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Untying the Knots of Religious Diversity in Iraqi Kurdistan

Beside the threat of ISIS, Iraqi Kurdistan is facing deep political and economic crisis that have negative implications on religious pluralism, particularly, in the face of uncertainty after the liberation of Mosul and the broader region of Nineveh.

The work of KRG and, more specifically, the Ministry of Endowments and Religious Affairs, in conjunction with various initiatives from representatives of different communities in the Ministry are noteworthy. Law 5 of 2015 for the 'Protection of the Components [Minorities] of Kurdistan' is one of the fruits of their efforts. This promising, albeit limited, work shows the intention of KRG to create an environment of religious tolerance, which (will) distinguish it from the rest of Iraq and the wider region. This view, however, is not always shared by the politico-religious leadership and the members of the communities, who often portray these changes as merely cosmetic.

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The religious and ethnic communities are alarmingly fragmented and are mired by inner-communal disagreements. The divide is not only across religious/doctrinal lines, but also political ones. A basic factor is the polarization driven by the conflict between KRG and the central government of Iraq.

The research team noted the phenomenon of militarization of the communities, as a result of the aforementioned polarization. With the exception of Zoroastrians and Jews, all the other communities have established military units or militias to fight against ISIS, either on KRG's side or the central government's side. Given that these militias do not intend to disband after the ousting of ISIS, they will play an important role in the Erbil-Baghdad rivalry. Meanwhile, the Yazidi, Shabak and Turkmen communities are highly likely to be driven into conflict.

In the case of the Christian community, the religious leadership opposes militarization, as it deems that the protection of Christians is the mandate of the official state authorities. In addition, the religious leadership has been accused of having a 'passive' stance, an accusation, which together with its opposition to the arming of Christians, has engendered a rift between the political and the religious leadership.

Particularly vulnerable are the over 2 million refugees and Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) in Iraqi Kurdistan, whose population is estimated to be 5 million. The refugees and IDPs seem to be affected by the aid budget reductions, but they are also at risk of drawing the hostility of the host community, who might consider hem passive recipients of governmental assistance.

The return of IDPs is a thorny issue, not only because of the possible revenge attacks, but also due to the total destruction of some regions. The lack of resources and, in some cases, the lack of willingness to reconstruct the regions renders the return of IDPs a point of contention. In this context, the emigration flows are expected to increase significantly, particularly among the Christian and the Yazidi communities.

The cooperation between the communities is rudimentary. The initiatives for dialogue are limited both between the communities and within each community, either because dialogue comes second in the urgency of fighting ISIS or because similar initiatives have failed in the past. In general, the communities seem to promote their interests separately from each other and, at times, at expense of each other, particularly when it comes to the issue of the autonomous zone in the Nineveh region.

Cooperation and dialogue is of significant importance in the context of discussions for the creation of an autonomous zone in the Nineveh region, an idea that is very popular among the Christian, Yazidi, Shabak and Turkmen communities. Nevertheless, while the majority supports the idea, they seem to lack a clear and common plan vis-a-vis the status of the autonomous zone, whether it will be under the administrative control of KRG or the central government, the role of the international community and the specific arrangements for the coexistence between the different communities.

While the idea of creating an autonomous zone for the religious minorities has an overall positive reception, the scenario of a Sunni autonomous zone is treated with skepticism. Except from some Sunnis, the only other external supporter of this scenario is Turkey. In any case, the odds for such a scenario to materialize are poor, given the suspicion towards the Sunni community.

The notion of distrust and fear of the 'other' is rampant, especially against Arab Sunni Muslims and Sunni Muslims in general. Although there is a distinction -- at least on a rhetorical level -- between the Arab Sunni Muslims who fled and those who stayed and allied themselves with the 'Islamic State', the majority does not want to continue living next to Arab Sunni Muslims. Given the lack of a central command over the various armed groups, and the fact that there is no plan to bring those responsible to justice, revenge attacks will probably be inevitable. These acts of revenge may even occur against members of the same community, especially in the case of Turkmen.


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