WASHINGTON – A panel of experts who were part of a day-long event focused on the Kurdish region of Iraq say that Christians are treated well in the northern part of the Middle Eastern nation.
Sponsored in part by the Interdisciplinary Program in Law & Religion at Catholic University of America, speakers noted how especially compared to other parts of the region, Christians in Iraqi Kurdistan had a high level of religious tolerance.
Robert A. Destro, director of the Interdisciplinary Program at CUA's Columbus School of Law, told The Christian Post on Wednesday that the toleration was relative compared to the rest of the area.
"It's a question of relative acceptance and relative freedom. It's nothing like we have here. There's a continual struggle for survival," said Destro. "That having been said, it is much easier, for example, in Iraqi Kurdistan because the Christians are not perceived as an invading western force."
Destro also talked about the valuable resource the Christian communities in Iraqi Kurdistan are, referring to them as "a proxy for the Christians who live all over the Middle East."
"They're the ones who we can most easily speak with, the ones we can most easily support, and the ones who live in the most relative freedom," said Destro. "And so in a way the Christian communities of the United States can reach out to them, can interact and if I have my prayers answered it would be to have in effect a sky-bridge between the two places."
Destro's remarks came as he took part in a conference on Wednesday titled, "The Status of the Christian Communities in Iraqi Kurdistan: Challenges & Opportunities." Held at the Carl Hayden Room of the U.S. Government Printing Office, the event focused on issues surrounding Iraqi Kurdistan and its Christian population.
The event included six sessions, each focusing on a major topic pertaining to the broad issue of Christianity in Kurdistan.
Several speakers comprised the sessions, including experts on Eastern Christian history, recent Iraqi history, as well as Christians who had been to the region recently.
Dr. Carole O'Leary, a visiting scholar and cultural anthropologist, spoke about "the politics of identity" in Iraq's national makeup and stressed that contrary to popular belief, Christianity was not fully tolerated under the Saddam Hussein regime.
Meanwhile, Dr. Dietmar W. Winkler, a professor of ecclesiastical history at the University of Salzburg, Austria, gave an overview of the history of Christianity in the Mesopotamian region from the early Christian missionaries to arrive in the 1st century until the 20th century.
And Dr. Herman Teule, director of the Institute of Eastern Christian Studies at Radbound University in the Netherlands, detailed the many ways that Christians in the northern Kurdish region of Iraq were involved in politics and benefitting from government programs designed to help build homes for Christian refugees and repair damaged churches.
The official welcome and opening remarks were given by Destro, as well as CUA president John H. Garvey and John Desrocher, director of the Office of Iraq Affairs at the State Department.
"Strengthening security for all of Iraq's people, including its minority communities, helping Iraq do that is a priority of the U.S. government," said Desrocher. "Directly related to strengthening that security is protecting religious freedom. It's crucial for economic development, for democratic stability. When you don't have that protective freedom, social cohesion is weakened."
The event on Christianity and Iraqi Kurdistan was part of a series of events by CUA focused on interfaith dialogue and issues.