While Americans like Douglas McAuthur McCain might be joining forces with the Islamic State in its effort to establish a caliphate throughout Iraq and Syria, others from the West also apparently are taking up arms—to defend persecuted Christians in the region.
McCain is the first American reported to have died fighting for the Islamic State in Syria. FBI Director James Comey said in June that roughly 100 people had left the United States to join the conflict in Syria
But it’s not just those who embrace the radical, fundamentalist version of Islam who are headed east. Apparently, a number of Christians from the West are signing up too.
There are thousands of Assyrian Christians from the diaspora who would go back to Iraq to defend their Christian brothers and sister if the chance were given to them, says David William Lazar, California-based chairman of the American Mesopotamian Organization. For now, though, the focus is on organizing Iraqi citizens from the Nineveh Plain.
Lazar said the Assyrian Democratic Movement, the largest Assyrian political party in Iraq, has petitioned the Iraqi government in Baghdad to fund and arm this force. "They have agreed in principle to do it but nothing has taken place yet. On the other hand the Kurdish Regional Government has openly expressed its willingness to train and arm a local force, but they also have not taken any serious steps in making this a reality.
The success of such efforts will depend on support from the international community, added David Arkis, a spokesman for the Assyrian Church of the East in the United States.
A reporter from the Swiss newspaper "Sonntags Zeitung" visited a number of training centers of the Syriac Military Council, a group of armed self-defense units consisting of Syrian Christians, Chaldeans and Assyrians. They included several Swiss residents active in Iraq, one of whom said, "Someone has to take action to prevent the disappearance of Christians.”
Earlier this month, the president of the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, Massud Barzani, announced that his government was ready to open its doors to Christian volunteers among the Kurdish armed forces by providing them with the means to create self-defense forces in their villages and defend themselves from jihadi militias of the Islamic State, Fides Agency reported. Barzani said this during a meeting with the Lebanese Foreign Minister Gibran Basil.
Barzini called on Christians "not to think about emigrating from their homelands, because the threat of terrorism is temporary and terrorists “will be defeated."
Apparently, such militants are getting military help from people in the West who don’t feel the Iraqi government and Western powers are doing enough. Some Europeans have been talking about an “armed pilgrimage” to Iraq, saying what is needed is a fifth Crusade or a new Lepanto, recalling the historic battle of Oct. 7, 1571, when the Holy League defeated the Muslim fleets of the Ottoman Empire.
There are also those like Catholic journalist Antonio Socci who have criticized Pope Francis as being
“reticent” as “200,000 Christians (and other minorities) are fleeing, hunted down by Islamist militants who crucify, behead and stone their enemies.”
Pope Francis said on his flight back from Korea to Rome that it would be just to stop agression against innocent civilians in Iraq. But he tempered his words by adding: “I underscore the verb ‘stop.’ I don’t say ‘to bomb’ or ‘make war,’ (but) ‘stop it.’”
For several months, coalitions on the right in Italy have been organizing aid to help the resistance on the Iraq-Syria border, providing financial and military assistance for the “secular and military regimes of Syrian President Bashar Assad and Egyptian President Al Sisi, self-defense militias of Chaldeans, Assyrians, Mandaeans, Orthodox and Copts.
As the world became more and more aware of the attrocities ISIS was committing against religious minorities in Iraq, the Assyrian International News Agency editorialized that the United States and European Union should help arm Assyrian Christians and Yazidis to protect their ancient homelands.
“The United States and Europe, under the auspices of the United Nations, must establish an Assyrian Defense Force for the Nineveh Plain, Baghdede and other Assyrian areas, as well as a Yazidi defense force for the area of Sinjar and Zumar,” the agency wrote.
The president of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Iraq takes a slightly different view. Although innocent people have the right to defend themselves from agression, only "the forces of the State should take charge of this defense," said the Patriarch of Babylon of the Chaldeans Louis Raphael I Sako. In fact, the creation of militias based on different ethnic and religious identities "can destroy Iraq," he said, according to Lebanese sources.
The patriarch made his remarks Aug. 20 while participating in meetings of the five Patriarchs of the Eastern Churches of the Middle East. The patriarchs, both Catholic and Orthodox, met in in the Kurdish capital Erbil, the city where tens of thousands of Christians from Mosul and the Nineveh Plain have taken refuge from the self-proclaimed Islamic Caliphate. They came to show support for the beleaguered Christian community and to call attention to the ethnic cleansing underway. On August 7 ISIS moved into the area north of Mosul and caused 200,000 Assyrians to flee in fear from dozens of villages in the Nineveh Plain and other towns.
Addressing the Christians who have been displaced from their homes, Maronite Cardinal Bechara Rai of Lebanon said, "We want to tell you do not think of emigrating, now is the time to stay in your lands and protect your culture and history and roots, you are not in a temporary location, you as Christians are 2,000 years old and the roots of the Christian body goes back to our father Abraham."
Patriarch Sako added that it is possible to establish an autonomous area in the Nineveh Plain for Christian populations. But that should be obtained "through dialogue and not through conflict."
While the Kurds have provided protection to the Assyrians and Yazidis, the Assyrian News Agency believes the latter two groups should also have a right to protect themselves.
“No one will protect the Assyrians and Yazidis but themselves, because they have their lives, their way of life, their lands and their homes at stake. The right of self-defense is fundamental. Assyrians do not ask the world to defend them, only to be allowed to defend themselves,” the Assyrian Agency’s editorial stated.
Many Assyrians and Yazidis have fled to Iraq’s Kurdistan region, where Kurdish Peshmerga forces have fought to protect the region from ISIS fighters. But after ISIS fighters threatened Erbil, the capital of Kurdistan, the U.S. began providing air support and weapons to the Kurds as well as helping Yazidis flee to safety. The French and British governments have also promised aid for the Kurds.
Also speaking at the gathering of Eastern patriarchs in Erbil was Patriarch Ignatius Ephrem II Karim of the Syriac Orthodox Church, who said that Mosul and the towns and villages of the Nineveh Plain must be liberated with the aid of foreign powers and that Assyrians should be assisted in returning to their homes. He also called for an international protection force for the Assyrians and an autonomous region, the Nineveh Plain, to be administered by Assyrians and protected by an Assyrian force.
It’s not only Christians defending Christians, it turns out. Moderate Muslims have also been helping Christians, at the risk of reprisals by the Islamic State.
“In northern Iraq there is also a great inter-religious solidarity”, Chaldean Archbishop Yousif Thomas Mirkis of Kirkuk and Sulaymaniyah toldMISNA, the Missionary International Service News Agency.
“In Sulaymaniyah, up to 50 people live in the same home, because many families, both Muslim and Christian, opened their doors to those fleeing from the violence”, the Archbishop explained. The majority of the displaced reached Kurdistan, Erbil or the districts on the border with Syria and Turkey. But 250 families also arrived in Kirkuk and 500 in Sulaymaniyah, near the border with Iran.
The majority are Christians, but there are also members of ethnic and religious minorities, such as the Turkoman, who for centuries have inhabited hundreds of cities and villages of Iraq, and the Shabak, considered “brothers” of the Yazidi, a marginalized ethnoreligious group whose beliefs contain elements from Islam and Christianity, or even the Shiites, a majority in southern Iraq, but increasingly threatened by the advance of the Islamic State.
“In Kirkuk, we are assisting around 500 Shiites, sheltering them in our churches and providing everything necessary”, said Archbishop Mirkis.
The help is reciprocal. Said Archbishop Mirkis: “Some Muslim families buy food, assist and hide Christians at the risk of their lives.”
John Burger is news editor of Aleteia’s English edition.