“Ninety-nine percent of the Christians have left Mosul,” pastor Haitham Jazrawi said today following the takeover of Iraq’s second largest city—and its ancient Christian homeland—by al-Qaeda-linked jihadist militants.
A mass exodus of Christians and Muslims is underway from the city of 1.8 million after hundreds of gunmen with the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) overran the city and forced out the Iraqi army and the police. Reports indicate Iraqi army units abandoned their posts, in the process giving up U.S.-provided weapons and vehicles, including Humvees, in what was a key base of operations for U.S. military forces throughout the Iraq war. Long a city of diverse religious and ethnic makeup—with Arabs and Kurds, and a large population of Assyrian Christians—Mosul was a flashpoint during the eight-year conflict.
More than 150,000 residents fled the city today, the BBC reports, and photos on Twitter and elsewhere showed massive traffic jams on roads leading into the desert.
Iraq’s parliament declared a state of emergency, even asking Iraqi civilians to take up arms against the fighters, but the government of President Nouri al-Maliki seemed impotent to drive back the militants, who have already taken over areas near Baghdad and make up a potent force fighting the government in neighboring Syria.
Locals say ISIL gunmen began arriving in Mosul on Friday, killing 21 policemen along with others, and eventually capturing the airport, along with military helicopters and vehicles. At the University of Mosul, according to local media reports, the insurgents took 70 female students hostage. By Monday, thousands of Christians fled Mosul to nearby enclaves and to cities under the Kurdish Regional Government’s control.
A representative for U.S.-based watchdog Open Doors in Iraq reported that 200 families found shelter at Mar Matti, the fourth-century hillside monastery about 10 miles from Mosul, while about 50 families have taken refuge in a monastery in Alqosh, the ancient home of Nahum the prophet. Surrounding Mosul is Nineveh Plains, an area of scattered Christian villages, and several schools there became sanctuaries for the fleeing Christian families.
“If this continues, Mosul soon will be emptied of Christians,” said a spokesman for Open Doors, not named for security reasons. “This could be the last migration of Christians from Mosul.”
Already Iraq’s Christian population, once one of the oldest in the world, has been decimated since the 2003 U.S. invasion—cut by most estimates to less than half its size a decade ago. But recent focus has been on the churches in Baghdad, where violence has skyrocketed this year, compared to northern areas like Mosul.
While the Maliki government has struggled to recompose itself following April elections that gave the Shiite president a third term, ISIL has been on the move—taking control of Fallujah in January and moving into Ramadi, only 80 miles from the capital, in March. The resurgent terrorists, once known as al-Qaeda in Iraq, want to overthrow the Iraqi and Syrian governments to establish a Sunni Muslim caliphate in the Middle East.
“Christian families are terrified”, one Iraqi told World Watch Monitor. A Christian man in Mosul reached by phone said, “I was able to make my wife and children leave Mosul, but now I am stuck in the house and can’t move.”
As Iraqi forces scramble to respond, reports are emerging of ISIL fighters moving south toward Kirkuk and the country’s strategic oilfields. That’s where Jazrawi pastors one of the country’s oldest evangelical churches. “No one knows what will happen to us in the next days,” he told me today by email. “Pray for us. We still believe that our Lord wants us to stay in Iraq.”