Iraqis displaced by IS and Catholics in Kurdistan have welcomed the opening of a 1,300-seater church by the regional government there, although a US report has voiced concern at “religious abuses” and discrimination against non-Kurds there.
The 30 June opening ceremony was attended by Chaldean Catholics from the Kurdish region, as well as Christians displaced from other parts of Iraq and refugees from Syria.
“When finished, this will be one of the biggest such projects in the Middle East,” Khalid Jamal, head of the Christian Affairs department at the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) religious affairs ministry, told the Kurdish news service Rudaw.
Officials from the KRG’s Religious Affairs ministry laid the foundation stone of the church of Sts Peter and Paul in Ankawa, the Assyrian suburb of Erbil, in 2009, and in 2013 released US$4 million dollars for its completion.
The Archbishop of Erbil, Bashar Warda, told Rudaw: “Building this church with support from the Kurdish government is a message that shows there is a link with, and support for, Christians.”
Plans are underway to increase the number of churches in Kurdistan in the coming years, Rudaw reported, suggesting that the KRG anticipates that many Christians who have fled their homes in Syria and Iraq will not return home.
Kurdish officials say there could be as many as 200,000 displaced Christians in the semi-autonomous region. Tens of thousands of Yazidis, Christians, Shabak, Turkmen and Shia Muslims arrived in 2014 after Islamic State forced them out of Mosul and towns across the Nineveh Plains.
However the building of churches is tightly controlled by the government.
While the Kurds have won praise internationally for fighting IS, Christians have been bitterly disappointed to learn that Kurdish Peshmerga forces have occupied some of the Christian villages they liberated.
A report issued last month by the US Committee on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) voiced concern at “the nature and extent of violations of religious freedom engaged in or tolerated by [the KRG] authorities”. It found many religious groups said they were treated like second-class citizens compared with the Sunni Kurds, and criticised the Kurdish authorities’ inaction on reports of land grabs.
With the possibility that the Kurds could vote in favour of independence in the referendum, the report warned that “allowing rights and freedoms to be eroded now risks setting a trend that will likely continue after independence”.
Further facilities such as offices and a conference centre are also planned. “The church will be among the most magnificent and largest churches in Iraq. The project itself has been developed over several years and will even house a school for Christian studies and languages. It will have a modern architecture which will also reflect the history of Erbil and its surrounding areas,” Ashour Jarjis, who is in charge of the construction told Rudaw.