On the streets of Bakhdida—a Christian village in Iraq’s Nineveh Plains region that is rebuilding after the Islamic State (ISIS) was driven out—a local youth leader sees Athra and comes over to say hello. Athra slaps his hand in a huge handshake, and the two chat over a cigarette. A little boy comes out of his father’s shop and stands with them listening; Athra pauses and flashes a funny face at the boy, one eyebrow cocked. Growing up with older brothers, he learned how to win with charm instead of force and when to hold his tongue.
After I visited the Nineveh Plains in 2018 and had the pleasure of getting to know Athra and to understand his Assyrian perspective, I felt compelled to write this profile to try to explain a very complex community to a world that often rejects them before truly understanding them. After spending time with Athra and other Assyrian activists, I grew to appreciate their passion and commitment to a national project. Attempting to appreciate the mindset that drives the Assyrian activist is worthwhile if you wish to understand the politics of northern Iraq.
Athra is Assyrian to his core. His day job is a linguistics teacher who studies the roots of Aramaic, the language Jesus spoke. He was a founding member of an Assyrian Christian Militia known as the NPU, which was formed to fight ISIS. He also serves as the party chairman for the local branch of the Assyrian Democratic Movement, a Christian political party. Athra was born under Saddam Hussein in Alqosh in northern Iraq, grew up during United States occupation, and became a leader of his people during the fight against ISIS. Athra is a man who knows what he believes is right and pursues that relentlessly. He isn’t daunted by protocol or rank, charging ahead toward what should be, nor deterred by what is.
Northern Iraq is a patchwork of overlapping ethnic and religious traditions, made more complex by a web of nationalistic ambitions and international power struggles. This region is caught between Iran, which supports Shia militias to extend its influence (a billboard at a militia base in Bartella even sports Ayatollah Khamenei), and the US, whose unclear foreign policy broadly focuses on countering ISIS and Iran. Control of the Nineveh Plains is divided between the Iraqi army and Kurdish peshmerga with a few other armed groups playing security roles. While the Kurdish region remains under Baghdad’s control, these two sides often operate with each other as hostile powers, watching each other from opposing checkpoints.
The Christians of the region are a mix of Chaldean Catholic, Syriac Orthodox, Syriac Catholic, and Assyrian Church of the East Christians, living alongside Shabak Muslims and Yazidis. All these ethno-religious minority groups are still reeling from the volcanic rise and fall of the ISIS caliphate, which ripped through their homes and destroyed the world they had known. In the aftermath, factional tensions run high as these communities dispute whether they are safest aligning with the Iraqi central government in Baghdad or the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in Erbil. The Assyrians are a passionate subgroup within the Christian community. They see themselves as the direct descendants of the remains of the ancient Assyrian Empire, and dream of a day when they will again have autonomy within their homeland. They assert that all Christians in northern Iraq are Assyrian by heritage, while other Christian communities generally would not accept that label and counter this claim with more Iraq-centric or religious denomination-centric identity. Often, Assyrian nationalistic ambitions ruffle feathers within the Christian community, much of which prefers to avoid any conflict with authorities. But Assyrians are just one of the many ethnic groups in this region who desire independence. In the fall of 2017, the KRG held a referendum to secede from Iraq, and certain Shiite factions have called for a Shiite-majority southern region. In fact, one might consider Christians in the region who entirely lack territorial ambitions as more unique than their Assyrian brothers.
To understand the fire in Assyrian nationalists’ souls, one has to understand their complex ethno-religious identity and historical claims. Most Christians of northern Iraq trace their Christian heritage back to St. Thomas and St. Thaddeus’ ministries well before the arrival of Islam. They believe they traveled around the world to spread the Gospel to Afghanistan, Persia, and even as far as China. Assyrians view their roots as going even farther back, claiming direct linkage to the Assyrian Empire. These two factors create a powerful cultural narrative for this community. Their faith gives them a common set of customs they do not share with their Muslim neighbors. This isolated them in a Muslim-majority region and preserved their identity through the ages, but their history here is bloody, replete with generations of persecution, martyrdom, and genocides.
The Simele Massacre
Religious minorities in northern Iraq as a whole, and Christians specifically, see themselves as oppressed and constantly fighting for their lives against forces that wish to obliterate them. This is not just paranoia; it is the reality of their history in the region. Few examples better illustrate this fact than the Simele Massacre.
