Iraq’s weak Leviathan and the sectarian demon: “the rise” of Christian militias

Joe Hammoura

Iraqi priests hold the first Sunday mass at the Church of the Immaculate Conception since it was recaptured from Islamic State in Qaraqosh - christian today wesbite
Iraqi priests hold the first Sunday mass at the Grand Immaculate Church since it was recaptured from Islamic State in Qaraqosh, near Mosul, Iraq, October 30, 2016. REUTERS/Ahmed Jadallah

The much touted Mosul operation against the Islamic State (IS) is in its third week. Composed of Iraqi government troops, Kurdish Peshmerga forces, Turkey-backed Sunni fighters, Shiite and a motley of other local militias and a strong backing from the US-led anti-IS coalition, the operation aims to take back the second largest city in Iraq -Mosul- which has been the prize-city for the terrorist group in symbolic and strategic sense.

The anti-IS coalition is an uneasy alliance of groups with diametrically opposite goals and aspirations. It is only the enormity of terror and barbarism unleashed by IS against all of these groups and a strong prodding from the United States that have brought them together. In the absence of a strong central Iraqi government, lack of a common political denominator which unites every section of the Iraqi society, the fall of secular ideology which transcends narrow identities from grace, the Darwinian political eco-system created after the American invasion of the country in 2003 where everything seemed to be up for grabs and where the powerful survives and the weak risks disappearing, the bases of political alignments have condensed to sectarian and confessional categories.

Consequently, the post-invasion has become literally an incubation period where a number of sectarian political forces emerged. One of those political forces locking horns against the Islamic State in the Mosul operation is a Christian Militia group constituting thousands of fighters. A Christian militia is almost a novelty in the Iraqi political landscape. Therefore, it merits to examine the ideological basis of this group, see if it has external backers and situate its emergence in the context of the different strategies employed by minority groups in Iraq in their fight for survival.

After the Islamic State succeeded in snatching Mosul from the Iraqi army in what appeared to be a dramatic turn of events in 2014, it stormed through the neighboring Nineveh Plains, forcing thousands of Christians to leave in the process. All along, the terrorist group has been very violent against religious groups it does not agree with and the Christians living in the historical plains of Nineveh were not an exception and they were not the first ones to bear the brunt of the terrorist horror. In Syria and elsewhere in Iraq, IS has made the mass execution of Christians, vandalization of their worship places, defacement of religious icons and destruction of rich historical and cultural artefacts it brand. When the group get hold of the Nineveh plains, its fighters burned down churches with gusto, daubed Christian homes with the Arabic letter N for “Nazarene”, ordered them to pay a special tax (Jizya) or threated those who disobey with death. [1]

As a reaction to the terror of the Islamic State, thousands of Christians were forced to abandon their homes. More than 125,000 moved to Kurdish-controlled territory.[2] Others joined the swelling number of Christian diaspora in the West “that began long ago with the 1915 genocide”.[3] The misfortune of Iraqi Christians is part of the larger phenomenon happening in the Middle East where the number of Christians have dwindled dramatically in the last decade or so. For Instance in 2003, there were 1.5 million Christians in Iraq. Now it’s about 300,000 and still dropping fast.[4] In fact, the attacks on Christians predates the occupation of Mosul by the Islamic State. As part of the deliberate resolve to intimidate and weaken vocal leaders of the Christian community, many of their religious leaders was were killed since 2008.

In the face of all this existential threat, the response of the clergy and laypersons of the Christian community in Iraq has been divided. For hundreds of thousands of ordinary Christians, the dire situation in Iraq does not allow a second thought. Thus they have fled from their homes and ended up in different refugee camps. Many more have headed to Western countries with an active sympathetic encouragement from Western humanitarian organizations. However, some Christian leaders have been strongly opposed to what they presume to be a de-Christianization of the Middle East encouraged by western liberals through granting refuge to fleeing Christians and have called their followers to stay put and brave it all. A member of the leadership of the Assyrian Church of the East Father Emmanuel for example indicted European humanitarian organizations of complicity in the process of emptying Christians out from their homeland in a conversation with a Guardian columnist Giles Fraser.[5] He said that Europeans who welcomed Christian refugees from Syria and Iraq were “completing the uncompleted mission of IS” by granting Iraqi Christians an easy route out of their historic homeland. He claims that there are push and pull factors to Christians abandoning the Middle East. IS being the push and Westerners are the pull.[6] Despite their call, however, the Church leaders do not say a lot about how their congregation should respond to the challenges posed by the Islamic State.

It is in this context that some Christian Iraqis began a movement to establish militia groups, akin to the other sectarian militias roaming in Iraq, to protect themselves in the Hobbesian state of nature which is Iraq today. Even though there are many people announcing the formation of alphabet-soup militia groups, the prominent Christian militia group to have made its presence felt to date is the Nineveh Protection Unit (NPU) established in 2014. With some financial and military aid from the Iraqi central government, from the United States, Assyrian Christian exiles in the West and some Western evangelical organizations the movement has attracted thousands of fighters. Even though, there is no clear evidence of the Vatican footing some of the bills of the Christian militias, the Catholic Church has been vocal in bringing the plight of Christians in Iraq and Syria to the world attention.

However, given the famous Christian injunctions of “thou shalt not kill” and turning the other cheek, one would assume that taking up arms is not without controversy at a theological level. But the ideologues of the movement are not without justification. In an interview with a BBC journalist, one of the leaders of the Christian militias invoked a verse from Luke which goes like “If you have a purse, take it, and also a bag; and if you don’t have a sword, sell your cloak and buy one” to justify their armed resistance against the Islamic State.[7]

To date, the Christian Militias have scored some morale-boosting victories against the Islamic State. In September of this year, the Nineveh Protection Unit achieved a spectacular victory when it drove IS out of the northern village of Badanah. The village was one of many formerly Assyrian Christian villages overrun by the Islamic State two years ago. NPU commander Bahnam Abush said that the military success would restore Christian confidence in the region and increase the faithful’s hope that they will “stay in the land of their grandparents”.[8] The battle of Badanah was the NPU’s first major military operation against IS.

After the start of Mosul operation, Christians were able to liberate some of their towns with the help of the anti-IS collation, mainly the Iraqi army’s 9th Armored Division. One of these villages was Qaraqosh; one of the oldest Christian towns that used to be populated with some 50,000 faithful.[9] Compared to other armed groups Christian militias are still short in numbers and dependent on other non-Christian militias to be able to liberate its own land.

Iraq’s central government is too weak to protect its people and ensure law and order. This weak Leviathan, has allowed the sectarian demons to roam the country and wreak havoc on its population. Therefore, taking up arms and trying to protect one’s own sectarian enclave seems to be the only fad in town. However, in light of the age-old marginalization and oppression they suffered as a minority group and given the fact that hundreds of thousands of Iraqi Christians are already out of the country, forming a militia group in the fight against the Islamic State, though a heroic act, is not something the efficacy of which is not without doubt.

Joe Hammoura, “Iraq’s weak Leviathan and the sectarian demon: “the rise” of Christian militias”, MEIRSS (Middle East Institute for Research and Strategic Studies), November 11, 2016.

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