Rooney Louis, a Christian internally displaced person from Qaraqosh, in a monastery in Sulaymaniyah, in the Iraqi region of Kurdistan, on March 3, 2015. (Andy Spyra)

A Christian-Assyrian Dwekh Nawsha militia member in Baqubah, Iraq, in November 2014. (Andy Spyra)

More than 100,000 Iraqi Christians, already a tiny minority, are fleeing the Islamic State. They are torn between staying in a war zone or abandoning their 2,000-year-old cultural roots.

Times are dire for the last remaining Iraqi Christians. “Twenty years ago, we were 1.5 million. Now, the most optimistic figures are speaking about 350.000,” states Archimandrit Emanuel Youkhana, head of Iraq’s largest Christian relief organization, CAPNI. Youkhana is not a man of endless lamenting. Throughout the past decade, he tended to his community and tried to weather the years of civil war. But now, with the rise of the Islamic State militant group, his words have become hard and bitter. “This disaster broke the co-existence, the links between the different religions. Wherever you go, ask a Yazidi or Christian. They feel they have been betrayed by their next-door neighbor.” The Islamic State — also known as ISIS, ISIL and Daesh — declared Mosul, about 20 miles from the Iraqi Christian heartland in the Nineveh plains, its capital in June.

One specific Christian community from the Nineveh plains, the Assyrians, cherish a culture much older than Christianity — and it is their historic sites in Nimrud and other places that the Islamic State has been destroying relentlessly.

Now, a group of 60 Assyrians, young and old, have formed a militia — Dwekh Nawsha (“The Sacrificers”) — to protect their remaining villages and push the Islamic State out of Nineveh. Their efforts remain limited by the numbers of weapons they can afford to buy, but they receive financial support from the Assyrian community all over the world, according to their social media manager Rama Baito. Their fighters now control the abandoned Christian village of Badnaya right at the front line north of Mosul. Here they wait for the final push of the Iraqi and Kurdish forces to liberate their homeland. On their walkie-talkies, they can hear the radio chatter of Islamic State fighters in the next village. “I could not just watch the videos of ISIS destroying our churches and our land, I felt the obligation to do something. During war times, we are Assyrians. We don’t let anyone humiliate us. After the war, we go home to be Christians again. But now we are Assyrians,” affirms Logan, one of their volunteers, referring to the ancient reputation of Assyrians being fearsome warriors. A spirit that is somehow shared by Youkhana: “We will keep fighting to the last minute for a living Christianity, a living Church — not just a museum. But it is not an easy challenge.”


The road leading from the Christian town of al-Qosh down to Mosulh. Baqubah, the forward operating base of the Christian Dwekh Nawsha militia, lies about 10 miles north of Mosul. (Andy Spyra)

A sister of the Catholic order on the rooftop of a convent in Ainkawa, the Christian quarter of Irbil, a Kurdish city in northern Iraq. Seventy-six sisters had to flee from Qaraqosh because of an attack by the Islamic State in August 2014. They have been living in Irbil ever since. (Andy Spyra)

In early August, the Islamic State captured Qarakosh, the largest Christian city in Iraq. When the Kurdish peshmerga army decided to give up the town, its 50,000 inhabitants had just two hours to pack their belongings. Today, many of them live in a large refugee camp in Dohuk and a makeshift shelter at a building site in Ankawa, the Christian quarter of Irbil. Two thousand people, many of them children, live in small compartments, separated only by thin metal walls. Over the months, the refugees have started to settle down, opened a small cafe and improvised barbershops near the entrance of the building. Still, because they do not speak the Kurdish language but Arabic, it is almost impossible for most Christian refugees to find work in northern Iraq. “We want to live in a healthy and clean place. There are so many diseases spreading here. There are bugs everywhere, and some of us have scabies”, said Mirna Fadi, 9, who lives with her parents and a sister in the building site.

-Text contributed by Nils Metzger


Christian refugees from Qaraqosh and the surrounding villages can be seen inside an empty, five-story shopping mall in Irbil that now serves as a shelter. (Andy Spyra)

Scene inside Irbil’s Ainkawa shopping mall, which now serves as a refugee camp. The unfinished building now hosts around 1,500 people, almost all from Qaraqosh and the surrounding villages. (Andy Spyra)

The Rev. Jens Petzold celebrates Mass inside the church of the Maryam al-adhra monastery in Sulaymaniyah. About 200 refugees live in the monastery. (Andy Spyra)

Food is being cooked and distributed by the refugees inside the Maryam al-adhra monastery, Sulaymania in November. (Andy Spyra)

Christian refugees from Qaraqosh and the surrounding villages can be seen in an improvised cafe in the basement of a empty shopping mall that now serves as a shelter for refugees in Irbil. (Andy Spyra)

Mass inside the church of the Maryam al-adhra monastery in Sulaymania, Iraq. (Andy Spyra)

The Nineveh plain, seen from the St. Hormez monastery above al-Qosh. (Andy Spyra)

A member of the Christian-Assyrian Dwekh Nawsha militia on the road to the front line in the Nineveh plain. (Andy Spyra)

Fighters of the Christian Dwekh Nawsha militia at the local Christian cemetery in Baqubah. When the village was overrun by Islamic State militants in August 2014, the church was desecrated but left intact as a structure. (Andy Spyra)

Members of the Christian-Assyrian Dwekh Nawsha militia in the Nineveh plain. (Andy Spyra)

The Christian-Assyrian Dwekh Nawsha militia’s base in Baqubah. (Andy Spyra)

A fighter of the Christian Dwekh Nawsha militia at the front line in Baqubah. (Andy Spyra)