The site of Mar Elia Chaldean Catholic Church in Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan region, where hundreds of Christians found refuge when they were displaced by Islamic State. (Photo: World Watch Monitor)
The site of Mar Elia Chaldean Catholic Church in Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan region, where hundreds of Christians found refuge when they were displaced by Islamic State. (Photo: World Watch Monitor)

The Christian minority in Iraqi Kurdistan is hoping for its “real” representatives to be voted into the Kurdish regional parliament this Sunday, 30 September, reports Kurdish news service Rudaw.

The presidential and parliamentary elections in the semi-autonomous region in northern Iraq are the first after a referendum last year in which the population voted overwhelmingly for Kurdish independence.

Christians were split over the referendum, with many fearing it would lead to another civil war.

Following Baghdad’s rejection of the referendum and its outcome, fighting broke out between Kurdish Peshmerga and the combined forces of the Iraqi army and the pro-Iraqi militia groups known as Al-Hashd Al-Shaabi.

And although a peace agreement was signed at the end of October, elections that were scheduled for 1 November were delayed.

Voicing the ‘real’ needs

The Iraqi Kurdistan Parliament has 111 members representing a number of parties and groups, 11 of them from non-Kurdish minority groups. Eighteen candidates are competing for the five seats available for Christians.

Besides the smaller Christian parties, larger parties like the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP), the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), and Gorran, or “Change Movement”, have been known to nominate their own people for these seats, according to Rudaw.

The smaller parties are concerned that if these candidates, supported by the larger parties, are voted in, they will align themselves with them instead of voicing the real needs of the Christian minority, a local source told World Watch Monitor.

“The KDP is eyeing even quota seats. We have only five candidates. Please give up on these [five] seats. Let real Christian representatives reach the parliament,” Farid Jacob, leader of the Democratic Assyrian Movement in Duhok, told Rudaw. His party currently has two MPs but aims to win four seats.

“Christian quota seats should be for Christians and their real representatives should go to the parliament. We don’t want other parties to create lists for us so that we fulfil their agenda in the parliament,” Jacob added.

Meanwhile the head of the Chaldean Church, Patriarch Louis Raphaël I Sako, told Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need that he hoped the elections would lead to political change, encouraging Christians to stay or return to Iraq.

“From this election we expect a positive political change. Cooperation between central Iraqi Government and authorities of Kurdistan is very important,” he said.

However, he added that “conflicts between Kurds and Arabs who want to occupy the Nineveh Plains do not encourage Iraqi Christians to stay”.

About one-third of the Christian families who fled IS have returned home, but infrastructure and security remain inadequate, he said in July. At the time the Catholic archbishop of Erbil, Bashar Warda, stressed that aid promised by the US to help non-Muslim communities to recover from IS’s occupation of their towns and villages “should be immediate and effective”.

More than 100,000 Iraqis – including many Christians – fled Mosul and the Nineveh Plains for Kurdistan in the summer of 2014, after IS seized control of large swathes of Iraq and threatened non-Sunni Muslims with death if they did not leave.

According to church committees in the Nineveh Plains, by July 8,744 Christian families had returned to nine villages in the area. In addition, 82 Christian families had returned to Mosul.

US Congressman Jeff Fortenberry, after a recent visit to the area, told Catholic news site Crux that he saw a future for Iraq to become again the “tapestry of real pluralism”.

“There’s been co-existence for centuries” between the country’s Muslim and Christian populations, he said, and the US can help it to recover its “dynamism of diversity”.