Jack Lopresti: The UK must support the Kurdistan Region in creating a safe haven for Christians in the Middle East
The Kurdistan Region is a valuable partner in helping to promote religious tolerance, but we must do more to support their efforts, says Jack Lopresti
The UK leads the way in defending freedoms around the world through our fantastic armed forces, cultural soft power, and taking a leading role globally in overseas aid through the Department for International Development.
One of the most important of these freedoms is that of religion. The foreign secretary, Jeremy Hunt, has rightly taken the lead in this and has asked the bishop of Truro to draw up a report and recommend actions for the UK government.
Launching the initiative, Hunt argued that freedom of worship is something that can’t be taken for granted and is a growing concern all over the world. He argues that 80% of all the people who are suffering religious persecution are Christian.
He listed atrocities in the Philippines and Egypt, which illustrate findings from the Open Doors organisation that a quarter of a billion Christians are suffering some sort of persecution and repression. He named Afghanistan, Somalia, Sudan, Libya, North Korea, China and India.
Hunt’s thesis is that action is necessary not just because freedom of worship is a fundamental human right, but also because freedom of worship is the invisible line between open and closed societies.
Where freedom of worship is hampered or prevented, then usually that’s a sign of lots of other things going wrong, and he wants to make sure the UK is doing everything to champion the values that we all believe in.
As well as using our influence, we should look for allies who are already doing the right thing, and whose efforts can be emulated more widely.
And we are lucky that one such friend and ally is based squarely in the Middle East, the birthplace of religions including Christianity and where there is a grave danger that Christianity could be extinguished.
And that place is the Kurdistan Region in Iraq. In my four visits there in recent years I have visited churches and cathedrals, spoken with archbishops, and visited Lalish – the spiritual home of the ancient Yazidi faith – where we took part in a religious ceremony.
They all say that the largely secular, Muslim-majority Kurdistan Region goes out of its way to not merely tolerate Christians and other religious minorities but also to see them as full and equal citizens in a consciously pluralistic place where, for instance, all religions are included in the school curriculum.
The Yazidis, followers of a pre-Christian and pre-Muslim religion, are esteemed. When they were subjected to genocide by Daesh, some Kurds wanted to convert to the Yazidi faith as a symbol of their solidarity against the atrocities, a move that would be greeted as apostasy in other parts of the Middle East.
Which other parliament in the Middle East would, for instance, have agreed to establish and maintain a separate list of 11 MPs from religious and ethnic minorities in addition to the 100 elected by the people as a whole?
Senior Kurdistan leader, Safeen Dizayee, recently took part in the inaugural ceremony of new offices for the Syriac Orthodox Patriarchate in Erbil. He tweeted: “Kurdistan is, and will remain, a safe haven for all religions and beliefs.”
The Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) also recently welcomed the Vatican’s prime minister to Erbil, and a former KRG deputy prime minister, a Christian, was honoured with a Papal knighthood for his dedicated work.
This is all a rare ray of hope in a region where religious freedom is under severe and sometimes lethal threat. That also means that the UK should continue its work to bolster a better relationship between the Kurdistan Region and the rest of Iraq, which seems to be rapidly improving under a new Iraqi government and which affects all communities across Iraq.
Liam Allmark, head of public affairs at the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales, accompanied an APPG delegation to Kurdistan last year. He is concerned about tens of thousands of displaced Christians living in the Kurdistan Region who do not know what the future holds because thousands of homes on the Nineveh Plains, along with vital infrastructure and farmland wrecked by Daesh forces, still need to be restored.
He fears that without opportunities to return home or rebuild their lives, many Christians will follow the thousands who have left for Europe or America. He urges UK support for reconstruction, job creation, and educational opportunities both in the Kurdistan Region and more widely, which will help give a meaningful future to this community that has experienced so much violence, displacement and destruction of their livelihoods.
I would add that a safer Kurdistan Region can be a hub for those reconstructing lands ravaged by Daesh and that a genuine federal deal between Erbil and Baghdad could do much to advance decentralised governance and protection of minority rights in those areas where Christians wish to resettle.
That is also important to Sunni communities, some of whom were disastrously tempted by Daesh ideology in preference to Baghdad rule. Without such a new settlement, the vicious ideology of Daesh can find new supporters and they may once again brutally blast their way back into genocide and atrocities.
Overall, this means that the Kurdistan Region needs support and major political and economic engagement from the UK and the wider west if it is to continue to be a rock for Christians and other religious minorities in the Middle East.
Jack Lopresti is Conservative MP for Filton and Bradley Stoke, and chair of the APPG on the Kurdistan Region in Iraq