ANALYSIS: Kurdistan was a centre of Christianity long before the west

James Dingley
James Dingley

Christians and Yazidis have been fleeing Islamic rebels to the self-governed Kurdish part of Iraq. Belfast academic JAMES DINGLEY, who lived there, recaps on the history of the region.

Kurdistan an ethnic region that straddles Iraq, Iran, Syria and Turkey, and since 1992 the Iraqi region has been autonomous with its own Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) and internal security forces (Peshmerga), meanwhile it has an extensive, well educated diaspora in the West, now returning in large numbers to KRG territory.

Its educated middle classes have sought an independent state since 1919, one reason why Saddam Hussain persecuted them badly before his fall. Also independence would destabilise the entire Middle East since it would affect all four countries.

Kurds are not Arabs, but Euro-Turkic and feel more western than the Arabs, they also have a long ‘Sufi’ tradition which makes their Islam far more tolerant than is normal. Hence they have always had religious minorities living among them, the largest of which are the Christians (mostly Assyriac and Chaldean).

Indeed the region was the centre of Christianity long before the West and Churches from the first century a.d. can be found. This tradition continues today, where all religious groups live together in relative tranquillity, making it a refuge for persecuted political and religious minorities from the rest of Iraq.

Given its western orientations, well educated, often in the West, population (no longer taught Arabic in schools), growing western investment and containing 90 per cent 0f Iraq’s new oil reserves Kurdistan is a relative oasis of progress and development in an otherwise stagnant region. It has an openness to democracy, despite the regions normal corruption problems, and deliberately looks to the west, especially the UK where many were educated (we and the USA also helped protect it from Saddam after 1992) for its future. They are also sturdy fighters who are used to the long haul and how to use their beautiful, mountainous terrain to full advantage.

• James Dingley, spent two years in Hawler (Erbil) helping establish an English language university. Dr Dingley is chair of the Francis Hutcheson Institute, a think tank.