The extremist Sunni militants that now control Iraq's second city of Mosul gave its Christian residents an ultimatum this weekend: pay a protection tax, convert to Islam, or be killed. The few hundred families still remaining in the area fled.
Most of Mosul’s Christians had already left, bolting when the insurgents overran the city in a matter of hours on June 10 during the opening stages of a lightning advance across northern Iraq. The fighters were led by Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), now known simply as Islamic State.
As a religious minority, Christians felt they would be targeted with the brutal violence for which the group has become known. However, the militants took a more moderate approach while they consolidated power in Mosul and didn’t, at first, persecute non-Sunnis. Things quickly changed.
Before the deadline ultimatum, Islamic State had begun painting Christian houses with the letter N for Nassarah (Christian) and "This is property of Islamic State," Bishop Mar Shlemon Warduni, told VICE News. Warduni, a senior cleric at the Chaldean Catholic Church, Iraq's largest Christian segment, added that when Christians tried to leave Mosul, ISIS robbed them of all of their possessions.
The fall of Mosul is arguably the most catastrophic event to have befallen the country's Christians in recent history.
The displaced Christians mostly fled to the semi-autonomous Kurdish controlled areas in the north of the country and have taken refuge in churches and refugee camps in and around the regional capital of Erbil, adding to the more than two million refugees and displaced Iraqis that the United Nations says are now in the province.
Iraq has one of the oldest Christian populations in the world, dating back to the first century A.D. However, numbers have plunged recently. In 1987, when Iraq last conducted a census, there were approximately 1.4 million. Today, estimates vary from around 500,000 to as little as 200,000 as a result of sanctions in the 1990s, and conflict and violence since then.
The fall of Mosul is arguably the most catastrophic event to have befallen the country's Christians in recent history. "Our situation is very bad... we have had persecution before, but not like this," Warduni said. "For many years the situation has not been good for all Iraqi people, but because we are a minority it seems that for us it is worse, and... [now] Christians are suffering from people with no religion but who claim to speak in the name of a religion [Islamic State]."
Iraq's Christian leaders have pleaded for international assistance to protect them from extremist attacks. Yonadam Kanna, a Christian Iraqi politician and secretary general of the Assyrian Democratic Movement, condemned Islamic State's behaviour and urged countries around the world to provide more help to Christians and other groups displaced from Mosul.
'We don't have any backup. The Shiites have Iran, the Sunnis have Saudi, but we have no one.'
"It is ethnic cleansing in there," Kanna told VICE News. "And we appeal and call on the international community and the United Nations to protect minorities in Iraq.” However, he said that elsewhere in the country Christians live un-harassed. "In Baghdad there is not a problem, nor in the south or in Kirkuk."
Yet in the capital, residents are also voicing concerns for their safety. If Iraqi security forces can’t hold onto Mosul, the argument goes, then what is to stop Islamic State doing the same in Baghdad.
Ayad, a 32-year-old Christian charity worker living in Baghdad, said he is very concerned about the risk that Islamic State's advance might pose to him and his family. However, he also fears isolated terror attacks by the group or affiliated militants, and even that he might be targeted by Shiite extremists as well. "We are not safe anymore. As far as we know, they might do the same from the other side and we get attacked by Shiites too."
Christians have been targeted in Baghdad before. The most traumatic recent incident occurred in 2010, when an attack and siege at Our Lady of Salvation Church killed 58 and wounded 78. There have been more recent incidents too, like a series of bombings in Christian areas on Christmas Day last year which left at least 37 dead. Ayad added that he regularly hears stories about Christians being kidnaped and killed.
Kanna said that Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s Shiite-led government is ready to help and protect Iraq’s Christians. Ayad, however, suspects that any protection is provided for political reasons and said it is insufficient in any case. He added that the Christian population in Baghdad is increasingly disenchanted with the clergy. “The priests tell us not to worry, but they don't protect us, these are just words... We need something strong, something real… I know Jesus says peace and love, but it's not like that. We need someone to protect us in daily life... We don't have any backup. The Shiites have Iran, the Sunnis have Saudi, but we have no one.... We feel like we are alone, we just have our God."
Ayad hopes to leave Baghdad, and hopefully Iraq soon, perhaps to Jordan or Turkey. His family and friends do too, he said. Unless the current situation improves, Iraq's Christian population looks likely to dwindle further still.
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