Middle East and North Africa

Iraqi Christians face new threat from Iran-backed militias

A statue of Virgin Mary is placed in a street in Bartella, Iraq, Sunday, Oct. 23,  2016. Photo: Khalid Mohammed

Iranian-backed Shia militia are opening Muslim schools in churches in formerly Christian towns in northern Iraq, in a systematic attempt to “change the Christian demography” of the region.

Before the arrival of Islamic State in 2014, the majority of Bartella’s 40,000 residents were Christian. Amir Yaku, a Christian from the town outside of Mosul, recalls, “Bartella and Hamdania are our historic places. ISIS came and destroyed our churches in the name of Islam. We waited for three years until ISIS militants were gone. We thought life would go back to normal after ISIS. Now our situation is even worse.”

Since the town was liberated from Islamic State in October 2016, Iranian-backed Hashd al-Shaabi Shia militia fighting in alliance with the Iraqi government (but taking orders from Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps) have taken control of Bartella. In October 2017, they opened the Imam Khomeini School – named in honour of Iran’s Supreme Leader – while streets and public buildings have been covered in “sectarian graffiti.”

“The situation of these areas is getting worse day by day. The Hashd al-Shaabi forces are systematically trying to change the Christian demography of these places. They have started to operate sectarian schools in churches and religious centers,” Yaku explains. Two other Shia Muslim schools are currently under construction. A Christian representative in the Kurdish Parliament described the actions of the Iranian militias as “a flagrant injustice done to Christians.”

Christians are already caught in the middle of the worsening conflict between the Iraqi and Kurdish governments. Iran’s support for the Shia-majority Iraqi government has been instrumental in prizing much of northern Iraq from the grip of Islamic State, but Shia militia pose a “serious threat” to Christians in the region. Some Christians who have returned to where they used to live have been forced out again, while the displaced Christians from Bartella are witnessing what their political representatives are describing as the “Shiafication of the Nineveh plains,” historically the Christian heartland of northern Iraq.

The US Commission on International Religious Freedom currently estimates that there are only 250-300,000 Christians left in Iraq, (down from 1.4 million before the 2003 Iraq war). However, the vast majority of these Christians now live as refugees in the Kurdish part of northern Iraq, which until now has been relatively safe for them. Christians are effectively boxed in: many fled to the north to escape targeted attacks on Christians in Baghdad, but unlike Muslim refugees, they cannot go east to Iran and do not feel safe living in western Iraq, which only leaves them with the option of fleeing to Turkey.

Iraq’s dwindling Christian community have experienced genocide at the hands of Islamic State, but now face a new and very real threat to their existence from the armed groups who claimed to be “liberating” Christian towns and villages. If the current crisis escalates, it could mean the end of nearly 2,000 years of Christianity in Iraq.