Christians in Kirkuk and other parts of northern Iraq continue to worry about insecurity in the Nineveh Plains despite the recent peace agreement between Kurdish and Iraqi forces.
Recent clashes between the Kurdish Peshmerga and the combined forces of the Iraqi army and al-Hashd al-Shaabi – the pro-Iraqi militia groups – destabilised the area once again.
“Many of the Christian families are confused. Some are even divided – one wants to stay while the other wants to leave.”
Father Faris Tammas
The Kurds had controlled Kirkuk since mid-2014, when the Iraqi army fled during the Islamic State group offensive. On 16 October Iraq took back control. Tensions grew worse between the two sides after Kurdish independence was favoured by a majority vote at the September referendum.
“People are scared because of the conflicting news and all that is going on, and Christians are the first affected as they are [in] a minority,” explained Father Faris Tammas, a Syriac Catholic priest in Kirkuk.
The peace agreement brokered on 29 October between military and political representatives of Baghdad and Peshmerga military leaders and political representatives of the autonomous region of Iraqi Kurdistan meant that, two days later, Peshmerga forces started to withdraw from parts of the Nineveh Plains still under their control.
It is hoped their replacement by Iraqi troops will make the area safer for Christians. However recent events show that Kurdish forces are still tense, with threats from Baghdad that the Iraqi army will invade Kurdistan.
The Chaldean and the Syriac Orthodox Patriarchates had expressed concern that territorial disputes and military confrontation would lead to further instability, especially after Christians had started returning to the area after the defeat of IS, reported Fides.
In September, Christians were split over the Kurdish independence referendum, with many fearing it would lead to another civil war.
Earlier in October in Faysh Khabur, which lies on a three-way border between Iraq, Syria and Turkey, there were killings on both sides during a week of fighting between Kurdish and Iraqi forces, which led many Christians to flee the city.
“There are 130 Christian families in Faysh Khabur and because of the fear from the situation, the women and children had to flee temporarily to Zakho. Some went to stay with relatives in Dohuk until the situation became quiet again,” said Father Yousif, a priest in Zakho. The families returned to Faysh Khabur on 30 October after a week away.
A worker who has been helping the Church in Iraq for more than ten years said the threat of attacks is not just limited to the overspill from conflict between Peshmerga and Iraqi forces, but a lingering threat from IS.
William Hollander, who works with an NGO which partners with Christian charity Open Doors in northern Iraq, said people “are afraid of sleeper cells … [they] are very concerned”. He said the “crime rate is also going up”.
Fr. Tammas said the fighting between Peshmerga and Iraqi forces had already destroyed vital infrastructure in Kirkuk – “it took me two hours more to get to Erbil because of a demolished bridge” – and that, despite the agreement between the two sides, the instability in the region over the last few years has rocked the confidence of local Christians. The congregation of 126 families at his church in Kirkuk includes 82 families displaced from their homes elsewhere during IS’s occupation of the Nineveh Plains, and they remain cautious about returning to their homes.
“Only two have recently returned to their homes after renovating them in Qaraqosh,” Fr. Tammas said.
Recent fighting between the Peshmerga and Iraqi state forces also meant fewer people have been going to his church.
“It is normally attended by 100-150 people every Sunday,” he said, “But the last two Sundays were totally different. The first, we had only 12, whereas the second Sunday there were between 40-50 attendees.”
The church uses its website and Facebook page to disseminate news to its members, and encourages them to look there first rather than believe rumours from the street. Nevertheless, Fr. Tammas reports that Kirkuk’s remaining Christians talk about emigrating, and that “many of the Christian families are confused”.
“Some are even divided,” he said. “One wants to stay while the other wants to leave.”
Fr. Tammas said he “accepts the challenge” of staying. “My priestly dignity does not allow me to leave my people,” he said. “I had the chance to serve elsewhere in Iraq, but I decided to stay in Kirkuk.”
When the priest knocked on the door of a Christian family in a neighbourhood on the far edge of the city, he was met with pleased surprise that he had taken the risk to venture out to see them. He said he recognised they needed encouragement. “There are people who are very scared of the sound of guns,” he said. “I served in the army, I know about war and I feel for the people.”