A conversation about religious freedoms

By Vanessa Denha Garmo

Bayan Sami Abdul Rahman, representative in the United States for the Kurdistan Regional Government.

Bayan Sami Abdul Rahman, representative in the United States for the Kurdistan Regional Government.

The Chaldean Community Foundation recently organized an International Religious Freedom (IRF) roundtable discussion at the Chaldean Cultural Center inside the Shenandoah Country Club.  Bayan Sami Abdul Rahman, representative in the United States for the Kurdistan Regional Government was among the speakers.  We followed up with her for this one-on-one discussion.


CN: Why have these roundtable discussions?

BR: Understanding each other’s perspectives and concerns is an important component of tolerance and peaceful, respectful coexistence, and so we need to continue to listen to each other. Religious freedom roundtable discussions like the ones that have happened in Washington and Michigan, and the one that will happen in Erbil, are great opportunities for representatives of different communities to deliver their concerns. As a government, it is especially important for us to hear the needs and concerns of the community.


CN: Why is in important for the Kurdistan Regional Government to work with IRF?

BR: We will seek any opportunity to engage our community, especially minorities, and learn about their needs. IRF has developed a unique and hopefully productive platform for this.


CN: What has this group accomplished over the last eight years, since its inception?

BR: We have only worked with IRF since summer of 2018, so I can’t speak to their other endeavors. But I think that even in this short time, we’ve improved contacts and goodwill between KRG and civil society organizations. Tolerance and understanding between communities are difficult to measure, but I think forums like the IRF roundtables are very important.


CN: What have been some of the issues discussed?

BR: The IRF roundtables operate under Chatham House rules, so I can’t give you specifics, but I can say that we have very frank discussions about the status and future of religious and ethnic minority groups in the Kurdistan region. It is a great opportunity for me as KRG Representative to listen, to learn and to convey my government’s position on issues such as faith, genocide and accountability, property disputes, political representation and calls for self-administration by different groups. 


CN: What action plans have come from the discussions?

BR: The meetings in the United States were really about setting the framework for the roundtable meetings in Kurdistan. We hope to see a Kurdistan meeting of religious groups early in 2019. The International Religious Freedom Roundtable has said it will support the roundtable in Kurdistan. 


CN: What was the purpose of the meeting on December 10 at Shenandoah Country Club?

BR: As always, it was a chance for civil society organizations, advocates, and religious leaders to share their concerns with each other and with the KRG. U.S. government officials were also present as observers and members of congress took part. 


CN: What is the hope of bringing the faith-based communities together?

BR: Some of Iraq’s dysfunction comes from the distrust and misunderstandings that communities have about each other. By bringing them together and giving them a forum for their voices to be heard, we hope to ultimately bring about greater understanding in our society.


CN: Why does the Kurdistan Region care about religious freedoms?

BR: The people of the Kurdistan Region are from many different ethnic and religious backgrounds. In Iraq, we have seen how destructive religious intolerance can be, and we want to ensure that the Kurdistan Region remains a peaceful place for all of its inhabitants and citizens.