WASHINGTON ― A mostly non-Christian militia linked to a brutal Iranian-backed paramilitary group secured two of the five seats in Iraq’s parliament reserved for Christians, according to official election results announced Saturday.
The militia, known as the Babylon Brigade, doesn’t represent Christians at all, local leaders and international advocates for Iraqi Christians warn. They say the militia’s candidates, though Christian, won only because of help from Shiite Muslims. And Iraqi Christians are calling on President Donald Trump to live up to his statements of concern for Middle East Christians by pressuring Iraqi authorities to invalidate the results. But so far, the Trump administration has said nothing on the issue.
Rayan al-Kildani, a Christian associated with various militias, founded the Babylon Brigade in 2014 when ISIS swept through Iraq and began hunting down religious minorities. Al-Kildani brought together 1,000 fighters and soon became the most prominent Christian in the popular mobilization, an umbrella group of Iraqi militias that fought ISIS with U.S. help. Along the way, he forged close ties with the Badr Organization, a historically brutal armed group that receives support from the Shiite leadership of Iran.
Most of Al-Kildani’s fighters aren’t Christians, national security experts say, but members of the non-Christian Shabak ethnic minority or Iraq’s Shiite Muslim majority. Al-Kildani’s chief value to the mostly Shiite leaders of the popular mobilization forces was in propaganda. “He’s used like a quisling character to put a Christian face onto these militias,” said Michael Knights, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute, a think tank focused on Middle East policy.
Al-Kildani has “nothing to do with the morality of Christ ... [and] does not represent Christians in any way,” the church of Louis Sako, a top Iraqi priest who’s now a cardinal-designate, said in a statement last year.
Al-Kildani didn’t win the parliamentary seats because of support from the Christian community but because of his ties to groups like Badr, his opponents fear. His candidates received thousands of votes from heavily Shiite cities that have no known Christian communities, said Asaad Kalasho, the U.S. representative for the Christian town of Tel Keppe.
“He did get votes from Christians … [but] there’s no way that he won based solely on those Christian votes,” said Yousif Kalian, a program assistant at the United States Institute for Peace who has written on Al-Kildani’s militia. “Many [Christians] feel he doesn’t represent their interests largely because of connections to Badr and to Iran.”
One Christian party whose representatives had a post-election meeting at the State Department is formally challenging the seat allocation. And Sako said the results show Christians need to “learn a lesson” about securing political power.
Activists believe that rather than advocate for the Christian minority, the Babylon Brigade’s representatives in parliament will be most concerned with tipping the scales in favor of the Badr Organization, which secured the second-largest seat total in parliament. Kalasho said he sees the situation as evidence that the entire election was flawed — echoing complaints of irregularities elsewhere that the U.S. has said should be investigated.
Strong representation, the advocates argue, is crucial to help Iraq’s already struggling Christian community survive. Before the U.S. invasion unleashed waves of violence, Iraq had nearly 1.5 million Christians among its population of 38 million. Now only about 200,000 are left in the country, most of them in northern villages, the Kurdish region in the northeast and the capital, Baghdad.
“We’ve been marginalized by both Kurds and the central Iraqi government over the years. Now it’s Iran,” said Steve Oshana, the executive director of the nonprofit group A Demand for Action, throwing in a reference to Trump’s favorite geopolitical bogeyman. “Our land has been stolen, our rights diminished, and if we lose legitimate representation in parliament, there’s no coming back for us ... We’ve been bamboozled, and it will take leadership from the administration to make sure it doesn’t lead to our complete marginalization in our ancestral homeland.”
Activists said a strong response by the U.S. government is the only way to ensure that Christians still have their interests represented and prove that Washington will not tolerate attempts to suppress them. The White House and State Department met with Iraqi Christians worried about al-Kildani at least twice last year, Oshana said.
Many in the Trump administration, particularly evangelical Christian darling Vice President Mike Pence, have said they want to help Iraq’s Christians.
“Across the wider Middle East, we can now see a future in many areas without a Christian faith. But tonight, I came to tell you, help is on the way,” Pence proclaimed in October.
But the president has repeatedly told aides he wants to wash his hands of the Middle East and avoid pulling the U.S. into its communities’ disputes.
Asked to comment for this story, the White House, Pence and the State Department’s office for international religious freedom were all silent.