A visit to the Christians and other minorities in Iraq
During my trip to Iraq in late January / early February of 2012, I talked to representatives of the Christian population in the autonomous Kurdish regions of Iraq and the Nineveh Plains. The Christians in Iraq belong to different churches such as the Chaldean, the Old-Apostolic church of the East, the Assyrian, Syrian Orthodox, Syrian Catholic and other smaller Christian churches.
The majority of Christians have left southern and central Iraq because of the continued violence against Christians in Iraq since 2003. At least 400,000 Christians have already left southern and central Iraq. It is only in the autonomous Iraqi region of Kurdistan that they can feel secure and free in their religion and nationality rights. It has become impossible for the Christian minorities to live in safety outside the autonomous region of Kurdistan and outside the villages of the Nineveh Plains that are protected by their militias.
An exceptional event took place on December 2, 2011, when Kurdish Islamists started a riot in the province of Duhok. Members of the minority groups were very worried about the excessive violence of the radical Islamists, who attacked shops and organizations run by Christians or Kurdish Yazidis. They demolished shops that sold alcohol, several massage parlors and a ladies' hairdresser saloon in the village of Zakho (Dohuk province) and the town Smel after the Friday prayers. 37 people – mostly policemen – were injured and the damage caused ranges in the millions.
Bartalla – the ancient Syrian-Orthodox village
On February 3, I accompanied the director-general for the Aramaic language (Suryani) and culture, Dr. Saadi Almaleh, who is also an advisory board member of the STP section Kurdistan/Iraq, on a visit to Bartalla. We attended a memorial service (40 days after death) for the Syrian-orthodox Bishop Ishak Sako, who was a leading figure of the Syrian Orthodox Church.
Before the funeral, I spoke to representatives of Bartalla's civil society. Bartalla is located about 20 kilometers east of Mosul. The town has about 30,000 inhabitants, mostly Syrian-Orthodox Christians. Because of the many refugees from the Arabic areas of Iraq, the population has increased a lot over the last few years. Before 2003, there were about 20,000 people living in the ancient Syrian-Orthodox city. For a long time it was inhabited only by Christians. About 20% of them are Syrian-Catholic Christians, the rest belongs to the Syrian Orthodox Church. They all speak Aramaic. In recent years, members of the Shabak minority moved there also. The Shabak are mostly Shi'ite Muslims and speak a Kurdish dialect. They also had to flee from terrorist attacks in Mosul.
Bartalla was christianized during the second century and joined the Syrian-Orthodox Church in the year 610. From 1153 onwards, Bartalla was an important center for Christians in the region. There are several partially destroyed churches in the town: The May Shmony church (baptismal font dated 1343), the Virgin Mary Church (built 1890), the Mar Gewargis Church (built 1939), the Al-Sayida Church (complete destruction in 1934), the Ber Nagara Monastery (built in 1285, destroyed in 1653, only ruins remaining) and the Mar Aho Dama Church (built in 1153, destroyed in 1386). There are also three monasteries in the vicinity: Mar Giwargis (1701), the Monastery of the 40 Martyrs and Mar Yuhanna in the north of the city.
Bartalla is protected by Kurdish security forces as well as by a Christian militia. Due to the immigration of Muslims, especially the Shabak, the Christians are in fear of a change in the demographic composition of the city. Many Christians feel cornered by the Muslims. In recent years, an initiative was established to protect the cultural heritage of the city – and representatives of almost all political and religious movements are organized there. The initiative aims to solve the ownership conflicts peacefully with members of the Shabak minority. The people of Bartalla would also like the Society for Threatened Peoples (STP) to support their efforts.
The Yezidis of Bashik & Bahzani
In Bartalla, I also met a delegation of Yezidi from Bashik & Bahzani. Since 2003, the Yezidis in the province of Ninawa (Mosul) were repeatedly targeted by terrorist attacks of Islamic extremists. The two villages Bashik & Bahzani play a significant role in the history of the Yezidis. The Yezidi clerics, the "Qewals" – who pay annual visits to their religious brothers and sisters in all the areas inhabited by the Yazidis in Iraq, Syria, Turkey and the former USSR – come from Bashik & Bahzan. It is the "Qewals" duty to pass on the Qewls (religious poems, stories and hymns of praise) and Di'a (prayers) to the Yazidis.
