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Photo of  woman kissing a small boy in front of the Mar Tshmony church.

After an Islamic State (IS) advance into Kurdish-controlled territory, some 500 Christian families in Erbil took shelter at the Mar Tshmony church, where a mother gives her son a reassuring kiss.

Photograph Vianney La Caer, LightRocket via Getty Images

Rania Abouzeid

for National Geographic

Published August 27, 2014

DAHUK, Iraq—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. (Read more about Arab Christians in "The Forgotten Faithful," a National Geographic feature story published in 2009.)

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. (Related: "Iraq Crisis: Ancient Hatreds Turning Into Modern Realities")

Photo of Kurdish Security Forces on high alert on August 19, 2014 around Badriya.
Kurdish Peshmerga troops were on high alert around Badriyah on August 19, after the Mosul Dam was recaptured from IS forces. Some Christians are beginning to align themselves with the Peshmerga.
Photograph by Gail Orenstein, NurPhoto/Sipa USA/AP

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 Peshmerga are the official forces of the Kurdistan Regional Government. It is the first such action by Iraqi Christians since some Christians fought briefly alongside the Kurds against Saddam Hussein.

Sarkis, 44, is the newly appointed branch chief of the party's office in Dahuk, a northern governorate in the semiautonomous Kurdish region that borders Syria and Turkey.

The 40 men constitute what Sarkis calls the "first wave," and the unit has adopted the name Dukha, an Assyrian word that means "sacrifice."

"We keep talking about Jesus and peace, and now we've reached the point where it's not enough," he said in an interview at his party's headquarters in Dahuk. "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."

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.

Photo of the 7th century Rabban Hermizd monastery carved into the mountainside overlooking the Nineveh Plain.
Carved into a mountainside, the seventh-century Rabban Hormizd monastery overlooks the Nineveh Plains. Christians have lived in the area continuously since the first century, but in the past decade more than two-thirds of Iraq’s estimated 1.5 million have fled.
Photograph by J.B. Russell, Panos

A Perilous Shift

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.

Taking up arms will make the Christians direct participants, armed targets who pose military rather than just ideological opposition to ultraconservative Islamist groups.

Sarkis acknowledges this but said his party is prepared to accept the consequences. "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."

Before 2003, Iraq held about 1.5 million Christians. The number today is fewer than 500,000, say community leaders, the majority having been driven out by war and all the trouble it inflicts and breeds, including corruption and insecurity.

Map of christians Iraq
Juan José Valdés, Daniela Santamarina, NG Staff.
Source: INSTITUTE FOR THE STUDY OF WARS; ATLAS OF GLOBAL CHRISTIANITY 1910-2010, CENTER FOR THE STUDY OF CHRISTIANITY, 2009

According to the CIA's World Factbook, Shiites now make up 60 to 65 percent of Iraq's population, Sunnis 32 to 37 percent, and Christians just 0.8 percent. Most remaining Christians live on the Nineveh Plains, an area that is also home to other ethnic and religious minorities in Iraq, including the Yazidis and the Turkomans. (Related: "Iraq: 1,200 Years of Turbulent History in Five Maps")

Fall of Mosul

On June 10, Mosul, the capital of the Nineveh governorate, in northern Iraq, fell to IS-led militants in a blitzkrieg advance. The IS was ruthless with its enemies, uploading videos of mass executions of soldiers and security forces they'd captured. The Iraqi Army melted away, rather than try to repel the incursion.

Weeks later, the Kurdish Peshmerga also retreated from some areas in the face of an IS-led onslaught. Kurdish troops are now fighting, with the aid of limited U.S. air strikes, to regain territory.

The IS gave Mosul's estimated 8,000 to 10,000 Christians three options: convert to Islam, pay a tax, or die. Instead they fled en masse to villages on the Nineveh Plains, as well as farther north into the Kurdish heartland.

As few as 40 Christians remain in Mosul, according to Duraid Tobiya, 53, an Assyrian from the city and an adviser on minority affairs to the governor of Nineveh.

He said that the few who stayed were too sick, too old, or too poor to leave—so much so that the IS exempted them from paying the jizya, a tax on non-Muslims.

"I'm from Mosul—this is the first time I've been displaced," Tobiya said. "I lived through everything else that happened in Mosul, but it's all very different from what's happening now."

