Christians in Limbo as Kurdistan Votes on Independence; Bishop Says Faith Stronger Despite Suffering

(Photo: REUTERS/Thaier Al-Sudani)A boy rides a bicycle with the flag of Kurdistan in Tuz Khurmato, Iraq September 24, 2017.

Christians in Iraq are facing uncertain times as the autonomous region of Kurdistan votes on independence. But one bishop said that their faith has grown stronger despite their ongoing suffering at the hands of radicals and amid war.

"In Iraq things are never guaranteed. Our future is in the hands of God. We pray that life will be better than it was before. But we see that the Christians have become stronger because of the crisis. Every crisis makes us stronger. You see that the Church became everything for the Christians," Father Poulos, a priest in Bashiqa, told persecution watchdog Open Doors last week.

Archbishop Yohanna Petros Mouche commented about the Kurdistan referendum, which took place on Monday: "It is not clear what the future will look like."

"We have this issue between the Kurdish and Iraqi governments. We don't know what the outcome of a referendum will mean for the Christians and for other minorities."

While the votes have not yet been fully counted, Iraqi Kurdish leader Masoud Barzani said on Tuesday that Kurds had voted in favor of independence.

Reuters noted that the referendum is not recognized by the central government of Iraq, however, and is in opposition to wishes by the U.S. and its allies, given the continued instability of the region in the war against the Islamic State.

Turkey has even threatened to impose a blockade should Kurdish independence move forward. Barzani has remained defiant.

"We may face hardship but we will overcome," he said in a speech, urging world leaders "to respect the will of millions of people" who voted in the referendum.

Barzani has clarified that the vote is not binding but will provide a mandate for negotiations with the central government and neighboring countries, with hopes that it will eventually lead to a peaceful secession of the region from Iraq.

Mouche said that despite the uncertainty of the situation, he is not worried about how Kurdistan will vote.

"The Kurdish government has respected us as Christians when we came to their area in 2014. They welcomed us, they loved us," he said, referring to the internally displaced Christians who have fled genocide at the hands of IS.

As for Christians trying to return to their homes in Iraq that have been liberated from IS control, the bishop expressed his hopes that the Nineveh Plains could return to normal.

"For Mosul it might be different. I expect few Christians to return there at this moment."

He added that there are growing signs of hope, however, and shared a story of Muslims and Christians working together:

"Recently, a Muslim business man came to me. He said he wanted to finance the rebuilding of a church. That makes me optimistic. This is someone who wants to live in peace together. I trust God that things will be better," Mouche said.

Rudaw reported in July that a massive Christian church was recently opened in Kurdistan to give displaced Christians a place to worship.

The Church of St. Petrous and Pols (Peter and Paul's) held its opening ceremony after eight years of construction, and is able to sit as many as 1,300 people, making it the largest church in the region.

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