Kurds belonging to other non-Muslim religions such as Yezidi, shabak and Kakayis.

After the fall of Saddam Hussein, an intense wave of terrorism and sectarian violence covered Iraq. Kurdistan Region however, was spared from much of these terroristic activities.  Protected by its Peshmerga and security forces, Kurdistan region remained safe and stable. I would like to particularly point out here the great contribution of Peshmerga and Kurdish security forces in safeguarding peace, not only the three provinces, but also in the so-called disputed areas in Kirkuk and Mosul provinces where apart from Kurds, large number of Christians, Turkmen and Kurdish Yezidi live. Peshmerga forces made huge sacrifice in order to protect all the communities living in these areas. Often the mere presence of Peshmerga was enough to deter terrorists from attacking and slaughtering entire villages. Unfortunately this heroism and invaluable contribution and sacrifice of Kurdistan Peshmerga forces have not always received the recognition and appreciation that it deserves. Unfortunately by taking over biased accounts of terrorists and former Ba’th regime elements some international media and organisation were have even criticized Peshmerga.

Let me now provide you some facts and figures regarding the situation of Minority communities in Iraqi Kurdistan. These figures are based on the research and fact finding Missions of international organisations such UNAMI, and other independent organisations and are backed by the data that KRG itself has produced.

Legal and constitutional guarantees

With regard to minority rights, The Kurdistan draft Constitution guarantees religious an language rights for all nationalities and religions, and is explicit about the multi-ethnic identity of the Kurdistan Region.

Article 5, Article 6, and Article 35, explicitly mention all the religious and ethnic minority groups living in the Kurdistan Region and their full political, cultural and linguistic rights.

Articles 19 prohibits compulsion in religion and states, “Every person has the right to freedom of religion and belief, thought and conscience and the Kurdistan Regional Government shall guarantee the freedom of Muslims, Christians, Yazidis and others in the practice of rituals and rights of religion, shall ensure the sanctity of mosques, churches and houses of worship” . Article 20 states that on equality, all forms of discrimination are prohibited, including discrimination based on religion, origin or nationality. There is even a clause in the Kurdistan constitution that provides minority groups self-rule in the areas where they make up a majority of the population.

Facts and figures

While all the major organisations agree that there are discrepancies and difficulties in putting a figure on the number of displaced, the UN and international NGOs estimate that several thousand Christian families have found refuge in the Kurdistan Region. According to the International Organisation for Migration, an estimated 83,333 families of all ethnicities and religions have been displaced to the Kurdistan Region. The International Medical Corps (IMC) reports indicate that until 2010 3,800 families moved to the city of Dohuk, alone.5 According to International Relief and Development, as of 30 September 2006, there were approximately 7,502 Christian IDP families in Dohuk. Not only Christians but also large numbers of Turkmen, Sunni and Shia Arabs and Yazidis from different social classes have found refuge in the Kurdistan Region. Many of the educated middle class who have come to Kurdistan for its security have been able to continue their work as doctors, lecturers, lawyers, traders and businessmen, thanks to the Region’s growing economy. Due to the threat of violence in Baghdad, a seminary has been moved to Ainkawa, a town adjacent to the Regional capital of Erbil.

With the intensification of violence against them, Christians started fleeing to the Kurdistan Region in large numbers. By 2006, the Kurdistan Regional Government had accommodated and welcomed as many as 50,000 individuals and according to 2009 UNAMI report, some 20,000 Christian families from Basra, Baghdad and Mosul have found a safe haven in KRG administered governorates of Dohuk and Erbil and in the Nineveh plains (this apart from the many thousands who have moved to Sulaymaniah). The KRG provides support and financial assistance for 11,000 of those families, and a significant of them is employed by the KRG.

By 2011, KRG had rebuilt more than 120 villages and helped around 15,000 families with monthly stipends. The KRG has been helping Christian families with assistance through churches and cultural and community centres. When the exodus of Christians became known, the KRG allocated 250,000 Iraqi Dinars to each family to help them until the federal government in Baghdad can find a permanent solution. Other KRG institutions, such as the Parliament and the governorates of Dohuk, Erbil and Sulaymaniah, have also offered financial and material aid to those in need, through churches and civil society organisations.

The KRG’s support for Christians has been recognised by Christian patriarchs and leaders of different denominations. Pope Benedict XVI praised our commitment to tolerance and peaceful coexistence when he met with Kurdistan Region President Masoud Barzani in March 2009.

Political representation of Christian and other minorities

As I mentioned before, of the 111 MPs in the Kurdistan Parliament, 11 seats are reserved for the two largest minority groups; Christians and Turkmen. At the governorate council level, in 2009 the Kurdistan Parliament amended the provincial council’s election law which guarantees seats for minorities. In Dohuk governorate, three council seats are reserved for the Assyrian Chaldeans, and one for the Armenians; in Erbil, two are reserved for Christians and three for the Turkmen; and in Sulaymaniah one seat is reserved for Christians. Further on the political level, currently there are some 26 Turkmen political parties and a dozens of parties from the Christian communities.

Education and Media

The KRG believes in the right of all nationalities to learn and study in their mother tongue, and put this principle into practice several years before the 2003 liberation of Iraq. As early as 1992 when the Kurds in Iraq first had the freedom to govern themselves, the KRG Ministry of Education ensured the passage of Article 4 in Law No. 4, establishing primary education in their mother tongue for minorities in the Kurdistan Region. The first KRG-funded Syriac and Armenian primary schools were opened a year later in March 1993. Today there are 62 primary and preparatory Syriac and Armenian schools in Erbil and Dohuk, with nearly 7,000 pupils. Following the successful start of the primary schools, in 1997-1998 the KRG Ministry of Education started planning for Syriac secondary schools, and today there are more than 10 in Erbil and Dohuk governorates. The first cohort of secondary school students graduated in 2004, and attempts are being made to open a Syriac language department in the University of Dohuk in the future. As far as the KRG is aware, there are no government schools in other parts of Iraq that offer education in Syriac, Turkmani, or Armenian.

Erbil, the capital of the Kurdistan Region, is the base for some of the major Turkmen and Syriac (also known as neo-Syriac) language media. Ishtar TV was established in 2005 and broadcasts from Ainkawa, a large town on the outskirts of Erbil which is home to a very large Christian community. Kurdistan TV, one of the main Kurdish satellite TV stations, presents a one-hour weekly programme, called Soraya, in Syriac. Several Syriac newspapers are published in Erbil, including Quyamn and Bet Nahren, and Ainkawa magazine. The Ainkawa Cultural Centre has a small arts institute run by Rafiq Nuri Hanna to preserve and promote Assyrian and Chaldean arts and culture.

KRG is fully committed to a multi-ethnic multi-religious society where the rights and freedoms of all groups are respected. Kurdistan Region will continue on this successful path and it will remain a shiny example of tolerance and peaceful co-existence in Iraq and the whole region”.