The Catholic University of America

Middle East Religious Freedom Project 

                                                           Mar Mattai Monastery and the Nineveh Plain, Nineveh Governorate, Iraq

The Middle East Religious Freedom Project
has been working to support religious freedom in the Middle East and North Africa since 2002. Our "Abrahamic Dialogues", which began in 2003, bring together the best minds in the Christian, Jewish and Muslim communities of the Middle East, the United States and Europe for discussions on legal and moral issues of practical importance.  Our Middle East Dialogue Series brings noted scholars from the United States and the Middle East to the CUA campus for lectures and individual study.  As the first and only international religious freedom effort entirely focused on th
e unique challenges facing religious minorities in the Middle East, North Africa and South Asia our scholars, students and alumni bring a unique perspective and understanding to domestic and international discussions of religious freedom

As the law school of The Catholic University of America, we are particularly concerned about the safety, seucrity and survival of the ancient Christian communities of the MENA region.  In our experience, most Christians in the West do not know much about the demographics of these Christian communities, their history and traditions, or the multi-faceted ways in which they have lived and interacted with their Muslim, Jewish, Zoroastrian, Hindu and other neighbors.

The Iraqi Kurdistan Religious Freedom Project has been actively involved since 2011 with these communities and building bridges between and among the Christian communities of the West and their counterparts in the Middle East.  The project began with a June 2011 fact-finding trip to the Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KRI), and has continued with an intensive survey of the Christian communities of the region with mapping and data analysis, an international conference of top scholars and analysts, and ongoing efforts to organize visits to the KRI by American religious leaders, professionals and policy-makers.  Since 2014, CUA Law has joined with the Knights of Columbus and In Defense of Christians and partners in Europe and Australia  to develop policies and strategies designed to prevent and punish the ongoing genocide being committed against Christians, Yazidis, Shia Muslims and other religious minorities around the world.  The Iraqi Kurdistan Religious Freedom Project is co-directed by Prof. Robert Destro and Carole A. O'Leary, Ph.D.

Activities include:

On March 9, 2016, the Knights of Columbus and In Defense of Christians asked the Obama Administration to ‘[a]cknowledge the ongoing genocide of Christians, Yazidis, and other religious groups being targeted for extinction in the territories controlled or attacked by the “Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham” (hereinafter “ISIS”) and its affiliates.”  The formal petition, entitled “Genocide against Christians in the Middle East”, was co-authored by CUA Law Professor Robert Destro, L. Martin Nussbaum, and Ian Speir, with the assistance of several CUA Law alumni.  The Petition includes thousands of signatures from concernd individuals from around the world and is supported by a database that includes the names of over 1,000 victims and statements by witnesses and victims in Iraq.
Read more about CUA Law's anti-genocide efforts. (forthcoming)

Religious Liberty in Iraqi Kurdistan:
An Introduction

In February 2012, Bishop Rabban Al-Qas of Duhok and Amadiiyah, and Minister Falah Mustafa  Bakir, head of the KRG's department of foreign relations, spoke as part of the law school's  Middle East Religious Dialogue Series.  



Video of the remarks: introduction at 0:14,
Bishop Rabban beginning at 4:40, and
Minister Falah M. Bakir beginning at 24:25. 

American Christian Leaders Delegation 2012

In November 2012, Cardinal Theodore McCarrick headed a most distinguished delegation of American Christian leaders to Iraqi Kurdistan. Accompanied by longtime Kurdish observer Carole O'Leary, the delegation visited representatives of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), including regional President Masoud Barzani  and Chaldean Archbishop Bashar Warda, to better understand the situation first-hand. Cardinal McCarrick was joined by Legate of the Armenian Church, Archbishop Vicken Aykazian; James Kowalski, Dean of St John the Divine Episcopal Church (New York); and Mr. A. Larry Ross, advisor to leading American Evangelicals.
Itinerary and Agenda.

Update – September 2014:
ISIS/ISIL and Refugees in Iraqi Kurdistan

Chaldean Archbishop of Erbil, His Excellency Bashar Matti Warda, was a host of the 2012 delegation to Erbil and offered remarks at the 2012 conference in Washington.

In September 2014, after the spread of ISIS/ISIL to northern Iraq, Archbishop Warda offered an update on the situation of religious minorities and all refugees in the Kurdistan Region.  The video is eight (8) minutes long.

Update – November 2014:
Round table on Current Status and Urgent Needs of Refugees and IDPs in Kurdistan Region of Iraq

Jiyan Merani, founder (1999) and director of the Ronahee Foundation in Erbil, will lead a round table discussion on the status of the various refugee populations, and a summary of a needs assessment she and her team recently conducted.

Of particular importance is the set of critical issues regarding the fast-approaching winter weather.  The round table will be at The Catholic University of America's Columbus School of Law, Wednesday, Novermber 12, 10:30am-12noon.

More information at 


Mapping and Survey Data

Between November 2011 and April 2012, Michael Moran Associates, under the drection of Richard Michael, Wijnand Langeraar, and Carole O'Leary, carried out surveys and mapping of all known Christian communities in the three governorates comprising the Iraqi Kurdistan Region. Our 2012 survey is thought to be the most complete survey of Christian communities in Iraqi Kurdistan undertaken since 2000.  In addition to household data, the MMA team collected information on internally-displaced persons (IDPs) living in Iraqi Kurdistan prior to the rise of ISIS, as well as on the migration of Christians from rural to urban areas within the region.  A brief description is here; full data and analysis is on

The genocide of Christians, Yazdis, Sunni and Shia Muslims and other relligious minorities highilights the need for both additional survey data and for the collection and preservation of the forensic evidence and witness statements that will be needed to document these crimes. 

Conference on the Status of Christian Communities in Iraqi Kurdistan 2012

In December 2012, The Catholic University of America hosted a conference in Washington, D.C., at the new headquarters of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom.   The Status of the Christian Communities in Iraqi Kurdistan" brought together leading historians of  Christianity in the Middle East, constitutional scholars on land, oil, and religious freedom,  demographers of Christian populations on the move, American Christian leaders reflecting on  their recent visit, inside-the-Beltway policy analysts and advisors, and a message from His   Excellency Bashir Matti Warda, Chaldean Archbishop of Erbil, Iraq.

Conference panels on YouTube.

Is Kurdistan an Iraqi Success Story? 

Op-ed in the Washington Post, March 21, 2013, by Robert Destro and Larry Ross.

Today, the KRI’s Christians live peacefully among their Muslim neighbors. Though scarred by war, Kurds and their children are optimistic about their future. It is now time to claim that victory and to take on a different role – to help them build a better future for themselves and their children.

Update - September 2015:
Bishop Rabban Al-Qas Mission to Washington

His Excellency Rabban Al-Qas, Chaldean Catholic bishop of Zahko and Amadiya, traveled to Washington to meet with a number of clerical, academic, and government officials.  His schedule included Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom David N. Saperstein, KRG Representative Bayan Sami Abdul Rahman, leadership at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, and faculty at Catholic University. 

Below, Bishop Rabban and Dr. Robin Darling Young discuss items from the special exhibit of Syriac manuscripts at Catholic University's  John K. Mullen Library.