Middle Eastern Christians who have suffered persecution at the hands of ISIS in recent months have decided not to turn the other cheek. Instead, they have formed a militia regiment and are currently engaged in fighting the Islamists across a major front in North West Syria, in alliance with Kurdish forces.
Over the last decade the Christian population in Iraq has been decimated, dropping from over 1 million in 2003 to less than half of that at the present day. Last June alone, 600,000 Christians were displaced from their traditional homes on the Nineveh plain when ISIS swept through.
A centuries old Christian community in Mosul, Iraq, disappeared that month when ISIS troops ordered Christians in the city to convert to Islam or face death. ISIS fighters painted the Arabic letter N for Nasrani (Arabic for Christian) on property owned by Christians and declared it the property of the Islamic State.
And numerous reports of Christians, including children, being crucified and beheaded for refusing to convert have emerged from the region.
Small Christian militias have existed in the region for some time. But they have now engaged in their first major battle, joining with the YPG, the Kurdish defence forces. Kino Gabriel, a former dental student turned soldier with the militia told the Telegraph “We saw what happened in Iraq in 2003. Our people were left alone, with no autonomy, no army that could defend them.”
Speaking by Skype from Qamishli, near the front line, he added “Most of our people have emigrated, thanks to attacks from al-Qaeda and other groups. They couldn’t defend themselves. We learned that lesson and have prepared ourselves.”
In 2011 when the uprising against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad began, the church was split. Many bishops supported Assad’s regime, but others joined forces with liberal activists in opposing him. Few, however, joined in fighting until persecution of Christians began.
First by Jabhat alNuzra, and then at the hands of ISIS, churches were blown up, crucifixes torn down, and Christians living under jihadist rule have been forced to pay the “jizya”, a tax for non-Muslims.
Mr Gabriel had his first taste of battle during an offensive for the town of Tel Hamis, a town south of Qamishli, which was in the hands of al-Nusra. The area is still under dispute, with ISIS, al-Nusra and the Kurds all battling for supremacy in the area. The local Arab population is split in its affiliations, with some backing the Islamists and others supporting the Kurds.
However, the effect on the local population has been catastrophic. More than 1,000 Christian families have fled in the last week alone, according to George Merza, head of the local Assyrian council.
“They are innocent people, children, women and elders,” he said. “We demand an immediate intervention to save our people, who have lived on this land for thousands of years in peace. Today they are driven to death and destruction. This is inhuman.”
The actions of the Christian militia-men have heartened members of their diaspora, living as far away as America, Australia and Sweden. Some have even travelled back to their historical homelands to join in the fighting: Ashley Johnston, a former Australian soldier became the first Westerner to die alongside Kurds and Christians during the battle for Tel Hamis on Monday.
However, other Assyrian Christian have questioned whether it is right to fight and die for a homeland where they have so long suffered violence and persecution. “On the one hand, this is our homeland; on the other, it’s not true to say it’s our homeland any more,” said Father Tony Malham, an Iraqi Assyrian priest who now lives in London.
“If we want to have a home for ourselves we have to fight for it, but as Christians we can’t fight, we can’t kill. We have to talk, we have to talk in a civilised way. But these people who are against us can’t talk, they can only fight and kill.
Mr Gabriel recognised that, with just 1,000 members, his militia was just a drop in the ocean of what was needed to overcome the Islamic forces. But he said that it was his duty to fight. “Over the past century, our people six times have suffered displacement, massacres, other forms of aggression,” he said.
“This has targeted the Syriacs and the Christian presence in the Middle East. We are acting based on the facts before us – to protect ourselves on our historical land. This is our right and duty.”