Can Kurdistan Serve As an Internal Sanctuary for Iraqi Christians?

Co-authored by Nader Habibi, the Henry J. Leir Professor of the Economics of the Middle East at Brandeis University's Crown Center for Middle East Studies.

The recent announcement that Iraqi leaders have reached a tentative deal to create a unity government in Baghdad is welcome news amidst the looming threat of sectarian violence. While overall levels of sectarian violence in Iraq have declined in the past two years, the Christian minority in the country have suffered tremendously. A painful reminder of this came on Oct. 31 when al Qaeda attacked the Sayidat al-Nejat Cathedral in Baghdad killing 58 Christian worshipers. Violent attacks such as this over the past seven years have forced a large number of Iraqi Christians to leave the country, and this latest attack has only accelerated this process. As a result a Christian community that once was nearly 800,000 strong before 2003 is now well under half a million.

The mass exodus of Iraqi Christians not only imposes a burden on neighboring countries and Europe, which have already received hundreds of thousands of Iraqi refugees, but also drains Iraq of one of its most educated and entrepreneurial minorities. For those Iraqi Christians who fear for their safety in the Arab regions of Iraq, the Kurdistan region could serve as a sanctuary. Thousands of Christian families have already fled to the Kurdish region and the Ninawa province in Northern Iraq, which borders Kurdistan and is relatively safer than central and southern Iraq. The Kurdistan region has thus far been beyond the reach of al-Qaeda-affiliated groups that target the Christian community.

To date the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) has not received any recognition or assistance from the international community or the central government in Baghdad for hosting this growing number of Christian refugees. In our view the United States, along with other concerned nations, should encourage and assist the KRG in accommodating the Iraqi Christians that feel unsafe in other regions of the country. Those Christians who feel unsafe should be encouraged to relocate to Kurdistan rather than leave Iraq all together.

The Christians of Iraq are one of the oldest religious groups in that country whose roots go as far back as the Christianity itself. Ironically thousands of Christians once lived in Kurdistan and northern Iraq until the 1960s and 1970s when they were forced to leave the region as a result of prolonged violence against the Kurds by the central government in Baghdad.

In recent years many of the Christian families who have returned to Kurdistan have moved into villages where they or their ancestors once lived. As a result, many of these Christian villages have enjoyed economic revival. Yet at the same time large numbers of Christians residing in larger Kurdish cities such as Erbil or Mosul are facing harsh economic difficulties.

So far the KRG and the Kurds have welcomed these new arrivals and are providing them with social services and moderate financial assistance. It is partly because of the historical roots of the refugees in the region that the Kurds have not reacted negatively to the arriving Christians. However if more Christians choose to seek asylum in the Kurdish regions and if the international community decides to encourage the Christians to choose Kurdistan over leaving Iraq, then the number of Christian arrivals will sharply increase. In that case the KRG will face a serious refugee crisis and might be forced to turn away additional arrivals, leaving the Christians with no other option than to leave Iraq.

There is no doubt that the arrival of thousands of Christians will be a heavy social and economic burden on the government and people of Kurdistan. Yet this humanitarian gesture might offer them several positive benefits. First, it will generate considerable international goodwill for the Kurdish region, which would be invaluable in future negotiations with the central government over disputed territories. Second, as mentioned earlier, Christians are a highly educated and skilled minority who would contribute further to the economic prosperity of the Kurdish region. Finally, by accommodating the Christians, the Kurdish region can demonstrate that it is a tolerant and multicultural society, and hence further enhance its image as a role model for the rest of Iraq and perhaps even the Middle East.

The international community should welcome the proposal for using Kurdistan as a sanctuary for Christians by not only providing financial and logistical support to KRG but by also encouraging Baghdad to provide economic support to the KRG for this purpose. For the Iraqi government authorities, which have so far been unable to contain the violence against Christians, the Kurdistan option would be the second best solution to ending the violence and hence deserves their full economic and political support.

Joshua Walker is a Belfer Center fellow at Harvard University and a visiting research fellow at the Crown Center for Middle East Studies at Brandeis University. Nader Habibi is Henry J. Leir Professor of Economics of the Middle East at the same institution.