Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Kurdish Christians Complain of Discrimination

Muslims who convert to Christianity say they are ostracised by society and family.
By Ayyub Kareem

The small but growing number of Kurds who convert to Christianity say they face discrimination and intolerance from the Muslim majority.

Kurdish Christians – still a tiny minority - say they find it difficult to practice their religion because of public intolerance. Muslims in the region counter that it is wrong for Christians to proselytise among other faith groups.

The converts are joining new, western-style Christian groups which started growing after the fall of Saddam Hussein, rather than the long-established Christian communities such as the Assyrians and Chaldeans, who do not seek new members from Muslim backgrounds.

Majid Rashid Muhammed, a member of the Kurdish Christian Church Committee, said his church has gained at least 200 members in the last few months, bringing its congregation to more than 700.

“The rate at which people are joining our church is continually increasing, and most of them are young people," he said.

The Kurdish Christian Church, with branches in the three main cities of the Iraqi Kurdistan region, has received financial and other support from Christian organisations in the United States..

"As fellow-believers, the Americans strongly urge us to adhere to the Christian faith," said Muhammed.

Many Muslims object to the new churches seeking to win over converts from the Islamic faith. Those who make the decision to become Christian may be shunned – even by relatives.

A 20-year-old man, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said no one in his family knew that he had turned to Christianity. "I’ll try to keep it a secret because our community is a Muslim one," he added.

Sirwan Abdul-Rahman, a member of the Kurdish Christian Church Committee from Erbil, said his relatives looked down on him after he converted to Christianity several years ago.

Abdul-Rahman has also got into trouble for preaching his religion to other Kurds. He said he’s been arrested so often for carrying a Bible “that I’ve got used to it".

On a proselytising mission in the mountainous area of Qandeel, he was recognised as a Christian convert by a driver. "He started to insult me,” said Abdul-Rahman. “He spat on me, beat me with his pistol and punched me in the mouth."

The Kurdistan Islamic League has issued a statement addressed to Christian groups and churches saying it is a “strange and terrible act” and an “unhealthy phenomenon” for a Muslim to convert.

“This phenomenon will eventually lead to a feud in Kurdistan,” said Osman Ali, a member of the Islamic league’s Sulaimaniyah branch.

The region’s religious affairs minister, Muhammed Ahmed Gaznayi, said people who turn to Christianity are “renegades” in the eyes of Islam.

“I consider that those who turn to Christianity pose a threat to society,” he added.

The Christian community also has to worry about its collective security, as churches have been targeted by insurgents.

The main Kurdish Christian Church in Erbil and its two branches in Sulaimaniyah and Dohuk have no external signs or other indicators that they are places of worship. Services are held in private homes.

Ayyub Kareem is an IWPR trainee in Iraq.