Pope Francis’ visit brings Iraqi Kurdistan’s safe-haven status into sharp focus

Nashwan Hanna gives a sermon at Mar Elia Chaldean Catholic Church in the Christian-majority neighborhood of Ankawa, Erbil. (Kareem Botane)
Nashwan Hanna gives a sermon at Mar Elia Chaldean Catholic Church in the Christian-majority neighborhood of Ankawa, Irbil. (Kareem Botane)
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Updated 07 March 2021

Pope Francis’ visit brings Iraqi Kurdistan’s safe-haven status into sharp focus

Nashwan Hanna gives a sermon at Mar Elia Chaldean Catholic Church in the Christian-majority neighborhood of Ankawa, Erbil. (Kareem Botane)
  • Northern autonomous region’s relative security and stability have made it a sanctuary for religious minorities and dissidents
  • Daesh’s 2014 onslaught drove Christians, Yazidis, Shabaks and other minorities along with Syrian refugees into the area

IRBIL / MEXICO CITY: On a recent morning, as Sahar Ayoub gently turned the pages of her Bible, she contemplated the trauma that her family experienced when Daesh militants seized the northern town of Qaraqosh in the Nineveh governorate almost seven years ago.

She and her husband Ameer Bahnam were forced to flee with their three children when the extremist group launched its campaign of extermination against Iraq’s ethno-religious minorities in 2014.

Seated in her living room in Ankawa, a Christian-majority neighborhood in Irbil, Sahar, 50, expressed hope that Pope Francis’ visit to the main city of Iraqi Kurdistan on Sunday would offer her community the recognition she felt it had long deserved.

“Before, Christians in Iraq used to be valued and treated with consideration, no different from other Iraqis,” she told Arab News. “But that changed after 2003 when the new governments created sectarian divisions in the country between Muslims and Christians, and between Shiites and Sunnis.

“We are not free in Iraq as Christians. We can be judged for our rituals and what we wear. There is no freedom of religion for us in Iraq.”




Nashwan Hanna gives a sermon at Mar Elia Chaldean Catholic Church in the Christian-majority neighborhood of Ankawa, Irbil. (Kareem Botane)

Ameer, 57, said his family moved to the semi-autonomous Kurdistan region with the intention of eventually leaving for Europe. But after settling in Ankawa to take stock of the situation, they found something they had long hoped for — acceptance.

“I feel equal and safe here in Kurdistan,” Ameer said. “As a Christian there is freedom of religion.

“Christians in Iraq do not have full rights. We face oppression and we don’t feel comfortable practicing our rituals freely. But not in Kurdistan. In other parts of Iraq, we feel we are strangers and something is missing.”

After his meeting on Saturday in Najaf with Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani, the spiritual leader of Iraq’s Shiites, Pope Francis was scheduled to travel north to the Kurdistan region. Iraq’s religious minorities, free-speech advocates and political dissidents have long sought sanctuary here from persecution and violence in their home regions.

Francis was scheduled to hold Mass on Sunday evening before a crowd of 10,000 at Irbil’s Franso Hariri stadium, capped below venue capacity to allow for social distancing. For security reasons, Francis would be meeting with the general public during his entire visit on just this one occasion.

Kurds make up a significant proportion of Iraq’s 40 million-strong population. However, the lack of recent census data makes it difficult to ascertain the precise number of Kurds in the northern provinces of Irbil, Sulaimani, Duhok and Halabja that make up the lush and mountainous region.

Although relations between Irbil and Baghdad have long been rocky, coming to a head in late 2017 when the Kurds held a non-binding referendum on independence, Kurdish is recognized as Iraq’s second official language alongside Arabic, and all three of Iraq’s post-2003 presidents have been Kurds.

The Kurds carved out their self-administered region in 1991 under the patronage and air cover of the US-led coalition, which intervened at the tail end of the Gulf War to prevent Saddam Hussein from exacting his revenge on the Kurds for daring to rebel.

