Viewing cable 08BAGHDAD3198, RRT ERBIL: CHRISTIANS IN THE KURDISTAN REGION
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UNCLAS SECTION 01 OF 03 BAGHDAD 003198
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SUBJECT: RRT ERBIL: CHRISTIANS IN THE KURDISTAN REGION
FOR USG ONLY. NOT FOR INTERNET DISRIBUTION.
This is an Erbil Regional Reconstruction Team (RRT) cable.
¶1. (SBU) Summary: Long-term Christian residents of the Kurdistan Region enjoy unique material and political advantages, but this has failed to stem the tide of emigration in search of better economic conditions. Christians do not feel that they suffer discrimination as a result of religious and ethnic identification and believe that Kurdish leaders value their presence. Nonetheless, Christians face (as do other residents) a limited job market and competition through patronage systems for government jobs. Christians appear ambivalent on the question of autonomous or self-governing regions. Most express the hope that they be granted the same rights as all Iraqi
citizens, and enjoy equal protection under the law. For Christian IDPs from other regions of Iraq, the relative sanctuary of the region provides small comfort as they look back on a country they see divided between Sunni and Shi'a. For some Christian IDPs, the Kurdistan Region is just the last stop before leaving for good. End summary.
¶2. (U) The following discussion of the situation of Christians in the Kurdistan Region draws on interviews with Chaldean church
leaders, leaders of the Assyrian Democratic Movement (ADM),
Kurdistan Regional Government authorities, long-time Christian
residents of the KRG and recently arrived Internally Displaced
Persons (IDPs). Most of the Christians in the Kurdistan Region
speak Aramaic, describe themselves as ethnic Assyrians and belong to the Catholic Chaldean Church. A conference in 2003 agreed that the group as a whole would be called "Chaldo-Assyrian."
Christians in Kurdistan
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¶3. (SBU) The Christian community in the Kurdistan Region (KR)
historically has counted fewer members than the communities in Mosul and Baghdad (an estimated 40,000 prior to 2003 of an estimated total of 1 million Christians in Iraq as a whole). This was exacerbated by the forced departure of Christian communities from their homes in Dohuk province during Saddam Hussein's "de-villagization" campaigns in the 1960s and 70s that purposefully destroyed northern villages and moved residents to "model towns." (Most of these families ended up migrating to Baghdad.) Despite these depredations, Christians in the KR will generally volunteer that the secular Ba'athist regime at least provided a predictable framework within which they were able
to live and work. By contrast, they believe that an explicitly
Islamic state fundamentally challenges prospects for co-existence no matter how many protections are written into the constitution. The avowedly secular nature of the ruling parties in the Kurdistan Region provides some comfort to the Christian communities, although there continues to be mistrust on both sides resulting from perceived Christian association with the Ba'athist regime. The religious orientation of the central Iraqi government, however, looms large in Christian perceptions of future prospects in Iraq, particularly for those who are IDPs.
¶4. (SBU) From 1992, Christians have had a quota of five seats in the Kurdistan National Assembly (KNA). Many members of the
Christian community eschew politics. They view the Christian
parliamentarians as "chosen by the Kurdistan government - not the people" and do not see them as independently representing the Christian community. The dominant political party is the Assyrian Democratic Movement (ADM) which has two seats in the KNA and two seats in the Baghdad Council of Representatives. There are two Christian Ministers in the KRG: Finance and Civil Society. Finance Minister Sarkis is dual-hatted as the KRG's official intermediary with the Christian community and provided a generous budget allocation for his activities, which includes support for IDPs.
