Massive church for Christian refugees opens in Kurdistan

A massive church which was built with the support of the Kurdish government was opened on June 29 to give Christian refugees in Iraq's Kurdistan Region a place where they can pray and worship.

(REUTERS / Alaa Al-Marjani)Syrian refugees walk at Quru Gusik refugee camp on the outskirts of Arbil, in Iraq's Kurdistan region, December 15, 2013.

On Thursday, an opening ceremony was held at a church in Ainkawa that has been under construction for eight years. Most of those who attended the service were locals, but they were also joined by Christians who fled persecution and violence in Syria, Mosul, Baghdad, and other parts of Iraq, Rudaw detailed.

"When finished this will be one of the biggest such projects in the Middle East," Khalid Jamal, who heads the Kurdistan Regional Government religious affairs ministry's Christian Affairs department, told Rudaw. "It can accommodate 1,300 parishioners at one time."

The construction of the Ainkawa church began in 2009, and the KRG religious affairs ministry released the $4 million needed to continue the project in 2013. As of now, the only finished structure in the church is its prayer hall.

Even though the church was far from finished, Syrian refugee Miriam Sileman told Rudaw that she was happy about the new house of worship and vowed to pray there regularly. Once the whole structure is finished, it will be able to serve fleeing Christians from Iraq and other parts of the Middle East.

U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom chair Father Thomas Reese praised the KRG for its efforts to welcome and provide shelter for Christians and other religious minorities who fled persecution in Iraq and Syria. However, a new report released by the commission on June 1 alleged that these refugees are still being discriminated upon in the Kurdistan region, the Catholic News Agency reported.

The USCIRF report titled "Wilting in the Kurdish Sun," which was prepared from May to August 2016, said the influx of Christians, Yazidis, Shi'a Muslims, and other persecuted religious minorities into Kurdistan added to the region's religious diversity. The document also warned that the limited resources in the region and its security issues could spark ethnic and religious conflict in the future.

The USCIRF remarked that Kurdistan's laws appear to be in favor of religious freedom, but there are many religious groups that complained about being treated like second-class citizens compared with the Sunni Kurds. Plus, Christian leaders claimed that Kurds in the northern part have seized land owned by Assyrians and are frustrated by the authorities' alleged inaction on the issue.