Twelve days after militants began a sweep through Iraq, putting the Iraqi army on the run while closing and desecrating churches in ancient Christian areas, many churches in Baghdad and across Iraq opened their doors on Sunday, June 22, as usual. They held special prayer services for the country in the midst of another—and perhaps the country’s most desperate—crisis. Despite threats and growing uncertainty about their future, Iraqi Christians in dwindling numbers remain intent to persevere.
The invasion that began in Mosul in June by terrorist forces once operating as al-Qaeda in Iraq feeds fears over how long churches will be allowed to operate—particularly in Nineveh province, once considered a sanctuary for Iraq’s embattled Christians and other minorities. There Mosul, the provincial capital, along with many towns, have been overtaken by ISIS, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (also known as ISIL).
But even as ISIS continued its assaults, displacing hundreds of thousands, the Council of Christian Church Leaders of Iraq issued a statement calling for a special day of prayer and fasting June 22 “for the unity of Iraq and the safety of its security and preservation of the lives and the blood of its sons.”
“For now everything is OK in our churches. But we don’t know what is happening in the next days,” said Mudafar Yousif, an assistant pastor at the Christian Missionary Alliance Church in Baghdad, one of the largest evangelical congregations.
“Ninety-nine percent of the Christians have left Mosul,” pastor Haitham Jazrawi of the Evangelical Presbyterian Church in Kirkuk told me as the terrorists moved into Iraq’s second-largest city. By the time the invasion was over, more than a half million Iraqis had fled altogether, some to the nearby Nineveh Plains, others to areas further north under Kurdish protection, and some to neighboring Jordan. Unlike in previous years of terrorist attacks—notably from 2006 through 2009—Mosul residents this time could not find refuge in Syria due to its civil war. But many Iraqis believe, despite the increased dangers, they will return to their homes once the violence abates. Jazrawi said, “We still believe that our Lord wants us to stay in Iraq.”
Iraq’s U.S.-trained military forces melted in the face of the jihadist onslaught. Quickly, ISIS ordered via loudspeakers in Mosul for all women, including non-Muslims, to wear head coverings and not to leave their houses. In a 16-page document read from mosques, the gunmen declared Nineveh part of the group’s Islamic state and forbade alcohol sales, smoking, public gatherings, and entertainment. They outlawed any depictions considered idolatrous according to the Quran, and destroyed a statue of the Virgin Mary in front of a church, statues of Arab poet Abu Tamam and musician Mullah Osman, and other landmarks.
At the same time ISIS called to action units in northeastern Syria, “to free it from the Syrian regime, the grandchildren of the Jews, the Zionist Kurdish PYD and the grandchildren of the Crusaders, the Christian infidels,” according to a manifesto posted to its websites June 17.
The militants threaten Muslims, too. In Mosul they designated one mosque to receive the “repentance of apostates,” meaning Shiites. Residents said fighters went door to door checking empty houses, demanding of residents the name, phone numbers, and religious affiliation of owners.
“These militants will return us and our country hundreds of years backwards, and their laws are the opposite of the laws of human rights and international laws,” Umm Mohammed, a 35-year-old teacher, told Middle East Online. “We live in continuous fear of being subjected to new pressures.”
Within one week of capturing Mosul, ISIS fighters advanced more than 230 miles, mostly down the route of the Tigris River. They took Tikrit, the birthplace of Saddam Hussein, and linked up with militant forces that already had overtaken Ramadi and Fallujah—and killed at least 1,000 Iraqis in that time, according to the UN.
Less than 40 miles north of Baghdad, Iraqi troops exchanged gunfire with the militants on June 23 in Baquba, a leading flash point in the Iraq War, with a key battle against insurgents there in 2007 involving 10,000 coalition and U.S. military personnel. At least 40 Americans were killed in that offensive. Hundreds of Iraqis died at insurgent hands then too, among them 50 bodies dumped behind the provincial electric company offices, 25 killed in a bicycle bombing, 28 bodies dumped in a mass grave, and more.
Other key areas by late June continued to fall, including Tel Afar and its military airport in Diyala. All along the way ISIS forces looted banks, collecting millions in cash, and seized Iraqi (and U.S.-provided) military transports, weapons, and supplies. Gaining momentum and supplies, the militants on June 22 took important check points bordering Jordan and Syria. While Jordan maintained that it still controls its border with Iraq, Syria’s border in essence dissolved into militant control except for a small area controlled by Kurdish Peshmerga forces in the far north.
Iraqis who have watched their own military forces grow since the 2011 U.S. pullout were bewildered that tens of thousands of Iraqi soldiers would abandon their duties and retreat in the face of an ISIL force estimated by some to be 12,000.
One explanation is the King of Clubs.
IZZAT IBRAHIM AL-DOURI, the vice chairman of Saddam Hussein’s Revolution Command Council, was the dictator’s long-standing deputy—and the only top Baathist to remain at large. He is the last-surviving ranked member, pictured as the King of Clubs, in the U.S. deck of cards once used to hunt down former regime leaders. At one time the United States offered a $10 million reward for his capture.
Al-Douri, a red-headed hard-liner from Saddam’s hometown, Tikrit, was known as a terror perpetrator even before the 2003 U.S. invasion. He repeatedly evaded U.S. forces. An architect of Saddam’s pogroms against the Marsh Arabs in the south and the Kurds in the north, al-Douri after the fall of Saddam went into hiding in Syria but emerged as the chief funder of the Sunni insurgency that has morphed from al-Qaeda in Iraq to ISIS.
Al-Douri appeared in a video posted last year, vowing to destroy the “Persian” government of Maliki. That threat coincides with the goals of ISIS, which wants to annihilate governments in Syria and Iraq to establish an Islamic caliphate based on Sharia law.
In Mosul, according to Arab analysts, al-Douri patiently has been mobilizing a complex and formidable network of former Baathist officers embedded in the ranks of ISIS—jihadist fighters hardened by war in Syria and elsewhere. These he merged with disaffected soldiers in the standing army as a way to mount a Sunni uprising. The interim period between the April reelection of Shiite leader Nouri al-Maliki and his forming a coalition government, which he must do by June 30, provided an opportune moment for persuading soldiers to stand down—on orders from al-Douri—and for launching what could turn out to be a strange brand of Sunni-led military coup.
According to one source who worked as a translator for U.S. forces in Mosul, and is not identified for security reasons, some top commanders in Iraq’s army said, “If al-Douri is back we will go with him.”
Eyewitnesses in Mosul told an Arabic news website (Al-Badil Al-Iraqi) the gunmen who first stormed Mosul were mostly non-Iraqis. Later Iraqi militants who were seen protecting banks and government installations replaced them, allowing the foreign fighters to move on. This pattern has allowed ISIS, with collusion from al-Douri’s well-trained former Baathists, to advance quickly to other battlefronts—with capture of Baghdad their ultimate goal.
Regardless of the outcome, it’s realistic to imagine Sunnis and Shiites will return to Mosul and other captured areas. Not so Christians, who may never be permitted to return if militants remain in control. For now many Christians have taken refuge in monasteries surrounding Mosul that date to the fourth and fifth century. Some also found protection in Al Kosh, a Christian enclave in the hills above Nineveh Plains that was the birthplace of Nahum, the Old Testament prophet (Nahum wrote, “Behold, upon the mountains, the feet of him who brings good news, who publishes peace!”). Al Kosh is under protection of Kurdish soldiers, and residents last week told me they were safe but without electricity or water after the ISIS siege, waiting for peace to return.