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Iraqi Christians fear violence in the wake of Kurdish referendum

A displaced family in the Kurdish region of Iraq.

Iraqi Christians fear further violence just months after Mosul and the Nineveh Plains were freed from the control self-proclaimed Islamic State (IS) as a result of the independence referendum in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq.

The Nineveh plains are one of the territories claimed by both Iraqi Kurdistan and Baghdad. Christians in this area fear that the area will be overtaken by violence having only been liberated in July.

Hannah (not her real name), a local Christian, explained: ‘The Nineveh Plains area disputed area. So in the case of a civil war, this might become one of the most affected areas’.

‘The Iraqi government is being very fierce in their threats against this referendum, as well as neighboring countries.’ Indeed, Iraq’s prime minister Haider al-Abadi has refused to hold talks with the Kurdistan Regional Government, declaring the referendum ‘unconstitutional’. He previously warned that he would take ‘necessary measures to preserve the unity of the country’.

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Although Christians are in the process of rebuilding their churches and homes in the Nineveh Plain, fears of further violence are keeping other families from returning. Hannah described that she heard that people on the verge of coming back to the area are instead ‘awaiting the result and consequences of the referendum and remain at their place of refuge until then’.

The referendum for Kurdish independence comes after a long struggle for a Kurdish independent state. According to the Independent High Elections and Referendum Commission, 78 percent of the more than five million eligible voters turned out to vote. The results will be released in the coming days, and though a ‘yes’ result is widely expected, the government in Baghdad is determined to discount such an outcome.

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Christians in the area differ on their views about Kurdish independence. Hannah said that those who support it ‘are found mostly among those living in the Kurdish area; others are against it’.

The Christian political parties in the Kurdish parliament are also divided on the issue. Some voted ‘no’ because they do not believe the Nineveh Plains should be included in an independent Kurdistan because to do so, they fear, would bring more conflict to an area that has already suffered so much at the hands of IS.

Iraq was once home to one of the largest Christian communities in the Middle East; today, the church in Iraq is in danger of disappearing completely. IS militants have forced thousands of Christians to flee their homes, and in other areas of Iraq, Sharia law prevents people from leaving Islam.

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Open Doors, a Christian charity which helps persecuted Christians around the world, has launched Hope for the Middle East, a seven-year campaign uniting the global church to ensure every person in the Middle East, regardless of their faith, has a home, a future, and a voice. As part of this, Open Doors is asking people to sign the One Million Voices of Hope petition, which will be presented to the UN on 11 December 2017.

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