BAGHDAD, IRAQ (BosNewsLife)– Some 1,000 Christian families have fled an area in northern Iraq amid ongoing clashes between Kurdish and Iraqi government forces, local Christians and aid workers say.
Among those fleeing are Christians who recently returned to the town of Teleskof after it was liberated from militants of the Islamic State group, BosNewsLife learned.
Teleskof, 30 kilometers (19 miles) north of the city of Mosul, had reportedly been rebuilt with financial support from Hungary’s government after it pledged to support persecuted Christians.
Last week Christians in Teleskof were told to flee by “an emissary from the Iraqi government who told the people…that they had until sunrise to evacuate,” said Christian aid group Barnabas Fund. Locals said Kurdish forces, known as the ‘Peshmerga,’ moved into the Christian town to halt the advance of the Iraqi Army and its allies, a Shi’a militia known as the Popular Mobilising Forces.
Teleskof fell into the hands of Islamic State in 2014 and was liberated in 2016, sparking an international effort to rebuild the area.
It was not immediately clear how extensive the damage was in the latest outbreak of fighting in and around the town of 11,000 people. The clashes are a continuation of battles that erupted after a referendum on Kurdistan independence on September 25, 2017.
More than 90 percent voted in favor of independence from Iraq in last month’s non-binding referendum, which Kurdish leaders had billed as an opening bid in negotiations with Baghdad over expanded autonomy.
Instead, federal forces responded by retaking Kirkuk and other disputed areas outside the Kurds’ autonomous region. Most Kurdish forces have withdrawn without a fight, but scattered clashes have broken out, including in Teleskof, pitting two close U.S. allies against each other.
Yezidi and Christian community leaders have expressed concerns about the rising tension between the central government in Baghdad and the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG), according to rights investigators.
Local community leaders say the KRG has seized disputed territories, including Kirkuk, the Nineveh Plains, and Sinjar, taking advantage of the chaotic situation and deepening sectarian conflict in the rest of Iraq.
“These territories are religiously and ethnically diverse and include Sunni Arabs, Sunni and Shi’a Turkmen, Assyrian Christians, Yazidis, Kaka’i, Shabak, and other communities,” confirmed Christian advocacy group Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW) which investigated the situation.
It said religious, political and civil society leaders as well as “many internally displaced persons” (IDPs) expressed “profound security concerns” with CSW representatives. “All of the community leaders and IDPs who were interviewed suggested that they would only be reassured by some form of Western military presence.”
CSW’s Chief Executive Mervyn Thomas told BosNewsLufe that “Christians and Yazidis have repeatedly asked the international community for support in creating their nonpartisan security and local administration, but nothing has been done to facilitate this.”
Instead, he said, “Christians and Yazidis have now begun their fourth year living in camps while political parties with militias vie for control of the Nineveh Plains and Sinjar.”
He noted that the emigration of Christians and other minorities continues “as the chances of seeing restored stability are still far away.”
Thomas said his group had urged the KRG and Iraq’s central government in Baghdad “to cease hostilities immediately and to engage in negotiations to find a political solution to the conflict.”
He said it is important that voices of people inhabiting the disputed territories of Sinjar and the Nineveh Plains “are heard through an internationally organized and monitored referendum.”
But Thomas also said that both the Kurdish authorities and Iraq’s government should ensure that “religious minorities are treated fairly during the return and re-building process” in Iraq’s Kurdistan region and other areas of the country.