Report Summary “Wilting in the Kurdish Sun: The Hopes and Fears of Religious Minorities in Northern Iraq”

The US Commission on International Religious Freedom recently published its 2017 report on Iraqi Kurdistan, for which the commission conducted in-field interviews with minority community leaders and spokesmen over several months. The report highlights the successes of the Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KRI) in upholding the freedoms of its religious and ethnic minorities yet also raises concerns on issues that still need to be addressed.

The KRI comprises most of Iraq’s Christian and Yezidi communities, Shia and Sunni Turkmen, Shabak, Kaka’i, and small populations of Zoroastrians, Sabean Mandeans, and Baha’i. According to the report, compared with the majority of Iraq and its neighbors, the KRI has become a region of relative religious freedom and tolerance. Religious and ethnic minorities have found refuge in the KRI, where they have been persecuted less than in other areas of Iraq, and where they are guaranteed by law the right to worship freely. The diversity of minority communities in KRI has intensified since the rise of the Islamic State. The Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) continues to accept the region’s growing number of internally displaced persons (IDPs) and minority communities, and took steps to include minorities in the regional government. The report found that the KRG guarantees representation for most ethnic and religious groups in its legal structure and quota system. 

The KRI is also subject to the Iraqi Constitution, which does guarantee religious freedom, although the law is seldom upheld in other areas of Iraq. The KRI does attempt to maintain religious freedoms by utilizing its autonomous authority to create its own policies separate from Iraq. The KRI Draft Constitution refers to religion less often than the Iraqi Constitution, but does use Sharia law and mandates Islam as the official religion; which is a concern to many non-Muslims. However, the draft constitution protects the right to freedom of religion, education, and use of cultural languages; it ultimately guarantees protection of the individual from religious coercion. Additionally, the 2015 Law Protecting the Rights of Components of Kurdistan lists national groups that are not Kurds as part of the citizenry, mandating equal protection to all national groups within the KRI.

However, that KRI is not completely tolerant of its religious and ethnic minorities the report found, broadly and in specific cases. Generally, there is concern for “Kurdification” in areas that have historically been populated by minorities. Religious groups complain that their interests are second to those of the Sunni Kurds. Although the report found that legal protections do exist for minorities, acceptance by the majority Sunni Kurdish community has been an issue. Religious and ethnic minorities report experiencing systematic biases by KRG policies and discrimination within the larger community. Christians and Yezidis feel threatened by “Kurdification,” which they believe is causing their territories to be taken over by the Sunni Kurdish majority.

The fear of misrepresentation and discrimination is a real concern as the KRG does not use the police force with regularity, and the courts are not responsive to complaints. The report found that some minorities believe laws protecting religious and ethnic groups are ineffective. The UNHCR noted in the KRI that access to the law is often dependent on religious and ethnic affiliation. Minorities are at unfair disadvantage and are unable to represent themselves. Naturally this causes reluctance by minorities to use the court system.

Report findings also listed significant evidence that the Sunni Kurds have reached higher levels of economic growth. Nepotism and favoritism for Sunni Kurds has hindered the advancement of minorities in certain industries and has kept them from holding decision-making roles in government. This economic growth among Sunni Kurds serves as a another example that the KRI has institutionally favored Sunni Kurds over other religious and ethnic groups. Without the KRI upholding its own law with proper enforcement and providing equal economic opportunities, minorities believe their rights are not being fully respected.

Several specific cases of minority discrimination are raised in the report as a concern. First, acceptance of the Yezidi community has been poor. Yezidi leaders complain about pressure from Sunni Kurds to identify as Kurds, and they allege that the Peshmerga forces do not adequately protect the Yezidi minority from the Islamic State (ISIS, ISIL, Daesh). Yezidis who challenge KDP’s control over the Yezidi territory of Sinjar are harassed and may even be prohibited from entering the KRI. Restricted movement and economic blockades of Sinjar are part of a KRG effort to “Kurdify” the Yezidi, the report found. Meanwhile, Yezidi representation is not guaranteed in the KRG because the KRI authorities consider them to be ethnic Kurds.

Second, the report found that Christian communities are concerned about appropriation of their land by the KRG. Despite being well protected from ISIS, and receiving money from the KRG to rebuild churches, the report found that Christian communities believe they are targeted for their land by KRI officials, who use the land for financial gains. Christian leaders believe this is a strategy to transfer traditionally Christian territory, Dohuk and Erbil, to the Kurds. Additionally, the KRG has prevented some Christians from protesting and moving freely with the KRI, another example that Christian leaders believe shows lack of meaningful religious protection for their communities.

Third, the Turkmen, consisting of Sunni and Shia Muslims, face underrepresentation and discrimination, despite being the third largest ethnic group in Iraq. Those interviewed for the report claim that they struggle to reach effective levels of government representation even in their own province of Kirkuk.

Finally, the report found that the Shabak experience repression in their territory of Nineveh through unrepresentative governance and law enforcement, as well as pressure and coercion from the KRG to incorporate the Nineveh province into the KRI. Those who oppose incorporation have experienced violent attacks against their communities. The KRG is likely motivated by the oil-rich land that the Shabak occupy and their desire to “Kurdify” Nineveh. The report found this kind of political exclusion to be detrimental to the future of the Shabak community.

Although the report did find several issues of concern that it contends need to be addressed immediately, it also noted that the KRI is doing significantly better than the rest of Iraq. The USCIRF considered it separately from the rest of Iraq in its 2017 analysis, and did not designate the KRI as a “country of particular concern” (CPC). The report concluded that the KRI has been successful at sheltering minority communities, but it should be monitored closely as it nears complete autonomy and continues to make changes to its draft constitution. Violations of religious freedom do exist, but “they are not systematic, ongoing, or egregious.”

Emelie Chace-Donahue is an intern at the Atlantic Council Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East. 

Image: Photo: Refugee Maryam Fathi, from Kurdistan, delivers a speech in front of a reproduction of Picasso's Guernica during the Ongi Etorri Errefuxiatuak (Welcome Refugees) rally in the Basque town of Guernica, northern Spain April 29, 2017. REUTERS/Vincent West