Photo of men with guns taking up a position.
Kurdish forces took up position against IS militias near Mosul on August 10. Several nearby towns, according to media reports, have fallen to the Islamist insurgents during the past week. Christian groups are now beginning to take the defense of their homeland into their own hands.
Photograph by Mohammed Jalil, EPA

This time, he said, he had no faith in either the Iraqi Army or the Kurdish Peshmerga to protect Christians and other minorities, such as the Yazidis and Turkomans, against a much more dangerous foe, because both forces initially abrogated their duties.

Iraq's Christians, like all of the country's sectarian communities, do not speak with one voice. There are numerous political parties with varying platforms.

The solution as Tobiya saw it, was one of two options: "either mass emigration or an internationally protected safe zone. We have no other options. We are against emigration, because we are not only the sons of this country but its original inhabitants."

All dozen or so Christians interviewed by National Geographic adamantly shared the demand for a safe zone, akin to the two no-fly zones the West established in 1992 to protect Kurds in the north and Shiite Muslims in the south from the forces of former leader Saddam Hussein.

But 1992 was a long time ago in terms of Western resources and commitment to the region—especially at a time when President Barack Obama's administration is trying to pivot away from the troubles of the Middle East. Still, Tobiya and others insisted it's a viable option.

"We must protect ourselves—and also have international protection," he said.

Photo of a Christian refugee demonstrating his anger at a Peshmerga.
Refused entry to the humanitarian aid center in Al Hamdaniyah (Qaraqosh), a Christian refugee expresses his frustration to a Peshmerga soldier.
Photograph by Vianney Le Caer, Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty

Long-term Plans

In another part of Dahuk, behind the high concrete walls of the Assyrian Democratic Movement's headquarters, the local branch leader, Farid Yacoub, 42, says his party too is moving to arm its men.

It is registering volunteers, having gathered more than 2,000 names from the Dahuk governorate alone. But unlike Assyrian Patriotic Party leaders, Yacoub is recruiting men to protect Christian areas after they've been won back from the IS and its allies.

The intention is not to participate in the battle to reclaim those areas. "We have lots who are volunteering, who want to fight, but we don't have the means to arm them," he said.

The party doesn't want Christian villages such as Al Hamdaniyah (Qaraqosh) to be controlled or protected by the Peshmerga after they've been reclaimed. "Our people don't trust them any more," Yacoub said.

There's a bigger issue here. Nineveh has long been caught in a conflict between the central government in Baghdad and the semiautonomous Kurdish region in the north.

Some Christians on the Nineveh Plains have pushed to govern themselves, but Kurdistan also has claims on their territory and wants to absorb it into its zone.

Earlier this year, long before the country descended into the current level of mayhem and fragmentation, Baghdad "agreed in principle" to turn the Nineveh Plains, as well as two other areas, Fallujah and Tuzkhurmatu, into provinces. This would enable the Christians to manage their own affairs and secure an independent share of the national budget.

The Assyrian Democratic Movement doesn't want the Nineveh Plains to be part of Kurdistan, but Sarkis said his Assyrian Patriotic Party does.

Sarkis's men are working with the Peshmerga, independent of the national government's recent call for volunteers to fight the IS.

"Let's be honest," he said. "When the [Shiite-led] government asked for volunteers, it's because the war is sectarian, between Shiites and Sunnis. They didn't volunteer to protect Christians. They did so to fight Sunnis."

Yacoub, on the other hand, is not working with the Peshmerga and said his men are waiting for the central government to train and arm them, though with the proviso that they return to their areas.

"Our men said they were worried because they didn't want to defend areas other than theirs. We want to defend areas where our people are, specifically the Nineveh Plains," Yacoub said. "We're nationalists, but the circumstances that Iraq is living through now necessitate that we have a safe place, a place for us."

Photo of Kurdish police and local protection militias guarding the entrance to the Saint Yohana Church.
A Kurdish policeman and a member of a local militia guard the entrance to Saint Yohana Church, in the Christian town of Al Hamdaniyah (Qaraqosh) on the Nineveh Plains. A few miles away is Mosul, the overwhelming majority of whose Christians have fled since the IS seized the city in early June.
Photograph by J.B. Russell, Panos

Turning to Lebanon's Christians

Of all the dwindling Christian communities in the Middle East in recent times, only the Lebanese have picked up arms during civil turmoil. Lebanese Christians battled not only Muslims but also each other during their country's brutal 15-year civil war, which ended in 1990.

