On September 25, Kurds flocked to polling stations across northern Iraq to vote in a historic referendum on independence. Despite international opposition, the result was an overwhelming “Yes” vote in support of an independent Kurdistan. Though the vote represents a significant step towards the longstanding dream of establishing a Kurdish state, many of Iraq’s Christians, an even smaller minority group, feel ambivalent about the result.
Most Iraqi Christians live in the northern Nineveh Plains region, which they consider their historic homeland. The region came under the control of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in 2014 when the Peshmerga occupied several towns in the area, as part of the offensive against ISIS. Many towns in the Nineveh Plains are technically still under the jurisdiction of the Iraqi state, even though the KRG has staked a claim to them.
In Bashiqa, for instance, which is a dozen miles northeast of Mosul, Iraq’s central government is responsible for supplying most of the town’s public services. Many residents are, however, employed by the KRG. Similarly, both the Iraqi government and KRG President Massoud Barzani have claimed the northern town of Alqosh as their own.
As Akram Mansour, an Iraqi Christian from Bashiqa, told The Washington Post recently, these territorial tensions leave many Christians feeling caught “between the hammer of the Kurdish government and the hammer of the federal government.”
As a vulnerable minority, many Christians worry about their safety and fear that Iraq’s weak central government lacks the capacity to properly protect them. Prior to the United States’ 2003 invasion of Iraq, there were about 1.4 million Christians living in the country. As militants, including ISIS, have regularly targeted Christians for attack, many have fled Iraq, with only about 250,000 Christians remaining in the country today.
Since Kurdish forces have a better track record of providing for the Christian community’s needs, some Christians support Kurdish independence, as an alternative to the corrupt and dysfunctional government in Baghdad. Others, however, feel that Christian-majority areas in Iraq’s northern Nineveh Plains region should be excluded from any future Kurdish state, and, instead, should become an autonomous Christian region. Others prefer to remain within a federalized Iraqi state.
In some instances, the needs of the Christian community have been overshadowed by the conflict between the KRG and the central Iraqi government. This summer, for instance, Christian residents of Alqosh and Tel Kepe were angered by a KRG decision to remove their Assyrian Christian mayors from office and replace them with Assyrian Christians loyal to the KRG. Worse still, some Christian towns devastated by ISIS over the past few years remain uninhabitable, thanks to the Iraqi government’s unwillingness to institute the same infrastructure projects there that it has established in other parts of Iraq, like Mosul, that were previously under ISIS control.
Struggling against the possibility of losing their homeland, Iraqi Christians are continuing to look for ways to survive between two competing governments.