The creation of ‘the biggest district of Christians in the Middle East’ has been warmly welcomed by a bishop from the area who sees the development as critical for securing the future of the Church in the country.

Syriac Catholic Archbishop Nathaniel Nizar Semaan of Adiabene told Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) he is “delighted” that the government in Kurdish northern Iraq is making the Erbil suburb of Ankawa an administrative district in its own right.

The announcement by Masrour Barzani, Prime Minister of the Kurdish Regional Government, will mean people in Ankawa – home to 60,000 Christians – have devolved authority to elect civil leaders such as a mayor, and powers over security and welfare support. Until now, Ankawa, which is 80 percent Christian, has been a sub-district of Erbil.

Thanking the KRG for “making this gesture”, Archbishop Semaan, who is based in Ankawa, told ACN: “The decision to make Ankawa a separate district will, we hope, be an important step forward both for the region and for the future of Christianity in Iraq”.

Syriac Catholic Church of Saint Shmony in Ankawa

Ankawa’s Christian population dramatically increased overnight in August 2014 after up to 120,000 faithful fled following the Daesh (ISIS) invasion of the nearby Nineveh Plains.

Although large numbers have returned following the military defeat of Daesh, many Christians have stayed in Ankawa.

Prime Minister Barzani’s announcement this week that “Ankawa will be the biggest district of Christians in the Middle East” came shortly after a meeting with Archbishop Semaan and other bishops, including Chaldean Catholic Archbishop Bashar Warda of Erbil and Syriac Orthodox Archbishop Nicodemus Sharaf. The bishops presented Mr Barzani with a written request to grant what Archbishop Semaan called “special status” to Ankawa on grounds of its increased population.

A shop in Ankawa, a city in Iraq in which 80% of the town’s population is Christian

Stressing that district status would not turn Ankawa into a Christian ghetto, Archbishop Semaan spoke of the area forming part of ‘a triangle’ of Christian centres including the towns of Qaraqosh and Alqosh, both in the Nineveh Plains. He added: “Ankawa becoming a separate district will help us witness to our faith to the whole of Iraq, showing that there are still Christians here. “We are not inviting the people of Nineveh to come and live here [in Ankawa] but if they want to come they are welcome. It is better if they come [to Ankawa] than leave Iraq.”

Praising the decision to make Ankawa a district, Nadine Maenza, chair of the US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) stated: “Encouraging to see Marour Barzani’s announcement that they will put Ainkawa under administrative control of its Christian residents with the ability to …‘directly shape their destinies’.”

Entrance of the Church of Saint Joseph in Ankawa

ACN has prioritised help for Christians in northern Iraq, providing emergency help following the Daesh invasion, rebuilding homes and churches and now supporting university students and medical care in the Erbil area as well as pastoral care in Kurdistan and Nineveh.