by Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi
Among analysts of the ongoing unrest in Syria, it is a truism that the main reason Christians are generally not participating in demonstrations against Assad's rule is because they fear reprisals at the hands of the Sunni Arab majority if the Alawite-dominated regime falls.
Alawites, who have incorporated Christian practices into their syncretic, Shi'a-rooted religion such as the celebration of Christmas and wearing of crosses, have always felt an affinity with Syrian Christians and have thus protected them since the establishment of the Baathist regime in 1963.
Less widely noticed, however, is the problem of tensions between the country's traditionally marginalized Kurdish minority and the Christians. Several aspects of the Kurdish-Christian animosities have recently been documented by Dutch journalist Wladimir Van Wilgenburg. Specifically, disclosures from the U.S. diplomatic cables released by Wikileaks reveal that Christians in the northeastern region of al-Jazirah consider the Kurds to be recent intruders, and fear that the Kurdish presence could lead to the formation of a Greater Kurdistan.
The cables in question date from March 2009, and partly touch on the subject of the fourth anniversary of the Kurdish uprising in Syria in 2005. The Christian community apparently blames the Kurds for causing damages to public property in excess of $2 million during the uprising, while not mentioning that the Syrian security forces opened fire on crowds of unarmed Kurds, who were fleeing riots incited by anti-Kurdish rhetoric.
The Christians of al-Jazirah have also claimed that mass-immigration of Kurds and high Kurdish birthrates have transformed al-Jazirah from an area with an historical 80-90% majority Christian population into one now dominated by Kurds with a 35% Christian minority.
Hence, Kurdish participation in the protests against Assad's rule has done nothing to allay Christian fears. The Syrian opposition, of course, suffers from problems of internal tensions, and during a recent opposition conference, Kurdish figures walked out in protest that most of the attendees wanted Syria to remain defined as an "Arab" country (as per the country's current official name, "Syrian Arab Republic").
Such a development no doubt suggests to the Christians that, if the Kurds are not striving to incorporate parts of Syria into the Greater Kurdistan, they might at least be aiming for an autonomous region similar to Iraqi Kurdistan.
Yet it is surely the example of Kurdish autonomy in Iraq's north that partly underlies the anxiety of Syrian Christians over how Kurds might behave post-Assad. Since gaining autonomy in 1991 after the First Gulf War, the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) has engaged in an active campaign of discrimination and cultural imperialism against the Assyrian Christians (as well as other non-Kurdish minorities like the Yezidis and Shabaks, who are not recognized as separate ethnic groups in the KRG Constitution), a problem that has only intensified since the American-led invasion of Iraq in 2003.
Most notably, Peshmerga militias have routinely confiscated Assyrian land, and in October 2002, a resolution was passed by the KRG to legalize such thefts by Peshmerga militiamen. In addition, the Iraqi Kurds have attempted to marginalize the legitimate representative of the Assyrian people in Iraq: namely, the Assyrian Democratic Movement. As Assyrian scholar Peter BetBasoo points out, during the 2005 general elections in Iraq, Kurdish authorities tasked with delivering ballot boxes to Assyrian districts in the north failed to do so as part of an attempt to block them from voting, while Assyrian election workers were fired on and killed.
Indeed, as a 2007 report by the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom notes:
Meanwhile, as part of its cultural imperialism, the KRG promotes pseudo-history in the same way Palestinian media have denied historical Jewish connections to the land of Israel. In particular, the KRG falsely portrays the Kurds as the true indigenous inhabitants of northern Mesopotamia and southern Anatolia. For example, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan- one of two parties in the ruling KRG coalition- recently reaffirmed the claim to oil-rich Kirkuk as a Kurdish city that was supposedly founded by Kurds.
In reality, Kirkuk's foundations date back to 4000 B.C., well before the arrival of the Kurds in northern Iraq in the twelfth century CE. In Old Assyrian it is called Arraphkha, and is one of the four cities that originally formed the Assyrian heartland.
It is therefore no surprise that many Syrian Christians are deeply suspicious of local Kurdish aspirations. Pundits frequently (and rightly) complain of the maltreatment of minorities by those who identify as Arab Muslims. Nonetheless, it is also evident that appreciation of tolerance and diversity is a virtue yet to be learned by Kurds at large. The sooner the KRG is pressured to reverse its discrimination against minorities, the better for future Kurdish-Christian relations, both in Iraq and the wider region.
