The Forgotten Armenians of Iraqi Kurdistan

 Iraq’s dwindling and displaced Armenian community faces an uncertain future

On a Friday afternoon in early May, Father Artoon Khalatian busied himself with preparations to deliver mass in the Assyrian Church in Ankawa, a Christian-populated suburb of Erbil—the capital of the autonomous region of Iraq controlled by the Kurds more commonly referred to as Iraqi Kurdistan. Inside the church more than two-dozen Armenians were seated awaiting the ceremony—remnants of a once well-established Armenian community from Mosul, fifty miles to the West. The story of how the Armenian worshippers and their pastor—a recent transplant himself from the nearby town of Zakho—arrived at the Assyrian Church in Erbil, mirrors the plight of Iraq’s largely-forgotten Armenian population as a whole—whose communal identity and continued survival is at risk. 

While there are no reliable statistics, it is estimated up until 2003, there were as many as 25,000 Armenians in Iraq—predominantly in Baghdad and Basra in the south and Kirkuk and Mosul in the north. Following the US invasion that year, many left the country for Europe—and to a lesser extent to Armenia—while a smaller number moved to the relative safe haven of Kurdistan. During the decade that followed, extremists targeted Christians and other minorities, forcing hundreds of thousands to flee their homes and in the process dramatically changing the demographic landscape of the region. With the increased security risks and ongoing conflict brought about by the rise of ISIS in 2011 and its occupation of large areas of territories in northern and central Iraq, Christian minorities were confronted with the threat of forced conversions, crucifixions and beheadings. By some estimates, over two million refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs) fled to different parts of Kurdistan in the last year alone—the majority being placed in refugee camps. Iraqi-Armenians were fortunate enough to be able to rely on family connections to help them settle in either Erbil, Dohuk or Zakho. 

 In June 2014 ISIS extremists took control of Mosul—Iraq’s second-largest city—destroying or converting churches into mosques and further eroding the Christian and Armenian presence in the Middle Eastern country. There are reportedly no more Armenians left in Mosul while according to recent estimates, there are now approximately 5,000 Armenians left in all of Iraq. Less than half reside in Baghdad while nearly 3,000 have settled in Dohuk and Erbil where they struggle to maintain their communal identity. To help accomplish its religious duty, the Armenian Diocese had been eagerly anticipating the construction of an Armenian church in Erbil to accommodate the growing numbers of internally-displaced Iraqi-Armenians. After the fall of Mosul Father Khalatian was assigned to serve the growing Armenian community of Erbil as parish priest, only to see those construction plans cancelled in order to reallocate the badly-needed resources toward helping settle the influx of refugees. With no other available option, the Armenian pastor found his way to the Assyrian church in the suburb of Ankawa where he was allowed to perform mass for the growing Armenian community.

The Origins of the Community 

Historically the center of gravity of the Armenian population in Iraq was the community living in Baghdad and Basra. The Armenian presence in the region that constitutes present-day Iraq dates back to the 17th century when Armenian merchants from Isfahan established trade networks and settled in Basra. Contrary to the relatively older history of Armenian communities in central and southern Iraq, the origins of the Armenian communities in northern Iraq can be traced to the early mid-19th century. Around 1860 a small Armenian church commissioned by the Armenian Patriarch of Constantinople was built in Mosul. Following World War I, thousands of Armenian Genocide survivors from Anatolia settled in Mosul, while others continued their journey to Baghdad and Basra, eventually establishing viable communities with churches, schools, religious and political institutions. 

Any account of Armenians in Kurdistan would not be complete without referring to Levon Shagoyan (1887-1974). Better known as Levon Pasha, Shagoyan was a native of the village of Kharagants (modern day Enginsu) around Van and served as one of the commanders of the Armenian defense forces in the city during World War I. After the withdrawal of Russian troops from the Ottoman front in 1917, Levon Pasha took charge of a segment of the population and led them to Iraq where some of them settled in Mosul while others lived in refugee camps in Baquba just north of Iraq. By the late 1920s the bulk of those refugees had relocated to Baghdad, Basra, Syria and Iran while the remaining population of mostly villagers settled in Kurdistan in the town of Zakho and the two newly established villages of Hawrezk—an amalgam of the Armenian words Hay Vrej (Armenian revenge)—and Avzrook (also known as Avzrook Miri). Hawrezk is situated approximately 25 miles northeast of Duhok on the main road leading to Zakho while Avzrook is only 10 miles southeast of Zakho.

A Tale of Two Villages

The Armenian presence in Kurdistan was centered in the villages of Hawrezk and Avzrook (the latter comprised of a mixed Assyrian and Armenian population) until around 1975 when the government of Saddam Hussein disbanded the villages and forced the population to relocate to neighboring towns. This strategy was not directed against the Armenians but rather aimed at weakening the support that many villages in Kurdistan provided to the Peshmerga (the Kurdish paramilitary groups). According to Aram Shahin Bakoyan, a former MP in the Kurdistan Regional Parliament and a native of Avzrook, most of the Armenians sympathized with the Peshmerga and some of them were even imprisoned under the Saddam regime in the notorious Abu Ghraib prison. In some instances, when the regime tried to persuade non-Kurds fighting with the Peshmerga to renounce and sever their affiliation with the Kurdish groups, the Armenians refused by saying they considered themselves Kurds, albeit “Christian Kurds.” 

