By Sean Savage and Shallé McDonald/JNS.org
With Iraqi forces on the march to liberate Mosul from the grips of the Islamic State, Iraq’s beleaguered Assyrian Christians have renewed hopes of returning to their ancestral homeland in the Nineveh Plains region surrounding Mosul, the country’s second largest city.
Since the beginning of recorded history, the Assyrians, along with other ethno-religious minorities, have lived in northern Iraq’s Nineveh Plains. In 2014, they were conquered by the Islamic State and forced to flee or be killed.
In the latest development on Oct. 24, Iraqi troops swept into the predominantly Assyrian Christian town of Karemlash, located about 18 miles southeast of Mosul. Before that, Iraqi special units had also captured the Assyrian Christian town of Bartella and entered Iraq’s largest Christian city, Qaraqosh, home to around 50,000 Christians prior to 2014.
Working alongside the Iraqi Army’s 9th Armored Division are the Nineveh Plains Protection Units (NPU), an ethnic Assyrian fighting force which is part of the effort to liberate their homeland during the Mosul offensive. So far, several villages and towns formerly under the Islamic State’s control have been liberated.
After Assyrian Christian fighters liberated Bartella, they defiantly erected a cross atop Mar Shmony, a church located in the eastern part of town.
Jeff Gardner, director of operations at Restore Nineveh Now, explained the founding of the NPU.
“Just over two years ago, as the Islamic State was ravaging northern Iraq and terrorizing the Assyrian nation, the American Mesopotamian Organization (AMO), which launched the Restore Nineveh Now Foundation (RNNF), and members of the Assyrian Democratic Movement (ADM), sat down and resolved that if Assyrians in Iraq where going to have a future, they had to take matters into their hands,” Gardner told JNS.org.
“In an historic move, AMO and ADM decided to form and launch the Nineveh Plains Protection Units, or the NPU,” he said.
While an estimated 14,500 displaced families are expected to return to their villages in the Nineveh Plains, the Iraqi Christian Relief Council (ICRC) recently started its Operation Return to Ninevah campaign to raise funds for their needs, said Juliana Taimoorazy, ICRC’s founder and president and a fellow at the Philos Project.
Besides the urgent need for humanitarian supplies, houses will be de-mined by the Iraqi Golden Division, a special operations brigade, as the Islamic State booby trapped most of the homes when they overtook the area.
The Nineveh Plains
Taimoorazy, a Christian Zionist, explained to JNS.org that many Assyrian Christians look at the Ninevah Plains as a spiritual destination, much like Jews view Jerusalem.
“Just like the Jews went back to their homeland, we have the right to return to a homeland that has been ours for 6,700 years, and it’s [been] our national dream for 2,400 years,” she said.
Taimoorazy urged Christians and Jews to embrace and support returning Christians to their decimated homeland.
This area of Iraq is one of the oldest Christian communities in the world. Christianity arrived in modern-day Iraq by Jesus’s Apostle St. Thomas during the first century C.E. Christians represented a majority of the population until the 14th century. Since then, they have splintered off into numerous churches, with the largest denominations being the Chaldean Catholic Church and the Assyrian Church of the East.
Most Iraqi Christians are Assyrian and considered direct descendants of many ancient Mesopotamian civilizations frequently mentioned in the Bible, such as the Sumerians, Akkadians, Babylonians and Assyrians.
A safe haven for Assyrian Christians and other minorities
As Iraqi forces continue to liberate Assyrian Christian villages, the debate has begun over what’s next for them and other persecuted minorities in northern Iraq including the Yazidis, Turkmen and Shabak. The push to form a safe haven for these minority groups, centered on the Nineveh Plains, is gaining ground.
“The Iraqi Constitution and the Iraqi government, not to mention the Iraqi minorities, support the idea of a safe haven that will transition to a self-administering province inside Iraq,” Robert Nicholson, executive director of the Philos Project, told JNS.org.
“Unless the U.S. takes the lead, the safe haven will never emerge,” he said. “Fog of war and competing interests make it unlikely that things will just play out in the minorities’ favor. It was our invasion in 2003 that commenced their flight from Iraq. It should be our policy now to facilitate their return.”
In September, U.S. Rep. Jeff Fortenberry (R-Neb.) introduced a bipartisan resolution supporting the creation of a safe haven in Iraq’s Nineveh Plain region. The Iraqi Council of Ministers and Iraq’s President Jalal Talabani back the idea of forming such a province for Iraq’s minorities.
“All we’re doing is supporting the effort . . . A lot of people say, ‘You are trying to create a Christian ghetto,’ which is not true,” Taimoorazy said. “This is a province for all minorities supporting what the people on the ground want. We don’t want to break away from Iraq, we’re not looking for independence like that. We want to live in a federated Iraq, but not under the Kurdish regime, we do not want to be under the KRG [Kurdish Regional Government].”
Meanwhile, retired U.S. Army Lt. Col. Sargis Sangari cautioned that the clearing operations in the Nineveh Plains will likely render most of the cities as uninhabitable as the Iraqi army has little interest in preserving these areas. Sangari serves as CEO of the Near East Center for Strategic Engagement and is currently in Iraq coordinating the various Assyrian Christian groups.
“If you are the Iraqi army, you’re not going to go house-to-house to fight for these villages and take on heavy casualties,” he said.
For the Assyrians to preserve their way of life, the various Assyrian churches, political parties and military forces must unite to form a strong voice for Christianity in the Middle East.
“Our recommendation to the Christian churches is that to unite and support the Assyrians,” Sangari said. “When you do this you become a stronger force, it is no longer a religion against another religion. The Assyrians are a key to peace in the region. Their historical homeland was designed by God. The Assyrians’ homeland needs to be saved.”