Shooting back: Christian militia in Iraq gets mainstream media attention

Maybe the terrorists of ISIS forgot, but their victims can get guns, too. One such militia, the Babylonian Brigades, is made of Christians who have joined Muslim defenders in Iraq. And as NBC News reports, "they're out for revenge."

Sounds like NBC's crew has zeroed in on a hot story that could well get hotter:

The 1,000-strong Babylonian Brigades is the only Christian militia under the Shiite-dominated umbrella group of volunteer fighters known as the Popular Mobilization Forces — and they're out for revenge.
ISIS "displaced us from our houses, they took our money, killed our young men and women and they took our properties," the group's commander, Rayan Al-Kildani, told NBC News. "Therefore, Christians decided to fight the terrorists of ISIS."
"By the will of God we will avenge what happened to our community," he added.

Many news organizations last year woke up to persecution of Christians;  "Iraq's Other Horror Story," Chris Matthews of MSNBC called it. But NBC News not only jumped on the counterattack, but talked to the fighters.

NBC reports that the Babylonian Brigades formed in June 2014 after the fall of Mosul, a city that once had 30,000 Christian residents.  The militiamen tell the reporter of thefts, rapes, enslavement and summary executions of their loved ones.

It cites the CIA World Factbook that only about 260,000 are left in Iraq as of 2010, although it doesn't say how many once lived there. Some sources count as many as 800,000 to a million before the U.S.' two military actions against the government of Saddam Hussein, starting in 1991.

ISIS' persecution of religious minorities -- Yazidis and Sufi and Shiite Muslims as well as Christians -- has gotten a rising tide of coverage, in mainstream media as well as the religious press. But most of the stories take one of two themes: suffering masses fleeing violence, only to face sickness and hunger; or thousands falling victim to shootings, burnings or beheadings by ISIS.

There's also an occasional subplot of mainstream media: friends of various religions banding together against a common foe. Newsweek did it in March with its feature on the Christian flight from Maaloula, Syria. " In this town, we are not defined by religion," a Sunni man told the newsmagazine. "We all know each other. Everyone is a Christian, and everyone is Muslim."

NBC News adds the interfaith element to its "shooting back" story on the Babylonian Brigades. "ISIS terrorists do not differentiate among Christians, Muslims, Sunnis and Shiites — they kill everyone," a Christian fighter tells NBC. "We have to help our Muslim brothers liberate Iraq."

Perhaps too much is made of the friendship between Christians and Muslims, though:

Abu Yasser, a 53-year-old former Iraqi Army officer now fighting in the brigades, explained that the battlefield unity was just the latest chapter in a historically harmonious relationship. Christians served alongside Muslims — both Sunni and Shiite — in the country's army under former leader Saddam Hussein.
Christians have "lived for years side-by-side with our Muslim brothers," he said. "We drink from the same river and eat the same food; this goes back hundreds and thousands of years."
Besides, he added: "In battlefield you forget who you are, to which religion you belong ... The only thing that you think of is how to defeat your enemy."

"Drink from the same river" is indeed a ringing phrase, but NBC News would have done well to ask fellow Muslim fighters if they share such interfaith amity. If it's as warm as the story suggests, it would have been a good scene-setter to show them praying or even lunching together.

But was everyone really so friendly in pre-ISIS Iraq, when the violence actually began earlier? Publications like Deutsche Welle point out that some Iraqi Muslims began to scapegoat Christians as allies of the "crusaders," i.e., the U.S. and its allies. Insurgents began bombing churches in Baghdad as early as 2004, DW says.

Oddly, NBC's report has spawned relatively few other stories, largely in religious media like the Christian Post. The main exception thus far is the International Business Times, which draws heavily from NBC as well as CBS and its own archives. In turn, the Nigerian site Pulse cites IBT and Christian Today. So whatever coverage the Babylonian Brigades have gotten is largely to NBC's credit.

The militia has produced its own video reports on YouTube, like this one and this one. They appear to copy ISIS' video style, showing troops and weapons accompanied by triumphal music. One of the the videos says that after Iraq is won, the Christian militia will split -- half going to Syria, half to Yemen, to continue the fight against the jihadis.

Another video, by, is less triumphal. It reports the volunteers get only two weeks of training; then they're sent out to confront the battle-hardened ISIS fighters. Then again, at three years old, the Babylonian Brigades have surely developed their own fighting experience by now.

It is, of course, anyone's guess how this will all end. The Christians have vowed lifelong enmity against ISIS, but we all know how quickly a life can end on a battlefield. But the story looks to continue and evolve. I hope to God, or Allah, that NBC News will stay on it.

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