Duraid Tobiya, the adviser to the Nineveh governor, is also a member of Yacoub's Assyrian Democratic Movement. He said that since the fall of Mosul, his party had received a delegation from the Lebanese Forces, a militia turned political party, and had also sent representatives to Lebanon twice to meet with the party.

He didn't elaborate about the nature of the meetings, saying only that "we want to benefit from their experience. We explained our situation, and they explained their experience in Lebanon." He added, "We might proceed with some things, apply them on the ground."

Antoinette Geagea, a spokesperson for the Lebanese Forces in Beirut, confirmed the meetings. She said they were part of a series her party had undertaken with Christian spiritual and political leaders from Nineveh and Kurdistan, as well as Kurdish parties, in the wake of the fall of Mosul.

"There are many different views among Iraq's Christians," she said. "The Lebanese Forces told them that they must unite. We told them that if you all agree on a position, we will stand with you and help you."

That help could be political, in the form of lobbying international and regional players, or humanitarian. Or "if they want to protect themselves, we will put our experience at their disposal," Geagea said. "We told them they must decide on the best solution to help Christians stay in their country."

Photo of a young female refugee attending a concert at night at the yard of Saint-Joseph Church.
On August 14, Christians and refugees from Mosul enjoyed a morale-boosting concert organized by the Kurdistan Regional Government at Saint Joseph Church, in the Ankawa suburb of Erbil. Fernando Filoni, a special representative of Pope Francis, also attended.
Photograph by Feriq Ferec, Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

"We're Still Here"

Yaqoob Yaqo, one of the Assyrian Democratic Movement's members of parliament in Kurdistan, said that more than a hundred thousand Christians fled in the wake of the IS advances into their areas. "The problem is that even if [the IS] withdraws, a hundred thousand won't return."

He rattled off a long list of massacres and episodes of persecution directed against his people, but despite that litany, he wasn't downbeat.

"We're still here," he said, adding that his community has lived in these lands for 6,700 years, persisting after the fall of the Assyrian empire in 612 B.C. and practicing as Christians for the past 2,000 years.

"I feel strong when I think about our history, that all of these great powers couldn't uproot us from here," he said. "We're still here, but we want our own security."

26 comments
Max Baikov
Max Baikov

This is a fantastic article which rarely makes the headlines. Just as the Kurds have the right for self-determination, so do the Assyrians. I believe the Kurds and the Assyrians should forge an alliance together. Both people have suffered throughout their history. The Iraqi Federal Government has failed the Assyrians and the Yezidis since 2003. Nothing good has ever come out from the Iraqi Government. Since Al-Maliki took over the prime minister's position, not once had he made any initiative towards a brighter future for his people. The Assyrians and other religious sects were left scattered in the mountains and treated like nomads in their own homeland. Biggest breach of international law. Iraqi Kurdistan is a good example of a flourishing democracy. Iraq should learn a thing or two from the Kurds. It's now time for the Assyrians to enjoy autonomy. Self-determination is a universal right.

Mike Smigielski
Mike Smigielski

@Tony Sapa... First, I sincerely want to thank your bold faith in Our Lord Jesus Christ. As a Christian brother, I'd like to remind you that you miss the point of the article. The grief of the Assyrian people is tremendous right now and your accusations of these people as indirectly being w***** does not speak to the love the Father has for them through the Incarnation, Death, Resurrection and Ascension of Our Lord Jesus Christ.

I ask you, my Christian brother, you claim infalliability in your interpretation of God and Sacred Scripture: Do you truly believe that Our Father in heaven loves you? D

Do you believe He loves the Assyrian people? I ask because I hear nothing in your comments about true forgiveness, redemption, or justice. Thank you..

