Of all the many ancient peoples who once lived in the land between the Tigris and the Euphrates, Iraq’s Assyrian Christians pride themselves on having persisted in their traditional homeland for millennia, even as other civilizations thrived then disappeared, as languages and cultures died out, as ethnic groups melted into the ways and genetic pools of their conquerors.
But today Iraq’s Assyrians, and its Christians in general, fear that their place in this multiethnic, multisectarian mosaic society is shrinking, under severe threat from the ultraconservative Islamist group the Islamic State (IS).
It isn’t the first time that Iraq’s Christians have faced such a foe. The IS’s earlier incarnation, al Qaeda in Iraq—a group that formed after the U.S.-led invasion in 2003—also menaced Christians, and others, prompting tens of thousands to flee into exile.
Now, the particularly harsh nature of the IS’s assault on Christians, Yazidis, Shiite Muslims, and others who do not share allegiance to the IS’s brand of ultraconservative Sunni Islam has led some of Iraq’s Christians to take the unusual step of shedding their historical passivity and consider taking up arms to defend and eventually govern themselves.
The Assyrian Patriotic Party, one of several Assyrian political organizations, has armed and dispatched a symbolic, rather than an active, force of some 40 members to join the Kurdish Peshmerga fighting the IS in the northwest of Iraq, according to party official Henry Sarkis.
The Peshmerga are the official forces of the Kurdistan Regional Government. It is the first such action by Iraqi Christians since some Christians fought briefly alongside the Kurds against Saddam Hussein.
Sarkis, 44, is the newly appointed branch chief of the party’s office in Dahuk, a northern governorate in the semiautonomous Kurdish region that borders Syria and Turkey.
The 40 men constitute what Sarkis calls the “first wave,” and the unit has adopted the name Dukha, an Assyrian word that means “sacrifice.”
“We keep talking about Jesus and peace, and now we’ve reached the point where it’s not enough,” he said in an interview at his party’s headquarters in Dahuk. “The age of waiting for the Peshmerga to take back territory while we sit is over. We took the decision that, with our limited abilities, we will try to participate.”
The party bought weapons with money donated by members in the diaspora, Sarkis said, and is looking to raise more funds through donations to increase its stockpile.
Sarkis’s men are mainly behind the front line, around the town of Sharfiyah, not so much fighting alongside the Peshmerga as holding territory the Kurdish forces have gained or are pushing forward from.
A Perilous Shift
Still, it marks a significant shift in the attitude of Iraq’s Christians, a shift that’s fraught with peril.
Since 2003, Iraq’s Christian community has been viewed by other Iraqis as a passive victim of the country’s many conflicts, not an active aggressor.
Taking up arms will make the Christians direct participants, armed targets who pose military rather than just ideological opposition to ultraconservative Islamist groups.
Sarkis acknowledges this but said his party is prepared to accept the consequences. “We’re being killed in our homes, so why not defend ourselves? Then even if we die, we die with dignity,” he said. “We didn’t want to reach this point—we just want to live in our areas.”
Before 2003, Iraq held about 1.5 million Christians. The number today is fewer than 500,000, say community leaders, the majority having been driven out by war and all the trouble it inflicts and breeds, including corruption and insecurity.
According to the CIA’s World Factbook, Shiites now make up 60 to 65 percent of Iraq’s population, Sunnis 32 to 37 percent, and Christians just 0.8 percent. Most remaining Christians live on the Nineveh Plains, an area that is also home to other ethnic and religious minorities in Iraq, including the Yazidis and the Turkomans.
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SOURCE: National Geographic