Threats from Iran aren’t news to Benoka and his parishioners, who returned to their homes and church in Bartella in April 2018 following the town’s liberation from the Islamic State group. So-called security in the area since that time is controlled by the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), the Iraqi militia backed by Iran under Soleimani’s elite Quds Force.
Soleimani helped form the PMF units to bolster the Iraq Army in its campaign to defeat ISIS starting in 2016. But then Soleimani deployed the units as a security force, projecting Iranian control across areas that since 2014 ISIS had controlled. Many of these were Christian communities stretching back more than a millennium until ISIS emptied them.
Christians seeking to return to towns like Bartella initially welcomed militia presence, seeing it as protection against the Islamic State’s return. But they soon learned the militias were bent on controlling their homelands.
By 2017 the PMF had raised Shia flags and banners, depicting Iran’s mullahs, at the entrances to what had been majority Christian towns. In Bartella they urged boycotts of Christian businesses struggling to reopen. In 2018 local PMF units blocked the street leading to Benoka’s St. George’s Church, preventing worshippers from attending. In December that year, they opened fire on the church. Benoka went into the street to demand they stop shooting. A local PMF member grabbed him and briefly held him with a handgun pointed at his face.
In 2019, threats continued. Shia gunmen fired on a Palm Sunday procession in April, forcing churches to curtail Easter celebrations. With PMF support, the local Shabak, or Shia population, have moved into residential areas once occupied by Christians and erected loudspeakers atop public buildings to broadcast Muslim prayers. St. George’s has continued to hold services, Benoka said, including at Christmas. But for the first time, last month there was no Christmas tree in Bartella.
Only about one-third of the town’s pre-2014 Christian population has returned—about 4,000 people. As Soleimani’s influence in Iraq grew, Iran’s Shia militias “put our existence in peril,” Benoka said.
Other towns in Nineveh report similar harassment. The PMF militia in Qaraqosh entered homes and reportedly assaulted Christian women and girls. Since the killing of Soleimani, said Qaraqosh resident Yohanna Towaya, “The situation is very, very tense and no one knows what is going to happen.”
The strike killing Soleimani caught Americans and those living in the Middle East by surprise but capped months of escalating tension between Iran and the United States. Besides attacks on shipping vessels in the Gulf of Oman and an attack on Saudi oilfields last year, Iran increasingly had targeted U.S. military installations in Iraq. In late December after a rocket attack at a base in Kirkuk killed a U.S. defense contractor, the United States responded, killing 25 fighters with the Iran-backed Khataib Hezbollah in an airstrike on Dec. 29.