Iran’s furtive occupation of Iraq’s Christian communities

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Will the Middle East’s shattered Christian villages, towns and cities somehow retain their religious and cultural heritage – which dates back to the first century?
By Lela Gilbert
A SECURITY forces member stands atop a church in Bartella. (photo credit: REUTERS)
Will the Middle East’s shattered Christian villages, towns and cities somehow retain their religious and cultural heritage – which dates back to the first century?

No one knows for sure, but due to Iranian aspirations, the answer is far from encouraging. In November 2014, I visited the devastated survivors of Islamic State’s genocide who were sheltering in Erbil, Kurdistan (Iraq). I heard personal accounts of the horrifying night – just three months before – when ISIS surged into neighborhoods, forced their way into houses, confiscated cash and jewelry, stripped residents of passports, deeds, even bottled water and forced them out of town.

Those who resisted were shot; some women and girls were raped and kidnapped. Thousands of Christians walked for miles. Those who survived the ordeal found their way to Erbil.

That’s where I caught up with them. When I arrived, countless evacuees languished in abandoned buildings, tent cities and vacant, unheated rooms in churches and schools where they were barely surviving.

Some of them cherished hopes of starting over in distant lands, far removed from the fears of violence that haunted Iraq. Others yearned to return to their homes and churches in their ancestral Christian heartland.

But as summer turned to autumn and the night wind blew cold, it became increasingly clear that whatever hopes those heartsick escapees cherished, their dreams of returning to their ISIS-occupied homes anytime soon had crumbled into dust.

In November 2016, two years after my visit to Iraq, I video-interviewed Fr. Benham Benoka, a Syriac Catholic priest from the Christian town of Bartella. By then, Bartella had been liberated from ISIS, but Benham remained in Erbil.

“Bartella is liberated, but not free,” he told me.

Along with a handful of other displaced residents, he had recently managed to reenter Bartella, escorted by Iraqi soldiers. He explained that large portions of the town were beyond repair. ISIS had looted private residences, then demolished them with explosives. They had left building after building booby-trapped. Roadways were rife with IEDs.

“ISIS has excellent technology,” Benoka told me. “They mined everything. Even Bibles.” During his visit, he made his way to St. George Assyrian Church, his spiritual home and that of a sizeable portion of Bartella’s Christian community.

ISIS had all but destroyed St. George’s interior. Bibles and New Testaments from the 14th, 15th and 16th centuries were ripped up, burned or otherwise desecrated. Perhaps most disturbing was a noose, hanging ominously in the church’s courtyard, just inside the entryway. It bore mute witness to the demise of a Christian welcome center that had been transformed into an Islamist execution site.I asked Benoka how he’d felt when he entered Bartella a few days before. He paused. “I felt insecure,” he finally replied. “I was so disappointed. I kept thinking, What can we do?” Clearly discouraged, he shook his head again and concluded, “And who will help us?”

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Benoka has since returned to Bartella. But, sadly, his concerns about his hometown’s future have proved to be well-founded. One of his primary worries was about security for returning Christians. Today, although ISIS is no longer present, another formidable armed force occupies Bartella and the surrounding “liberated” communities. And those armed men are no friends of Christians.

On February 18, Asia News reported, “There is no peace for Christians in northern Iraq… The epicenter of this new chapter of anti-Christian persecution is Bartella, increasingly draped with banners depicting the militia battles against ISIS as well as saints and sacred figures of the Shia tradition…”

The major Christian towns of Qaraqosh, Bartella and Karamles are now supposedly under the control of the Iraqi army, but the military force that is actually occupying them, locally called Shabak, is an Iran-funded Shia militia. In fact, my colleague Michael Pregent, military intelligence analyst at Hudson Institute, reports that it is under the command of Iran’s Quds extraterritorial force and its infamous general, Qasem Soleimani.

The tentacles of the Iranian ayatollahs’ acolytes are coiled around the Christian communities in Iraq’s Nineveh Plains and well beyond, and they are tightening their grip. Flags bearing Shia religious slogans and photos of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei flutter and sway in plain view.

A British priest, Fr. Benedict Kiely – founder of, a charity assisting persecuted Christians – recently returned from Bartella. I asked him about the militia that the Christian community faces there.

“They are certainly intimidating Christians. The most notorious incident was a shooting at St. George’s Church in Bartella before Christmas. In that case, a pistol was put in the face of the pastor, Benoka. He has said that the Shabak Shia militia are ‘the new ISIS,’ although thankfully, there’s been no killing yet.”

Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s expansive agenda couldn’t be clearer. And the IRGC is actively pursuing it – not only in Iraq, but also in Yemen, Afghanistan, Syria, Lebanon and Gaza. For years, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has tirelessly warned the world about Iran’s global ambitions and nuclear intentions.

Meanwhile, the future of Iraq’s Christian communities hangs precariously in the balance. In reality, by most accounts, the once-bright hope of their continuing presence in the Middle East grows dimmer every day.

As Benoka aptly asked, “Who will help us?”

When it comes to security, silence is the answer.

The writer is a fellow at the Hudson Institute; the author of Saturday People, Sunday People: Israel Through the Eyes of a Christian Sojourner; and co-author of Persecuted: The Global Assault on Christians.