Thousands of Iraqi Christians have established their own militia and are training to fight the Islamic State (ISIS) in the Nineveh Plains of northern Iraq.
The Nineveh Plains Protection Units (NPU) has 3,000 Assyrian Christian men registered to be trained, while another 500 are already training for combat. The militia was founded by the Iraqi political party, the Assyrian Democratic Movement.
Another 500 volunteers from the group are already situated in Assyrian villages in northern Iraq, the majority of which were captured by ISIS when they marched across the country last summer. Approximately 30,000 Christians have since fled the Nineveh Plains for fear of falling into the hands of the radical Islamists.
Last November the American Mesopotamian Organisation, whose aim is to support the NPU, said that the primary mission of the militia is to “protect the remaining Assyrian lands from further attacks by ISIS” and then “liberate the Assyrian homeland of the Nineveh Plain” from the grasp of the radical Islamists.
John Michael, a British-Assyrian in Iraq, told the Catholic Herald: “This is our last stand, if this fails then Christianity will be finished in Iraq.” The religious outlet reported that the militia are receiving funds from the Assyrian diaspora in countries such as United States, Australia and Sweden and are also receiving training from an American security company.
Iraq expert Sajad Jiyad, asserts that the creation of the militia sends an important message to ISIS that these minorities will not allow their territory to be taken without a fight: “It’s also important for the locals to send a message to ISIS that they are not going to allow the demographic change to become permanent.”
Jiyad continues: “The Assyrians want their land back and they – as well as the Turkmen and the Yazidis – are sending a message that: ‘We are going to come back and we are not going to leave our villages and towns and our cultures to be destroyed. We want to come back to our homes and, no matter what we face, we’re willing to fight and take that back.’ I think that is a positive message for the entire nation.”
Last year, ISIS captured Iraq’s largest Christian town, Qaraqosh, forcing tens of thousands of residents to flee. The towns of Tal Kayf, Bartella and Karamlesh were also seized by the Islamists. It is estimated that over 100,000 Christians have been displaced in the semi-autonomous Kurdistan region of northern Iraq because of the ISIS advance.
In areas now controlled by ISIS, minorities are routinely targeted by the group, specifically Christians and Yazidi Kurds. In Mosul, Christians were warned to convert to Islam or pay jizya (a tax paid by non-Muslims) and were told if they did not do either of these things they would have to leave the city for good or be killed.
Before 2003, the number of Christians in Mosul – a city believed to be the birthplace of Assyrian Christianity – was approximately 60,000, but the town’s Christian population has rapidly decreased in the last decade.
In the weeks before ISIS advanced in June last year, the number of Christians in Mosul reportedly dwindled to 3,000. After the group seized control of the city, residents reported churches and Christian shops being attacked. According to Christian Today, the ISIS fighters based in Mosul have also created a new marketplace to sell Christian goods which they looted from houses during their takeover of the city, entitled ‘Spoils of Nasara (Christians)’.
Since the advance of the Islamic State, some minority fighters have had success in their fight to reclaim lost territory in northern Iraq. In an offensive against the terror group last month, Kurdish Peshmerga fighters killed over 200 ISIS militants, ousting the group from almost 300 square miles of territory. They encircled Mosul on three sides and cut off vital supply lines to the nearby towns of Tal Afar and Sinjar.
The Kurdish forces were able to capture Makhmour, to the east of the city; the towns of Zimar and Wannah, and several Arab villages located in the Sinjar Mountains, west of Mosul; and the area around Mosul Dam, in what amounts to a Kurdish land-grab backed by Western airstrikes.
Assyrian Christians are one of the oldest ethnic groups in the Middle East whose foundations lie in Assyria, a historical region of northern Mesopotamia, but since the beginning of the 2003 Iraq War they have faced persecution from Islamic extremists.