The conflict leading to the Simele Massacre began on July 21, 1933, when more than 600 Assyrian genocide-surviving refugees from Iran and Turkey crossed from Iraq into Syria in hopes of receiving asylum from the French Mandate of Syria. Iraq at the time had seen a rise in anti-Assyrian rhetoric. The Assyrians were not given asylum but were given light arms and sent back to Iraq on August 4. They intended to surrender themselves to the Iraqi army but instead became embroiled in a skirmish with an army brigade while crossing the Tigris River. The Iraqis were beaten back to their base in Dirabun, but the Assyrians believed the army had deliberately targeted them. As such, they attempted to attack a barracks. These clashes on the border resulted in few casualties on either side. Historians are conflicted with regards to who started this spate of conflicts. While all fighting ceased by August 6, 1933, both the Assyrians and Iraqis were incensed, each believing the other was acting as the aggressor. These events were the necessary sparks to ignite the vicious anti-Assyrian sentiment which had been building in Iraq.
Beginning on August 8, 1933, the Iraqi army responded to exaggerated reports of Assyrians committing atrocities and executed every Assyrian male found in the Behkar region. While these executions were occurring, Kurds and Arabs were encouraged to loot Assyrian villages. More than 60 Assyrian villages were looted and destroyed. The town of Simele eventually became the last refuge for Assyrians fleeing the looters, but it did not prove to be much of a refuge. On August 10, local police allowed Kurdish and Arab looters to take freshly cut wheat and barley, along with whatever else was available, from the Assyrian refugees in Simele. Finally, on August 11, the Iraqi army and Kurdish militias began to methodically kill all the Assyrian men in the city. Women and children were brutally murdered as well, though Iraqi commanders claimed they ordered them to be spared. The Assyrians were all defenseless and were killed in cold blood. Official British sources estimate the number of Assyrians killed during August 1933 to be around 600, while Assyrian sources put the number at 3,000. This atrocity is burned into the minds of Christians in northern Iraq. When you speak with them, they refer to ISIS as only the most recent attempt to wipe them out.
The Christians of the region have wanted to build a memorial on the spot where the Assyrians were killed, but at the time the Iraqi government would not let them. More recently, a cellphone tower was built on the site and a fence put up around the grounds. Now the spot is under Kurdish control, but the KRG continues to deny any form of a memorial to the massacre. In one area the ground has eroded away, and protruding from the earth human bones can be seen plainly. During my visit, I had the opportunity to visit the site of the Simele Massacre with Athra. He was clearly deeply angered by it, even though he had been here a hundred times before. Climbing over the barbed wire fence, he walked around under the cell tower, examining the ground in defiance of those who would keep him from the place of his ancestors’ tragedy.
The question of self-identity has become incredibly important for Assyrians and divisive for Christians. Assyrians claim that Chaldean and Syriac Christians in northern Iraq are Assyrian by heritage and therefore ought to call themselves so.
But that is unacceptable for many Christians who are more religious than nationalistic because they see the term Assyrian as carrying a political as well as historical connotation. The majority of Christians are Chaldean Catholic and Syriac Orthodox, by denomination, and neither denomination ascribes to the Assyrian political agenda; instead, they operate under the Saddam-era notion that they are best off living as peaceful, patriotic Iraqi citizens. So while Assyrians make a factual historical claim about the identity of Christians in northern Iraq, Chaldeans and Syriacs often run from the title to avoid being tied to its current political affiliation. Such a response causes Assyrians to see those not willing to claim their heritage as traitors to the cause. Of course, Iraqi Christian denominations are not monolithic; many of those in the ranks of the Assyrian movement also claim a Chaldean or Syriac faith identity.
Assyrians as a political movement are not the largest in the neighborhood and often try to present their influence as greater than it appears. An Assyrian analysis of its political position in the Nineveh Plains can seem overly optimistic. One such analysis begins by numbering the political party offices in the towns Christians in the Nineveh Plains inhabit (22). The analysis states that different Assyrian political groups have 10 of these political party offices, which leads to the conclusion that at least 45.5 percent of the Christian population in the Nineveh Plains is aligned with Assyrian political parties. This conclusion was drawn by simply dividing the number of political party offices held by Assyrian political groups by the total number of offices held by Christian political groups. Election results tend to show a more divided electorate. While Assyrians are an important political force in the Christian community, they are one of a handful. Assyrians often suggest those Christian parties’ willingness to make deals with Kurds is a clear sign that they sold out, often pointing to funding from Kurdish sources as the reason. Chaldean Christians, who make up another major block of the Christian minority, often look for ways to work with the Kurdistan Regional Government but take offense at being branded traitors, considering their approach more pragmatic.
