RLPB 424. Iraq: Assyrians request prayer as Kurds ‘play with fire’
plus Update — Afghanistan: Finnish aid worker released
Update — Philippines: Father Suganob rescued
by Elizabeth Kendal
CFF Director of Advocacy
Assyrians are the indigenous people of Northern Iraq and a Christian nation. Between June and August 2014, ISIS drove more than 130,000 Assyrians from their homes in Mosul and the Nineveh Plains. Traumatised and destitute, most found refuge in Iraqi Kurdistan, primarily in Dohuk (to the north) and Erbil, the Kurdish capital (to the east). This year, a coalition led by the Iraqi Army and aided by Popular Mobilisation Units (PMUs: mostly Iranian-led Shi’ite militias), US-backed Kurdish peshmerger forces and Assyrian units have succeeded in liberating Mosul and much of the Nineveh Plains. As Assyrians tentatively trickle back into their towns and villages, they do so with the hope that the Nineveh Plains might one day be an autonomous entity within the state of Iraq. The last thing they want is to fall victim to a Kurdish land grab, or to find themselves caught in the middle of another war.
Unless there is a miracle, the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) will hold a referendum on independence on Monday 25 September. Though the anticipated ‘Yes’ vote will not trigger an automatic declaration of independence, it is expected to lead to official negotiations. Analysts suspect that KRG President Massoud Barzani’s goal is not independence, but leverage to aid negotiations over revenue sharing (more money), further devolution of power (more power) and the demarcation of Iraqi Kurdistan’s borders (more land). However, as Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi commented on 16 September, the Kurds are ‘playing with fire’.
Talk of Kurdish independence has sent tensions soaring inside Iraq and across the region. Eager to expand its borders, the KRG aims to include ‘disputed territories’ in the referendum, including oil-rich Kirkuk and the Nineveh Plains. Despite pressure from Kurd and pro-Kurd authorities, most Assyrians oppose the referendum and do not want their lands included. Fearing Shi’ite power, Nineveh’s Sunni Arabs support Kurdish independence and do want to be included. In a move destined to destabilise the whole region, oil-rich Kirkuk (controlled by Baghdad until Kurdish forces seized it in the chaos of August 2014) will participate. The Iraqi Government, Iran and the Shi’ite militias oppose the referendum, the break-up of Iraq and Kurdish annexation of Kirkuk. Meanwhile, Turkey, Iran and Syria oppose the referendum as it could embolden their own restive Kurdish minorities. The pro-Kurdish US is opposed to the referendum as it will weaken Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi to the benefit of Iran ahead of the April 2018 general elections. Many Kurds too are opposed to the referendum because they sense this is simply not the right time for such a provocative move.
Aware that the referendum could trigger a new conflict, Turkey, Iran, the US and the UN have been lobbying KRG President Massoud Barzani to cancel or postpone the referendum indefinitely, to no avail. On Sunday 17 September the KRG’s High Referendum Council, headed by Barzani, voted to reject the US-backed alternative and press ahead with the 25 September referendum as planned.
Chaldean Patriarch Louis Raphael Sako has issued an urgent appeal, calling on Erbil and Baghdad to ‘resume dialogue with courage’. He laments that ‘some have already started beating the war drums’, noting, ‘If there were a new military conflict, the consequences would be disastrous for everyone, and minorities would always be the ones to pay a high price …’ He said, ‘Everyone should be aware of the seriousness of the situation and hurry to support national reconciliation and peace before it is too late.’
[A more detailed version of this report can be found on Religious Liberty Monitoring (20 Sept).]
MAY OUR ALMIGHTY AND MERCIFUL GOD:
* intervene in Iraq for the benefit of his precious long-suffering people; may peace reign and the highly controversial and provocative referendum on Kurdish independence be indefinitely postponed; may ‘courageous dialogue’ be the order of the day.
‘Ah, Lord God! It is you who have made the heavens and the earth by your great power and by your outstretched arm! Nothing is too hard for you.’ (From Jeremiah’s prayer in Jeremiah 32:16-25 ESV)
* surround and watch over his imperilled Church; may all God’s children be secure. ‘Keep me as the apple of your eye; hide me in the shadow of your wings.’ (Psalm 17:8 ESV)
* guard and preserve the Assyrian and Christian heartland of the Nineveh Plains for the Assyrian people. ‘In that day Israel will be the third with Egypt and Assyria, a blessing in the midst of the earth, whom the Lord of hosts has blessed, saying, “Blessed be Egypt my people, and Assyria the work of my hands, and Israel my inheritance.” ‘ (Promise in Isaiah 19:24-25 ESV)
Update — Philippines: Late on 16 September Philippine soldiers overran Marawi’s Bato mosque, clearing its many tunnels and secret chambers and rescuing two hostages: Father Teresito ‘Chito’ Suganob (51) and a male school teacher surnamed Acopio (29). The jihadists still hold around 40 mostly Christian hostages [see RLPB 421 (30 Aug)]. Please continue to pray.
SUMMARY FOR BULLETINS UNABLE TO RUN THE WHOLE ARTICLE
ASSYRIANS IN IRAQ REQUEST PRAYER AS KURDS ‘PLAY WITH FIRE’
Between June and August 2014, some 130,000 Assyrian Christians were driven from their homes in Mosul and the Nineveh Plains by ISIS. Most found refuge in Iraqi Kurdistan. Now as their lands are liberated, Assyrians are trickling back into their towns and villages. However, talk of Kurdish independence has sent tensions soaring. Christians fear the Kurds will seize the Assyrian heartland of the Nineveh Plains. The Iraqi Government, Turkey, Iran and essentially all Shi’ites have vowed to stop the Kurds annexing oil-rich Kirkuk. Chaldean Patriarch Louis Raphael Sako’s urgent appeal is for ‘courageous dialogue’. Lamenting that ‘some have already started beating the war drums’, he appeals for peace, noting war would be ‘disastrous’, especially for minorities who, as usual, would ‘pay a high price’. Please pray for Iraq and its Christians.
Elizabeth Kendal is an international religious liberty analyst and advocate. She serves as Director of Advocacy at Canberra-based Christian Faith and Freedom (CFF), and is an Adjunct Research Fellow at the Arthur Jeffery Centre for the Study of Islam at Melbourne School of Theology.
She has authored two books: Turn Back the Battle: Isaiah Speaks to Christians Today (Deror Books, Melbourne, Australia, Dec 2012) which offers a Biblical response to persecution and existential threat; and, After Saturday Comes Sunday: Understanding the Christian Crisis in the Middle East (Wipf and Stock, Eugene, OR, USA, June 2016).