When do Christians fight back? It is a question that has generated enormous controversy over 2,000 years. Jesus himself told us to turn the other cheek. He warned the apostle Simon Peter that a person who lives by the sword will die by the sword.
But even the most ardent Christian pacifist would surely struggle to find reasons why Assyrian Christians should not take up arms against an enemy that is murdering, kidnapping and raping their people on a mass scale.
So increasingly we are hearing reports of Christian groups in the region forming their own defense forces to protect their villages and their people.
One of these is the Nineveh Plains Protection Unit, known as NPU. The Nineveh Plains, in north-western Iraq, have for thousands of years been the home of the Assyrians, the original Iraqis. Most today are Christians. They have endured hundreds of years of persecution, culminating last year in the invasion by the terrorists of ISIS, which forced more than 150,000 residents to flee.
I spoke by Skype with Jeff Gardner, Director of Communications for the American Mesopotamian Organization and for its Restore Nineveh Now project, which is helping NPU. He recently returned from his third visit to the region.
“These are defense units,” he said. “It is important to understand that they are not another kind of militia. They are integrated with the community to provide defense.”
He noted that both Kurdish forces and the Iraqi military had fled when ISIS arrived, leaving Christians defenceless.
“In most cases the Assyrian villages were overrun by fewer than 100 members of ISIS. It was not some large-scale invading force. So it is just necessary to establish a defense force that will hold the line. In some smaller towns 20 to 50 soldiers will suffice. The Assyrians are in desperate need of a sense of security.”
However, he believed that it was important to act speedily.
“ISIS is a criminal syndicate,” he said. “They are trying to precipitate a regional war. We cannot dilly-dally while they gather strength.”
But, then, with Christians now fleeing the Middle East, Jeff added something that has set me thinking.
“Do we really want peace in the Middle East? Not just as a platitude, but real peace? Then we need more Christians. Of course, not all Christians are peaceful or law-abiding. But where there are Christians in the world there is more peace.”