Less than a year after Mosul and the Nineveh Plains were liberated from self-proclaimed Islamic State (IS), Christians fear fresh violence as voters head to the polls for the independence referendum in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq.
Christians in the disputed Nineveh Plains fear that the referendum will spark new violence in the recently liberated area. "The Nineveh Plains are a disputed area. So in the case of a civil war this might become one of the most affected areas," said Hannah* a local Christian. "The Iraqi government is being very fierce in their threats against this referendum, as well as neighbouring countries." Iraq's prime minister has warned he will take 'necessary measures to preserve the unity of the country'.
Although churches are continuing with their rebuilding activities and some Christians are back in their homes in the Nineveh Plain, uncertainty is making other families put their plans to return on hold. "I hear from people that were about to return that they are awaiting the result and consequences of the referendum and remain at their place of refuge until then." said Hannah.
The referendum for Kurdish independence comes after a long struggle for a Kurdish independent state. A 'yes' result is widely expected although the result is not binding. The opinions of Christians in the region differ, "There are Christians who are in favour of the independence, they are found mostly among those living in the Kurdish area," said Hannah. "But others are against it."
The stances of the Christian political parties in the Kurdish parliament are also divided. Some are voting 'no' because they don't agree with the inclusion of the Nineveh Plains. They fear it will bring more conflict to the Christians who have already suffered a great deal at the hands of IS.
Open Doors has launched Hope for the Middle East, a seven year campaign uniting the global church to ensure every person in the Middle East, no matter what their faith, has a home, a future and a voice. As part of this, Open Doors is asking people to sign the Hope for the Middle East petition, which will be presented to the UN on 11 December 2017.
Iraq is number 7 on the 2017 Open Doors World Watch List. Iraq was once home to one of the largest Christian communities in the Middle East; today, the church in Iraq is in danger of disappearing completely. The IS militants have forced thousands of Christians to flee their homes. Even in areas of Iraq that aren't controlled by IS, Sharia is the basis of the law and Muslims are forbidden from leaving Islam.
*Name changed for security reasons
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Open Doors UK & Ireland is part of Open Doors International, a global NGO network which has supported and strengthened persecuted Christians in over 60 countries for over 60 years. Last year it raised approximately $70 million to provide practical support to persecuted Christians such as food, medicines, trauma care, legal assistance, safe houses and schools, as well as spiritual support through Christian literature, training and resources. Open Doors UK & Ireland raised over £11 million.
Every year Open Doors publishes the World Watch List - a ranking of the 50 countries where it is most difficult to be a Christian. This is produced using detailed information provided by Open Doors co-workers in more than 60 countries, as well as independent experts. Data is gathered on five spheres of life - private, family, community, national and church life - plus a sixth sphere measuring the degree of violence impacting Christians. Persecution in each country is recorded by Open Doors using a point system. Open Doors' research methods and results have been independently audited by the International Institute for Religious Freedom. The 2017 World Watch List accounts for the 12 months ending 31 October 2016.