Tony Sapa
Tony Sapa

I like this article,however it saddens me when I hear the Assyrians say we keep talking about Jesus and peace and its not enough,When knowing Jesus is the sacrificial lamb that connects you to your Father. The God of Abraham Isaac and.Jacob is mighty in battle,There is a time for peace and a time for war as written in proverbs. I know many Assyrians who are blinded to the fact that even though they profess Christianity as their religion, their doctrine inhibits genuine salvation. Calling someone Father when there is only one in heaven. Assyrians even though seperated from the Roman Catholic Babylon whorish system,they still look a lot like it. Thats why there is  no revelation of who God of the Bible is. Assyrians are promised a restoration of Nineveh as written in Isaiah. You guys have to come back to biblical roots and uproot paganism in your Church,Then you see the power of God move on your behalf and.restore your people to their original design. The Gospel is a Gospel of power. Religion is the enemy.Many Assyrians are mean spirited,however they degrade themselves of their true character as to appease the masses in showing they are Christians with their own strength and its suffocating the Assyrian people of their true identity. Galgamosh would wake up in their grave to see what the modern Assyrian has become. Take the babylon system out of your Church and get baptized with obediance and genuine repantance and make Jesus your Lord and savior,putting your faith in one Father from above,then you will see how your were once blind and see,how you were lost and now found,and God will  restore,provide and make a way for you where there is no way ,and bring Nineveh back. Stay strong and fight and let divine Lion in you ROAR in Jesus name. You think God wants you as doormats to your enemies,refusing to fight,LOL. Stay away from so called Churches that call a man Holy or Father. This is not in doctrine and is false. It hurts me when is see a Assyrian woman with hands in the air yelling God where are you. If he could talk directly back , am sure he would say the same thing. They have took the Gospel of Jesus Christ and paganized it. There is only one Father, One Son and one Holy Spirit . Make Jesus Christ your Lord and Savior and repent from your sins. The whorish system wants you small and weak and slaved. Jesus didn't come and die in Vain. Mary and no man , no saint cant do nothing for you.

Mat  Jusoh
Mat Jusoh

Remember the Battle of Lepanto. There is a time to turn the other cheek but not to what ISIS is doing to the Christians.


We fight to protect our families and we also pray to God to help us and the holy Mother to intercede for us.

Mo Ca
Mo Ca

To the Kurds: Thank you for helping to protect my Christian brothers and sisters.

Time to take up arms and defend your women and children from this wickedness.

GODSPEED!!

F. Kelmendi
F. Kelmendi

- Islamic State will not fight Chrsitians in iraq, but if iraqi christians fight against Islamic State .. it wont be good for them.

Rob Combs Sr
Rob Combs Sr

" the ultraconservative Islamist group "? You left wingers just cannot say the word Terrorist can you? And Al-Qeada ..

The IS's earlier incarnation, al Qaeda in Iraq—a group that formed after the U.S.-led invasion in 2003??? Are you kidding me!! Al-Qeada was around long before we took out Saddam and freed Iraq from a horrible dictator who killed his own people by the thousands...I couldn't get any farther into this story.

chris snyder
chris snyder

It's sad but best if Christians leave Iraq - it is now a Muslim land and is no good.  Same with Syria and Libya.  People get caught up in the Muslim Sunni vs. Shiite feud and nothing good comes from it - move out and let God deal with it... there are MANY places in the world where non-violent people like Christians are welcome.

Richard Columbare
Richard Columbare

The Christian world had better take a good look at I.S.I.S., and pick up arms to fight this Muslim killer group,because if the Christians do nothing I.S.I.S. will be killing them the same as it kills all other religions.   So either band together and fight or be killed one by one,because I.S.I.S is coming for you. 

Huda Jamal
Huda Jamal

nice photo my uncle Mr. FERIQ....well done....


Zen Galacticore
Zen Galacticore

Christians, like everybody else, have a right to defend themselves and their property from attack. "...offer the other cheek" doesn't mean that Christ would teach to just let someone run you through with a sword without defending yourself, your family, your land, or your people.


Self-defense is a natural right.

Jakob Stagg
Jakob Stagg

If your nation does not provide for your security, you can tell who is the enemy.


Sometimes there is nothing but horrible choices. For me personally, I would prefer to die protecting my life, the lives of my family, and my community rather than becoming a refugee. I have never heard a story of joy and happiness from any refuge. Some survive, others do not.


ISIS is not treating refugees very well.

Roxanne Roxanadanna
Roxanne Roxanadanna

Given an Iraqi government, valiant is being a soldier of that government; absent such, entering an armed force opposed to ISIS is matriculating into the university of violent death & extermination. A minute minority should always flee in such circumstances;  Jews who did not flee Germany & Poland when they had the chance became ash.

