Exclusive: Kurdish Independence Referendum Divides Christians, Other Minorities in Iraq

ERBIL, IRAQ - SEPTEMBER 22: Supporters wave flags and chant slogans inside the Erbil Stadium while waiting to hear Kurdish President Masoud Barzani speak during a rally for the upcoming referendum for independence of Kurdistan on September 22, 2017 in Erbil, Iraq. The Kurdish Regional government is preparing to hold …
Chris McGrath/Getty

Representatives from various ethnoreligious minority groups in Iraq—including Christians, Yazidis, and Turkmen—expressed distress towards Kurds voting “yes” to Iraqi Kurdistan’s independence this week, with some saying the referendum was “illegal” and “forced.”

Their position is consistent with a statement issued by the 21st Century Wilberforce Initiative, a religious freedom organization focused on saving religious minorities in Iraq, saying Kurds approved the referendum “at the expense of Iraq’s religious minorities.”

However, not all members of the religious minority groups in Iraq, including Christians and Yazidis, are against Kurdistan’s efforts to become an independent state.

Despite the support for Iraqi Kurdistan’s independence among some minority group members, opposition appears to be more pronounced.

Breitbart News learned from Iraqi Christians that the vote has divided members of their community.

Ashur Sargon Eskrya, the president of the Christian Assyrian Aid Society (AAS) in Iraq, told Breitbart News that an independent Kurdistan would break up their historical homeland in northern Iraq, known as the Assyria Nineveh Plain, into areas controlled by the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) and territory held by Baghdad.

“We respect the rights of self-determination for all the people, including Kurds, but this should not be against our people’s future and their rights,” he said, adding, “Our people will not accept an independent Kurdistan State.”

Eskrya also told Breitbart News:

What happened during the referendum was that some people were forced in different ways to vote ‘yes,’ particularly in the disputed areas in Nineveh plain controlled by [Kurdish] Peshmerga [forces] who brought minorities to election centers. When they entered they found papers already marked with ‘yes.’ All people had to do was put the paper in the box.

Meanwhile, Dr. Ali Al Bayati, the president of the Turkmen Rescue Foundation (TRF) and a member of the Independent High Commission for Human Rights of Iraq (IHCHR) dismissed the approval of the referendum as an “illegal” and “non-constitutional step” that violates national and international laws.

“It exposed all people of the disputed territories in Iraq to risk of civil war,” he added, referring to areas claimed by both Kurdistan and Baghdad. “The civilians in Peshmerga controlled lands in Kirkuk, Tuzkhurmatoo, Nineveh, and Diyala are scared, and we need urgent intervention from Iraqi federal forces.”

Representatives from Iraq’s Yazidi, or Yezidi, minority community also blasted Iraqi Kurdistan’s independence efforts.

Breitbart News was unable to independently confirm claims made by the religious minority representatives. International observers widely praised the elections as free and fair.

Meanwhile, an Iraqi Kurdistan-based group that allegedly supports independence, “No for Now,” deemed the vote “a farce and alleged widespread fraud,” reports National Public Radio (NPR).

Besides minorities, some Kurdish officials also reportedly claimed elections fraud and the KRG “forced” them to vote “yes.”

Some accounts from the minority group members were consistent, particularly the allegation that the KRG “forced” minority groups to use paper already marked with “yes” to independence.

Breitbart News questioned each one separately.

Omar Haider, a Yezidi activist originally from the northern Iraqi town of Sinjar who now live in the U.S. because of threats against him, told Breitbart News:

The Kurdish government went to IDP’s [internally displaced persons] camps—abused and forced the Yezidis to go to the booths and vote on paper already marked ‘yes’ to independent of Kurdistan. There is no freedom of speech, democracy, or human value under a dictatorship like [that of KRG President Masoud] Barzani and his government.

Only Kurds will benefit from independence, not the minority indigenous people. It is a nightmare for the Yezidis and other minorities in Iraq.

Sufyan Waheed Hammo, an Iraq-based spokesman for the Yezidi Human Rights Organization-International, reiterated to Breitbart News that the KRG “pushed” the Yazidis into voting “yes” to independence, threatening to expel those who do not.

“There was no freedom to voting in referendum for Kurdistan independence,” he said, adding, “The KRG met with all Yezidis who are working for the government in [the Yazidi-majority town of] Sinjar and told them to vote ‘yes’ or risk losing their jobs forever.”

After pushing the Islamic State (ISIS/ISIL) out of northern Iraq, the KRG claimed control of some of the liberated territories, including areas with predominant religious minority populations like Sinjar.

The ISIS threat also prompted many religious minority members to move to IDP camps in Iraqi Kurdistan.

“Many violations happened against the Yezidis in [IDP] camps,” Hammo told Breitbart News. “They were unable to vote ‘no.’”

“I am a Yazidi against the referendum,” he added. “Because of that, they threatened my family and me to leave Kurdistan.”

Dr. Odisho Khoshaba, a U.S.-based representative of the Christian Chaldean Syriac Assyrian Popular Council, welcomed the approval of the referendum.

“The reaction and response of the Chaldean Syriac Assyrian people was always in favor of the Kurds to have the right for the referendum, and independence,” he told Breitbart News. “They participated in the referendum in huge number and the vast majority voted ‘yes’ in support of independence.”

“The minorities in the region believe they are treated better and have more freedom,” continued Dr. Khoshaba. “They have for centuries been living with the Kurds. The [Kurdish] culture, though different in religion, has tolerated the Christian and Yazidis.”

Iraqi Kurdistan’s draft constitution vows to provide “autonomy” for the minorities in the region, he said, noting that Christians have flocked to the Kurdish region in recent years, fleeing persecution by jihadist groups like ISIS.

“It is clear the Christians realize where their interest lay,” said Khoshaba.

According to the United States and United Nations, Christians, Yazidis, Turkmen, and other religious minorities have been victims of genocide at the hands of ISIS in the Middle East.

The Christian AAS president accused the KRG of preventing many Nineveh Plain Christians from returning to the area to vote and of using information of “dead” people to fuel the referendum’s approval.

Eskrya said the KRG threatened those who opposed independence with “dismissal and expulsion from the region,” repeating accusations made by some members of the Yezidi community before the referendum.

The Iraqi Kurdistan region held the independence vote on Monday, defying objections from the United States and Baghdad and angering neighboring Iran and Turkey.

Neighboring countries, including Syria, oppose an independent Iraqi Kurdistan, fearing the move will fuel separatism among Kurds within their borders.

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