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September 26, 2017

Wilberforce A!ert: Kurds Proceed with Destabilizing Referendum at the Expense of Iraq’s Religious Minorities

Recent headlines highlight the near military defeat of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. While such headlines are accurate in one sense, they do not do not adequately portray the reality that many of the ethnic and religious minorities on the ground still face. During a recent trip to northern Iraq, I went expecting to hear concerns about ISIS or the lack of aid. However, at the forefront of many genocide victims’ minds was concern that they will once again be caught in the middle of a conflict: this time among the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), the Central Government of Iraq and Iran.

On Monday, the KRG held its long-awaited referendum to determine whether to remain a part of Iraq or become an independent country. While the Kurds – one of the world’s largest people groups without its own country – have long-desired complete autonomy, the non-binding referendum is another destabilizing factor in an already tense region.

U.S. State Department Spokeswoman Heather Nauert said the U.S. is “deeply disappointed” by the vote, which will, “increase instability and hardships” for the Kurdish region, as well as complicate the KRGs ability to work with Iraq’s central government and neighboring countries.

The Central Government of Baghdad stated that it would not recognize the referendum. Iran closed its borders with Kurdistan at Baghdad’s request, and Turkey has threatened to close both its borders and air space. Despite the threats, however, the Kurdish leadership decided to move forward with the vote. When the polls closed Monday, voter turnout was estimated at 78 percent.

Complicating the situation further are the “contested territories” where many of the ethnic and religious minorities live. Many of these territories, previously under Baghdad’s control, are now controlled by the KRG as a result of liberation. Some of the religious minorities living in these areas have opted not to vote, while others are torn about being controlled by the KRG or Baghdad. While some we interviewed said that they would rather be under control of the KRG, others were concerned about previous human rights abuses and that there would be an attempt by the KRG to “Kurdify” their villages and towns.

In a June report by the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), the commission indicated that if the KRG were to move forward with the referendum, it would, “face economic uncertainty, hostile neighbors, and growing extremism — all while caring for an increasingly diverse population … Minority religions remain in a precarious position, even in the KRI, and so special effort must be taken to preserve their freedoms and rights.”

While ISIS has been defeated militarily throughout most of Iraq, it does not mean that we should forget those who continue to be persecuted even though the persecution may take on a different form. In fact, in the face of continued marginalization of Christians and Yezidis, a defeated ISIS might end up seeing a successful genocide. We cannot let this happen. We must not tire of standing up and ensuring that human rights and religious freedom are part of the future of the Middle East.

Take Action:

1)      We’ve been following the path of HR390, the Iraq and Syria Genocide Emergency Relief and Accountability Act of 2017. Last week, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee passed it unanimously, which means it will soon head to the Senate floor for a full vote. Please join us in thanking Members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee for their support of the legislation, and contact your Senators, urging them to support this bill.

2)      November 5 is the International Day of Prayer for the Persecuted Church. For more information, check out this link.  (

Region: Middle East & North Africa
Keywords: Iraq,Kurdistan,Iran,KRG,Christian,Yezidi,21st Century Wilberforce Initiative,21 Century Wilberforce Initiative,21 Wilberforce,21CWI

Abigail Berg

Abigail Berg is Director of Government Relations for the 21st Century Wilberforce Initiative.  Abigail graduated from Patrick Henry College in 2013 with a degree in Political Science. She worked on Capitol Hill for two years as an assistant and scheduler for Frank R. Wolf.  Upon Congressman Wolf’s retirement at the end of the 113thCongress, she spent 6 months in Egypt as a volunteer and teacher before returning to work for the 21stCentury Wilberforce Initiative.

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