Having already suffered the cruelties of Saddam’s Anfal campaign and the infamous chemical attack on Halabja in 1988, the Kurdish people had little doubt that Saddam intended to wipe out them out unless the West took notice.

THENUMBER

1.5m

* Christian population of Iraq in 2003.

Although corruption and tribalism continue to mar political life in Kurdistan, the region, with its own parliament and presidency, battle-hardened Peshmerga security forces and culture of tolerance, compares favorably with federal Iraq, blighted by endemic sectarian violence and unrest.

It came as no surprise perhaps when a people touched by genocide readily opened their doors to the persecuted minorities of the Nineveh plains when Daesh stormed northern Iraq and took over Mosul in the summer of 2014.

Hundreds of thousands of Christians, Yazidis, Shabaks, Kakais and other minorities, alongside many thousands of refugees from neighboring Syria, poured through the Peshmerga’s checkpoints in search of safety.

Humanitarian aid agencies quickly arrived to accommodate the displaced in sprawling camps, while many Christians among them headed for Ankawa. Those with the means continued on to Europe and beyond.




Ameer Habib Bahnam and his wife Sahar Ayoub say they feel safe to practice their faith in Kurdistan. (Kareem Botane)

“I have applied for a visa to move to France, but until now I have had no news because of all that’s going on with the coronavirus,” said Ameer. “We wanted to go to France as my kids are scared to go back to our home in Qaraqosh. They are traumatized by what happened to us when Daesh came.”

Elaborating on the traumatic experiences, Sahar said: “Daesh burned and stole what was inside our house. After the liberation of Qaraqosh, we went there to check our house. Since then, we don’t want to go back. It’s not safe there now.

“If I met the pope, I would tell him he has to find a solution for the Christians of Iraq. We don’t have any rights here and I would ask him to get me out of the country. I don’t want to stay here. Either that, or he can make my town safe and assure my rights.”

Sahar and Ameer are not alone. Many Christian families have simply given up on the idea of leading a secure life in Iraq.

“Life for Christians in Iraq is all about living through war, without a future,” Juliana Nusrat, 28, told Arab News.

“I wish to meet the pope and tell him what we are going through. I want to tell him to take me out of Iraq. I lost my hope in Iraq. I don’t want to have more children in Iraq. There is no future here. I want my daughter to have a future outside Iraq.”




A memorial outside Mar Elia Chaldean Catholic Church in Ankawa, Irbil, commemorates the Iraqi Christians killed by Daesh in 2014. (Robert Edwards)

She and her husband, Gazwan Zuhair, 39, also came to Ankawa in 2014, escaping Daesh’s conquest of Mosul. “We left our house and everything we had behind and took only our IDs,” said Gazwan. “When the war was over, we went to see our house in Mosul. All our belongings were gone.”

Gazwan lost his job at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. Although the couple and their young daughter have struggled to get by, they have found a modicum of security in the Kurdistan region.

“We feel comfortable in Kurdistan. I can’t find a job here, but it’s safe,” he said.

“Kurdistan and the Kurds treat the Christians well and we feel safe here, but in the rest of the country, we are oppressed, especially in Mosul, where Christians were being threatened and blackmailed.

“As a Christian, I want to leave the country. Iraq does not offer me rights or work. Why should I stay? Maybe my life will be better in another country.”




Gazwan Zuhair, who lost his job at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, says he and his family feel a modicum of security in Kurdistan. (Kareem Botane)

The flight of Iraq’s Christians to the West is a major concern for church leaders of all sects — Syro-Catholic, Syriac Orthodox, Armenian Orthodox and Chaldean alike.

Since the US-led invasion in 2003, the Christian population of Iraq had fallen from around 1.5 million to around 350,000-450,000 in 2014. With many now choosing exile abroad, their numbers have dwindled further.

“As a church, we do not encourage Christians to leave the country and leave their church to emigrate abroad,” Father Nashwan Hanna, 53, a priest at Ankawa’s Mar Elia Chaldean Catholic Church, told Arab News.

“We are an essential component of Kurdistan and Iraq. It is our home. We want to live in peace in our country and respect others and be respected.

