Christians driven from homes in Iraqi Kurdistan by Turkish offensive

At least five Iraqi civilians have been killed since Ankara began its operations against PKK militants

A Turkish F-16 fighter jet approaches the tarmac of Incirlik airbase in the southern Turkish city of Adana July 4, 2012. Turkey's armed forces command said on Wednesday it had found the bodies of both pilots of an F-4 jet shot down by Syria last month and was trying to retrieve them from the seabed. Relations between Ankara and Damascus hit a new low after Syria shot down the Turkish reconnaissance plane over the Mediterranean on June 22, prompting a sharp rebuke from Turkey, which said it would respond "decisively". REUTERS/Umit Bektas (TURKEY - Tags: POLITICS MILITARY)
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Turkey's ground and air offensive against Kurdish militants in northern Iraq has forced hundreds of Christians and other minorities to flee their villages in recent weeks.

Turkish air strikes and shelling destroyed large areas of forest and countryside in Duhok province of Iraq's autonomous Kurdistan region, residents and officials told The National.

At least five Iraqi civilians have been killed and more than two dozen wounded since Turkey launched its campaign against fighters of the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) on June 17.

The armed group has been fighting the Turkish state since 1984 for more cultural and political rights for Kurds. At one point the group wanted an independent state in the Kurdish areas in south-east Turkey.

The PKK maintains bases in a mountainous triangular area of northern Iraq between its borders with Turkey and Iran.

But Iraqi minorities say Turkey's Operation Claw-Eagle air campaign and Claw-Tiger ground offensive affected areas with no PKK presence and drove residents out of their ancestral homelands.

"Turkey bombs the Christian villages under the pretext of the existence of PKK militants, but currently there are no PKK militants in our area," a Chaldean Catholic from the village of Sharanish said.

“We have left our orchards and villages due to the Turkish shelling and we are now living in Zakho district, 50 kilometres north-west of Duhok.

“We left our church in Sharanish village behind us, the village is empty now, and most of our plantations were burnt due to the Turkish bombings."

There were almost 320,000 Christians living in Iraqi Kurdistan, according to an estimate in 2015, but many have since fled abroad to escape increasing threats from ISIS and Turkish bombardments.

In Duhok province there are 12 majority Christian villages and almost all were evacuated because of continuing Turkish military offensives against PKK fighters.

A Chaldean priest in Zakho district said residents of the mountainous region suffered Turkish bombardment for "several years" but it had now intensified.

“The recent attacks were very fierce and are continuing. Fortunately there were no casualties, but they caused panic among women and children,” he said.

"We call on the Turkish government, the Kurdistan Regional Government, the UN and member states of the global coalition against ISIS to work to immediately stop these attacks on Christian, Yazidi and Muslim villagers.

"Christians need an international protection, especially Christian villages in Zakho and its surroundings.”

Although Turkey said its offensive was aimed at the PKK, which is considered a terrorist organisation by Ankara, the US and the EU, observers have questioned its goals.

A senior official at the US Commission on International Religious Freedom said it was “concerned with Turkey's air strikes near civilian areas, especially on those Christians and Yazidis who have already been victims of genocide”.

"It seems these strikes have more to do with Turkey's regional ambitions than they have to do with security," said Nadine Maenza, vice chairwoman of the commission.

The Turkish presidency's twitter account recently posted a map showing Turkish military bases from 1995 and newer Turkish military bases in northern Iraq. The map also showed a "safe zone" that Turkey proposed to create that covered large areas of Iraqi Kurdistan territory.

The tweet was deleted after criticism from Iraqi Kurdish officials and the central government in Baghdad.

Iraq has formally opposed Turkey's military campaign and the presence of Turkish troops in its territory.

Turkey claims its operations in the country are legitimate because PKK fighters are launching attacks on Turkish forces from Iraqi territory.

Ankara blamed both the Kurdistan Regional Government and the Iraqi federal government for failing to expel PKK fighters from Iraq.

Christian civilians said they rejected the incursions by Turkey and Iran.

Christians say Iranian forces shell border areas in Iraqi Kurdistan claiming it is targeting bases of the Iranian Kurdish opposition parties, but often strike villages.

They say the Iraqi prime minister and president have a constitutional duty to protect the country’s borders and sovereignty.

"People of 16 villages, including Christians, cannot return to their homes within my area to collect their agricultural products, since the villages are located beyond Turkey's newly established barriers," Zeravan Musa, head of the Darkar subdistrict in Zakho, said.

“Turkey intensively bombed our areas from June 18, causing anxiety and panic among citizens. We ask both Turkey and the PKK to halt their war.”

Hawraman Gachenay, head of the endowment and religious affairs committee in the Kurdistan parliament, said criticised the displacement of civilians from all religious backgrounds.

"Displacing the Christians is an inhumane and bad action," he said.