Date: March 13, 2019
The plight of Iraq's indigenous and Christian Assyrian nation
by Elizabeth Kendal
Islamic State (IS/ISIS) is making a come-back in Iraq. Military analyst David Kilcullen remarks that 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 ISIS fighters inside, each of whom was reportedly wearing an explosive vest. On 28 February ISIS 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 in their 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 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: ISIS 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.
* bless and sustain his precious Church across Mesopotamia (Syria-Iraq); may the Lord bring physical, emotional and spiritual healing to all who have been profoundly shattered, fundamentally distracted and deeply spiritually challenged by violence, displacement and betrayal.