RLPB 493. Iraq: from Nation to Decimation to Elimination
— the plight of Iraq’s indigenous and Christian Assyrian nation
— by Elizabeth Kendal
CFF Director of Advocacy
Islamic State (IS/ISIS) is making a come-back in Iraq. Military analyst David Kilcullen remarks that with its resurgence, IS is ‘giving new meaning to its motto “Remaining and ¬Expanding”.’ While IS attacks are presently small scale and low intensity — comprising mostly bombings, raids, assassinations and sectarian executions — they are increasing in frequency and sophistication. According to the Institute for the Study of War (ISW), IS maintains some 30,000 fighters in Iraq and Syria, of whom up to 17,000 are in Iraq, including 1,000 who have crossed over from Syria in the past six months. ISW reports that IS is re-establishing zones of support, lines of supply and the means to generate revenue (mostly through drugs and extortion). As long as Baghdad remains enmeshed in political power struggles between parties that are proxies of either Iran or America, IS will exploit the paralysis to re-establish itself across Iraq.
In January the Prime Minister of the Kurdistan Regional Government, Nechirvan Barzani, ominously warned, ‘We have concerns about the return of IS … to Nineveh [Province, northern Iraq].’ On 20 February the Iraqi Army’s Chief of Staff Othman al-Ghanimi told reporters at a press conference near Mosul that Iraqi security forces had detained 24 IS militants. The group, which had escaped Syria and was headed for Mosul, included four IS leaders. Later that day, Iraqi security and intelligence forces intercepted a car near Badush, 25km north-west of Mosul, killing the five IS fighters inside, each of whom was reportedly wearing an explosive vest. On 28 February IS successfully carried out a car-bomb attack in Mosul, killing one civilian and wounding 13. On the same day, a car-bomb exploded near Mosul University, killing two and wounding 24. On Friday 8 March a car-bomb in Mosul killed two (including a child) and wounded 10. It must be noted that, whilst violence has escalated, not all recent bombings have been claimed by IS.
The return of IS is not the only threat facing Nineveh’s already decimated indigenous and Christian Assyrian remnant. In August 2014, as IS advanced east from Mosul towards oil-rich Kirkuk, the jihadists overran and ethnically cleansed the Nineveh Plain, displacing around 130,000 Assyrian Christians, along with other non-Sunni minorities, including the Shabak. Possibly with Persian roots, the Shabak follow a syncretistic form of Shia Islam. Today, it seems that Baghdad and Tehran are using the Shabak as a proxy as they struggle against the Kurds for control over Nineveh’s ‘Disputed Territories’, which includes the Assyrian heartland. If there is one thing the Kurds, the Shabaks, Baghdad and Tehran all agree on, it is their desire to eliminate the Christian presence and even erase millennia of Assyrian and Christian history.
Ground zero in this existential struggle is the Assyrian town of Bartella, 21km due east of Mosul. Prior to August 2014, Bartella had been policed by the mostly Christian, Assyrian Ninewa Protection Unit (NPU). Today, security in the area is controlled by Iraq’s mostly-Shia, Popular Mobilisation Force (PMF), also known as ‘Hashd’. In Bartella, the Hashd are mostly Shabak. Of the 3,800 Christian families to have fled Bartella in 2014, less than one third have returned. In Bartella they face not just devastation, but disturbing levels of harassment, intimidation and threat. Christian leaders are convinced that the Shabak are working to drive them away, prevent their return and replace them with Shabak Shi’ites. To this end they have the backing of Baghdad and Tehran. Regional authorities are establishing new settlements in Bartella with the aim of repopulating the town. One project under way in an area traditionally occupied by Assyrian Christians is named ‘Sultan City’. The project involves seizing agricultural land owned by Assyrians and converting it into a residential area with hundreds of new homes. The project was first outlined in 2013, but had to be postponed due to the ISIS occupation. This situation is being repeated, albeit to a lesser extent, in the nearby Assyrian towns of Karamles and Qaraqosh/Bakhdida. As Father Behnem Benoka notes: IS are Sunnis and the Shabak are Shi’ite, ‘but all are Muslims. Everybody hates the Church, everybody hates Christians and wants them out of their historical places.’
PLEASE PRAY SPECIFICALLY THAT GOD WILL
* intervene in Iraq to the benefit of his Church and the long-suffering, severely persecuted Assyrian remnant (see, Isaiah 19:23-25):
— may historic Assyrian/Christian towns be officially recognised and protected,
— may the campaign to alter the demography of the Nineveh Plain be stopped, and
— may the indigenous Assyrians be granted the right to govern and police themselves.
* bless and sustain Iraq’s pastors, priests, nuns and other Christian workers as they risk their lives and struggle against overwhelming odds to rebuild and maintain the Christian presence in Iraq; may spiritual unity blossom across ethnic and denominational lines.
The Lord Almighty will bless them, saying, “Blessed be Egypt my people, Assyria my handiwork, and Israel my inheritance.” (Isaiah 19:25 NIV)
* bless and sustain his precious Church across Mesopotamia (Syria-Iraq / the Fertile Crescent); may the Lord bring physical, emotional and spiritual healing to all who have been profoundly shattered, fundamentally distracted and spiritually challenged by violence, displacement and betrayal.
SUMMARY FOR BULLETINS UNABLE TO RUN THE WHOLE ARTICLE
IRAQ: FROM NATION TO DECIMATION TO ELIMINATION
Some 17,000 Islamic State (IS/ISIS) fighters are believed to be consolidating in Iraq, where IS attacks are increasing in frequency and sophistication. But their return is not the only threat facing Iraq’s remnant Christians, most of whom belong to the long-persecuted Assyrian nation, whose historic heartland is in northern Iraq’s Nineveh Plain. Baghdad and Tehran are currently struggling against the Kurds for control of the north’s ‘Disputed Territories’, which includes the Assyrian heartland. To that end, Baghdad and Tehran are apparently using the Shabak — a distinct ethnic group who are nominally Shi’ite — as their proxy against the Kurds in Nineveh. The Shabak are working to seize Assyrian lands, drive the Christians out, prevent their return and replace them with Shabak, seemingly with Baghdad’s approval. Please pray for Iraq’s Christians.
Elizabeth Kendal is an international religious liberty analyst and advocate. She serves as Director of Advocacy at Canberra-based Christian Faith and Freedom (CFF), and is an Adjunct Research Fellow at the Arthur Jeffery Centre for the Study of Islam at Melbourne School of Theology.
She has authored two books: Turn Back the Battle: Isaiah Speaks to Christians Today (Deror Books, Melbourne, Australia, Dec 2012) which offers a Biblical response to persecution and existential threat; and After Saturday Comes Sunday: Understanding the Christian Crisis in the Middle East (Wipf and Stock, Eugene, OR, USA, June 2016).