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Excerpt: In recent years the Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KRI) has been a haven for minorities fleeing the turmoil and sectarian violence in the south of Iraq. The KRI offers religious freedoms that are comparatively robust as compared to those of its regional neighbors. Even so, troubling issues related to discrimination and even violence targeting ethnic and religious minorities exist, exacerbated by the KRI’s strained resources and security situation. Such issues must not be disregarded just because of the security situation in Iraq, or because of the KRI’s successes as compared with the wider region.
The KRI is home to considerable religious and ethnic diversity. However, the disputed territories now controlled by the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) are exceedingly diverse, with populations of Sunni Arabs, Sunni and Shi’a Turkmen, Christians of Assyrian, Chaldean, and Syriac ethnicity, Yezidis, Kaka’i, Shabak, and others. Within the KRI’s official borders, diversity is also increasing, as Zoroastrian leaders convert Kurds, and internally displaced persons (IDPs) pour in, fleeing the fighting against the so-called Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). In addition, over the last three years, Kurdish forces have been at the forefront of the fight against ISIS, and have retaken or occupied large swathes of land in the so-called “disputed territories.” Control of these territories is disputed between the KRG, and the federal government of Iraq in Baghdad.
Against this backdrop, the KRG must adapt to administering an increasingly diverse population, where previously it represented a more homogenous Sunni-Kurdish majority. A more inclusive administrative approach has presented mixed results. To protect and include minority religions and ethnicities, KRG policy has taken positive steps by introducing protective laws, appointing religious representatives, and attempting to diversify the Peshmerga.
Nevertheless, in practice these policies are frequently ineffectual. While the KRI remains far more welcoming and tolerant to minorities than its regional neighbors, minorities complain of systemic biases leveled against them that prevent them from realizing rights or fully participating in society. Rule of law and law enforcement as it applies to non-Sunni Kurds can be arbitrary. Minorities continue to fear growing extremism in the majority population, which they believe could threaten them in the long term. Economic uncertainty, combined with political stagnation and a young Kurdish population, could become a breeding ground for extremism. To ensure religious freedoms do not erode over time, it will be important to strengthen protections and institutions that protect these freedoms. And, given the number of vulnerable communities residing in the KRI, potential causes and vectors for extremism must be monitored and addressed as a matter of urgency. Read more.