“This visit, which will take the pope around Iraq, encourages us to stay. Our roots run deep in this land and this visit will encourage us to stay.”

 

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Libya launches public vaccination drive

Libya launches public vaccination drive
A health worker prepares to administer the AstraZeneca coronavirus disease (COVID-19) vaccine to a man, in Tripoli, Libya, April 17, 2021. (REUTERS)
Updated 17 April 2021

Libya launches public vaccination drive

Libya launches public vaccination drive
  • The AstraZeneca doses were delivered through the Covax program for lower and middle-income countries

TRIPOLI: Libya on Saturday launched its coronavirus vaccination campaign for the general population in Tripoli, with the elderly and healthcare workers given priority in the conflict-hit North African nation.
Those over 70 would get the AstraZeneca jab while the Russian Sputnik V vaccine would be administered to medical personnel and those aged 50-60, the National Center for Disease Control said.
NCDC head Badreddine Al-Najjar said the vaccines would be distributed across Libya “in the coming days,” adding that China’s Sinovac jab would also be available.
Libya has so far received 400,000 doses, including 200,000 Sputnik V shots, 57,600 AstraZeneca jabs and 150,000 from Turkey thought to be China’s Sinovac.
The AstraZeneca doses were delivered through the Covax program for lower and middle-income countries.
Since the pandemic emerged last year, there have been 171,131 confirmed COVID cases in Libya, including 2,882 deaths, out of a population of seven million, officials say.
On Saturday, dozens of men and women wore face masks and sat on chairs that were spread out to ensure physical distancing in the courtyard of a vaccination center in Tripoli as they waited to get a jab.
Libyan authorities have appealed on the general population, including illegal migrants, to register for vaccination and set up an electronic portal in March for that purpose.


Gaza man winning hearts by donating traditional food to the poor

Gaza man winning hearts by donating traditional food to the poor
Jarisha is made from roasted crushed wheat with added salt and spices. It is placed in a bowl over low heat and stirred well until it reaches a firm consistency. It is usually served with lamb cooked with yogurt. (Supplied)
Updated 18 April 2021

Gaza man winning hearts by donating traditional food to the poor

Gaza man winning hearts by donating traditional food to the poor
  • Due to high rates of poverty and unemployment, many initiatives have sprung up to encourage charitable acts in the past few years, with the most popular being preparation of traditional varieties of Palestinian food for donation

GAZA CITY: Muhannad Al-Heiqi was unaware of jarisha before tasting it last Ramadan after receiving a plate from his neighbor Walid Al-Hattab, who cooks it voluntarily for the people of the Shejaiya neighborhood in Gaza.
But after discovering the “comfortable” taste of the dish, Al-Heiqi is ensuring that jarisha is present at the iftar table during this year’s Ramadan.
Jarisha is made from roasted crushed wheat with added salt and spices. It is placed in a bowl over low heat and stirred well until it reaches a firm consistency. It is usually served with lamb cooked with yogurt.
Younger generations in Gaza have never encountered the traditional Palestinian food that was popular before the Nakba.
But some Palestinian families in Jerusalem and West Bank are leading a revival, and now prepare it for Ramadan and wedding celebrations.
Al-Heiqi, 36, said that his 67-year-old father was “very happy” when presented with a dish of jarisha. He told Al-Heiqi that he had not tasted it for 30 years.
When Al-Hattab, 59, first cooked jarisha and distributed it to the poor during the month of Ramadan in 2018, he did not expect to receive great approval and demand.
Now in his fourth year of cooking the dish for Ramadan, Al-Hattab said: “The story began with me by chance and without planning, but today I am happy that I am a source of happiness for many, and I will maintain this habit every Ramadan for the rest of my life.”
Discussing his first time making the traditional food, he said: “It was a small quantity, not exceeding 3 kilograms of wheat. I did not know how to distribute it or whether it would satisfy people. However, I was surprised by a great turnout upon its completion, and it was sufficient at that time to feed 10 families.”
In Ramadan the following year, Al-Hattab came more prepared, filling a large container with enough jarisha to feed 100 families. The year after that, he fed 220 families. He also delivers meals sufficient for iftar and suhoor to 100 people in elderly households, and bears all the costs.
Words of praise and approval have motivated Al-Hattab to develop his charitable idea.
“I felt overjoyed when Al-Heiqi told me that his father was happy and that he had been longing to taste jarisha for a long time, but that his family could not make it,” he said.
Because it is “a dish from the time of the grandfathers,” Al-Hattab said that he is keen to encourage a revival and bequeath knowledge of the dish to his sons and daughters. He described jarisha as a nutritious and comfortable meal that is beneficial for people fasting during Ramadan.
Al-Hattab has three children who share the task of cooking jarisha and distributing it to poor residents in the neighborhood. They work daily from afternoon until iftar.
Due to high rates of poverty and unemployment, many initiatives have sprung up to encourage charitable acts in the past few years, with the most popular being preparation of traditional varieties of Palestinian food for donation.


