Ecumenical delegation visits Iraq, addresses displacement of religious and ethnic minorities

Ecumenical delegation visits Iraq, addresses displacement of religious and ethnic minorities

An ecumenical delegation organized by the World Council of Churches (WCC) was received by Prime MinisterNechirvan Barzani of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), on 28 September 2015 in Erbil. The ecumenical delegation had spent six days visiting the Kurdistan Region of Iraq – including the Duhok area, part of the Nineveh Plain, and Erbil – and represented the WCC at the 27 September enthronement of the new Catholicos-Patriarch of the Assyrian Church of the East, Mar Gewargis III, in Erbil.

The meeting with the KRG prime minister focussed on the situation of forcibly displaced ethnic and religious minority communities – Christians, Yazidis and others – following the capture by extremist fighters of significant parts of northern Iraq in mid-2014.

As a result of sudden attacks, brutal violence and abuse by the so-called “Islamic State” (IS) one year ago, over 800,000 people – mostly members of religious minority communities – were forced to flee from their ancestral homes in Mosul and the surrounding Nineveh Plain, and to seek refuge in the Kurdistan Region, according to Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre reports.

More than one year after these events, the towns and villages from which they fled are mostly still occupied or threatened by IS, and hundreds of thousands of displaced people remain in temporary shelter throughout the Kurdistan Region, many facing a second winter season without adequate protection from the cold. Many people still do not know the fate of missing family members and friends. Tragically, an estimated 5,000 (mostly Yazidi) women and girls remain in IS captivity and enslavement.

Approximately 80% of all Christians remaining in Iraq are now concentrated in the Kurdistan Region. Faced with an uncertain future, many of those who have the means to leave are joining the exodus of displaced people seeking new lives elsewhere. “Every day we are saying goodbye to 20 Christian families”, Metropolitan Nicodemus Daoud Matti Sharaf, Syrian Orthodox Bishop of Mosul – himself a displaced person – told the delegation in an earlier meeting. “If something does not change very soon, there will be no more Christians left in Iraq.”

In the meeting on 28 September, the delegation conveyed the WCC’s appreciation for the refuge, hospitality and protection afforded to the displaced people by the KRG authorities, while at the same time expressing grave concern about the exodus of Christians and other minorities. Prime Minister Barzani himself stressed the importance of ensuring that the displaced minority communities felt able to stay in the region. “These people belong to this land”, said the prime minister, “and we will do all in our power to protect and promote religious and cultural diversity in the Kurdistan Region.”

“We believe that more people would see a future in Iraq and stay if they had adequate assurances of real citizenship with social inclusion and equal rights, in addition to personal security”, observed Joanna Lilja from the Church of Sweden following the meeting with the prime minister. In this regard, in its discussion with the prime minister the delegation stressed the critical importance of the current process for developing a constitution for the Kurdistan Region.

“The KRG is now in effect the custodian of much of the threatened religious and cultural diversity of the region”, observed Peter Prove, director of the WCC Commission of the Churches on International Affairs (CCIA). “A constitution that provides for and guarantees full inclusion and equal rights for members of religious minorities is an essential foundation for securing the future presence of Christians, Yazidis and others, enabling members of these communities not merely to be protected but to be full participants and contributors to society in their own ancient homeland.”

The delegation also raised the issue of linguistic and administrative obstacles faced by young people from displaced communities in accessing higher educational opportunities in the Kurdistan Region. “The absence of practical access to higher education for their children is one of the drivers of the accelerating exodus of Christians and other displaced community members from the region” noted Michel Nseir, WCC programme executive on the Middle East. “The prime minister’s commitment to addressing this problem will help remove one threat to the future of these young people.”

“We were impressed by the prime minister’s clarity and conviction,” said WCC delegation leader Metropolitan Ghattas Hazim of the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Antioch and All the East, “and we pray that his commitments to action will result in concrete improvements for the displaced people, and for the safety, security and viability of their communities in Iraq now and in the future.”

The WCC has a longstanding concern for the future of Christians in the wider Middle East region, and is currently embarking on a new project concerning Christian and religious minorities in Syria and Iraq.