Kurdistan Region President Massoud Barzani (L) with Italian Foreign Minister Federica Mogherini in Rome. Photo: KRP
ERBIL, Kurdistan Region - Kurdistan Region President Massoud Barzani held separate meetings with Pope Francis and Italian Foreign Minister Federica Mogherini, the talks centering around bilateral ties, the situation in Iraq and Syria and the plight of tens of thousands of Christian refugees in Kurdistan.
The highlight of the Kurdish president’s meetings was the official respect both the Vatican and Rome paid to the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG): At both meetings, the Kurdish flag was displayed alongside the Iraqi flag.
"Putting the Kurdistan flag is a message for the people of Kurdistan that the outside world understands the status of the Kurdistan Region,” said Fuad Hussein, Barzani’s chief of staff, in an interview with Rudaw from Rome.
“It’s the recognition of the identity of Kurdistan’s people and the legal identity of the people of Kurdistan," Hussein said.
Barzani’s meeting with the Pope, his first, comes at a time when the Vatican is looking at ways to make Christians stay in Iraq, despite sectarian violent attacks that have forced an exodus and dwindled numbers.
Vatican Radio said the head of the Roman Catholic Church received Barzani and his accompanying delegation, but it did not give information about the audience.
Kurdistan, the only stable region in Iraq, has become a safe haven for some 30,000 Christians, but they still face linguistic and cultural barriers, and lack economic security.
Mogherini said her meeting with Barzani had focused on “mutual relations and the future of the Middle East, in particular Syria and the refugee crisis."
According to the minister, Italy has 400 investment projects in the Kurdistan Region, and is eager to strengthen relations further. "Our relations in economy and trade are very good. We are seeking to improve our relations even more in the future," Mogherini added.
Falah Mustafa, head of Kurdistan’s Department of Foreign Relations (DFR), also noted the Italian interest in the Kurdistan Region.
“They are very hopeful about Kurdistan, and they are eager to develop relations with the Kurdistan Region,” he said from Rome.
Kurdish officials say that, internationally, there is growing interest in the Kurdistan Region, and that the attitude of foreign officials towards Kurdistan has changed.
"What we feel is that, on personal and professional level, these trips by the president and prime minister of the Kurdistan Region are different from the previous ones,” Mustafa said. “The International community’s reading for Kurdistan is different; the readiness of the international community to further listen to us is different."
Barzani has been on a tour of the European Union for the last several days, stopping in France before arriving in Italy. His visit comes as relations between Erbil and Baghdad have plummeted over Kurdish oil exports and budget payments.
Hussein said that the strengthening of the KRG's relations would be helpful in the future, when Kurdistan makes its own decision about its future status in Iraq.
According to Hussein a major part of the talks centered on the current situation in Iraq, formation of the next government and potential Kurdish steps toward a possible referendum over independence.