Cablegate: Rrt Erbil: Christians in the Kurdistan Region

DE RUEHGB #3198/01 2771521
P 031521Z OCT 08



E.O. 12958: N/A

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

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
- - - - - - - - - - - - -

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.

BAGHDAD 00003198 002 OF 003

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"
- - - - - - - - - - - - - -

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

BAGHDAD 00003198 003 OF 003

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"

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.


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