Perhaps historians will come to terms with the irony: Christianity in Iraq survived 400 years of Ottoman rule by Muslim Turks and 30 years’ Baathist Party dictatorship, only to be crushed in just over a decade after U.S. liberation of Iraq. On Friday, Christians remaining in Mosul—where Christianity was planted by the apostle Thomas himself in the first century—were ordered out within 24 hours by the Islamic State.
The orders came from ISIS militants (now operating as the Islamic State) who took control of Iraq’s second largest city in June. The edict was broadcast via loudspeakers normally used for prayers from mosques, demanding that Christians leave the area by Saturday noon or be killed. It came after Christian leaders refused to attend a Thursday evening meeting arranged by ISIS to discuss their status.
Most were afraid to go, Duraid Hikmat told The New York Times, because they feared being identified by ISIS. In addition to the violent June takeover, already the militants had kidnapped two nuns and three orphans (released after 17 days), destroyed church statues and other symbols, and had begun to paint the letter “N” for Nazara, meaning Christian, on the front of Christian homes. The ISIS ultimatum ordered Christians to convert or pay an unspecified fine (“jizya”) and said there would be nothing left for those who did not “but the sword.”
Ahlam, a 34-year-old mother of two boys, and her husband carried their children on their shoulders for more than 12 miles out of Mosul, where they were met by volunteers ferrying Mosul residents by car to safety. She described to Agence France-Presse an exodus of hundreds of Christians walking on foot in Iraq’s searing summer heat, including the elderly and the disabled.
“I left my home in Mosul, that my family built decades ago. And it was taken away in an instant,” Ahlam said through tears. “Everything’s gone, all our memories. Our home has become property of the Islamic State.”
In 2003, Mosul had approximately 30,000 Christians living there. By Friday, they were down to several thousand after many fled in June. Those who remained—including some who left in June but returned—saw the historic significance of enduring in the area of ancient Nineveh and hoped to make some accommodation, or outlast Islamic jihadists.
But the order to leave by Saturday noon was unequivocal, and dozens of Christian families made their way out to villages in Nineveh Plain and further north to Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan. Those areas are currently under the control of Kurdish pesh merga forces and have resisted Islamic State takeover.
Christians who fled say they had to cross ISIS checkpoints, and had everything confiscated—cell phones, cash, and any luggage. Some had their cars taken. Most made their way out of Mosul to stay with family or friends, or to sleep on the floor of churches, with only the clothes on their backs.
Insaf Safou of International Teams, currently in Erbil, said many of these families need cash to buy food and basic items like underwear. Water is also becoming a major issue, as wells in the summer desert areas are not sufficient to provide for the influx of the displaced. And they are traumatized, she said: “One lady called me in tears and hysteria, saying, ‘They stopped us, took our car, our money, everything. There is nothing left for us.’”
Louis Sako, patriarch of the Chaldean Catholic Church, pointed out in a July 17 statement that under Islamic law, Christian homes become confiscated property of the Islamic State after their owners leave. He warned 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.”
“It is clear that the result of all this discrimination legally enforced will be the very dangerous elimination of the possibility of co-existence between majorities and minorities,” Sako said. “It will be very harmful to Muslims themselves both in the near and the distant future.”