Kurdistan – Condition Of Christian Converts – July, 2017

UNHCR’s Eligibility Guidelines for Assessing the International Protection Needs of Asylum Seekers from Iraq, dated 2012, stated: ‘The Constitution of Iraq requires the Iraqi State to uphold both freedom of religion and the principles of Islam, which, according to many Islamic scholars, includes capital punishment for leaving Islam. Iraqi Penal Law does not prohibit conversion from Islam to Christianity (or any other religion); however, Iraq’s Personal Status Law does not provide for the legal recognition of a change in one’s religious status. These apparent contradictions have not yet been tested in court and, as a result, the legal situation of converts remains unclear. Consequences of conversion may include difficulties in obtaining documents, getting married and in sending children to certain schools.

Given the widespread animosity towards converts from Islam and the general climate of religious intolerance, the conversion of a Muslim to Christianity would likely result in ostracism and/or violence at the hands of the convert’s community, tribe or family. Many, including (Sunni and Shi’ite) religious and political leaders, reportedly believe that apostasy from Islam is punishable by death, or even see the killing of apostates as a religious duty. ‘It is also unclear how the Iraqi legal system would deal with cases of apostasy, as the Iraqi constitution and laws include conflicting provisions.

USSD 2014 noted:

‘Personal status laws and regulations prevent the conversion of Muslims to other religions and require conversion of minor children to Islam if either parent converts to Islam. In the IKR [Iraqi Kurdistan Region], there were several cases of Christian single-parent families affected by the conversion policy, which applies to all religious minorities. In some cases, the Christian parent fled with the minor children to avoid conversion of the children to Islam.’[1]

According to the report from fact finding mission of Danish Refugee Council, the law discriminates with regard to conversion, as Muslims are not allowed to convert, whereas it is possible to convert from other religions to Islam. There are cases of people being killed for converting. When asked about concrete examples of killings of converts, the sources mentioned the case of Priest Abdullah, who was attempted killed three times by unknown people. Then the Asayish arrested him. The last thing the sources heard about him, was that he had left for Europe to seek asylum. After the meeting with the delegation, the sources informed that this is a big issue right now in Iraq, especially during the last couple of weeks, as the Iraqi Parliament has passed a new law, part of the National Card law, that enforces Islamic religion on children of mixed marriages.[2]

An anonymous Kurdish church leader, a convert to Christianity, said in an interview with World Watch Monitorthat while living in makeshift refugee camps in Northern France, he was told by Muslims in one of the camps, ‘you are Kurdish, and you are a Christian? Shame on you,’ and ‘We will tell the Algerians and Moroccans to kill you.’

Life in Kurdistan had been very bad for the convert as well. He said he was arrested and beaten for preaching in the streets.

“In the mosque the imams talked about me, and my father, and my little brother, who became a Christian too… The imam talked about us – ‘they are kafir [unbelievers], they have to die,’ from the stage, into the mosque microphone. My father [a Muslim] was filled with shame,” he said. “They were taught bad things about us in the mosque: ‘The Christians are kafir.’ Of course, they [also] say you are slaves to Israel, to the American people.”

He is now seeking asylum in Britain, rather than remaining in France.[3]

The Zoroastrian representation in the Kurdistan Region has filed a legal complaint against a Kurdish Islamic preacher whom they claim has issued a decree that all converts to the pre-Islamic faith must be killed if they did not repent within days.

Mala Hasib, the Islamic preacher in question, made the remarks in an interview with the BBC Persian late last month when asked about the fact that some Kurdish youths are converting to either Zoroastrianism or Christianity from Islam, in light of the ongoing war against ISIS. Hasib told the program that while ISIS is practicing some elements of Islam, it does not represent the religion because it lacks wisdom.

Then he was asked about issue of converting to other religions.

“Tens and hundreds of Kurdish Muslims have [converted] to Zoroastrianism or Christianity. What do you think in this respect?” the BBC journalist asked Hasib.

“Under an Islamic authority, the verdict is that they would be given three days to reconsider,” Hasib said, “if they repented and abandoned the new religion, it is ok. But if they did not return from Zoroastrianism, or any religion other than Islam, they are apostates and have to be killed. Their punishment is death penalty”.

