Iraq’s Christians Grapple With New Threat From Iran-Backed Militias

New challenges faced as they attempt to rebuild their lives in their ancestral homeland.

Christian worshippers pray before a grotto dedicated to the Virgin Mary early on Christmas morning at the Syriac Catholic Church of Our Lady of Salvation in the Iraqi capital of Baghdad's Karrada district on Dec. 25, 2018.
Christian worshippers pray before a grotto dedicated to the Virgin Mary early on Christmas morning at the Syriac Catholic Church of Our Lady of Salvation in the Iraqi capital of Baghdad's Karrada district on Dec. 25, 2018. (photo: Sabah Arar/AFP/Getty Images)

After surviving the genocidal campaign of Islamic State militants, Iraq’s Christians are facing new challenges as they attempt to rebuild their lives in their ancestral homeland.

Carl Anderson, the supreme knight of the Knights of Columbus, returned from a recent visit to the Nineveh province in northern Iraq, warning that Iranian-backed militias, or Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), have “made life nearly unbearable for Christians attempting to return to towns” where they “have stripped Christian family homes of plumbing, wiring and other metal” and are also credibly accused of violent crimes.

“Locals, Church leaders, and American and Kurdish government officials warn that the Iranian-backed groups have extorted Christian families and seized their property,” he wrote in an April 11 commentary for The Wall Street Journal. “Iranian proxies now are conducting a program of colonization in the Iraqi sector — building homes and centers for the use of Iraq’s Shiite majority in historically Christian towns.”

The U.S. State Department also noted the persecution Christians are facing from the PMF in the most recently available “Religious Freedom Report,” released in May 2018.


Harassment and Control

“Christians reported harassment and abuse at numerous checkpoints operated by Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) units, impeding their movement in and around several Christian towns on the Ninewa [sic] Plain,” the report stated. “Christians and Yezidis in PMF-controlled towns reported harassment of Christian women by PMF members. They also said the central government in Baghdad was facilitating demographic change by providing land and housing for Shia to move into traditionally Christian areas.”  

Tensions have risen between the Trump administration and Tehran recently, as the U.S. designated the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps as a foreign terrorist organization in April. Administration officials have also reportedly “urged Iraq to remove these irregular militias and take control of the region,” so far to no avail.

A U.S. Agency for International Development official confirmed to the Register in a statement that interference from groups “outside the control of the Iraqi government” is a large factor in discouraging Iraq’s Christians and other minorities from resettling in their homelands.

“Iraqi communities liberated from ISIS, including Yezidis, Christians and Shia Muslims who survived genocide, continue to face challenges in recovering and rebuilding their lives,” the official said. “Iraq’s Sunnis were also victims of ISIS, and their communities were also destroyed. Physical and economic insecurity — including mines and unexploded ordinance, damaged houses and infrastructure, lack of access to basic services, and intimidation by armed groups outside the control of the Iraqi government — are the biggest factors impeding recovery and discouraging minorities from returning home.”

The official added that the U.S. will keep advising the Iraqi government to take steps to improve the situation.

“The United States will continue to support the government of Iraq as it works to bring all armed actors under state control and deploy non-sectarian security forces, representative of the local population, to ensure stability in minority areas,” the official stated. “The president and vice president have made it clear to Iraqi leaders the importance of protecting and restoring minority communities as an essential component to Iraq’s stability. We are closely watching Iraq’s progress in this regard.” 


An Iraqi Christian’s Perspective

Yohanna Yousif Towaya is a Christian farmer who also directs the Hammurabi Human Rights Organization and lives in Qaraqosh, Iraq, but does aid work in the neighboring town of Bartella on the Nineveh Plain. Towaya told the Register in a phone interview from Bartella of the challenge these Iran-backed militias have posed to the Christians there since the militias arrived in December 2016 following the town’s liberation.

“The majority of the people of Bartella, the Christian people, refuse to return because there is Shabak (PMF) in Bartella,” Towaya said. “They are afraid about that because perhaps one day they will use their powers against them.”

He added that there has already been harassment of Christian girls in the town’s market by Iranian PMF soldiers but that the Christians can’t be sure that the PMF collectively is behind this behavior, as the militia treats such matters as isolated incidents, responding when a complaint is made, saying, “We punished him; the whole thing is finished.”

Towaya also complained that the Shabak militia have taken up permanent residence in the Christian town, and “now the majority of the people who are in Bartella are Shabak.”

“Before, in 1980, we have no Muslims in Bartella anywhere and no Shabak in Bartella,” he pointed out. “After the displacement of the people, when they fled to Erbil, they refuse to return from that. Now we have perhaps 1,000 [Christian] families in Bartella, but we have … 2,000 from Shabak.”

He argued that this demographic change has allowed the Iran-backed militia to completely manage the town, as “they are asking us for all the [political] positions in the city now. If you want to have a position for a Christian immediately, they ask to take it because they say, ‘We have more [people] than [the] Christians.’”


‘They Feel Intimidated’

Father Benedict Kiely, the founder of the charity, which does advocacy work for persecuted Christians in the Middle East, told the Register his assessment of the threat posed by these Iran-backed Shia militias.

“Basically now the entire Nineveh Plain, which was and is the ancient Christian homeland from the time of the apostles, is in theory controlled by the Iraqi army; but, really, it’s controlled by the Shia militias, who are in turn controlled by Iran,” he said, “so it’s become very difficult for the Christians in the main towns and villages because they’re surrounded by the militias. They don’t feel protected, and, in fact, they feel intimidated.”

Father Kiely said that when he was in Bartella in January, the parish priest, Father Benham Benoka, told him of some of the more violent harassment by the militia and called them “the next ISIS.”

“There is some violence, and he had a gun put to his head before Christmas, and they were shooting at the church,” Father Kiely said, but added that, at this point, “it’s mainly intimidation.”

“Less than half the Christians have returned, and a lot of them are not now wanting to return because they feel insecure and they don’t know what’s coming next. The Shia are taking over their homes,” he said, calling it “a demographic pressure now, as opposed to violence, see they’re taking over also the local government, so the Christians have less and less representation.”

While Father Kiely praised the recent work of USAID’s special representative for minority assistance, Max Primorac, he said that the locals are running into problems with finding jobs on top of their security fears.

“There’s a feeling that local communities are not being employed, local people are not being used, and local products and things like that are not being used,” he explained.

Towaya raised the employment issue, as well, giving the example of lighting, provided to the town through aid projects, that was manufactured in Turkey. He said that in such cases “there is no benefit for the local organization or for the economy, for the people, because everything is made out of the region.”

“I think if there is support for jobs, to find jobs for people, I think that will interest people to stay and not to emigrate,” he said.


Potential Solutions

Father Kiely said that aid should be focused on “two things: jobs and security; and the U.S. and other countries can contribute, obviously, to both of those things.”

In terms of security, Towaya asserted that the Christians would feel safer if they simply had the ability to run their own security or if the town’s security was back in the hands of the Iraqi government.

“We want that all the Christian towns be controlled by the Iraqi police, the federal police; that will give confidence for Christians,” he said. “We want that all the powers must be in the hands of the Iraqi government, especially the police, the federal police — and also to ask Christians to join this police.”

Towaya said there could be problems down the road, as he knows the militia does not want to leave.

“They will stay until the resurrection; they are saying that,” he said. “They called me this morning [saying] they will close the roads if the prime minister asks them to leave from the area.”

Lauretta Brown is a Register staff writer.