Iran-Backed Militias and Political Division Making it Hard for Religious Minorities to Return Home in Iraq
By Peter Burns
Diverse expressions of Christianity have flourished in Northern Iraq for almost two millennia. The Christian population represents several denominations and constitutes one of the largest minority groups in Iraq. Amongst them, the Armenian Catholics and Orthodox, Evangelicals, Protestants, Syriac Catholics, Assyrian Orthodox, the Assyrian Church of the East, Chaldean Catholics, and Syriac Catholics and Orthodox. This diverse population approximated around one and half million people prior to 2003. Due to their faith, Christians in Iraq have been subjected to various terrorist attacks. Preceding the ISIS invasion of Iraq in June 2014, the Christian population plummeted by ninety percent. In the face of genocide, a mere two-hundred thousand Christians have chosen to remain in their beloved homeland after the evacuation of ISIS fighters. Yet, a majority are faced with the realization that the land their family has possessed throughout the centuries is no longer welcoming to its native inhabitants.
Shia militias, known as Hashd Shaabi or Popular Mobilization Units (PMU), formed under the popular mobilization to fight ISIS, have remained long after the fighting ended and now occupy Christian and Yazidi towns. Their presence increasingly complicates matters since Iran has inserted itself as a supporter of these Shia militias. Furthermore, the Iraqi Security Forces and the Kurdish Peshmerga have divided the region between them. This means the safe return of Christians and Yazidis to their historic homelands is dependent on the co-operation of both groups who have differing agendas. The United States has committed 340 million dollars to rebuild religious minority communities devastated by ISIS, yet more and more Christians say they do not feel safe returning to their home with the current security arrangement.
Congressman Jeff Fortenberry (Nebraska, 1st District), has taken the lead in addressing this challenge, introducing House Resolution 259. House Res. 259 calls on the State Department, the Iraqi Government, and the Kurdish Regional Government to work together for the safe and secure restoration of these ethnic minorities to their ancestral homeland.
The challenge presented by the presence of the Shia PMU is not an unfamiliar issue to Washington and Baghdad. Iran has begun to use these militias as an important proxy in the posturing against the US, sending an Iranian Revolutionary Guard Commander to speak to a gathering of the militia’s leadership. As of yet, no clear strategy to address their presence and the regional division between the Iraqi Central Government and the Kurdish Regional Government has been pursued by the US or Iraq.
House Res. 259 not only calls for this question to be addressed, it also sets the stage for the integration of the religious minority communities into the local security arrangement. Giving Christians and Yazidis a role in providing their own security can create a greater sense of security for families wishing to return home.
It is not hyperbolic to say these ancient religious minority communities in Northern Iraq are on the brink of extinction. The U.S. has invested deeply in humanitarian aid. Now the question is whether or not a security arrangement can be reached which will result in a complete return of these minority groups.
Peter Burns is the Government Relations and Policy Director at In Defense of Christians. He coordinates Congressional advocacy and tracks legislation for IDC. He formerly worked as is the policy analyst for Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback. He studied political science at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville, where he was an active student advocate, founding the College Republican chapter and working as campus director for the Bruce Rauner Campaign for Governor. In 2015 he took a job with Marco Rubio’s presidential campaign and transferred to finish online at Thomas Edison State University. Peter worked as operations manager for The Forge Leadership Network, coordinating the yearly conference and managing the organization’s programing and outreach. He is a Philos Fellow and opinion writer for the Washington Examiner and The Region.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of International Christian Concern or any of its affiliates