The Iraqi Christians fighting ISIS

From the Catholic Herald.

Earlier this month allied forces in Iraq scored a spectacular victory when they drove the Islamic State out of the village of Badanah in the north of the country. Good news, one might think, except that what made this noteworthy was that for the first time in many years it was a Christian army fighting.

As is fitting for a war often battled out on social media, the Nineveh Plains Protection Units (NPU) announced their victory on Facebook: ‘Liberation of Badanah village in #Khazer axis by NPU warriors with the support of international coalition by airstrikes.’ Badanah was one of many formerly Assyrian Christian villages that had been overrun by the jihadis two summers ago, and NPU commander Bahnam Abush said after the victory that it was ‘a step towards restoration of their confidence and hopes for Christians to stay in the land of their grandparents’.

It was the NPU’s first major military operation against the infamous terror organisation who have made torture and murder a theatre piece of the grotesque, and the fight was intensely personal. As the Islamic State of Iraq the group were responsible for one of the worst atrocities of recent years, the 2010 Baghdad church massacre in which 52 innocent people were gunned down. Since then, and evolving into the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, or ISIS) in Syria’s brutal war, they have expanded to control territory the size of Great Britain. Two years ago came the summer of Calvary for Iraq’s Christians; after ISIS took the country’s second city Mosul from an Iraqi army force 40 times as large, then stormed through the neighbouring Nineveh Plains and forced over 125,000 Christians to leave, as well as Yazidis, Shabaks and other minority groups, many of whom starved in the mountains.

As the black-clad jihadis swarmed in, churches were burned down and Christian homes were dubbed with the Arabic equivalent of N, for Nazarene, a particularly chilling historic echo. Iraq’s Christians lived a real-life passion, living as refugees without homes or heat or food facing the country’s merciless winter. Many moved to Kurdish-controlled territory, especially the Irbil suburb of Ankawa; many others joined the western Diaspora that began with the 1915 genocide.

It was the culmination of eleven years of horror, when over 1,000 of the faithful were murdered in Iraq and 60 churches bombed, with the country’s Christian population falling by two-thirds to barely 250,000. A UN-sponsored report this year, No Way Home: Iraq’s Minorities on the Verge of Disappearance, gave in gruesome details the horrors committed against Christians, including one Mosul mother forced to ‘marry’ a number of ISIS terrorist who raped and then ‘divorced’ her.

Yet out of this ordeal has come hope. The NPU, funded and aided by Assyrians in the US, Australia and Europe, with the support of friends and sympathisers, has begun to make progress not just in destroying ISIS but in securing the future.

The Assyrian Christians have a strong martial history; they fought with the British in two world wars, but in post-independence Iraq have always played a peaceful role. When the units were founded the men wore old uniforms and didn’t have enough guns to go around; most were not experienced soldiers. The NPU now has 1,000 troops, undergoing training and working with the Baghdad government and Kurdish Peshmerga.

The Nineveh region was until 2014 the most heavily Christian part of Iraq; alongside them were various other groups who have lived here for hundreds of years in relative peace – the Yazidis, Shabaks and Turkomen as well Sunni Arabs. The patchwork of religions and ethnicities in the region makes the Balkans look ridiculously simple; it’s further complicated because Iraq’s Christians are broken down into six separate churches, and while some see themselves as a distinct ethnic groups, Assyrians or Chaldo-Assyrians, others, especially members of the Chaldean Catholic Church and those from the cities, regard themselves as Arab Christians. The Assyrians still speak the Aramaic that was once the language of all Iraq, and along with their Christian faith, and their link to the ancient monuments of Nineveh – like much else, partially destroyed by ISIS morons – it forms a core part of their identity. Unlike the Jews before them, if they are forced into exile their distinct self will disappear in the west.

Most Iraqi Christians now live in the Kurdish controlled region, and the NPU is fighting alongside Peshmerga, but most are suspicious of Kurdish designs on their homeland. Viewing themselves as the indigenous people of Iraq, and tracing their descent to the Assyrians of old – although their history and ethnic identity is a source of great dispute, the term ‘Assyrian’ first applied to them by the British – they do not want to be part of an almost inevitably independent Kurdistan. Before 2014 Assyrian politicians lobbied for a protected autonomous area, a ‘safe haven’ (the argument over the semantics is fierce) but it was largely opposed by the more powerful Kurds, and met with apathy in Baghdad and Washington.

This historical suspicion was confirmed in 2014 when Kurdish forces evacuated when ISIS arrived, leaving the Assyrians and Yezidis to their tender mercies. Despite this, and everything in the region is complicated, an estimated 1,500 Assyrians fight for the Peshmerga and another 500 in the Iraqi army regular units.

Gathering support in the west was something of a balancing act. Many Christians feel sympathy on religious grounds but the last thing Iraqis want is some hot heads starting the Tenth Crusade. There was, for example, the uncomfortable story of an Evangelical pastor in New York who gave $4,000 of his own money to buy the NPU ‘some AK-47 assault rifles, grenades, and rocket-propelled grenade launchers’. It’s probably not the sort of thing the Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales would approve of, one imagines.