¶5. (SBU) Most Christians in the Kurdistan region live in Dohuk, with smaller numbers in Erbil and even fewer in Sulaymaniya. The Ainkawa township of Erbil (where the RRT is located and where many, but not all Christians live) has been designated by the KRG as an area where Christians enjoy certain rights (such as the right to own property) which other groups are denied. The Government has gone to considerable lengths to enforce this, to the point of buying out non-Christian landowners. Non-Christians (of which there are a few) may rent only. Ainkawa has a special administrative status: it does not fall under the authority of the Governor of Erbil or other
municipal authorities, but has been overseen directly by the Council of Ministries since 2005 - a point of pride for Kurdish officials, who describe this as one of a number of special protections for the community. Some Christians are uncomfortable with the fact that some Muslims use Ainkawa as a "duty-free zone" for drinking and liaisons, but this other face of the neighborhood is not readily apparent. There is little to no nightlife in the well-to-do and tidy suburb. While an effort to build a mosque in Ainkawa was thwarted by the Ainkawa Mayor, no such reverse discrimination is practiced - there are a number of churches outside of Ainkawa in mixed Christian/Muslim neighborhoods.
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¶6. (SBU) The Ministry of Education funds Aramaic-language public schools (elementary and high school) where the students are taught in Aramaic, Arabic and Kurdish. The majority of these are in Dohuk (over thirty elementary schools and eight secondary schools) and supply appears to meet demand. These schools have been operational since the late 1980s and are overseen by a special division within the Ministry staffed by Christians. At the University level, some complaints were voiced about Christians being edged out by other groups (in particular, card-carrying members of the KDP) for scholarships and other opportunities for higher education. The need
to be a party member was underscored.
¶7. (SBU) Christians generally attain higher levels of education than other groups in the region and are well represented in professions such as education, medicine, pharmacology, etc. However, as one contact stated bluntly "after graduation there are no jobs. They stay at home." Government jobs are not seen as desirable, although many Christians do work for the government. With the exception of work in the security forces, there is no perceived discrimination against Christians (indeed, their higher levels of education and a reputation for hard work are an advantage in this respect). The paucity of Christians in the Security Forces is variously ascribed to Christian reluctance or Sunni Kurd unwillingness to place Christians in positions of authority over Muslims. There are, however, Christian officers in the Ainkawa office of the Asayeesh (the KRG's security/intelligence force).
¶8. (SBU) Immigration to Western Europe, Canada, Australia and the United States draws away young Christians seeking better economic opportunities. This is a source of deep concern to the Christian community, which sees its numbers dwindling despite an average family size of 4-5 children. Within the Erbil Chaldean community, a family leaves every month, according to a parishioner. These families often leave illegally, smuggled to Western Europe for USD 20,000 per person. Every family in Erbil is reported to have a relative abroad.
¶9. (SBU) The last three years have seen a dramatic increase in the number of Christians in the KR, primarily Chaldo-Assyrians fleeing violence in Baghdad and Mosul. In 2007, UNHCR estimated that there were 20,000 Christian IDPs in the Region, of which 11,000 were in Erbil, 8,767 in Dohuk and under a thousand in Suleymaniya. Although the Kurdistan Region controls entry of IDPs by requesting sponsorship, UNHCR reported that Christian IDPs gain easy access by virtue of ready sponsorship from the Christian community, or by being a professional, which facilitates entry.
IDPs in Kurdistan Region: "We long to return or to emigrate"
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¶10. (SBU) As confirmed by UNHCR reports and conversations with
IDPs, Christian IDP's, particularly those of means, settle in urban areas and rent their own homes. These IDPs tend to be in Erbil or Dohuk city, are professionals, and are able to live a while by drawing on their savings. Some are eventually able to find a job, but most do not. Finding a good job as an IDP - as for other residents of the Kurdistan region - requires good connections. Inability to speak Kurdish is a serious impediment, both for adults seeking work as well as for students who need to finish their education. Father Basha Warda, Director of the St. Peter Chaldean Seminary, stated that there were 3,000 youths who had graduated from high school but were unable to continue into University in the region because they do not speak Kurdish. IDPs often find that they are viewed suspiciously in shops "as Arabic-speakers." Six- and three-month stipends of USD 125 from the Ministry of Displacement and Migration have provided a modest means of monthly support to registerd IDPs. "We long to return or to emigrate" about sums up the views of most IDPs, with settling in Kurdistan rarely voiced as a preferred choice. While anecdotes of some successful returns are exchanged (including one instance where the Sadr militia reportedly helped kick out squatters in a Christian house in Bagdad when the original residents returned) for the most part it is still too early for others to see whether they will return to Baghdad. Most are concerned that they will not be able to take possession of their former homes; some sold all of their belongings (including their houses) before leaving.
