The consultation, organized by the World Council of Churches (WCC) in partnership with its member churches and partners, follows other WCC-led events supporting the local communities and promoting social cohesion through inter-religious collaboration.
The consultation continues the WCC’s work on promoting inclusive citizenship through education, legislation and media.
Mr. Qassem Al-Araji, former Iraqi minister of interior, current national security adviser, offered opening remarks, presenting the willingness and efforts of the Iraqi government on adopting a strategy on management of diversity. He affirmed the role of civil society actors and religious and ethnic leaders in contributing to the development of this strategy.
Archimandrite Emanuel Youkhana director of CAPNI ( Christian Aid Program for Northern Iraq) and member of the Church of the East, one of the founding members of the WCC reflected on the background of the “Living Together” consultation.
“Pope Francis visited Baghdad two years ago,” explained Youkhana. “He brought a message of solidarity and hope.” Building on this visit, each year on 6 March, a National Day of Tolerance is observed.
“In Iraq there is ethno-religious diversity,” said Youkhana. "We have Muslims—Shias and Sunnis—and different Christian families—Orthodox, Catholics, Church of the East; we have Yazidis, Jewish communities, Mandaeans, Zoroastians, Baha'is and Kaka’is.”
Ethnically and linguistically, Iraq also has Arabs, Kurds, Assyrians, Turkmen, and Armenians. “However, this diversity, if it is not managed correctly—it can cause conflict,” said Youkhana. “Bringing people together for gatherings like today, particularly if it is publicised in the media, helps us to raise awareness and highlight the fact that Iraq is a country that embraces diversity since thousands of years”.”
Unfortunately, he added, Iraqis go through school and college at every level without seeing one word on this diversity in the curriculum—and there's nothing in the news, or even in other media channels.
“WCC is very much involved in this process, not only with important statements and communications, but on the ground,” said Youkhana. “There is this ecumenical support for convening gatherings and events like this, to look at curriculum, to look at legislation.”
Fr Antoine Al Ahmar, from Beirut's Theological Department of the Middle East Council of Churches, observed that the “Living Together” meeting is a celebration. “We saw with our own eyes what diversity means, what diversity is in Iraq,” he said. “It is a unique meeting, to see all this religious and ethnic diversity all in one place—it makes it visible as a whole.”
He also reflected that, while Iraq is mainly perceived as a Muslim country, the most ancient faith and cultures are Yazidi and Kaka’i, for example, as they precede Islam by many hundreds of years in Iraq. “There are several very deeply rooted religions in Iraq,” he said. "For those groups, to have little recognition is a problem.”
A speaker from the Kaka'i community shared that the community doesn’t even “officially” exist—even though they are the most ancient of religions.
As a Zoroastrian spoke during the gathering, he said that they are also not recognised legally in a country where they are Indigenous, and where they have two thousand years of history. He said it is time to change that and that this platform offers the safe space to share these issues with the government”
“The constitution and law of the country doesn't guarantee equality for everyone,” expressed Al Ahmar with concern. “The educational curriculum doesn't even mention the existence of minority groups.”
Carla Khijoyan, WCC programme executive for the Middle East and the coordinator of the projects in Iraq, said that recognising and protecting diversity is at the heart of peace and security in Iraq. “Until we make sure that all citizens of this country are equally respected and considered in all aspects of life we will continue to have conflicts—while we have one group that is excluded we will never reach peace. Safety and security are collective realities. They can never be achieved for one group alone”.
Khijoyan reiterated that the WCC’s role with the “Living Together” event is to support and accompany its member churches. “The message of our member churches in Iraq is that they cannot live in safety and prosperity until all religious, cultural and ethnic groups in Iraq are recognized as equal citizens and have access to living in dignity” she said.