Indeed many clerics have long opposed any Christian army or ‘safe haven’, among them Chaldean Archbishop Habib al-Naufaly of Basra who said that creating a Christian force would be a ‘disaster’ while Patriarch Louis Raphael I Sako said Christian militias were a ‘bad idea’ and that the US should not support ‘sectarian militia’. This led to a signed letter from a number of Iraqis arguing that most Assyrians groups in Iraq supported the NPU and pointing out that the group is officially recognised by the Iraqi government.

This is the belief of Yonadam Kanna, a veteran Iraqi politician who has survived an absurd number of assassination attempts (at the last count it was nine) over the years as a representative for the minority Assyrian Democratic Movement. ‘The NPU is not a militia,’ he says, ‘they are officially registered forces, an official unit registered at the Federal authorities…. all other Church leaders blessed the units, some of them visited the units in the main camp and met the commanders as well.’ The distinction is that a militia acts on its own behalf, and is not controlled by anyone, and therefore is unaccountable. However, he says ‘Our people lost the hope and trust of other forces, that is why they are welcoming their local volunteers to take care of the security in the Christian towns and villages after liberation from ISIS.’

The NPU explicitly do not want foreign fighters, Kanna says: ‘We have enough volunteers to be recruited at the time. ISIS is against all, not only against Christians, that is why you can’t say it is a religious war.’ The NPU also avoid wearing explicit Christian imagery, too; many wear the Iraqi flag and their leadership is mostly drawn from former Army officers, many of whom saw action in the utterly awful Iran-Iraq war.

The same is not true of another Iraqi Christian force, the Dwekh Nawsha, literally ‘the ones who sacrifice’ in Aramaic, which has attracted at least 26 western foreign fighters, including four Britons. There are also Christian militias fighting in Syria in that benighted country’s complex, four-sided civil war.

Jeff Gardner, Director of Operations at the Restore Nineveh Now Foundation, the US-based Assyrian Diaspora group which finances the NPU, says that while ‘their faith is important for them’ the Assyrians are keen not to encourage foreign fighters motivated by religion. Indeed various adventurre types turned up in Iraq hoping to battle ISIS and Restore Nineveh advised the NPU to avoid them: ‘We’re working with them to steer clear of foreign characters,’ says Gardner. ‘I get five or six emails a week from people who want to go and fight the Islamic State. My advice to them is that it is illegal and don’t go.’

He also says that the Dwekh Nawsha has in reality made little impact except in publicity: ‘They’re product of the Kurdish regional government and small in number and their has never risen above 30. They have no funding, they are not an effective fighting force, the Kurdish Regional Government have set them up for show, and made no effort to fund them. They attract and then repel foreign fighters because they don’t do anything.’

The tales of westerners going off to fight for a Christian minority has a certain Byronesque romance, but the reality perhaps does not match it. More effective has been lobbying by Christian sympathisers such as Representative Frank Wolf, for State Department policy has gone from quite explicitly ignoring the Assyrians to support. (It helps that Baghdad is supportive of the Assyrians as a counter-foil to Kurdish expansion.)

Gardner says: ‘They’re [NPU] receiving help and support from American forces. It was a matter of patience on our part and taking the longer view, but it’s in the best interest of the US and Europe to support the Assyrians. In the Middle East there are distinct peoples who have distinct customs and they want greater ethnic and regional autonomy, the teaching of native languages, their own schools and freedom to worship. If we look beyond the noise of war this is what the Middle East needs.’ His organisation envisages that Iraq will inevitably become some sort of federation with greater local autonomy, and he wants Assyrians and Yazidis to be included in that, perhaps sharing a province. Meanwhile a bill passing through Congress is explicitly calling for US support for ‘local security forces, including ethnic and religious minority groups, with a national security mission’.

Nina Shea, director of the Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom, urges caution, saying ‘it’s a struggle to fort up in the midst of the war. These are raw recruits, not battle hardened like the jihadists. They lack the modern weapons and air cover required for winning another Isis-style onslaught. There are no natural defences in the Plains. And there’s not enough of them — a few thousand. They won’t be able to defend Nineveh from attacks by sleeper cells in Mosul – Qaraqosh, the largest Christian city, is only 20 miles away. Whoever does, will rule Nineveh.’

There are huge obstacles ahead, and right now Assyrian forces find themselves along the 600 mile line separating ISIS’s caliphate from Kurdish controlled territory. An all-out assault on Mosul and the Nineveh Plains is expected soon, and much of the future will depend on whose boots are on the ground. Gardner, meanwhile, looks to the future, in particular investing in business and getting people working again, and perhaps just as importantly some sort of process of truth and reconciliation. More than ever there should be a role for Christians in that tragic country.

This is a longer version of the article appearing in the current issue.


What do you think?