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Battered Christian communities in Iraq face Iranian-backed militias

Despite the defeat of the Islamic State, Iraqi Christians have yet to recover from the genocidal campaign waged by the jihadist army. And the future of the ancient Christian community remains uncertain.

According to Aid to the Church in Need, a Christian nongovernmental organization (NGO) that assists persecuted Christians around the world, the Christian community in Iraq remains in a “precarious position” in the aftermath of the genocide and ongoing religious persecution.

“Northern Iraq, particularly the Nineveh Plains, is the hub of Christianity in Iraq. However, there are some Christians scattered throughout Baghdad and the south of the country,” the United Kingdom office of ACN stated in an email.

Earlier this year, Open Doors, a Christian nongovernmental organization that monitors religious freedom and advocates on behalf of the persecuted church, released its World Watch List 2019, ranking the 50 most oppressive countries for Christians. Iraq is ranked 13th on the list.

“In Iraq, the territorial defeat of ISIS reduced the level of persecution across the country,” notes the report. “However, threats from extremist groups make it difficult for returning Christians to feel safe and secure.”

Congressional hearing

A U.S. Congressional hearing on the state of religious minorities in Iraq was held on Sept. 26, 2019 in Washington, D.C. The hearing was conducted by the U.S. Commission on International Religious (USCIRF).

The purpose of the Congressional hearing was to determine if the situation in Iraq has improved enough to permit persecuted groups to return to their homes and survive.

A representative of the Assyrian Policy Institute appeared before the Congressional hearing to outline the challenges faced by the ancient Christian group’s plight in Iraq. “Assyrians have endured profound discrimination and targeted violence, both for their Christian faith as well as their distinct ethnic identity, rooted in the ancient history of Iraq,” testified Reine Hanna.

“Prior to 2003, the Assyrian population in Iraq was approximately 1.5 million,” testified Reine Hanna. “Today, that number has dropped to less than 200,000.”

In March of 2016, continued Hanna, “the Obama administration declared that ISIS had committed genocide against various groups including Assyrians.” But even before the ISIS onslaught, the Assyrians had endured terrible persecution, leaving the ancient group on the brink of oblivion.

“Weeks before the ISIS advance into the Nineveh Plain, KRG security forces forcibly disarmed local Assyrians, pledging to defend the population in case of an attack,” Hanna told the hearing. “But when ISIS approached, KRG Peshmerga forces tactically withdrew from their posts at the last minute, without firing a single shot and without notifying the local populations.”

Similarly, the Yezidis were also abandoned by Kurdish forces as ISIS advanced across northern Iraq. “Perhaps the most haunting aspect of the events of 2014 in both Sinjar and the Nineveh Plain was not the straightforward evil of ISIS, but the fact that these communities were systematically rendered vulnerable to attack by the very government that was supposed to protect them,” stated the Assyrian Policy Institute representative.

“In the wake of these actions, described by both Assyrians and Yazidis as a betrayal, Assyrians formed a security force called the Nineveh Plain Protection Units—the NPU—signaling not only their desire to remain in their lands, but to have greater power over their future,” Hanna stated.

“Today, security in the Nineveh Plain remains divided between KRG Peshmerga forces, Iranian-backed militias known as Brigade 30 and Brigade 50, Iraqi Army forces, and the NPU,” Hanna testified. The region remains unstable as new threats emerge, such as Iranian-backed militias.

According to Hanna, “the NPU can serve as a bulwark against this threat to both locals and American interests.”

Iranian-backed militias

For Christians and other religious minorities, “lack of security remains the primary barrier to returns,” Hallam H. Ferguson, Senior Deputy Assistant Administrator of the Middle East Bureau of the U.S. Agency for International Development, told the Congressional hearing.

“Christian returns to towns like Batanaya and Telkaif have reached only one to two percent because of persecution by these militias,” Ferguson continued. “In Bartela, the Christian community is under siege by the 30th Brigade (one of the militas) that routinely resorts to anti-Christian rhetoric and puts up placards of Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khameni at entrances the town.”

While the U.S. government has applied sanctions against the leaders of these militias under the authority of the Magnitsky Act, “they continue to operate with impunity in many areas, with the authorities seemingly unable or unwilling to confront them,” Ferguson testified.

Rate of return

“The rate of Christian return in towns guarded by the NPU is comparably higher than those controlled by other forces,” Hanna testified. “In fact, it is greater than the number of Christian returnees in other Nineveh Plain towns combined.”

For example, Hanna said that in the town of Bakhdida, “approximately 35,000 Christian Assyrian inhabitants have returned—70% of the town’s original population—whereas in Tesqopa, which is controlled by KRG Peshmerga, the rate is roughly 20% and under Brigade 50 in Tel Keppe, the rate is 7%.”

However, Hanna said that despite the presence of the NPU, the security situation remains dangerous and the political status quo remains in place. “While the current level of US assistance to the Nineveh Plain is exceptional and essential, its impact is severely limited and undermined by the failure to resolve the security challenges in the region,” Hanna testified.

“The Iraqi Government and its international partners have a very short window to demonstrate that they have learned from the mistakes of the past and to commit to policies that advance real solutions,” concluded the Assyrian representative.

“In the Plains of Nineveh many of the villages are being occupied by Shia milititias,” reports the Barnabas Fund. And the NGO says that it is concerned about “the failure of the authorities” to protect the Christian villages.

Similarly, Aid to the Church in Need confirms that Christians “face a new threat in the form of Iranian-backed militia groups who entered Iraq to fight Daesh.” One such group, known as Hashd, joined the battle against ISIS and is now entrenched in the northern city of Mosul, once home to tens of thousands of Christians. According to ACN, Hashd is funded by Iran and is “accused of causing more problems for Christians than they solve.”

According to the Barnabas Fund, “Christians remain at high risk” in Iraq.

Geoffrey P. Johnston is a Canadian journalist, columnist for The Kingston Whig Standard and The Owen Sound Sun Times, and radio commentator. Follow Geoffrey on Twitter @GeoffyPJohnston

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