Of all the many ancient peoples who once lived in the land between the Tigris and the Euphrates, Iraq’s Assyrian Christians pride themselves on having persisted in their traditional homeland for millennia, even as other civilizations thrived then disappeared, as languages and cultures died out, as ethnic groups melted into the ways and genetic pools of their conquerors.
But today Iraq’s Assyrians, and its Christians in general, fear that their place in this multiethnic, multisectarian mosaic society is shrinking, under severe threat from the ultraconservative Islamist group the Islamic State (IS). It isn’t the first time that Iraq’s Christians have faced such a foe.
The IS’s earlier incarnation, al Qaeda in Iraq–a group that formed after the U.S.-led invasion in 2003–also menaced Christians, and others, prompting tens of thousands to flee into exile.
Now, the particularly harsh nature of the IS’s assault on Christians, Yazidis, Shiite Muslims, and others who do not share allegiance to the IS’s brand of ultraconservative Sunni Islam has led some of Iraq’s Christians to take the unusual step of shedding their historical passivity and consider taking up arms to defend and eventually govern themselves.
The Assyrian Patriotic Party, one of several Assyrian political organizations, has armed and dispatched a symbolic, rather than an active, force of some 40 members to join the Kurdish Peshmerga fighting the IS in the northwest of Iraq, according to party official Henry Sarkis.
The 40 men constitute what Sarkis calls the “first wave,” and the unit has adopted the name Dukha, an Assyrian word that means “sacrifice.” The party bought weapons with money donated by members in the diaspora, Sarkis said, and is looking to raise more funds through donations to increase its stockpile.
Sarkis’s men are mainly behind the front line, around the town of Sharfiyah, not so much fighting alongside the Peshmerga as holding territory the Kurdish forces have gained or are pushing forward from. Still, it marks a significant shift in the attitude of Iraq’s Christians, a shift that’s fraught with peril. Since 2003, Iraq’s Christian community has been viewed by other Iraqis as a passive victim of the country’s many conflicts, not an active aggressor.