While Iraq’s Christians have historically preferred to maintain a low profile during times of sectarian conflict and strife, members of the community are now showing a willingness to take up arms to face militants from the Islamic State group. The first brigade of Iraqi Christian fighters graduated from training Thursday and will now help support efforts by Kurdish peshmerga fighters to retake towns and villages seized by the militants, who are also known as ISIS or ISIL, Agence France-Presse reported.

“Around 600 peshmerga from our Christian brothers in the Nineveh plain joined this course, which focused on physical training, military lectures and shooting exercises,” Abu Bakr Ismail, commander of the training academy, told AFP. “All the participants are volunteers ... and want to liberate their land from ISIS and then protect it.”

The majority of Iraq’s Christian community resided in the Ninevah plain, the area between the Kurdish capital of Erbil and the Islamic State group stronghold of Mosul, prior to the militant group’s rapid seizure of territory in Iraq and Syria last summer. As many as 100,000 Christians fled Iraq’s northwest in August after fighters for the so-called Islamic State advanced into the region, with the historically Christian city of Qaraqosh largely abandoned by members of the community, according to the Guardian.

The fledgling Christian force, known as the Tiger Guards, was formed from the remnants of an Assyrian force founded in 2004 to protect the region’s churches. The brigade will be under the authority of Iraq’s autonomous Kurdish region, which, through its peshmerga fighters, is playing a key role in the battle against the Islamic State group.

The so-called Islamic State is currently under siege by Iraqi forces in the city of Tikrit. Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi said Thursday that victory in the city was near as troops attempted to root out militants from their remaining footholds, the New York Times reported. If successful, the offensive would mark a significant defeat for the militant group.