On June 12, 2019, API Director Reine Hanna attended a meeting of the Working Group on Christians and Religious Pluralism in the Middle East that included a briefing from Lara Yousif Zara who was illegally installed as mayor of Alqosh Subdistrict in Nineveh Governorate, Iraq in 2017. The Working Group is a bi-partisan, multi-faith project of the Hudson Institute's Center for Religious Freedom in Washington, DC.
Lara Yousif Zara was accompanied by representatives of the Kurdistan Regional Government Mission in the United States. She spoke on the latest developments in Alqosh and the wider Nineveh Plain, discussing matters related to security, rehabilitation, and repatriation of internally-displaced peoples. She praised the Kurdistan Regional Government and the Peshmerga for their treatment of marginalized communities and called for the implementation of Article 140 to settle the status of the Nineveh Plain.
"If you want to support Christians [in Iraq]," Zara said, "then support Kurdistan."
Following the briefing, Hanna delivered the following statement on behalf of the API:
To have an honest dialogue here, we must address the major issue that threatens to undermine the very basis of today’s event.
Lara Yousif Zara is part of an illegal and violent occupation of the Nineveh Plain. This statement is based on extensive testimony and evidence accumulated by API and others. According to the 2017 US State Department Religious Freedom Report:
“In July [of 2017], Christian civil society organizations reported the Assyrian Christian mayors of Al Qosh and Tel Kayf were replaced, reportedly due to corruption, with KDP members who were also Christian. At the direction of the [new] mayor, [Kurdish] security forces in Alqosh arrested and threatened a group who publicly protested this decision. Christian groups stated this was part of a ‘Kurdization’ of their towns.”
The previous mayor of Alqosh was dismissed by the KDP-controlled Nineveh Provincial Council. According to the Washington Institute, 31 of the council’s 41 members are part of the Kurdish bloc. Lara Yousif Zara, herself a member of the KDP, was then appointed by the Alqosh Sub-District Council which also has a KDP majority.
The charges against the previous mayor of Alqosh were later dismissed by a federal court in Baghdad. Ms. Zara unsuccessfully appealed the decision. The former mayor was subsequently detained by Kurdish Asayish at an unknown location where he was assaulted and threatened against returning to office.
Hundreds of Alqosh residents—a significant portion of the town’s small population in the low thousands—staged three separate protests against the KDP’s forced installation of a new mayor, which they view as the latest step in a chronic process of conquest and subjugation by the KDP. As documented by the State Department, many protestors were threatened with violence by KDP officials. Our organization has received and verified numerous reports of arbitrary detentions and assaults made against local residents by representatives and associates of Lara Yousif Zara. Violent expansion and repression is the only way that the KRG can achieve its long-standing goal of unilateral annexation of the Nineveh Plain.
We are deeply disappointed and concerned that the US government continues to legitimize a violent occupation. Ms. Zara’s invitation to Washington is based exclusively on the premise that she represents the citizens of Alqosh, which she in fact does not. Treating Ms. Zara as a legitimate representative only encourages the KDP in their pursuit of conquest and repression. This is not merely our position as an organization; far more importantly, it is the position of the people of Alqosh. The proud inhabitants of this ancient Assyrian town were partners with the US in advancing the end of Saddam Hussein’s tyranny in Iraq in 2003. With great anxiety, they are now observing the US government, which they acknowledge as a beacon of democracy, hosting a figure who is violently suppressing their own democratic rights and threatening their very presence in Iraq.
Zara responded to the statement by claiming that she was lawfully elected by the subdistrict council, and that the API's analysis was not based on fact. She also claimed that the demonstrations held in Alqosh between July and August 2017 were unrelated to her installation as Mayor of Alqosh, stating that she respects the right to protest.
Hanna also distributed copies of this document to all participants of the Working Group.