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By Russ Read
Recent reports claim that the Kurdish Regional Government has actively prevented Christians and Yazidis in Iraq from returning to their homes after they were retaken from Islamic State, but the available information cannot substantiate these claims.
The Investigative Project on Terrorism, or IPT, claimed that the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) was actively preventing Yazidis and Christians who fled to into Iraqi Kurdistan from returning home in a Feb. 14 report. It immediately drew backlash from KRG’s representative to the U.S., Bayan Sami Abdul Rahman, whose refutations were added in an editor’s note at the bottom of the article. Since its publication, it has been updated multiple times.
So are the Kurds actively preventing Christians and Yazidis from returning to their homes in Iraq?
It depends on who you ask.
The Restore Nineveh Now Foundation, which was founded by the pro-Assyrian American Mesopotamian Organization, told The Daily Caller News Foundation that the Kurds were restricting the movement of minority groups. The KRG countered these claims, noting that many Yazidis and Christians have returned to their homes, and any restrictions were due to safety concerns.
Additionally, IPT acknowledged an earlier version of the article “incorrectly described” a law that purportedly allowed Kurds to take ownership of abandoned Christian or Yazidi buildings. No such law exists.
IPT did not respond to TheDCNF’s requests for comment.
The IPT report quoted Jeff Gardner, director of operations for the Restore Nineveh Now Foundation, who said Kurdish businessmen were “making legal claims” on the abandoned areas. Restore Nineveh Now supports the creation of an autonomous Nineveh Plain province for religious and ethnic minorities, similar to what the Kurds have in northeastern Iraq.
Gevara Zaya, the deputy secretary general of the Assyrian Democratic Movement and former member of the Nineveh Province Council, also told TheDCNF the KRG was preventing Christians and other groups from passing through Kurdistan into the Nineveh Plain.
“In [the] Khazre river check point, the Peshmerga and other Kurdish security forces … did not allow the people to go to their area which [was] liberated from [ISIS] three month[s] ago,” said Zaya. “Also Tel-Asquf, a big township 40 kilometers north of Mosul has been liberated from [ISIS] two years ago, but still the people doesn’t return for the same reason.”
But Assyrians are only one part of the diverse Iraqi Christian community, which includes Chaldean Catholics, Syriac Catholics, and the Syriac Orthodox church, among others.
Loay Mikhael, the foreign relations head for the Chaldean Syriac Assyrian Popular Council, supposedly the largest Christian party in Iraqi politics, told TheDCNF the claims against the KRG are unsubstantiated. He said the stories are politically motivated by the Assyrian Democratic Movement, the council’s main opposition.
In Defense of Christians, a non-profit that works to preserve and protect Christians in the Middle East, told The Daily Caller News Foundation that the situation on the ground is “fluid and complicated.” Mikhael also serves as a special adviser on Iraq to In Defense of Christians.
“I’m afraid I can’t confirm or deny that the KRG is actively preventing Christians from returning to their homes,” said Andrew Doran, vice president and senior policy adviser at In Defense of Christians. ” If it is happening, I would imagine they’d say that this is for the safety of the Christians — and that this would be disputed.”
If minority groups were prevented from returning to their homes, it may have been due to the ongoing operations to clear the retaken towns of improvised explosive devices and booby traps left behind by ISIS. The KRG Representation in the United States provided a statement to TheDCNF claiming that while ISIS has been driven out of many historically Christian and Yazidi areas, the Kurdish Peshmerga are still engaged in clearing operations, thus rendering some areas unsafe for civilians. An incident report by iMMAP, a non-profit which tracks armed conflicts, shows that clashes and explosive incidents have been ongoing in northern Iraq were ongoing as recently as early February.
“Many parts of Nineveh and Sinjar remain dangerous and hinder the return of residents, including Christians,” said the statement. “ISIS manufactures IEDs on an industrial scale, and routinely plants them in villages they overrun as a method of warfare, leaving behind a deadly legacy.”
It is fairly typical for ISIS to continue to pose a threat to retaken areas long after they have been defeated, preventing civilians from returning. For example, the Iraqi Security Forces liberated the city of Fallujah on June 26 after five weeks of heavy fighting, but residents only began to return in late September.
Sinjar, the ancient city home to many of Iraq’s Yazidis, has yet to be fully repopulated. Most of the city itself was destroyed by the fighting– as much as 80 percent, the KRG told Al Jazeera in June. Additionally, ISIS attacks continued months after the city was liberated. Fear and distrust of those who supported ISIS has also prevented many Yazidis from returning.
“Of course there is a lack of trust,” Vian Dakhil, a Yazidi member of the Iraqi parliament, told Iraq’s Dijlah TV in August. She claimed that that tens of thousands of those who supported ISIS were neighbors of the Yazidis.
The KRG has engaged in a rebuilding effort in the town of Sinjar, which was the site of a vicious ISIS attack on Yazidis in 2014. The KRG has taken “good steps” toward the project, which is intended for Yazidis and not “outsiders,” Sinjar Mayor Mahma Khalil told BAS news on Feb. 14.
Mayor Khalil also claimed that only 9,000 displaced families have returned to their homes, due to what he referred to as “illegitimate forces.” The article did not elaborate on which forces he was referring to.
IPT later added an update to its article, linking the report and noting: “The KRG announced plans Tuesday to rebuild Yazidi villages in Sinjar for its original inhabitants, not for Kurdistani factions.”
Similar issues are reportedly preventing Christians from returning to the Nineveh Plain, their ancestral homeland in northwestern Iraq. Muslim neighbors allegedly burned down 75 percent of Christian homes in the region, according to the Syrian Catholic prelate of Mosul, sowing distrust among the Christians.
“We are afraid that we will have to continue to live with these people,” said the prelate, as reported by Catholic news site Crux in January. “We impatiently awaited liberation, and many wanted to return immediately, but there first need to be guarantees for our safety.”
There is a theory among some KRG critics the the Kurds are restricting the movement of minority groups in an effort to take gain control of territory in the northern Nineveh plain and Sinjar. Gardner said he has seen first-hand the limitations applied to the minority groups by the KRG. He added that he himself was turned away from entering Sinjar while on a visit to Iraq.
Gardner said the KRG has a history of abandoning minority groups, as they allegedly did in 2014 when the Peshmerga withdrew from Sinjar, effectively allowing ISIS to massacre the Yazidi population there.
Mikhael and the KRG deny the accusations, and point to the fact that the KRG supports autonomy for minority groups.
“If there was a plan like that, my family would be the first affected,” Mikhael told TheDCNF.
“A small but vocal group that is unrepresentative of the majority and out of touch with the reality on the ground misguidedly believe that they can garner international support and sympathy by demonizing the Kurdistan Regional Government and its leadership,” Rep. Rahman told TheDCNF. “They are wrong in doing this. We have a good, close and cooperative relationship with all sections of our society, whatever faith or ethnicity they may have, and our interests are aligned. It is better to look to the future in unity rather to create division.”
TheDCNF reached out to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in an attempt to corroborate the reports, but Senior Press Officer Jennifer Fenton said that the organization had no information on the issue.
A Human Rights Watch report released Feb. 17 accused various forces fighting ISIS, including the Iranian-backed Popular Mobilization Forces and the KRG’s Peshmerga, of looting, damaging and even destroying homes captured from ISIS in areas near Mosul. It did not mention whether or not the KRG was actively preventing minority groups from returning to their homes.
Because the accusations against the Kurds were tied to political entities, and no third-party was able to substantiate the claims against the KRG, the claims that Christians and Yazidis are being actively prevented from returning to their homes are considered unsubstantiated, pending further evidence.