The growing rate of Christian converts among Kurds parks controversy over the individual’s right to worship, according to the Iraqi Constitution, and allegations of Western firms encouraging the phenomenon.
Although a few hundred years have passed since the Crusaders battled over the Middle East, recently in some Kurdish towns and cities, people have once again started converting to Christianity.
For some time, there have been rumors that some people are converting to Christianity from Islam; these claims are backed by a quick glance at Slemani's full churches on Sundays.
And it is unlikely that the Government would have built a large new church in the Rizgari district of Slemani if numbers had not grown significantly.
Arin Mahmoud, a lawyer, says that while in the constitution it is obvious that every Iraqi is free to practice any religion or ideology, it is actually illegal for Muslims to convert to other religions.
“Until now in the Iraqi courts no one can officially convert to Christianity from Islam, yet anyone can legally convert to Islam,” says Mahmoud.
“In Islamic law [Sharia], anyone who converts from Islam to another religion is called a ‘Kafir’ [infidel], if a Muslim kills a ‘Kafir’, under Sharia law they will be forgiven and face no punishment. Luckily in the courts of Iraq, we don't use this part of Sharia law, if you kill someone you will be punished without exception,” he adds.
While it may technically be illegal, it hasn't stopped people converting, but those that do convert experience various problems and reactions.
A 21-year-old convert to Christianity who does not wish to be named, explains that he converted in 1997 but he only told his friends and family in 2000 because he was scared of their reactions.
“I don't have a problem with anybody, their race or religion; however, many people have had a problem with me converting and say that I have brought shame upon myself. They can and do make problems for me,” he laments.
He said that in the last few years, he has known of at least 500 people that have converted and attend hurch on a regular basis.
Abdul Messih, 40, from Dohuk, also converted to Christianity and says that there are about 200 other families who have also converted.
“I converted 17 years ago; my father was a Mullah, but even now I cannot openly live as a Christian in my public life,” he explains.
Messih says that it has impacted on his whole family and now his children are also suffering.
He says that his daughter, 20, is unable to marry because although she is a Christian, it says Muslim on her ID card and she is therefore unable to marry a Christian in Iraq.
“It's a real shame for her; we even traveled to Beirut to see if they would allow her to marry a Christian there, they would not permit it there either,” he adds.
Messih, too, feels that people in general don't like them because they regard them as “Kafirs”, especially more strict Muslims who have been particularly vehement in the comments and actions.
Messih then says that there are foreign companies encouraging people to convert by offering them gifts and money, although he won't be drawn as to who and where these companies come from.
The word on the street can differ greatly in reaction to such converts. Friends Rizgar Ahmed, 27, and Allan
Mustafa, 26, both confer that it is wrong to convert but have different ideas as to how such people should be treated.
“I do not think you should convert from your religion to another, it is wrong, I would not agree to one of my family converting,” says Ahmed, his face twisted in disgust at the very idea.
However, Mustafa was slightly more tempered in his views. “I don't agree,” he says. “I believe that everyone is free to follow the religion that they want, I don't have a problem if people want to convert, I don't like it, but it's their business.”
Printed with permission. From Soma