About 2 million people have fled to Kurdistan, in Northern Iraq, in recent years, escaping conflict, terrorism, and persecution in Syria and Iraq.
Along with the Kurdish majority, minorities of Assyrian Christians, Yazidi, Sunni Arabs, Sunni and Shi’a Turks, and other ethnic and religious groups all now occupy the region. Those minorities found a haven with “comparatively robust” religious freedom, according to the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF).
But only comparatively. The USCIRF issued a report warning religious and ethnic minorities in Kurdistan need greater protection, especially if the recently announced independence referendum, scheduled for Sept. 25, succeeds.
In spite of the region’s diversity, discrimination and violence against ethnic and religious minorities persists. They report systemic bias and often live as second-class citizens who endure arbitrary legal decisions. USCIRF also found Yazidis pressured to identify as Kurds, persecution of people who criticize Kurdish authorities, and Kurds seizing land from Christians.
Kurdish police blocked a peaceful Christian demonstration against land encroachment in April 2016, Human Rights Watch reported. UN agencies also face accusations of ignoring the needs of displaced Christians living in the region, according to World Watch Monitor.
USCIRF urged the United States and others to encourage regional authorities to institute reforms to protect religious freedom and minority rights now so that they exist if the region becomes its own nation.
— by Julia A. Seymour