Arbil and the Christian suburb of Ankawa
Because of new development areas, Ankawa is about to vanish into the Kurdish city of Arbil completely. 25,000 – 40,000 inhabitants live here. In the nineties, there were only about 8,000 inhabitants. The population increased significantly when more and more Christian refugees from Baghdad or Mosul settled here. Furthermore, Ankawa serves as a temporary place to stay for refugees headed towards Europe. Ankawa is almost entirely inhabited by Christians. There are several churches and chapels in the city. The oldest church is the church of Mar Gourgis, which was built in 816. Ankawa was founded by Apostle Thomas in the 2nd Century. As a part of the city of Arbil, Ankawa is protected by Kurdish security forces. Since many foreign embassies are located here, there are significantly more safety measures than in other regions of Kurdistan. Many political and cultural institutions of the Christian Assyrian-Chaldean-Aramaic are located in Ankawa.
The Christians in Ankawa are in fear of "foreign infiltration" caused by the unstoppable growth of Arbil. The influx of people from the outside (Christians and Muslims) might soon lead to a situation, in which Ankawa loses its historic and unique appearance forever. For this reason, building permits should only be issued if the population agrees. The expansion of the international airport of Arbil should not be pursued at the expense of Ankawa – and the property holders will need adequate compensations. Also, the uncontrolled influx of people to Ankawa should be stopped. Therefore, the Kurdistan Regional Government must coordinate any further development measures with representatives of the civil society of Ankawa. An initiative for the protection of Ankawa has already achieved a first success, when the so-called "four towers" project (a hotel complex) was stopped by the regional government on January the 1st, 2012
Sulaimaniya - The "Bride of Kurdistan"
On the 31st of January – before Bartalla and Ankawa – I also visited the Kurdish city of Sulaimaniya. This city in the northwest of Iraqi Kurdistan is known for its beauty and neatness, which is why many people call it the "Bride of Kurdistan". With STP-consultant Dr. Yousuf Dzai and Muhammad Hamo, a Syrian Kurd living in Iraq, we drove to the north-east via Kirkuk. Heavy rain started in the early morning already. On the road between Kirkuk and Sulaimaniya, we were surprised by a sudden snowfall. Without winter tires and snow chains we could hardly move our vehicle. When we finally arrived in Sulaimaniya, we went to the Chaldean Church of Mar Yousuf, where we spoke to a Chaldean Catholic priest from Kirkuk who took up his duties in Sulaimaniya a few weeks ago. The priest takes care of the cities 260 Christian families (900 people) – mostly Chaldeans, but also members of other churches.
The church is also visited by seven Armenian families living in the city. The church organizes cultural activities and takes care of children, the sick and the elderly.
"Emna Soreke", the memorial in Sulaimaniya
In Sulaimaniya, we also visited the so-called "Emna Soreke", the "center of terror" – a former building-complex of the Iraqi intelligence service. From here, the regime of Saddam Hussein ruled the city until 1991. The building complex has now been converted into a memorial. The cells, in which the prisoners were locked up, look almost like before. Certain methods of torture are depicted by sculptures. There are still some short hand-written messages of the prisoners to be read. A young man aged 13 wrote: "Mom, Dad – They will probably pick me up tomorrow morning, you will never see me again …".
The memorial is a project that the City and the University of Sulaimaniya are working on together.
We also paid a short visit to the radio station "Nawa", which broadcasts worldwide in two languages – Kurdish (Sorani & Kurmanji) and Arabic. The station is largely independent. It also regularly broadcasts reports on the STP's work for minorities in the Middle East.
STP advisory board member Dr. Yousuf Dzai and I also visited a memorial event for the victims of the terrorist attacks of February the 1st, 2004. Back then, two suicide bombers who were disguised as religious dignitaries had simultaneously blown up two buildings of the ruling Kurdish parties: the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK). The death toll was particularly high (56 dead and 200 injured) as hundreds of people had gathered to celebrate the Islamic Feast of Sacrifice.
On February the 1st, I visited the Turkmen facilities in Arbil, where I met our friend Karkhi Najmeddin. He leads the "Turkmen Democratic Organization" who have five seats in the regional parliament. In Kurdistan, there are also Turkmen schools, newspapers, radio and some television stations. Furthermore, there is a private Turkish university where the Turkmens are able to study in their mother tongue.