Militia Forces Threaten Iraqi Priest
Militia Harassment of Christians the New Norm in Areas Previously Controlled by ISIS
International Christian Concern (ICC) has learned that on the morning of December 1, Shabak militia forces aggressively blocked access to St. George Assyrian Church in Bartella, Iraq and threatened its priest, Father Behnam Benoka. The Shabak militia maintains close ties to Iraq’s Hashd al-Sha’abi militia, which is accused of multiple human rights violations.
The Shabaks are a local ethnic minority also targeted by ISIS and whose militia participated in the liberation of the Nineveh Plains. The incident in Bartella occurred when a Shabak wedding party stopped at a photography studio near St. George. The Shabak militia forces were participating in the wedding party and decided to park their vehicles in front of the church. For the next 30 minutes, members of the militia shot automatic weapons into the area. When Father Benoka approached the militia and asked that they cease shooting, the militia aggressively threatened him.
“There was a wedding from the Shabaks, and originally they are not from Bartella or Qaraqosh. But they got inside Bartella and stood very close to the church,” Jalal, a witness of the incident, told ICC. “They had guns and no one could stop them from shooting, neither the police [nor] the NPU (Nineveh Plains Protection Unit). After that, they came to Qaraqosh and got out of the cars and danced in the middle of the street and showed their guns again.”
Ramon, a congregant of St. George, told ICC, “We thought that it is a war. There was heavy shooting that could be heard from a distance. This is not the first time, but the groom’s family has connection at the local governorate and that’s why no one could stop them.”
Prior to the Islamic State’s (ISIS) invasion of the Nineveh Plains in 2014, Bartella was a predominately Christian village. The immense destruction of the region by ISIS combined with competing militia factions have served as a significant barrier to the return of Christians to the Nineveh Plains.
“That’s the sad fact,” another local Christian told ICC. “We are trying to stand firm, but we have a speech which says, ‘Quantity wins courage,’ and they have the quantity.”
A Christian government worker from Bartella further explained, “We are not comfortable living in Bartella post-ISIS… Shia Hashd is the top here.” He continued, “Bartella is not a Christian area anymore. The aggressive armed men always send horror inside, we are not able to recognize ISIS behavior versus government behavior!”
Claire Evans, ICC’s Regional Manager, said, “The security situation in the Nineveh Plains remains highly volatile because of a continued ISIS presence and competing militias that act without oversight and accountability. Displaced by ISIS and now harassed by militias, the situation for Christians in Iraq remains incredibly dangerous. Without security and the rule of law, the situation for Iraq’s Christians will only continue to deteriorate.”
Source: International Christian Concern www.persecution.org