Churches and Cathedrals will be packed there this weekend as people mark Easter. And no one else there will pay the slightest attention to it. But what makes this most striking is that it takes place in the heart of the Middle East – in the Kurdistan Region in Iraq.
A major centre of Christian devotion this weekend will be St Joseph’s Cathedral in the largely Christian town of Ankawa, a few miles from the Kurdistani Parliament and seat of government in the capital, Erbil.
From the beginning of the modern form of the Iraqi Kurdistan Region in 1991, the Kurdistani Parliament has enshrined religious and ethnic pluralism by encouraging Christians and others to elect 11 MPs in addition to 100 MPs elected by the rest of the people.
This political foundation stone of a wider, deeper and popular aspiration for tolerance in Kurdistan makes it stand out in the Middle East, the birthplace of Christianity, but where it faces extinction, as Christians feel under threat and then emigrate to other countries.
The Chaldean and Assyrian churches in Kurdistan are an integral part of Kurdistani society. When Christians in Mosul and surrounding areas fled from Daesh in 2014, St Joseph’s Cathedral and Archbishop Warda played a major role in registering, housing and feeding them and then appealing for funds to build better accommodation.
Kurdistani Christians connect it more widely. A former Deputy Prime Minister in the Kurdistan Regional Government received a papal knighthood for his efforts. The Holy See’s Prime Minister recently visited Kurdistan after the Prime Minister visited the Pope at the Vatican in early 2018, which was crucial in breaking Baghdad’s diplomatic blockade of Kurdistan in the wake of its independence referendum.
Kurdistan is a mainly Sunni Muslim country but one that enjoys religious moderation and whose institutions are secular. The school curriculum comprises teaching on all religions and atheism is also respected.
Such an open-minded approach also lends itself more easily to a desire to increase women’s rights, itself unusual in the Middle East. There have been concerted efforts by government and religious leaders to eradicate FGM, the scale of which had shocked the leadership and which has been reduced although figures on this most private practice are difficult to ascertain.
Great efforts have been deployed in trying to eradicate domestic violence and so-called honour killings. Yes, Kurdistan can be a conservative society but there are many prominent women in politics, including the Speaker of Parliament where there are, thanks partly to a quota, more women as a proportion than either the rest of Iraq or the UK. That more needs to be done is accepted but there is a will to do so.
All this underlines the truth that the treatment of Christians and other minorities as well as women is a litmus test of a country that refuses to be trapped by some of the traditions and legacies of its wider environment.
The UK government has declared its intention to help protect Christians from persecution around the world and has asked the Bishop of Truro to make policy recommendations by Easter. The Foreign Secretary and the Bishop could usefully examine Kurdistani peaceful co-existence and highlight it as a model for others to follow.
Religious tolerance is one of the many features of Kurdistan that makes it an attractive partner for the UK and the wider West. It is the basis of a society that abhors extremism and which played such a vital military role in defeating Daesh and keeping our streets safe, whose ideology remains potent and can be better challenged by a tolerant and pluralistic Muslim-majority country. A strong and vibrant Kurdistan Region is a gain for all.