Christians in Kirkuk Suffer Due to Political Uncertainty
Iraqi believers find themselves caught in the middle of recent conflicts between Kurdish and Iraqi forces.
The end of October was tough for the people in Kirkuk. Kirkuk a major city in Northern Iraq which was, until recently, under the control of Kurdish Peshmerga forces. Kurds took over the city in mid-2014 when Iraqi troops left the city because of an offensive from ISIS. But after the recent political referendum in the Kurdish areas of Iraq, tensions rose between the Kurdish and Iraqi authorities. Finally, on October 16, the Iraqi Army took back control over Kirkuk.
According to Syriac Catholic priest Father Faris Tammas, the political instability is having a serious effect on the Christian residents of Kirkuk. “People are scared,” he said. “Christians are the first affected as they are a minority in the city.”
“People are scared because of the conflicting news and all that is going on,” Father Tammas said. “In Kirkuk, as a Syriac Catholic church, we have 126 families who already lived in Kirkuk with an additional 82 displaced families from the Nineveh plain.” Only two displaced families have recently returned to their homes in Qaraqosh from the Kirkuk region.
The services of Father Tammas’ church were clearly affected by the situation of the past weeks. “The Syriac Catholic Church in Kirkuk is normally attended by 100 to 150 persons every Sunday, but the last two Sundays [in October] were totally different,” he noted. “The first Sunday we had only 12 attendees, whereas the second Sunday there were between 40-50 attendees.”
Father Tammas is convinced that Christians should trust news from the church in Kirkuk, rather than being confused and terrified by what they might hear on the street, as there might be rumors to spread fear and racial or ethnic divisions. Through their website and the Facebook page, the church tries to make the Christians aware of what’s happening in the region. Father Tammas is concerned that, because of the situation, the remaining Christians in Kirkuk again start thinking of emigration.
So what is giving strength to Father Tammas and his congregation? “It depends on each person,” he said. “For me personally, I accept the challenge. In such a situation, my priestly dignity does not allow me to leave my people. I am not better than my people; why would I leave them? In fact, I had the chance to serve elsewhere in Iraq, but I decided to stay in Kirkuk with the people. Many of the Christian families are confused during the crisis. Some are even divided; one wants to stay while the other wants to leave.”
He recently visited a place between Kirkuk and Erbil where 12 Christian families live. “They were afraid at that time; they kept the doors locked and stayed inside,” he recalled. “When I knocked at one house and they saw my face, the family was surprised that I came to visit them at this time when fighting could erupt at any time. They needed encouragement and that was the aim of the visit.”
The bigger conflict in Kirkuk is about oil; since major oilfields are situated in the area. Most of the Christians either work at the governmental offices or in the private sector. The Christians in Kirkuk are not generally poor, but they are going through hard times because the price of goods has gone up in the midst of political uncertainty and uncertainty.
“Pastoral work means that you need to be with the people,” Father Tammas concluded. “The people call me ‘father.’ Fatherhood means giving from your soul to your children. It is about giving and sacrifice, especially in times of crisis and difficulties.” He ended with a verse that is close to his heart: “The Lord is my shepherd, I lack nothing. He makes me lie down in green pastures.” (Psalm 23: 1-2)