No holdouts remain in Mosul. A July 19 edict by ISIS militants, now calling themselves the Islamic State, ordered Christians to convert to Islam or there’d be nothing left for them “but the sword.” They had less than 24 hours.
By Saturday, July 20, nearly every Christian reportedly had fled. The exodus followed a month of fear, intimidation, and violence, where even Iraq’s army refused to protect the country’s second-largest city, and Islamic State fighters made plain Christians have no place in a new caliphate.
In 2003 an estimated 30,000 Christians lived in Mosul. By Monday, July 21, the number likely fell to zero. A metropolitan area that straddles the banks of the Tigris, Mosul is where Nineveh, capital of the Assyrian empire, a “city of three days’ journey” once stood. The city was home to the prophets Jonah and Nahum and is one of the places Jew-hating Assyrians first began to believe in Jesus Christ, centuries before the arrival of Islam, and launched one of the largest Christian churches that in the Medieval period stretched from the Mediterranean to China.
“For the first time in the history of Iraq, Mosul is now empty of Christians,” said Louis Sako, patriarch of the Chaldean Catholic Church.
He warned that the lack of Iraqi government and international response to the Islamic State onslaught will bring Iraq “face to face with human, civil, and historic catastrophe.”
Yet apart from the presence of Kurdish regional forces nearby, called pesh merga, no outside response or protection was forthcoming: One of the most rapid episodes of ethnic and religious cleansing happened in broad daylight with no response from the White House, the UN, or others. (President Barack Obama remained silent on what was happening, issuing no statement.)
“Actually what happened in the last few days in Mosul is a crime against humanity,” said Joseph Francis, pastor of the Christian Missionary Alliance Church in Baghdad. “It’s a crime against those families who were living safe in their homes. They were subjected to forced displacements.”
As Christians fled, they had everything confiscated at checkpoints by Islamic State fighters—cell phones, cash, jewelry, and other belongings. Some had their cars taken. Hundreds, including elderly, children, and the disabled, walked by foot in searing summer heat until they reached safe villages or were picked up by volunteers or pesh merga and ferried to safety in Iraqi Kurdistan.
On Sunday, July 20, Islamic State fighters took over a monastery near the largely Christian town of Qaraqosh, 19 miles outside Mosul. They expelled its residents, ordering them to leave on foot with only their clothes. The fighters also stormed Mar Behnam, a 4th-century monastery, telling Syriac Catholic clergy there, “You have no place here anymore, you have to leave immediately,” according to World Watch Monitor. The monks walked several miles before being picked up by armed pesh merga, who drove them to Qaraqosh. Church leaders say priceless manuscripts covering the history of Iraq and the church are now at risk in the monastery.
Christians aren’t the only ones to suffer, as the area’s large Mandean, Yezidi, and Turkmen communities also faced expulsion and violence. On July 21, IS fighters killed Mahmoud Al-Asali, a law professor at the University of Mosul and a Muslim, reportedly for objecting to the looting and destruction of Christians’ property.
As escaping Mosul residents found temporary shelter in churches and homes in Nineveh Plains and Kurdistan, faith-based groups stepped in to help. Among them: Open Doors, Barnabas Fund, Christian Aid Ministries, and Cru’s relief arm GAiN. Insaf Safou of U.S.-based International Teams, who spoke to me from the Kurdish capital Erbil, said, “No one knows where is safe anymore, but prayer is strong, and it is moving the hands of God to help us.”
Barnabas Fund has been directly assisting Christian families from Mosul since the city’s takeover.
Christian Aid Ministries is in Kurdistan, helping Christians and others who have fled the ISIS advance.
GAiN—the humanitarian aid relief arm for Cru (formerly Campus Crusade for Christ)—is working in Iraqi refugee camps, and serving both Christians and Muslims who have fled their homes in Iraq because of ISIS.