Chaldean Patriarch urges US not to arm 'Christian militias'

Catholic Patriarch Louis Raphael I SakoReuters

Christians in Iraq are being exploited for political gain, and the US must not follow through on its pledge to arm Christian forces fighting ISIS, the Chaldean Patriarch has warned.

In a statement to Fides news agency, Patriarch Louis Raphael I Sako said supporting self-proclaimed 'Christian militias' would be "a bad idea".

"There are no 'Christian militias', but only politicized groups and simple people who are in desperate need of a salary," he said. "The remaining Christians in Iraq are only the poor and those belonging to the middle class, and among them, there are 100 thousand displaced people."

There are multiple groups vying for the support of Christians in Iraq, including Sunni Arabs, Kurds and the central government in Baghdad, the Patriarch explained. Each has conflicting interests.

"It is a total mess!" he added. "Everyone wants to exploit Christians of Nineveh Plain for their ambitions and political interests. It is an area with different ethnic groups and religious communities... I am afraid that all these talks will turn Nineveh Plain into a continuing conflict region, and in this case, no Christian will return to their homes."

The Patriarch was responding to a defence spending bill currently headed for authorisation by the US Congress and Senate. It specifically refers to Christian security forces as a group that should be supported. A report says: "The committee believes that the United States should support appropriately vetted, effective indigenous groups such as Iraqi Christian militias, with a national security mission."

Steve Oshana, executive director of A Demand for Action – a campaign group that has pushed for the legitimacy of Christian militias to be recognised – told Christian Today the move was a "huge step forward".

"This is significant because Christian forces in Iraq and Syria have spent the past 18 months building capacity, and in Syria one group has already received support from the US," he said.

"It's significant because it shows a greater US commitment to supporting Christians and more importantly acknowledging their legitimacy as fighting forces in Iraq and Syria."

Congressman Jeff Fortenberry on Thursday commended the bill for expanding protections for religious minorities in Iraq.

"Two months ago, Congress declared that ISIS is committing genocide against Christians, Yezidis, and other minorities. The House of Representatives has now taken concrete steps to support the victims," he said.

"The National Defense Authorization Act that has passed the House contains two new policy goals. First, the United States strategy in Iraq now includes securing 'safe areas' so that genocide victims can return to their homelands. Second, a new provision empowers minority groups, including Christian and Yezidi security forces, in the integrated military campaign against ISIS.

"Christians, Yezidis, and others should remain an essential part of the Middle East's once rich tapestry of ethnic and religious diversity. They now have new cause for hope."

However, Patriarch Sako warned that the future of Christianity in the Middle East is at stake if the new bill is passed.

"Christians, if they want to have a future, must integrate themselves with the institutions and follow the legitimate authorities that govern the place where they live," he said. "And if the US really want to defeat Daesh [ISIS], they have to support the regular armies that are part of the central government and the autonomous Kurdistan government, instead of creating sectarian militias".