When Islamic State (IS) militants swept through northern Iraq in 2014, some 200,000 Christians — unarmed, thus defenseless — fled. They had relied for protection on Kurdish Peshmerga forces that disappeared as ISIS advanced through the Nineveh Plain—a Biblical region, home to Assyrian and Chaldean faithful centuries before Prophet Mohammed was born.
Over the last two years, Iraqi Christians have raised small, but fierce, fighting forces of their own, now poised to do battle against IS for the region’s largest city, Mosul—and a chance to claim a safe haven in the country’s north.
The Babylon Brigade is the largest formation, capable of mobilizing over 1,500 soldiers.
It’s “the poster boy of Christian units” according to Dr. Abbas Kadhim, Senior Foreign Policy Fellow at the Foreign Policy Institute, SAIS-Johns Hopkins University.
“They aren’t just a symbolic presence,” said Kadhim. “They have done a great job fighting to retake Ramadi and Fallujah, so I assume in Nineveh they will be even more present.”
When the Iraqi military retook Fallujah from IS in June, the Babylon Brigade tweeted: “We are not just a #Christian group. We are for all #Iraqi against #ISIS”
The Babylon Brigade is fighting as part of the Hashd, or Popular Mobilization Units, a network of smaller, fighting forces, considered more enthusiastic—and successful—than many Iraqi army companies.
Most Hashd soldiers are Shia Muslims; October is the first month of the Islamic calendar and part of a sacred Shia practice, the Mourning of Muharram.
So the battle for Mosul coincides with Islamic holy days, especially practiced by Shia Muslims.
“You want to talk about martyrdom for a great cause? This would be it,” said Kadhim, explaining that Muharram includes the Day of Ashura, [NOTE: October 10 this year] which marks the murder of Husayn ibn Ali, Mohammed’s grandson who “died for a principle.”
Kadhim estimates approximately 1,500 Christian fighters will participate in Operation Fatah (conquest) against IS in Mosul, which he calls “a significant number.”
“They are sacrificing for patria, homeland, not just privileges,” Abbas said. “After all this is over, Iraq should recognize the Christians, especially. They have experienced a double ‘cleansing’ by IS — religious and ethnic.”
Another newly commissioned fighting force is the Nineveh Plain Protection Units (NPU).
NPU was founded in late 2014 to protect the land of indigenous Christians divided between three main churches: Assyrian Church of the East, Chaldean Catholic Church of Babylon, and Syriac Orthodox Church of Antioch.
So far, over 500 soldiers are registered as NPU with others volunteering or waiting for training. The Iraqi government formally recognized it as part of the military command last March.
In Our Last Stand, a 2016 film portraying the journey of an Assyrian-American teacher through Iraq to Syria, NPU fighters are shown at a training camp.
One leader, Athra Kado, says, “Our main goal is gathering men to be the force that protects our people. I will never flee or withdraw because my family is behind me.”
He continues, “Decade after decade. It started in Turkey [Armenian genocide, 1915-1923], in Iran, than Simele [1933 slaughter of Assyrians in Iraq.] Genocide after genocide. We can’t handle it. This is our last chance.”
This year, the U.S. military and coalition forces began training the NPU according to “Military Times” and Dr. Elmer Abbo, president of the U.S.-based Nineveh Plain Defense Fund.
“For many years, I went to DC asking for help and they kept ignoring us; I’m done doing that,” Dr Abbo, a Christian Assyrian-American, told the Washington Examiner.
“The American government will only help us to the extent that we are part of their larger strategic interests, so the reason the U.S. military is helping train our people is because we are helping to liberate Ninevah.” He continued, “When we bring something to the table, that’s when they help us.”
Dr. Abbo is direct about what Assyrian fighters hope to gain: “NPU’s goal is to establish a Nineveh Plains province, independent of the [neighboring] Kurdish Regional Government.”
The Iraqi Council of Ministers endorsed a plan for three new provinces, including one on the Nineveh Plain, in April 2014.
So does the Republican Party’s convention platform, which calls for “the creation of a safe haven in northern Iraq to protect those ethnic and religious minorities continuing to face genocide at the hands of ISIS.”
Asked about Christian persecution in the Middle East, Trump campaign adviser, Marjorie Dannenfelser observed, “It should be an everyday question, speaking as a Catholic and as a founder of the pro-life coalition, it should be an everyday question on all of our minds.”
In Defense of Christians (IDC) successfully persuaded the House of Representatives to designate Islamic militant attacks on Christians and other religious minorities in the Middle East genocide by unanimous vote last March.
IDC president Toufic Baaklini observed, “We are advised by displaced Christians living in camps in Erbil [Kurdistan], who want to stay in Iraq, they want to fight, and their force is getting larger and larger.”
Baaklini continued, “They want an area where they can live in peace, live in their own homes, be free. We want to help them remain. For Christianity, this is where it all began.”
Last month, Reps Jeff Fortenberry (R-NE) and Anna Eshoo (D-CA)—the only Assyrian-American in Congress—introduced a resolution supporting a semi-autonomous multi-ethnic province in northern Iraq.
But Robert Nicholson, executive director of the Philos Project, which promotes positive Christian engagement in the Middle East worries about the aftermath of Mosul’s liberation: “Christian units are fighting as part of the coalition against ISIS so they are there, [but] in terms of Christians being involved in a post-IS reorganization of Iraq, it’s insufficient and inadequate and they have not been brought into discussions in any serious way.”
He added, “Not only Christians—the Yazidis and other religious minorities who have been victims of genocide, need to be asked, ‘What do you want exactly, and how can we help you get what you want, so your people can come back and resettle and rebuild.'”