Iraqi Christians take up arms

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Alongside Kurds and Shiites, Christian units are now also fighting against IS in Iraq. But Christians are forced to coordinate their efforts with the Kurds and the Iraqi government, both of which pursue their own goals.
Ein Dorf kämpft gegen den IS

There’s no end to the news of atrocities committed by the terrorist militia “Islamic State” (IS) against Christians and members of other religions. The Sunni extremist group burns down churches – and kills, abducts or drives out tens of thousands of people.

Now more and more Christians in Iraq are ready to take up arms and join the newly founded militias for their own religion. They want to recapture their villages and towns. They also do not want to rely on the central government in Baghdad or the Kurdistan Regional Government in Erbil to do their fighting for them.

According to Saad Salloum, a political scientist at Mustansiriya University in Baghdad, the emergence of Christian militias is part of a broader trend. Everyone in the war-torn country is now armed, Salloum writes on the Middle East website “Al-Monitor.” More and more Christians are thus giving up their longstanding policy of non-involvement. The trigger for this, he wrote, was the rise of the IS extremists in 2014.

But Christian self-defense units in Iraq are not a new phenomenon to Kamal Sido, Iraq expert at the Society for Threatened Peoples. “After the American invasion in 2003 there were repeated attacks on churches,” Sido said. Although IS did not yet exist, extremists were already attacking Christian places of worship. The state’s authority in the country, he said, largely collapsed after the US-led invasion.

Irak Kurden Flüchtlinge in einer Kirche in Irbil Iraqi Christians face increasing persecution, especially following the rise of the “Islamic State” terror group

Christians feeling cornered

Once about 1.5 million Christians lived along the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. Before the ongoing civil war, hundreds of thousands fled abroad or to other parts of the country. Those who escaped Baghdad or Basra in the south of the country in an earlier phase of the war sought refuge in Mosul or the Nineveh Plain. But now IS fighters are in control there. Many Christians then fled to Dohuk and other cities in the Kurdish north. “If these places also come under attack, where to then?” Sido asked.

That’s something many Christians do not want to wait for. They can’t rely on the weak army of the central government in Baghdad. And many mistrust the Kurdish peshmerga fighters. Several Christian combat units have thus emerged since 2014 such as the “Babylon Brigade,” the “Ninevah Plain Force” and “Dwekh Nawsha,” which in the old Christian Aramaic language means “one who sacrifices.” Each now has several hundred men under arms.

Too weak to fight alone

These militias have three options, according to Salloum: They can fight under the control of the Kurds, they can fight for the central government – or they can try to act on their own with international backing. The last option hardly seems realistic; the small militias are too weak. But if they bind themselves too tightly to Baghdad or Erbil, they could get pulled into the power struggle between the Kurdish regional government and the Shiite Arab-dominated central government. Baghdad wants to keep the oil-rich Kurdish north under its control, but the Kurds want to manage their own affairs.

Irak Gewalt gegen Christen Iraqi churches have needed protection from extremist attacks since 2003

The Christians straddle the fence and are themselves divided. The “Babylon Brigade” is allied with Shiite militias. Rayan al-Kaldani of the brigade says its main goal is to liberate Mosul. The unit took part in battles for the Sunni stronghold of Tikrit and in the province of Salahuddin. In contrast, “Dwekh Nawsha” and the “Ninevah Plain Force” cooperate with the peshmerga.

The Kurdish-Arab struggle for power is not the only problem for Christians – so is their own sectarianism. There are Chaldean, Aramaic and Assyrian churches along with many others.

“Even among Christians, there are different points of view. This is a tragedy in the fight against Islamic State,” Sido complains. He urges unity – among Christians as well as among Iraqis.

“Neither the regional government in Iraqi Kurdistan, nor the central government in Baghdad can be allowed to settle their dispute on the backs of Christians,” he said. He said he welcomes the fact that the Kurds want to strengthen the inclusion of Christian associations, political parties and churches in their policies. That, he said, creates trust.

Criticism of sectarian militias

“The Iraqi Christians have the right to self-defense,” the head of the Chaldean Church, Patriarch Louis Sako, said in an interview with “Al-Monitor.” “However, the state, which is responsible for the protection and security of its citizens, should be responsible for this.” Militias drawn solely on ethnic or religious lines would destroy the country, he said.

Salloum agrees this concern is well founded. If each group continues to rely only on its own fighting forces, the gulf between Arabs and Kurds, and between Sunnis, Shiites, Christians and Yazidis, will grow even deeper, he said. And that ultimately plays into the hands of the Sunni extremists of the “Islamic State.”

Sido is also aware of this risk, but sees no alternative to Christians’ participation in the fight against IS. “Everyone must oppose these Islamists,” he said.