Differing Narratives on Christian Militias
When ISIS approached Athra’s hometown of Alqosh, the inhabitants fled for safety. At the time Athra was in Germany and was heartbroken upon hearing Alqosh had been abandoned. He returned to Iraq and was one of 20 men the United States special forces quietly trained, and then he participated as a translator for the special forces during the subsequent two rounds of training for the militia known as the Nineveh Plains Protection Unit. Such militias help improve regional security, a regularly expressed desire of all Christians and even all minorities in northern Iraq. They believe such groups are necessary because both the Iraqi army and the Kurdish peshmerga fled when ISIS advanced, leaving minority communities at the mercy of a truly brutal ideology. Christians and Yazidis often recall that if they had been allowed to defend themselves the outcome would have been different.
There are currently a few different armed groups of Christians in the Nineveh Plains. Christian leaders in Quaraqosh formed the Nineveh Plains Guards Forces (NPG), which was the first Christian militia in the area. Other Christian leaders in smaller and less-vulnerable localities felt there was no need to form militias. The Kurdish peshmerga and the NPG were seen as holding enough power to provide adequate protection. This confidence in the peshmerga was decimated when they abandoned minority areas and ISIS moved into the Nineveh Plains. Likely as a result of this decreased confidence, Christians fractured into multiple armed groups. Some Christians stayed with the NPG, which has stayed closely aligned with the Kurds. Others split and formed the Dwekh Nawsha, the Nineveh Plains Protection Units (NPU), and the Nineveh Plains Forces (NPF). These groups have maintained their ties with the Kurds, but the NPU currently works primarily with the central government of Iraq. Another group, the Babylon Brigade, has entirely broken with the Kurds and works closely with pro-Iranian groups in Iraq. It has been widely reported that the Babylon Brigade only has a handful of Christians in its ranks, the vast majority of its fighters being Shia Muslims.
While the specific strengths of each of these militias can be disputed—depending on if you count the number of paid soldiers, the number of actual guns the militias possess, the number of men who have received some military training, or, most broadly, the number who have volunteered to fight—the reality is none of the Christian militias are independently large enough to provide the needed security. But attempts to unite these militias, even efforts made by the US State Department, have been unsuccessful.
Athra argues that, of the other major Christian militias, the NPG is an unreliable organization. While this is a disputed claim, Athra’s experience with the NPG has not been positive. On May 3, 2016, Athra joined a handful of NPU fighters who were under attack in the Christian town of Teleskof, along with a contingent of peshmerga and NPG fighters. As ISIS rolled into Teleskof, the peshmerga and NPG pulled out, leaving the NPU to face the onslaught alone for 20 minutes, until the NPU had exhausted its ammunition and also had to withdraw. The NPU and NPG are also funded by different entities, Baghdad and the KRG, respectively. The fact that the NPG is funded by the KRG leads many within the NPU both to distrust the KRG and perceive the NPG as Kurdish pawns.
Athra, the Assyrian
In a meeting, Athra stared intently at a bookshelf, seemingly distracted as others talked business. Suddenly, he jumped up and ran over to the bookshelf and grabbed two dictionaries in a set that had been placed on the shelf upside-down. He corrected them. At another time, our group could not enter the tomb of Nehum, the Jewish prophet who prophesied the fall of the Assyrian Empire, due to a construction project that had blocked the area. In a moment, Athra jumped the fence and provided the group a tour from inside the barrier. It is very Assyrian to feel deeply that which is wrong and must be corrected and to pursue that end without traditional inhibitions.
In a recent correspondence with Athra, he wrote that “all the people around us are harmful as much as they are able to be, unfortunately…and we are always trying to do our best to stop that.”
Sitting in the West, it is easy to find the passion of the Assyrians abrasive, or their exasperation with the seeming lack of interest in their plight as a lack of gratitude. Instead, we should try to understand them from their own context, not ours. Beleaguered by a Kurdish government that seems focused on realizing a Kurdish state even if that means smearing away other regional ethnic identifiers, Shia militias that sow instability in the service of foreign interests, and a history of genocidal violence, Assyrians are doggedly pursuing a better future for their people.