IAEA confirms Iran has started enriching uranium to 60% purity

IAEA confirms Iran has started enriching uranium to 60% purity
Updated 17 April 2021

IAEA confirms Iran has started enriching uranium to 60% purity

IAEA confirms Iran has started enriching uranium to 60% purity

VIENNA: Iran has started the process of enriching uranium to 60% fissile purity at an above-ground nuclear plant at Natanz, the U.N. nuclear watchdog said on Saturday, confirming earlier statements by Iranian officials.

The move has complicated talks aimed at reviving Iran's nuclear deal with major powers as it is a big step towards producing weapons-grade uranium.

Iran had previously only reached 20% purity, and that was already a breach of the deal, which says Iran can only enrich to 3.67%.

Iran made the step up to 60% in response to an explosion that damaged equipment at the larger, underground Fuel Enrichment Plant at Natanz. Tehran has blamed Israel and named a man wanted in connection with the blast.

“The Agency today verified that Iran had begun the production of UF6 enriched up to 60%... at the (above-ground) Natanz Pilot Fuel Enrichment Plant,” the International Atomic Energy Agency said in a statement.

UF6 is uranium hexafluoride, the form in which uranium is fed into centrifuges for enrichment.

A confidential IAEA report to member states seen by Reuters provided more details.

“According to Iran's declaration to the Agency, the enrichment level of the UF6 produced at PFEP was 55.3% U-235. The Agency took a sample of the produced UF6 for destructive analysis to independently verify the enrichment level declared by Iran. The results of this analysis will be reported by the Agency in due course,” the report said.


Defiant Lebanese judge stages second raid on money exchange

Defiant Lebanese judge stages second raid on money exchange
Ghada Aoun. (Photo/Twitter)
Updated 17 April 2021

Defiant Lebanese judge stages second raid on money exchange

Defiant Lebanese judge stages second raid on money exchange
  • Prosecutor’s stand sparks calls for judiciary to ‘rise up against corruption’

BEIRUT: Controversial Lebanese judge and Mount Lebanon state prosecutor Ghada Aoun carried out a second raid on a money exchange in northern Lebanon on Saturday in defiance of a senior judiciary decision dismissing her from an investigation into possible currency export breaches.

Aoun was accompanied by several activists from the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) during the raid on the money exchange in the Awkar district in northern Lebanon.

Less than 24 hours earlier she raided the office with members of the security services.

Aoun remained in the money exchange for several hours on Friday in protest at her dismissal by the the discriminatory Public Prosecutor, Judge Ghassan Oweidat, a decision that caused widespread anger among the Lebanese public.

Caretaker Justice Minister Marie-Claude Najm held an emergency meeting on Saturday with Oweidat as well as Supreme Judicial Council head Judge Suhail Abboud and Judicial Inspection Authority head Judge Borkan Saad.

After the meeting Najm voiced her anger at the situation regarding the judiciary, saying that she refuses to be “a false witness to the decay of the judiciary and the fall of the fig leaf in this state.”

Najm said the events involving Aoun are an indication of “the failure of state institutions.”