The two villages were repopulated and rebuilt in 2006 after the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) provided funds to build houses and encouraged the former population to return. This endeavor was greatly assisted by Sarkis Aghajan Mamendo, an Assyrian politician who held numerous posts in the KRG, including that of Deputy Prime Minister (2004-06). According to Murad Vardanian, the village chief of Hawrezk, since 2006 the KRG has built over 115 houses in the village. The construction and operation of a nearby regional airport promised to be a major source of employment for the villagers. Once again after the fall of Mosul in 2014, those plans were put off amidst the growing climate of insecurity. 

Church and State

The focal point of the Armenian communities in Kurdistan is the church. According to Father Masis Shahinian, the pastor of St. Nerses Shnorhali Church in Dohuk and the visiting pastor of Hawrezk, most Armenians speak Armenian and Kurdish in their daily lives. While the church liturgy is still held in Armenian, the sermons are in either Kurdish (the Kurmanji dialect) or Arabic.

In the town of Zakho, less than 10 miles from the Turkish border, the church of St. Astvatsatsin (Church of the Virgin Mary) stands in a complex built with funds from a donation from the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation in 1968. As was the case in Erbil, the Armenian population of Zakho increased in recent years, from approximately 165 families in 2013 to over 240 families today. According to Father Arakel Kasparian, the town’s Armenian pastor, most of the newcomers were families from Mosul and its surrounding areas who fled the city after ISIS took over, including Kasparian, who until 2014 served as the pastor of Mosul, and was responsible for finding a safe passage of his parish after ISIS seized his hometown. 

The small Armenian community in Kurdistan is well integrated in the local socio-political and economic fabric. According to Yarwant Nisan Markoz (Yervant Aminian), the current Armenian MP in the Kurdistan Regional Parliament, Armenians are viewed favorably by the Kurdsitan Regional Government (KRG), which considers Armenian as one of the official languages of Kurdistan. One Kurdish official in Erbil who spoke on the condition of anonymity, recounted how Kurds viewed Armenians as their ethnic brothers, affirming a belief that “the Kurds and Armenians were a single nation. Jesus came and separated the two, and then Islam came and turned the Kurds against Armenians.” In the town of Duhok, another Kurdish official remarked that “ unlike most Christians, who have their eyes set on the West, Armenians are part and parcel of our society. We are ethnically similar and many Armenians fought with us to obtain our independence. The fact that Armenians in Avzrook use Kurdish as their language of communication is more proof that we are both brothers.”

This perception is accentuated looking at the political lexicon used in Kurdistan to describe non-Kurdish minorities. Under the constitution of Kurdistan, the region has a parliament consisting of 111 seats, 11 of which are reserved for non-Kurdish minority communities: 5 each for Turkmens and 5 for Christians and a separate single seat is reserved for the Armenian community, de facto making a distinction between the Armenians and the rest of the Christian population in Kurdistan.

In addition to their separate representation in the KRG, Armenians are present in the municipal councils of Dohuk and Zakho, actively participating in decision-making processes that impact not only Armenians, but also more broadly involving larger issues such as the creation of jobs, infrastructure maintenance and security concerns. For instance, Armenian villagers in Hawrezk serve in voluntary rotations with the regional Peshmerga forces to guard the frontline with ISIS, less than 50 miles away from the village.

An Uncertain Future 

Compounding the insecurity facing Armenians in the region is a sense of abandonment and neglect that the local community feels from both the Armenian community world-wide and the Armenian government, as well as mounting anger over the degree to which targeted violence and the mass Christian exodus remains unaddressed on the part of the international community. Members of the Armenian community in Kurdistan repeatedly voiced their frustration, many drawing parallels with the situation of Armenians in Syria and the withering of the once vibrant community there, with a sense of apprehension that their fate is equally bleak. 

The lack of measurable and concrete actions taken by the Armenian government and the Armenian communities around the world is viewed with considerable resentment. The recent announcement that the Armenian government plans on establishing a consulate in Erbil and that weekly direct flights are operating between Erbil and Yerevan did little to alter this widely-held perception. 

The remnants of the Armenian community in Northern Iraq who have relocated to the villages of Kurdistan are at a crossroads. On the one hand there are many individuals who would like to relocate to Europe (especially to the Netherlands and Germany) where they already have extended families, but worry about finding employment abroad as well as the further dissolution of their society in Iraq. On the other hand there are those who are determined to stay in Kurdistan amidst a climate of persecution and instability. Even if ISIS is defeated, their future in Iraq remains unclear. Age is furthermore no indicator of opinion as the difference of views transcends generations with many young Armenians employed in the construction and hospitality industries in Kurdistan who prefer to stay in Kurdistan rather than face an uncertain future in the West. 

Professor Asbed Kotchikian is a senior lecturer at the Global Studies Department at Bentley University in Massachusetts. He has traveled extensively and conducted research throughout the Middle East and the South Caucasus. In May 2015 he traveled throughout Iraqi Kurdistan, visiting refugee camps and speaking with refugees (Kurds, Arabs, Yezidis) as part of a research project funded in part by the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation.

Originally published in the February 2016 ​issue of AGBU Magazine. Archived content may appear distorted on your screen. end character

About the AGBU Magazine

AGBU Magazine is one of the most widely circulated English language Armenian magazines in the world, available in print and digital format. Each issue delivers insights and perspective on subjects and themes relating to the Armenian world, accompanied by original photography, exclusive high-profile interviews, fun facts and more.