Tired of persecution and threats from the militant Islamic group known as ISIS, some members of Iraq’s Christian minority have decided to take up arms and fight to defend their homes and families.
“We keep talking about Jesus and peace, and now we've reached the point where it's not enough,” said Henry Sarkis, who heads up the Assyrian Patriotic Party.
Assyrians are an ancient people who have lived in Iraq for millennia. They are traditionally Christian. The Assyrian Patriotic Party is only one of many Assyrian political organizations, but the group’s leadership has decided to join forces with the Kurdish Peshmerga, the defense forces for the country’s Kurdish minority.
“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,” Sarkis told National Geographic.
“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.”
The Assyrian Christians are being persecuted by ISIS fighters. The acronym stands for the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq. The group seeks to establish to a caliphate or Muslim state that enforces strict Sunni Muslim law. The group has persecuted and attacked Assyrians as well as another ancient minority known as the Yazidis.
Christians make up less than 1 percent of Iraq’s population, according CIA statistics cited by The Christian Post. Their numbers have reportedly dwindled from about 1.5 million in 2003 to less than 500,000 today.
Some fear that the decision to fight will make Christians more of a target for sectarian violence.
Duraid Tobiya, an Assyrian from the city of Mosul which was overrun by ISIS fighters in June, said only about 40 of the city’s estimated 10,000 Christians remain. When ISIS takes over an area they insist that everyone living there convert to Islam or pay a tax for not converting or face execution. The Christians who remain in the city were deemed either too old or too poor to pay the ISIS tax. The rest of the Christians have fled the city, Tobiya explained.
“I'm from Mosul — this is the first time I've been displaced,” he said. "I lived through everything else that happened in Mosul, but it's all very different from what's happening now.”
Still, Tobiya believes the area’s Christians have only two options. He says Christians can either emigrate en masse or seek protection from international organizations.
He prefers the latter option because he fears neither the Peshmerga nor the Iraqi forces will be able to defend the Christian population should ISIS decide to target them specifically once they begin to fight with the Peshmerga.
“We are against emigration, because we are not only the sons of this country but its original inhabitants,” he said. “We must protect ourselves — and also have international protection.”
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