¶11. (SBU) Other IDPs have taken up the offer to return to their ancestral region, the Zahko region of Dohuk Governorate, to villages that their families left forty years earlier. This latter group is given a KRG stipend and a newly-constructed (but basic) house. Under the direction of Finance Minister Sarkis, a hundred of these towns have been reconstituted and Kurdish residents paid to relocate. Minister Sarkis sees slow but steady progress in his plan to return these historically Christian areas to their original state (although he noted that Turkish bombing is preventing construction in some towns that are near the Turkish border.) However, a much more pessimistic note is sounded by others who say that returnees find themselves - after decades of urban living - living in
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depressed rural areas. While previous generations may have
practiced agriculture, the current inhabitants have neither
expertise nor interest in farming. Young people resettled in these towns do not stay for long.
The Salt of the Earth
¶12. (SBU) Residents and IDPs are ambivalent on the question of
autonomous or self-governing areas versus integration into the
polis. One individual originally from Baghdad was strongly against any kind of autonomous area, stating "Christians are like salt - we must be sprinkled everywhere." Others stated that separation might solve some immediate problems, but in the long run the community's future lay in an Iraq where the rights of all are respected. The highest ranking Chaldean prelate in Erbil, Bishop Raban Al-Qas, argued against measures which drew attention to Christians, such as sending money or "sending Christians to save Christians." He argued that this called attention to the Christians, separated them and could endanger them. He asked for respect for rights and religion within society. Representatives of the ADM political party feel
that both are needed - integration into society as well as
protection. They see an autonomous area offering political and
economic advantages, particularly as the towns on the Ninewah plain have suffered neglect from both sides (Kurdish and Arab) and villagers live in deplorable conditions. ADM officials view quotas for political representation as essential, since the lower Christian birthrate and emigration of the community would otherwise make it susceptible to a loss of political representation, since they may not be able to meet the threshold for participation in "open list" elections.
¶13. (SBU) Finance Minister Sarkis is seen as the strongest
political advocate of an autonomous Christian region. In a meeting with Ambassador Krajeski on August 24, he stated that having representatives in Parliament and the National Assembly is not enough. The only way for Christians to survive was through autonomy. Areas that were historically under Christian control or where Christians sought to return were "the property of our people and Kurds and Arabs know this." He said that the creation of this zone would be a unique experience envied by other areas. He gave the example of Ainkawa as a good example of the benefits of such an arrangement, citing the fact that all of the local administration there was Christian. In the new autonomous area, Christians would have their own parliament, elected leadership and budget. It didn't matter if the region was big or small - in their own area they would be "first class citizens" and not have to "beg and bow" for favors.
Furthermore he predicted that others would want to live in those districts preferring Christian rule to Kurdish or Arabic control. The situation may look good in Ainkawa, he warned, but if I were to leave my office in three months the situation would reverse.
Comment: A Potential Model for Minority Protections
¶14. (SBU) Life for Christians in the Kurdish region is safer than in other parts of Iraq but provides them with only limited economic opportunities. Under the "Kurdish model," Christians are assured a minimum level of political representation through quotas, dedicated KRG funding, and in some instances special legal status for Christian communities. Nonetheless, the region does not now - even with the addition of IDPs - contain a sufficient number of Christians to exert much political influence on behalf of the community at the regional level, let alone national level. Despite a good record for welcoming Christian IDPs fleeing other parts of Iraq so far, Kurdish leaders are unlikely to suggest the Kurdish Region as the host of a national Christian enclave. Still, as the region that has best protected Iraqi minority communities since 2003, the Kurdish model provides lessons in how to craft communitarian rights that might be applicable to other regions of Iraq. End Comment.