BAGHDAD — Iraq’s Christians fled their ancestral homeland around Mosul this month after receiving an ultimatum with four unpalatable options: convert, pay punitive taxes, leave or die. However, Islamist militants robbed Christians of their money, passports and property, turning them into a sea of refugees with nowhere to go and fighting to survive.
The international charitable organization Aid to the Church in Need informed the Register Wednesday morning that thousands of refugees are pinned between the jihadist forces of the Islamic State (IS), which occupies Mosul and a third of Iraq, and the security checkpoints at the border of Kurdistan. More than 1,500 Christian families have fled Mosul these past four days.
“They are stuck in the middle of a burning area,” said Father Felix Shabi, a chorbishop in the Chaldean Catholic Diocese of St. Peter the Apostle and a native of Mosul, who oversees the Holy Family Mission and Mar Abraham Church in Phoenix. He said his parish is deeply distressed about the suffering in their Church’s homeland. Many parishioners have friends or family caught in the exodus from Mosul.
“They [the militants] stole everything from them — cars, gold, passports — so I wonder how they would possibly go to any neighboring country like Turkey or Jordan,” he said. “They will not be able to without those passports.”
The exodus is the latest episode in the tragic history of Christians in Iraq, whose population has plummeted since the 2003 U.S. invasion from a pre-war population of more than 1 million to less than the official count of 450,000. Mosul itself had 60,000 Christians before the U.S. invasion; the numbers had dwindled to less than 35,000 before IS took over the city.
IS forces told Iraqi Christians that they had 24 hours, or until noon July 19, to convert to Islam, pay the crushing tax known as jizya or leave Mosul with nothing but the clothes on their backs. Otherwise, they would face immediate execution. Militants had marked Christian homes for confiscation with the letter “N” in Arabic, meaning “Nazarene.” Homes of Shiite Muslims were marked with the Arabic “R” for “rejecters.”
The Christians forced to flee lost all property and any identification papers they would need to find refuge in other countries. Those making the journey have been forced to walk between 40 to 80 miles, depending on the route, to reach safety in Kurdistan.
Trapped on the Border
Kurdish security forces known as the Peshmerga have kept their autonomous region in Iraq safe from the IS forces, but their diligence in preventing IS terrorists from entering their territory has left many of these new refugees stranded on their border for days.
“They have to wait until somebody comes from inside Kurdistan with other Christians who would know them, maybe from the language (they speak Aramaic) or a relative or something,” Father Felix said. “Only then will they clear them out and accept them into Kurdistan.”
Five Assyrian families too frail to make the journey and too poor to pay the jizya agreed to convert to Islam, according to The New York Times.
“They did so just to stay alive,” Younadim Kanna, an Iraqi Christian parliamentarian, told the Times.
The danger is escalating quickly for those caught on the outside of the Kurdish border. Open warfare between IS and Kurdistan is breaking out as IS militants and Peshmerga clashed Tuesday at the town of Tel Kaif, where Christians have taken refuge, just north of Mosul, according to Aid to the Church in Need.
Militants have also cut off water supplies from the Tigris River, forcing the Kurdish city of Qaraqosh, a place where many Christians and Shiites have taken refuge from the IS Sunni Muslim militants, to find alternative and more expensive water resources.
Father Felix said his congregation learned with alarm that the Iraqi national government was also calling on Christians to lay down their arms and let the national security forces protect them — a suggestion that struck them as ludicrous, given the national military’s disarray.
“If they are not allowed to have weapons, who will defend them [from IS]?” he said.
Worse Than Genghis Khan
IS, formerly known as ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria), has begun in earnest to enforce their radical interpretation of sharia (Islamic law) throughout their territorial holdings in Syria and Iraq.
Patriarch Louis Rafael I Sako denounced IS as worse than the country’s Mongol invaders during the medieval period.
“This has never happened in Christian or Islamic history. Even Genghis Khan or Hulagu [the Mongol destroyer of Baghdad in 1258] didn’t do this,” he said, according to Reuters, at a church service in Baghdad where 200 Muslims joined in solidarity.
“We are seeing great swatches of Christianity wiped from the Middle East,” said Edward Clancy, Aid to the Church in Need’s director of evangelization and outreach. He said IS enforces “the strictest and most brutal interpretation of sharia,” including “little children having their hands hacked off” for stealing food out of hunger
“They have no problem with crucifixion, and they have done it,” he said.
Clancy said Aid to the Church in Need confirmed IS’ atrocities with priests and bishops on the ground through its regional coordinator.
“Simply put, it is all true: They are kidnapping, there are crucifixions, beheadings, beatings and enforced conversions,” he said.
Clancy said he believes the Church leadership in Iraq is hopeful that Iraq will produce a national leader who can rally the country in a way similar to how Egypt’s president, Fattah Al-Sisi, has rallied Egypt to overthrow the Islamists of the Muslim Brotherhood. But the once hopeful mood has changed.
“Now, their position is to prepare for the worst, while hoping for the best,” he said.
Although a new leader has not emerged, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a Shiite whose anti-Sunni policies have been criticized for forcing Sunni tribes into an alliance of convenience with IS, has lost support from Shiite leaders in Iraq and Tehran, and even from his own party, as the country slips closer to complete disintegration under his watch.