Lebanon is facing a political and economic crisis amid disputes between state officials, a deadlock that has led to the collapse of the national currency.

However, critics accuse Aoun of a lack of respect for due process.

HIGHLIGHT

Caretaker Justice Minister Marie-Claude Najm held an emergency meeting on Saturday with Oweidat as well as Supreme Judicial Council head Judge Suhail Abboud and Judicial Inspection Authority head Judge Borkan Saad.

There are six criminal cases and 28 complaints against her before the Judicial Inspection Authority — the largest number of cases filed against any judge in the history of the Lebanese judiciary.

Aoun was investigating the Mecattaf money exchange company and Societe Generale Bank for allegedly withdrawing dollars from the market and shipping the funds abroad.

The Supreme Judicial Council dismissed Aoun along with two other judges who had previously been suspended by the Disciplinary Council for Judges.

Judge Oweidat on Friday asked the Director-General of State Security, Maj. Gen. Antoine Saliba, to suspend the officers who accompanied Aoun on the exchange office raid.

People in Lebanon on Friday watched on TV as Aoun requested that the money exchange office be sealed because the owner, Michel Mecattaf, refused to provide her with details of currency transfers on behalf of banks.

Earlier, Mecattaf’s agents informed Aoun that she had been dismissed from the case.

Aoun remained alone for hours inside the office after state security personnel left. A medical team checked on her after her blood pressure rose, and she left the premises soon after. Later she stepped on to the balcony of her home to wave to FPM supporters, who gathered outside to offer support.

After Aoun’s second raid on Saturday, the head of the Mecattaf financial company accused her supporters of “breaking into private property by force.”

Mecattaf described the case as “eminently political,” saying that he is “a witness and not a convict.”

Najm described the events as “unacceptable.”

“I am not in a position to please this political party or that team. We want an effective and independent judiciary. The problem is not the laws — oversight and accountability have been absent for years,” she said.

Najm also said that “the judiciary is incapable of fighting corruption,” and called on judges to “rise up against this reality.”

She added: “There is a lack of confidence in the judiciary, and this is a major insult.”

Retired General Prosecutor Hatem Madi told Arab News: “Judge Oweidat’s decision shows that some judges are working independently, but things must be put to rights. Regardless of whether Oweidat’s decision was right or wrong, the public prosecution offices in Lebanon must be an integrated unit.”

The decision to dismiss Aoun revived a political dispute between the FPM and the Future Movement, the two parties in conflict over the formation of the government.

The FPM, headed by MP Gebran Bassil, said that it will “continue to expose every file related to the fight against corruption,” saluting “every judge who rightfully performs their duties despite the injustice to which they are sometimes exposed.”

The Future Movement said that “mourning for judges after encouraging them to violate laws and asking them to open discretionary files for opponents is a matter that no longer fools any of the Lebanese people.”

 


Qatar’s controversial cleric Qaradawi contracts coronavirus

Qatar’s controversial cleric Qaradawi contracts coronavirus
Updated 17 April 2021

Qatar’s controversial cleric Qaradawi contracts coronavirus

Qatar’s controversial cleric Qaradawi contracts coronavirus
  • His son Abdul-Rahman Yusuf Al-Qaradawi confirmed that the cleric had coronavirus on Twitter

LONDON: Yusuf Al-Qaradawi, an Egyptian cleric based in Qatar and infamous for his controversial religious edicts, has contracted COVID-19.
“Sheikh Al-Qaradawi has been infected with the coronavirus and he is in good condition, praise be to God. He is receiving health care, reassures his followers, and asks you to pray for his recovery and good health,” his official Twitter account stated.


The news was also reported by Turkish state-run news agency Anadolu.
His son Abdul-Rahman Yusuf Al-Qaradawi confirmed that the cleric had coronavirus on Twitter and said his father had been vaccinated against the virus previously. He also requested prayers for his father.
Al-Qaradawi is 94 years old and is the spiritual leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, head of the European council for Fatwa and Research and co-founder of IslamOnline.net.