What will autonomy mean for Iraq's largest Christian town?
For Ankawa, an Assyrian Christian-majority suburb of Iraqi Kurdistan’s capital Erbil, the last decade has been one of change and transformation.
Its population swelled in 2014 as Assyrian Christian refugees from other parts of northern Iraq poured in ahead of the Islamic State’s (IS) onslaught, cementing the town’s status as one of the primary nodes of Iraqi Kurdistan’s Christian community.
Mechanical engineer Liver Dakali moved to Ankawa from Erbil in 2019, well after the wartime surge. Although he wasn’t fleeing war, he too felt the pull of the town’s Christian character.
“We are a minority there in Erbil, so we were alone. It was uncomfortable to celebrate occasions like Christmas,” Dakali said. “So we came here.”
"Ankawa's population swelled in 2014 as Assyrian Christian refugees from other parts of northern Iraq poured in ahead of the Islamic State's onslaught"
On 4 October, Iraqi Kurdistan’s Prime Minister Masrour Barzani moved to recognise Ankawa’s ethno-religious distinctiveness by announcing that the town would become a separate, autonomous district from Erbil for the first time.
Like others in Ankawa, Dakali said he is hopeful that the change will lead to improved infrastructure, public services, and security. But for him, any additional quality of life benefits for Christians in Ankawa or beyond will be limited at best.
“I don’t think there will be a significant effect,” Dakali said, referring to the move’s impact on the broader Assyrian Christian community in Iraqi Kurdistan.
According to locals and political leaders alike, Ankawa’s new status will be a positive development for the Christian community in Iraqi Kurdistan, and despite some reservations, Dakali and other residents remain optimistic about the town’s future.
Yet many argue that the change does not go far enough, and claim that although Ankawa’s new designation is a step in the right direction, the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) must take serious and concrete steps to rectify a host of grievances before Assyrian Christians can feel completely at home in Ankawa or elsewhere in Iraqi Kurdistan.
For activists and community leaders, wedge issues like taxation, land expropriation, and the erasure of Assyrian Christian identity will continue to plague Christians in the KRG despite the shift in Ankawa’s status.
As part of his 4 October announcement, Barzani stated that once its new designation is implemented, Christians in Ankawa would be able to “nominate civic leaders, appoint officials, manage their own security and directly shape their destinies” — something that residents said will allow them to maintain their heritage, upgrade their cityscape, and improve zoning practices to protect residential areas.
Political officials The New Arab spoke with confirmed that the change, which would be finalised in a matter of weeks or months, would give Ankawa an expanded spending budget.
“This is a huge step, it will be very easy to preserve [Ankawa’s] unique culture and religion and traditions now,” said Dr Daniel Rawand, a Christian rights activist in northern Iraq. “But it’s only on paper, and unfortunately the history [with the KRG] tells us not to be optimistic too early.”
"While the KRG has positioned itself as more diverse and pluralistic than other regions of the country, the situation for Christians remains far from perfect"
Life for Assyrian Christians in the KRG is generally much more secure than in other parts of Iraq, where instability and violence have led to a steady exodus of Christians out of the country. While the KRG has positioned itself as more diverse and pluralistic than other regions of the country, the situation for Christians remains far from perfect.
“Our experiences with the KRG over the years have included good things, but there have also been not so good things,” said Fareed Yacoob Elya, an Assyrian Christian member of the KRG Parliament representing Duhok.
One significant recent point of contention in Ankawa has been the issue of taxation and business regulation. According to the Washington, DC-based Assyrian Policy Institute, a new rule issued in 2018 required business owners in Ankawa to renew their licenses for a fee — a stipulation that was not applied to other subdistricts of Erbil.
The report also alleged that Ankawa residents had to pay a 10% tax on property sales, compared to a tax of 6% in other parts of Iraqi Kurdistan. A war of words ensued in which the KRG called the claims “baseless” and the Institute issued a subsequent statement in response.
Another issue has been the years-long expropriation of Christian agricultural lands in several areas of Iraqi Kurdistan including Duhok and in Ankawa itself, where the Erbil International Airport was built on lands seized from Assyrian farmers, according to a 2017 report from the Assyrian Confederation of Europe. These farmers reportedly received no compensation for the seizure.
According to Rawand, some locals are concerned that taxes would rise further with this latest decision, and Dakali claimed Ankawa’s cost of living might rise as well. Reine Hanna, the executive director of the Assyrian Policy Institute, said that despite the rhetoric around Ankawa, she has yet to see evidence that the KRG’s approach toward Assyrian Christians has changed.
“This recent development is consistent with the KRG’s tendency to paint itself as a protector of religious and ethnic minorities on the surface, but underneath there are all these longstanding grievances,” Hanna said.
Ramy Noori Syawish, the Christian mayor of Ankawa, acknowledged that “mistakes” in tax collection have taken place, and that the lack of lands for Christian residents of Ankawa was a “serious problem.”
“We are working to make this trust stronger and renewing it,” he said, adding that the KRG is working on adding new lands to the Ankawa municipality.
Ano Jawhar Abdoka, the KRG Minister of Transportation and Communications and the Christian representative to the region’s Council of Ministers, said that even though governance in Iraqi Kurdistan is better than in the rest of Iraq, the KRG hopes to strive to do more. He said the change in Ankawa’s status was part of a pattern of growing autonomy for Kurdistan’s localities.
"Life for Assyrian Christians in the KRG is generally much more secure than in other parts of Iraq, where instability and violence have led to a steady exodus of Christians out of the country"
“This step by the Prime Minister in Kurdistan is not only important for the Christians,” Abdoka said, “they also declared an autonomous administration in Soran district and in Zakho district. This is a step toward more democratisation in the Kurdistan region.”
Abdoka added that modernisation of the education system was also taking place in the KRG with the involvement of Christian representatives. Activists like Rawand contended that Kurdistan’s education curriculum contributes to discrimination against Christians.
“All the education is focused on Kurdish — we are left out of all the curriculum and the history,” Rawand said. “They are not killing us in the streets, like is happening in Baghdad and other places, but they are killing our culture and they are discriminating against us.”
This erasure extends to the political realm too. Christians have Parliamentary seats allocated for them at both the regional level in Kurdistan and at the federal level in Baghdad, but these seats have historically been occupied by parties with little real Christian support.
In October’s parliamentary elections, four out of the five Christian seats at the federal level were won by a party allied with Iran-backed groups in Iraq. In Iraqi Kurdistan, the dominant Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) have faced pushback for nominating candidates for Christian seats as well.
Due to this fraught history, Khora Nano, an activist and a project manager at a historical preservation NGO, said that he will reserve judgement on the latest change in Ankawa’s status until after it is put into practice.
“Talk is easy and it’s sweet — I can make you hear very good things,” Nano said, “but am I going to do them? This is the point.”
From Dakali’s perspective though, social concerns ultimately pale before the real material concerns of Ankawans. For him, the most direct way that government officials could improve the position of Christians in Ankawa would be to invest directly in its future.
“There needs to be economic improvement,” Dakali said, “because [that’s] the main reason that makes people stay and improve their lives.”
Michal Kranz is a freelance journalist based in New York City. He covers politics, society, and culture in the Middle East, Eastern Europe, and the United States, and has previously reported from Beirut, Lebanon and Warsaw, Poland.
Follow him on Twitter: @Michal_Kranz