Christian-Owned Lands in Iraq Being Seized by Kurds, USCIRF Report Warns

(Photo: Reuters/Youssef Boudlal)Kurdish Peshmerga forces stand guard near the town of Makhmur, south of Erbil, capital of Iraqi Kurdistan after Islamic State insurgents withdrew Aug. 18, 2014.

Iraqi Christians living in Kurdistan have complained that their properties and lands are being seized and built on by ethnic Kurds and some have even accused Kurdish government officials of trying to "Kurdify" Christian areas, a new report from the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom details.

The congressionally-mandated office recently released a report titled Wilting in the Kurdish Sun: The Hopes and Fears of Religious Minorities in Northern Iraq, which states that many religious groups living in the Kurdish Region of Iraq (KRI) feel they remain "second-class citizens" even though they fled from persecution at the hands of the Islamic State.

According to USCIRF, the report is "the first independent report of its kind to involve in-person interviews with representatives of almost all the religious minority groups" in the KRI. 

The report, published last month, was prepared between May and August 2016 and was authored by Crispin M.I. Smith and Vartan Shadarevian. The project was overseen by USCIRF policy analyst Jomana Qaddour.

The report summarizes that even though KRI has served as a "haven" for thousands of displaced minorities fleeing the Islamic State and offers religious freedoms that are "comparatively robust" in comparison to its regional neighbors," there are still "troubling issues related to discrimination and even violence targeting ethnic and religious minorities" that exist in the region.

"While the KRI remains far more welcoming and tolerant to minorities than its regional neighbors, minorities complain of systemic biases leveled against them that prevent them from realizing rights or fully participating in society," the report reads. "Rule of law and law enforcement as it applies to non-Sunni Kurds can be arbitrary. Minorities continue to fear growing extremism in the majority population, which they believe could threaten them in the long term."

Considering that the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) has been at the forefront of the fight against the Islamic State and has taken control of large swaths of land in "disputed territories," the report explains that alleged Kurdish policies in these disputed territories have become a "concern."

"Kurdish authorities, parties, and security services have been accused of attempting to 'Kurdify' more ethnically diverse parts of the disputed territories, possibly as part of KRG policy to boost retention of the disputed territories once Baghdad turns its attention to its territories now occupied by Peshmerga following battles with ISIS," the report explains. "Although officials deny such a policy exists, a growing number of NGOs, activists, and reports have detailed evidence of the destruction of properties and attempts to prevent IDPs returning to their homes.

"In addition, some minorities are precluded from aid or support, or are even targeted, if they do not support or are critical of local Kurdish parties. This may be part of a long-term strategy to entrench control of the disputed territories."

The report adds that not only have displaced Yazidis been pressured to identify as Kurds but Christians have "faced land appropriations by Kurdish landowners."

"Christian citizens of the KRI have issued complaints and held protests against Kurdish residents for attacking and seizing their land and villages in the provinces of Dohuk and Erbil," the report states. "Some Assyrian Christians accuse Kurdish government and party officials of taking lands for personal use or financial gain. These Christians believe they are specifically targeted as part of a policy to Kurdify historically Christian areas.

"Other Christian leaders do not believe a policy exists, but do concede that individual Kurds and Kurdish businesses have been known to build on or take Christian land."

According to the report, Christian accusations of land appropriations by ethnic Kurds is "especially true" in the Dohuk countryside around Zakho and the Nahla Valley areas.

(Photo: Reuters/Azad Lashkari)Iraqi Christians take part in a procession to erect a new cross over the Mar Korkeis church, after the original cross was destroyed by Islamic State militants, in the town of Bashiqa, Iraq, November 19, 2016.

The report states there are two types of common appropriations happening in Kurdistan.

The first, which represents "significant portions of the claims," are long standing land ownership issues involving Assyrian Christians who abandoned their properties during regional uprisings and suppressions in previous decades and have returned with their deeds looking to reclaim ownership.

The second type of appropriation dispute is "incidents where powerful local officials or businesses seize land on which to build new properties."

"Assyrian leaders alluded to various cases where Kurdish officials, or individuals or developers with links to officials, have built on land owned by Christians," the report relays. "Assyrian Christians from Zowaa pointed to incidents throughout Dohuk governorate, the Nineveh plains, and in Erbil. Seizures in the Nahla Valley have received particular attention; here, Christians allege 42 encroachments in the villages in recent years. Most recently, a Kurd building on communal agricultural land sparked protests, after requests to cease and desist were ignored."

One particular case involving Erbil International Airport was raised by a number of Christians leaders who spoke to researchers. The case involved land owned by the Chaldean Catholic Church that was built on by developers without permission.

There have also been instances in which Christians who tried to protest the land appropriations have been prevented from traveling through checkpoints by KRG security officials, who turn back Christians once they see identification marked "Christian."

The report notes that there was an one instance in which Kurdish forces prevented Assyrian Christians from traveling to Erbil to protest land appropriations in April.

"Such appropriations targeted against Christians are examples of religious discrimination," the report asserts. "Where true, they also represent violations of Kurdistan's 2015 Minority Rights Law."

Issues surrounding Christian landownership go back decades.

In addition to land appropriations, the fear of radical Sunni extremism and discrimination still exists for Christians living in the KRI, as priests have "unanimously warned of growing extremism emanating from the mosques and sections of society."

"Christians acknowledge that the authorities have safeguarded them to date, but fear that these protections could be eroded if Kurdish leaders choose to appease extremists in future governments," states the report. "One priest claimed that Kurdish contractors had refused to carry out a contract upon learning that the work was on behalf of a Christian church."

Christian politicians involved with the Chaldean Assyrian Syriac Popular Council have also voiced their concerns over the lack of economic opportunity for Christians in KRI.

"These politicians fear that regional persecution, combined with opportunities abroad, will lead to the complete disappearance of Assyrian Christians from their historic homeland," the report states. "A senior bishop echoed this sentiment, noting that bureaucracy and officials can be linked to religious cronyism. He called for more transparency in the region to prevent hidden discrimination or favoritism based on religion."

Ideally, Christians in the KRI are hopeful that they will one day be allowed to create a Christian governorate in the Nineveh Plains of Northern Iraq, where many of them fled from.

"Several Christian leaders confirmed that if given an Assyrian Christian governorate, the governorate would be a part of the KRI subordinate to Erbil. Creating political units solely based on religion or ethnicity can fuel discontent," the report contends. "In this case, there is a risk (if such a plan was permitted) of creating tensions with other minorities in the area, including Shabak and Yezidis. In the long run, groups in the minority might find themselves at a disadvantage, or compelled to leave."

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