Mosul Christians are ‘ordered to leave or face execution by midday Saturday’. Iraq church leaders see no future for Christians in Iraq; Kurdistan declares safe haven for refugees and claims to be the only region in Middle East with a growing Christian population
Christians in Mosul, Iraq, have been ordered to leave the city or face execution, according to Middle East Concern. A fact-finding team from Release International has just returned from northern Iraq to investigate the plight of Christians caught up in the conflict.
Release interviewed Christians who have fled from Islamic State (IS, formerly ISIS) militants and who have been driven out in the past by repeated waves of violence and persecution.
Release also interviewed senior church leaders and politicians from the autonomous region of Kurdistan. The picture that emerged was harrowing, yet with some hope that neighbouring Kurdistan was proving to be a safe haven for Christians and other minorities fleeing Iraq for their lives.
According to Release partner, Middle East Concern, the militant group controlling Mosul, IS, summoned Christian leaders to a meeting on July 17 to notify them of Islamic rules to be applied to non-Muslims – including the imposition of jizya, a protection tax. Islamic State is imposing strict Sharia law over the territories it has taken by force.
When Christian leaders failed to attend, IS announced that remaining Christians should leave Mosul or face execution by July 19. They were ordered to leave all their property behind. Earlier, IS reportedly marked houses belonging to minorities with the phrase ‘property of the Islamic State’ – this included houses that were occupied. Militants marked the houses of Christians with ‘N’ for Nazarite.
Even before that, observers believed that as few as 50 Christian families remained in Mosul. Many had already fled to areas of northern Iraq under Kurdish control. Release spoke to some who were concerned they would lose their homes. Those fears now seem justified.
It’s believed that most of the remaining Christians have now left. ‘For the first time in the history of Iraq, Mosul is now empty of Christians,’ Patriarch Louis Sako told the AFP news agency.
According to reports, IS militants stopped some fleeing families at checkpoints and confiscated their belongings, including money, jewellery and mobile phones.
An end to Christianity in region?
Release investigators have just returned from Iraq. Most of the Christians they interviewed despaired of ever returning to their country, and many just wanted to leave the Middle East. Many church leaders could see no future for Christians in Iraq and feared that within a generation Christianity would be extinct in the land.
The Chaldean Archbishop of Erbil, Bashar M Warda, told Release: ‘Christians have lost their trust in the land and in the future. Since 2003 [the allied invasion of Iraq], two-thirds of the Christians have left the country. June was the first month in 1600 years in which Mosul did not celebrate any mass. The attack on Christians has been immense. In the future I imagine Iraq becoming a country where you have many Christian sites, just for tourism – due to the families that are leaving.’
Other church leaders painted an equally gloomy picture.
Gradually, a picture of life under the IS militants who have seized much of Iraq is emerging. Ahead of their invasion, they distributed videos of public beheadings, mass executions and public crucifixions of enemies they had executed.
Such was the firestorm of fear that this Sunni terror group whipped up, that the largely Shia Iraq army deserted in droves, leaving their weapons and the territory to the militants. IS has now declared a Caliphate in Iraq and Syria and has become an umbrella group for various armed factions willing to pledge allegiance to the self-proclaimed Caliph, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
‘The terror is palpable,’ says Release Chief Executive Paul Robinson, ‘and that fear is driving Christians from their homes. If IS behave true to their form in Syria, then the Christians who remain in Iraq under their control can expect to live a life of subjugation under their brutally-enforced variation of Islamic law, and to have to pay for the privilege.’
The coming of Islamic State is just the latest tightening of the screw on Christians. Persecution has been relentless since the downfall of the Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein. Christians have been killed, car-bombed and gunned down in their churches.
Christians say low-level persecution and harassment has continued under the rule of the Iraqi Prime Minister Nour al-Malaki, and his Shia-dominated Iraqi army. Many Christians see persecution under the Sunni ISIS militants as a continuation of the process.
But for many, being driven from their homes yet again is the end of the line. All they want is to get out of Iraq.
Thiar fled from Baghdad when extremists killed 52 members of his church – including his sister’s son and his three-year old son. Over five hours, two terrorists gunned down members of the congregation of the Syriac Catholic Cathedral and detonated suicide vests filled with ball-bearings. That was in 2010. Most of the family left Iraq, but Thiar, his wife and three children headed north to Qaraqosh, a Christian enclave close to the border with Kurdistan.
Then in June this year, artillery fire and the imminent threat of an IS invasion drove them out. A priest in the town implored the Kurds to come to their rescue and Peshmerga troops moved in, effectively annexing Qaraqosh. IS forces, they say, are now just 5km away.
‘There is no hope, no future. All we have is war and killing and fighting,’ says Thiar, who desperately wants to leave the country and join the rest of his family in Germany.
However, one distinct ray of hope is the affirmation by Kurdish leaders that Christian refugees are being offered a safe haven in Kurdistan and will be welcomed, protected and free to practise their religion.
Ainkawa is a mainly Christian district of Erbil, the Kurdish capital. Religious Affairs spokesman Mariwan Naqshbandi told Release: ‘In 2003 we had around 2,000 families living in Ainkawa, now we have 6,000 families.’ Most of these are from Christian areas of Iraq. ‘Kurdistan is the only country in the Middle East where you can see the numbers of Christians rising,’ he added. ‘We have no persecution of Christians and we don’t have the terrorist groups here.’
The region’s newly-appointed Religious Affairs Minister, Kamal Muslim, told Release that only 50 Christian families remained in Mosul by the time IS gave its ultimatum to get out or be executed. He gave this assurance: ‘Kurdistan will always be a safe haven for those leaving their places of terror.’ He also affirmed that Christians would be free to practise their beliefs in Kurdistan.
Kurdish government spokesmen offered two reasons for their open-handed policy towards Christians: They know what it is like to be persecuted, having been targeted by Saddam with chemical weapons. And although most are Sunni Muslim, they say they value their nationality – for which they have fought for many years – above their religious identity.
However, Christians in Kurdistan do face restrictions, and Muslim background believers especially remain at risk. Christians have also been persecuted under the Kurds in Syria. Christians make up just two per cent of the population of Kurdistan.
Through its international network of missions Release International serves persecuted Christians in more than 30 countries around the world, by: supporting pastors and Christian prisoners, and their families; supplying Christian literature and Bibles; and working for justice.