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Restricted freedoms in the Iraqi Christian green zone

Even in a relatively safe enclave such as Iraqi Kurdistan, where tolerance and safety might be anticipated, the freedom of Christians has a specific delineation.

Last modified: 6 Jan 2011 16:10
Photo by Rhodri Davies

The Bishop of the Chaldean Archdiocese of Irbil in northern Iraq denied my request to talk to him about Christians in the country.

"You can see the life of the community here," he said, before finishing post-service greetings and embraces with his flock at St Joseph's church in Ainkawa, a Christian suburb of Iraqi Kurdistan's capital.

He was right. I had just seen a 500-stong Chaldean congregation - an independent Christian Church that has been in Iraq since the 2nd Century - attend Sunday evening mass.

It appeared to be a resilient and devout community that conveyed buoyancy and longevity.

Septuagenarian women in traditional red and black local dress sat alongside teenage girls adorned in perfume.

A choir of 30 members sang hymns from a balcony, above families who arrived from the darkness outside to acknowledgements from community members within.

Collection plates were filled and warm interactions conducted post-service.

But the bishop was correct in another perhaps unintended sense about the life of Iraq's Christian community.

There were also four guards carrying Kalashnikov rifles on the gates to the church compound. This presence at evening time was up from the two armed men that patrolled during the day.

The guards were amiable but became anxious when I tried to take photographs of the church. They told me to leave my bag at the gate.

Iraqi Kurdistan is supposed to be a redoubt for the persecuted of central and southern Iraq. This is due to the lack of attacks that have occurred there since the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, according to the autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG).

Up to 6,000 Christians – 1,000 families - are said by the UN refugee agency to have fled here from cities such as Baghdad, the national capital, Mosul and Kirkuk.

Fryad Rwanzi, a member of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and former member of parliament in Baghdad, told me that what refuge Iraqi Kurdistan provides for Christians is constrained.

"The KRG is doing whatever they can do to create a happy atmosphere for their lives and provide them with houses, apartments and jobs or to transfer their jobs from other areas to Kurdistan," Rwanzi said.

"And I feel that Christians feel very safe in Kurdistan because Kurdish society is a Muslim society but a very open society and I don't think that religion is a priority in Kurdistan.

"At the same time we are worried because of the extremists coming from other parts of Iraq and infiltrating into the area and committing some terrorist activity in Kurdistan.

"But fortunately the KRG and security forces are worried, and indeed have put on the table all the things to protect Christians and to make sure that their life is going on like any other person in Kurdistan."

Deadly attacks on Coptic Christians in the Egyptian city of Alexandria on New Year's day and on Christians in Baghdad in November and December show the gruesome threats faced by these communities in their ancestral homelands.

More recently, Iranian state media reported that that 60 members of the country's Christian minority had been arrested since Christmas Day for spreading a hard-line version of their faith, allegedly with the support of the UK.

Whether that it true or false, it shows the potentially pernicious effects of discrimination, which can lead to both oppression and retribution.

Iraq's Christian community numbers between 450,000 and 500,000 today, down from between 800,000 and 1.2 million in 2003, when the US invasion and occupation provided space for groups such as al-Qaeda to attack them.

But even in a relatively safe enclave such as Iraqi Kurdistan, where tolerance and safety might be anticipated, their freedom has a specific delineation.

It is one limited to the nature of a persecuted people and defined by the reach of its would-be oppressors.

Sadly, that is the life you can see in a Christian community there.

Follow Rhodri Davies on Twitter: @rhodrirdavies