Tony Sapa
Tony Sapa

@Mat Jusoh  Mat the mother cannot do nothing for you . Jesus is the only way ,truth and life.

Tony Sapa
Tony Sapa

@Mo Ca  You guys should get back to biblical roots and God will equip you guys to fight you own battles.

Michael H.
Michael H.

@Rob Combs Sr Yes ISIS is a ultraconservative group as most religiously based terrorist organizations tend to be; look at their interpretation of Islam, it's certainly not liberal. While al-Qaeda had been around many years previous to the U.S. invasion its branch in Iraq was only able to start in the power vacuum left after Saddam was deposed.

David Guerra
David Guerra

@Rob Combs Sr IS is a well armed group which doesn't need to resort to terrorist practices to achieve its aims. Well, it's true that even well armed countries like the US and Israel commit or have commited terrorism, as it is usually called. Still their armed forces are not usually referred to as "terrorist". Usually terrorist groups are those which don't have enough military resources to stand their ground against their enemy, so they resort to other types of violence as a coercion, usually against civilians. IS's use of violence has to do with the philosophy and aims of the group itself, not as a coercion against other group but against its own "subjects". Just like some countries kill some of their citizens as a coercion for others not to do certain crimes.

chris snyder
chris snyder

@Richard Columbare  I disagree.  Muslims have had a violent element since the beginning and started killing each other as soon as Muhammad died.  There is no way these killers can get tossed out of Islam (takfir is closest to excommunication but would only be used if Muslim miscreants intentionally destroy qurans while killing people).  Moderate Muslims (the great majority) will not fight the miscreants because they are afraid or because they hope someday these 'brothers' will become peaceful.  Best for non-Muslims to stay away from the violence - in time (when the Muslim miscreants attack or threaten Muslim governments/revenue), countries like Saudi Arabia et al will do something about it - it's better because they have plenty of money to deal with it, and because Muslims killing Muslims is part of their history and culture, but NOT okay for non-Muslims to kill even one Muslim if they kill 100 terrorists (and many Sunnis don't consider ISIS terrorists - not yet, but with executions and amputations held every Friday, they may soon consider them bad guys [ISIS 'rescued' them from Shiite Maliki, after Sunnis were favored by Saddam, so now all have many axes to grind, which is also a Muslim/tribal culture thing]).  IF non-Muslims get into it with ISIS, Sunnis will consider it a war on Islam - first we need for ISIS to harm a bunch of Sunnis until they consider ISIS evil.

Mat  Jusoh
Mat Jusoh

You are wrong brother, have you forgotten the marriage feast at Cana, what happened ? Jesus listen when his mother intercede with him on our behalf.

So we ask Jesus but we also ask Mary his mother to speak to him of our request.

Michel Pells
Michel Pells

@David Guerra @Rob Combs Sr David, I am sorry to say this but I have a feeling that you are part of ISIS. You are a terrorist. Every human being who sympathizes with ISIS is a terrorist himself and should be destroyed along with ISIS. Period.

Bob Maddry
Bob Maddry

@David Guerra @Rob Combs Sr So ... IS doesn't need to resort to terrorist practices, but they do.  Interesting.  Their main avenue is coercion, usually against it's own "subjects".  I guess that is why they are training now and putting the U.S. mainland on notice that they are coming????  Better wake up my man.  Read what the group itself says it's goals are.  A global caliphate.  I'll guarantee you the leaders of our country may be taking a nap, but we the citizens are not.  They are evil and they are terrorists.  Period.  Any group that beheads children wanting the publicity and 'street cred' is evil period.  They must be destroyed.  Period.

Jon Blackburn
Jon Blackburn

@chris snyder

Either way, it's going to come to blows. Sadly, we'll probably all find ourselves fighting a 2-front war.

Tony Sapa
Tony Sapa

@Mat Jusoh  Matt im sorry. But marriage feast at Cana is symbolic of what Jesus is going to do for us at the Cross. Saying to his ,mother, Do you know it is not yet my time. Jesus is the true Vine that finished the work at the Cross, with his precious blood. This fold tale about Mary is a lie . She is not at the right hand of the Father? Jesus is. Pray to God in Jesus name.

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