09/21/2017, 17.11
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Kurdistan referendum sparks fear in Christians, Yazides and Turkmen

by Pierre Balanian

Five meters high and two wide the statue was in the center of the city. Since 2003, 90% of Christians have left the city, 300 families remain. The Chaldean Archbishop offers a monument dedicated to all religions.The campaign for the independence of Kurdistan is mounting to push the population to vote "yes" in the referendum. But several Christians are concerned about the tensions with Baghdad and the rise of Kurdish Islamic parties. Yazid and Turkmen threatened. The US proposal to postone the referendum and open three years of negotiations in view of Kurdistan's independence. At least 50,000 troops packed at the border.

Erbil (AsiaNews) - The Chaldeans of Zirofan battalion protect the Saint Elia church in the Christian area of ​​Erbil without arms. They have the relaxed air. "We do not have weapons," they say, "because there is no need here. We are here because we have to cover the hours of work and deserve a salary. " All of them are part of the [Orthodox] Christian Unit for the defense of the Plain of Nineveh. Now that the war against Daesh is over, they are waiting to be part of the future regular army of independent Kurdistan.

There is some optimism in the air, but for Christians things are always a bit different in the Middle East. For example, Gergis, who works at an Erbil hotel, has been here for three years. He is originally from Ahmadia, a village once inhabited entirely by Christians. Occupied and destroyed by Isis it has been liberated. Gergis remembers: "We were able to escape two days before Daesh's arrival and we took refuge here in Erbil."

Only an elderly man remained in Ahmadiya. In the beginning the fundamentalists left him in peace but then they forced him to leave. Now like him, most of Ahmadiya's inhabitants are here in Ankawa, the Christian area of ​​Erbil. Some have returned, but Gergis still wants to wait. "Our house is destroyed," he says, "and there is no work."

Ammar is a Christian from Baghdad. He was threatened by Asaba Ahl el Haq, a paramilitary militia who "advised him to leave" and has been in Erbil for four years. He works and is treated well, but now, a few days ahead of the referendum on the independence of Kurdistan, set for September 25th, he wonders if she should prepare his bags again, to who knows where.

Erbil is not spoken of: "The referendum," a ten-year dream for Christians, millennial goal for the Kurds. Everywhere you see the tricolor flags with the sun at the center, a symbol of the Kurdistan rising. The posters for the "bale bu referendum (Yes to this referendum)" are everywhere, even on private cars, on passing buses full of adolescents waving flags and shouting "Bale, bale", "Yes! Yes! "In Kurdish.

Alan is a young 27 year old man. He is studying to become a television director and has almost a secured job in a Christian television network that a priest from Sweden intends to launch shortly thereafter. He looks forward confidently to the future. "I only knew wars," he says. An independent Kurdistan will bring peace. "

Alan is lucky: his father is a hotel owner; he continues his studies and speaks Kurdish. It is not the same for Samer, also a Christian, who has not been able to pursue studies and take his diploma in Kurdistan even though he is originally from there. He needs to pass one more exam, he doesn’t speak Kurdish: he speaks Chaldean and Arabic and was born and raised in Mosul where his parents had moved before he was born. In Mosul  studied in Arabic.

Everywhere it is said that Christians are well-behaved and protected in Kurdistan, and it is true. But Islamic parties are raising fears and doubts. Some of these parties complained because on the facade of a newly constructed hotel on the road from Duhok to Zakho, a shadow in the shape of a cross is projected at night with the lights. Islamists were forced to concede: the authorities told them that it would be possible to restructure and modify external architecture (and lighting) if the Islamic parties paid the costs.

There is fire under the ashes and Christians are afraid, while this kind of "forced marriage" of the Kurds with the central government of Baghdad is crumbling day by day.

The referendum "will be for sure", they all say. But in the last few hours diplomatic contacts and visits have been intensified - official and non - that are advising it be stopped.

A Russian delegation said as much two days ago, he signed a gas exploitation contract for a period of 50 years; the British Defense Minister gave the same advice. Phone calls and contacts between European and Arab parties have intensified. The United States, allied to both Iraq and the Kurds, has proposed mediation, though according to some sources, and in any event, they have already deployed some 50,000 troops at their base on the southern boundaries of Kurdistan.

There are also the direct threats of the central government that declared the referendum unconstitutional and those of the National Alliance Party in power, who has already said it will not recognize the referendum and will consider it null and void.

Finally there is the great unknown: Turkey. Ankara is not hiding its intent on Kirkuk and Mosul and sees a propitious opportunity to intervene and add to what it considers to be its territory, rendered apart by British colonialists. Meanwhile, its troops are being massed on the border, and waiting to agitate the Turkmen who  opened fire on "Yes" voters who had gathered to celebrate in Kirkuk.

Meanwhile, the campaigns and the "Carnaval" - as they call the celebrations in favor of the referendum – are multiplying. Some were held  yesterday in Sulaymaniyah;  others at Soran the day before yesterday; the one on Saturday, the night before the referendum, at Erbil.

According to high-level sources of Kurdish local government, the US is insisting the referendum be postponed, in exchange for "constructive" talks under the aegis of Washington, "serious talks between Baghdad and Erbil for a maximum of three years." After this deadline, the separation dossier will be submitted to the UN, if the parties fail to reach a consensual agreement. According to our sources, the Kurdish party seems rather open to start negotiations with the federal government.

Massoud Barzani, president of the Kurdistan Autonomous Region, said yesterday that he was willing to step back, cancelling the referendum, "if there was a real alternative," without specifying which.

 September 25, 2017 will still be declared "Grand National Day". In the "Carnaval" in Soran on Sept. 18, Barzani added: "They ask us to return to the green line to redraw the borders of Kurdistan [[i]]. We say we are not even ready to discuss this. " He has defined the current Iraqi government as "a religious state and not a federal state, and that is why we want independence and not office." "In Baghdad, the Kurds are still aspiring to power, he said, but this is part of the past."


The Kurdish population, careless of what is behind the scenes, prefers to already celebrate the desired and long-awaited "independence". It does not matter whether it will happen or not: in their heads it has already happened, and whether the action will give rise to warlike actions by the Turkish Army or even an Iraqi army response. "We had Daesh; nothing could be worse. "

But Christians are afraid: if a war breaks, men will go to the front and only Islamic parties will stay in the city.

Many Turkmen and Yazida families have received threats and intimidation not to vote for the referendum. For this reason, with discretion, they have gone to Sinjar, to avoid being in Kurdistan during the referendum. They also fear the Islamist parties, but they insist on wanting to return once the storm of the referendum has passed.


[i] The demarcation line that delimited the boundary of Iraqi troops in 2003.

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