Update: In response to this piece, several people have asked: 'If the KRG discriminates against Assyrian Christians, why have many Christians from Baghdad and points south chosen to settle in the KRG areas since 2003?'
The answer is that, for those Christians who cannot leave Iraq entirely, the KRG areas amount to the lesser of two evils, with a much lower risk of suffering attacks at the hands of al-Qa'ida. A life enduring discrimination is ultimately better than living in constant fear of death (the atmosphere of terror exemplified by mass-casualty attacks like the assault on the Assyrian Catholic 'Our Lady of Salvation' church in Baghdad back in October 2010).
A suitable historical analogy is the case of Jews who fled to the Ottoman Empire from Spain after the Reconquista. The Ottomans imposed a discriminatory policy known as Sürgün against Jews and other minorities around the area of Asia Minor and Greece. This policy, meaning 'exile' in Turkish, entailed a 'form of vassalage that restricted movement and social interactions, and resulted in economic penalties, including double taxation' [Bostom, 'The Legacy of Islamic Antisemitism,' (2008) pg. 108], along with deportations to enforce the sürgün status. One well known case is that of elite Spanish Jews who settled in Salonika around 1508, but were then forcibly exiled to Rhodes in 1523 and subject to the discriminatory policies of sürgün.
Superficially, it is true that the KRG has tried to win over Christians through an Assyrian named Sarkis Aghajan (although according to Wladimir van Wilgenburg, he is not so active anymore, as he is no longer KRG Minister of Finance). He used KRG funds to rebuild some churches and villages and set up a Christian defence militia in Mosul against al-Qa'ida. These initiatives did win over some Christian leaders, and as a result one will hear different opinions from them regarding KRG treatment of Christians. As a Wikileaks cable below illustrates (I have highlighted certain parts in bold for emphasis):
'C O N F I D E N T I A L BAGHDAD 002139
E.O. 12958: DECL: 07/31/2018
This is a Ninewa Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) message.
¶1. (C) In a July 3 meeting with PRT and US Army civil affairs personnel, Mayor of Tal Kaif District (and Provincial Chairman of the Assyrian Democratic Movement) Basim Bello said Assyrians in Ninewa Province feel intimidated by the Kurds and suffer from a lack of essential services. Bello said the solution lies in the inclusion of all groups in the provincial government. He said civil rights protections for Christians will continue to be a concern whether predominantly Christian areas remain part of Ninewa or join the KRG. He reiterated his party's position that the Christian areas of Ninewa should form an autonomous region under Article 125 of the constitution. PRT leader stressed the USG's commitment to ensuring fair treatment of minority communities within Iraq and said minority protections will be an important indicator of the overall health of Iraqi democracy.
¶2. (C) In a separate meeting with Father Dinkha Issa, the Assyrian Christian priest in charge of the Monastery of Rabbi Hormiz and nearby Church of the Holy Virgin at Al Qosh, PRT leader asked about the welfare of Christians in Al Qosh. Dhinka expressed hope the church could help bring peace to an area that he described as "disputed between two governments" (the Government of Iraq and the KRG). Unlike Basim, Dhinka said there have been no problems with intimidation or interference from political parties or Kurdish security forces. He said the main problem for the church and its adjoining orphanage was inadequate drinking water; a new orphanage building, funded by KRG Minister of Finance Sarkis Aghajan, was nearly finished. He asked for help procuring a vehicle gate to help secure the monastery site.
¶3. (C) Comment: These two conversations with long-term PRT interlocutors reflect the differences of view within the Assyrian community. Both men are dedicated to protecting their community, but may come to different conclusions about how best to ensure its safety in a new Iraq. PRT will continue to cultivate close contact with all of Ninewah's minority groups and report the diversity of views held by key figures on questions of politics, security, and community identity. We will also explore the possibility of using our resources to help secure unique religious sites like the Monastery of Rabbi Hormiz, which is an invaluable piece of Iraq's national patrimony and a potential tourist attraction capable of generating wealth in a poor area.'
None of this, however, negates the problems I drew attention to in my original article.