President Barack Obama’s administration has denied al-Maliki’s requests for air support to drive back IS militants until a unity government addresses the grievances of minorities.
The Silent Bells
In the meantime, the church bells of Iraq fall silent one by one.
IS has systematically destroyed the crosses from Mosul’s 30 (abandoned) Christian churches, destroying statues and manuscripts.*
The BBC reports IS militants expelled the monks of the 1,700-year-old Mar Behnam monastery and expelled the Syriac Catholic monks, and the families taking refuge with them, allowing them to keep “only the clothes they were wearing.”
In addition, IS has desecrated religious symbols and graves of Mosul’s diverse religious heritage, including the tomb of the prophet Jonah.
“Should this direction continue to be pursued, Iraq will come face-to-face with human, civil and historic catastrophe,” warned Patriarch Louis Raphael I Sako in a public statement provided to the Register by Aid to the Church in Need.
“With all due respect to belief and dogmas, there has been a fraternal life between Christians and Muslims,” he said. “How much the Christians have shared here ... specifically from the beginnings of Islam. They shared every sweet and bitter circumstance of life; Christian and Muslim blood has been mixed as it was shed in the defense of their rights and lands. Together, they built a civilization, cities and a heritage. It is truly unjust now to treat Christians by rejecting them and throwing them away, considering them as nothing.”
The Chaldean Catholic Patriarch of Baghdad warned that the result of IS forcing its regime of discrimination “will be the very dangerous elimination of the possibility of co-existence between majorities and minorities. It will be very harmful to Muslims themselves, both in the near and the distant future.”
Muslims in Baghdad have shown their solidarity with Christians wearing T-shirts reading “I am Iraqi. I am Christian.” And social media solidarity has spread, with Muslims posting the slogan or marking their profiles with the Arabic “N.”
But where IS militants have control, they have strangled the voices of Sunni Muslims opposed to their rule. Muslim leaders in Iraq who have spoken out against IS’ depredations have been killed by the Islamist militants. Sunni cleric Khaled al-Mulla told a Lebanese TV station that IS and al Qaeda have killed 300 Sunni imams between them.
IS militants gunned down Sheikh Hamzeh in his mosque as he preached against them in IS-occupied Fallujah and dealt a similar fate to the Sunni mufti of Ramadi.
University of Mosul law professor Mahmoud Al-Asali, a Sunni, was reportedly slain after condemning the IS ultimatum, according to the Chaldean Catholic website Ankawa.com.
A Silent World Watches
While the Islamic State wipes away the Christian presence from Iraq, the world has only begun to break its silence.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon singled out IS systemic attacks on Christians as a potential “crime against humanity."
The U.N. Security Council on Monday “denounced the persecution of Christians and other minority groups in northern Iraq.”
The U.S. State Department condemned the IS attacks “in the strongest possible terms” and said the group was “not only a threat to the stability of Iraq, but a threat to the entire region.”
However, the U.S. statement offered little concrete help for Christians besides the verbal solidarity from its former occupiers. The State Department’s recommendation for government officials in Baghdad and Erbil to “hold perpetrators accountable for their actions in a manner consistent with the rule of law” jarred with the reality that IS controls more than a third of Iraqi territory and is viewed to be preparing an assault on Baghdad itself.
However, the Iraqi bishops of Mosul of all denominations, with Patriarch Sako, released a statement demanding action, not simply words, from the world.
“We are waiting for practical acts to reassure our people, not for statements of condemnation and denouncement,” they said in a statement provided to the Register by Aid to the Church in Need. The bishops singled out the Kurds for “receiving and embracing the displaced families, providing them with the necessary aids.”
The bishops called on the national government to provide “necessary protection” for minorities and the “preservation of their rights,” to provide financial support for displaced families, to list all property lost or damaged for eventual compensation of the victims and to enable their children to continue their studies.
“We also call on people of conscience in Iraq and the world to ... pressure ... those militants to stop the destruction of churches and monasteries and the burning of manuscripts and relics of the Christian heritage, being a priceless Iraqi and global heritage as well. What happened is a mere crime that cannot be denied or justified.”
Prayers and Outreach Needed
Father Felix asked for prayers for the Iraqi Christians in his Church’s homeland, but he also said Chaldean Catholics here need the Church, both nationally and at the local level, to reach out to their Chaldean brothers and sisters in the U.S., many of whom have been uprooted from their ancestral homeland.
“Many clergy don’t even know the Chaldean Church exists. We have a lot of Catholics in our neighborhood who don’t know we’re real Catholics too,” he said.
He said half of the Syriac and Chaldean churches in the U.S. are formed of refugees from Iraq.
He noted that while the Church in the United States has been very vocal about raising awareness about the Philippine disaster with Typhoon Haiyan, he has not seen the same awareness generated for the near-extinction of the first Church founded by St. Thomas the Apostle.
“We need to feel this brotherly spirit. Many people are feeling lonely in a totally different country,” he said.
“Sometimes it hurts when nobody asks about you.”
Peter Jesserer Smith is a Register staff writer.
*Note: The article originally mentioned that Islamic State fighters burned down the Syriac archdiocesan headquarters. Now, information has emerged that puts doubt on the credibility of photographs behind the allegation. It has been struck from the article until the allegation can be independently verified.