The Kurdish region has passed a law to protect the rights of the different ethnic and religious groups in 2015, including Zoroastrianism, under which followers of the religion have the right to declare their religion, practice the rituals, and found their places of worship. “That is why we have been practicing our rituals ever since. We have not posed a threat against anyone,” Tayyib said in reference to the law passed by the Kurdish parliament.

The law does not address the issue of converting from one religion to another, as claimed by Tayyib in a press conference in Sulaimani after she and several others filed the complaint. However, there are no reported cases of anyone being tried in Kurdish courts for changing their religion.

Tayyib told Rudaw English that the complaint comes after Hasib made the remarks on BBC Persian, but she also claimed that he had made similar remarks elsewhere, including at the mosque he is preaching at, and a Kurdish newspaper.

Tayyib said that Hasib’s remarks were against tolerance and coexistence in Kurdistan, and claimed that the Kurdish ministry of religious affairs “have been saddened” with such remarks from the Islamic preacher. She called for him to be removed from preaching in the mosque, issue an apology, and to be punished.[4]

In 2016, USCIRF commissioned a research study to examine religious freedom conditions in the KRG as an increasing number of religious minorities have sought safe haven there. As a result of the KRG’s growing diversity, the government has taken positive steps toward minorities by introducing the Minority Rights Law (to protect the freedom of religion and prohibit religious discrimination), appointing religious representatives, and attempting to diversify the Peshmerga. The KRG’s draft constitution does include Shari’ah as one source of legislation, but it does not prohibit legislation that violates Islam (unlike the Iraqi constitution) and it recognizes the rights of non-Muslims. Moreover, the 111-member Kurdistan parliament includes five seats for Turkmen; five seats for Assyrians, Chaldeans, and Syriacs; and one seat for Armenians.  Religious minority communities complain that although KRG laws are not explicitly discriminatory, they are not enforced to protect minorities and the court system favors the Kurdish population.

Christian communities acknowledge the KRG’s efforts to protect them from ISIS and address their needs. The KRG has given Christian communities money to build churches. However, away from the population centers, and specifically in Dohuk, Assyrian communities have complained of ethnic Kurds appropriating their land.[5]

Kurdish authorities are accused of attempting to “Kurdify” more ethnically diverse parts of the disputed territories.[6]

In October 2015 parliament passed The National Identity Card Law, which came into effect in February. This law does not allow non-Muslims to self-identify with their ethnic group nor does it allow Muslims to convert to other religions. There were reports of KRG authorities discriminating against minorities, including Turkmen, Arabs, Yezidis, Shabaks, and Christians, both in the disputed territories and in the three provinces that officially make up the Kurdistan region.[7]



[1] UK Home Office: Country Information and Guidance Iraq: Religious minorities, August 2016 (available at ecoi.net)

 (accessed 27 July 2017)

[2] DIS – Danish Immigration Service: The Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KRI); Access, Possibility of Protection, Security and Humanitarian Situation; Report from fact finding mission to Erbil, the Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KRI) and Beirut, Lebanon, 26 September to 6 October 2015, 12 April 2016 (available at ecoi.net)

(accessed 28 July 2017)

[3] CNS News: Kurdish Christian Reports Receiving Death Threats from Muslims in a French Refugee Camp, 2 November 2016, available at: http://www.cnsnews.com/news/article/lauretta-brown/kurdish-christian-reports-receiving-death-threats-muslims-french-refugee (accessed 25 July 2017)

[4] Rudaw: Converts must die: Kurdistan’s Zoroastrians outraged by Islamic preacher, February 5 2017, available at: http://www.rudaw.net/english/kurdistan/050220171 (accessed 25 July 2017)

[5] United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, USCIRF Annual Report 2017 – Tier 2 countries – Iraq, 26 April 2017, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/59072f3d130.html [accessed 27 July 2017]

[6] USCIRF – U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom: Annual report 2017, available at: http://www.uscirf.gov/news-room/press-releases/kurdistan-region-iraq-new-uscirf-report-religious-minorities-in-the-kri  (accessed 25 July 2017)

[7] United States Department of State, 2016 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices – Iraq, 3 March 2017, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/58ec8a234.html [accessed 27 July 2017]