Iraq’s Christians Turn to Militia for Protection

The Mar Gorgis Church in Qaraqosh was damaged in the battle to recapture the town from Islamic State. A building in the church compound, above, was used by the militants as a bomb workshop. (Juan Carlos for The Wall Street Journal)
The Mar Gorgis Church in Qaraqosh was damaged in the battle to recapture the town from Islamic State. A building in the church compound, above, was used by the militants as a bomb workshop. (Juan Carlos for The Wall Street Journal)

Two years ago, Mubarak Tuwaya fled when Islamic State militants made a triumphant charge through northern Iraq.

Now he is back in his hometown, wearing the uniform of an Iraqi militia that is helping drive out the extremists—and aiming to secure a place for Christians and other local minorities in Iraq’s future.

Capt. Tuwaya’s U.S.-trained force is made up of about 500 troops and 300 unpaid volunteers, most of them Assyrian Christians from Hamdaniya, a district east of Mosul that is home to Qaraqosh, Iraq’s largest Christian town.

The Iraqi army’s 9th Division captured the district with the militia’s support in late October, in the early days of the current U.S-backed campaign to retake Mosul, the Sunni extremist group’s last major stronghold in the country.

The army then largely handed responsibility for holding Hamdaniya to the militia, whose next mission is to persuade other Christians it is safe to return.

“This is the land of our fathers, we have to defend it,” Capt. Tuwaya, a farmer and retired Iraqi army officer, said as he sat in the militia’s makeshift headquarters, a former veterinary clinic, beneath the group’s flag, a blue cross on a white background.

Iraq’s once sizable Christian population has dropped by as much as half since Saddam Hussein was ousted in 2003, to roughly half-a-million people today.

When Islamic State seized swaths of Iraqi territory in 2014, more than 150,000 Christians fled their homes. Many of them lived in Hamdaniya, which is on the Nineveh Plain, a fertile region that inspired the militia’s name: the Nineveh Plain Protection Units, or NPU.

Members of the Christian community are now pressing the central government to grant Nineveh Plain the status of a province, a step intended to safeguard vulnerable minority groups, which also include Yazidis and ethnic Shabaks.

“It’s a turning point in our history: to be or not to be in our homeland,” said Yunadim Kanna, a Christian member of parliament in Baghdad.

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SOURCE: The Wall Street Journal
Margherita Stancati and Ali A. Nabhan

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