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At 2:00 a.m. on June 10, Iraqi Christian Sara Hani fled with her parents and sister as the forces of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) took control of Mosul. “We had to leave our homes, our belongings and everything and move somewhere else with no money,” recalls Hani. An hours-long ordeal followed as they struggled to reach relatives in Kurdish-controlled Erbil.
“At first we couldn’t leave because we didn’t have a car,” says Hani. “We had to beg for someone to give us a ride.” She now lives among 20 adults and five children squeezed into a three-bedroom house shared by five families in the suburb of Ankawa. In addition to Christians, tens of thousands of Turkmen, Shabak and Yazidi minorities also fled Mosul, seeking shelter in homes, schools, and UN-run tent camps in areas under the control of the Kurdish Regional Government.
“It’s a crime against humanity,” says Hani. “Some of us could escape but what happen[s] to the other people who can’t escape or don’t have anywhere to go?”
Iraqi government forces have sporadically bombed Mosul, but with little strategic effect. “I don’t think it’s helping because it’s all innocent people killed,” says Sara’s sister, Mariam.
Another wave of displacement came weeks after the initial takeover when loudspeakers announced that remaining minorities in Mosul could either convert to Islam, pay a tax, leave, or be put to death. According to the UN, “Some members of the Yazidi and Shabak communities who refused to do so were taken before religious courts and later executed.” Those who fled saved their lives but little else.
“There were checkpoints at the outskirts and they were all looted, harassed, and humiliated,” says Aziz Al-Zebari of Ankawa whose family members were among the displaced. “They made it out in their bare clothes.”
All money and valuables were taken by ISIS forces. One family told of how their two pre-teen daughters were made to undress to see if they were hiding money inside their clothes. An elderly man’s medicine was stolen by ISIS forces when they looted his house. Living alone and without his medicine, he died. Neighbors did not discover his body for several days.
At least one Christian youth was kidnapped and forcibly conscripted into ISIS forces. “They told his family if you don’t go right now and leave him, we will kill you all,” says Hani. “They had to leave him behind.”
One of the last Christian families to leave Mosul escaped only after being forced to convert to Islam. They were brought to a mosque by ISIS fighters and made to recite the Shahada: “There is no god but God, Mohammad is the messenger of God.” Afterwards, they were given a letter saying that their family was Muslim. The next morning they fled the city and talked with a priest about how to recant their forced conversion.
Unlike Kurdish and Shia minorities, Christians had enjoyed relative freedom and tolerance under the regime of Saddam Hussein. But after the U.S.-led invasion in 2003, militant groups associated them with the Western “crusaders.” As Christians began to be targeted, many fled the country. Iraq’s Christians numbered some 1.5 million before the war. Estimated numbers of those now remaining are as low as 200,000.
Iraq’s Christians trace their history to the first century apostles Thomas and Thaddeus. Most are Chaldean Catholics, practicing an Eastern liturgy but recognizing the authority of the Vatican. Many Chaldeans still speak forms of Aramaic, the language spoken by Jesus. But because of ISIS, which has now declared a “caliphate” in the region it controls between Aleppo in Syria to Diyala, Iraq, there are now no Christians in Mosul for the first time in 2,000 years.
“It’s an act of cleansing,” says Al-Zebari. “They are wiping out our community.”
Al-Zebari was among more than 1,200 Christians who marched in a demonstration to the UN headquarters in Erbil during a visit by Secretary General Ban Ki Moon. Many of those marching wore shirts or signs bearing the Arabic letter “N”—for the word Nasrani meaning “Nazarene” or Christian—the symbol spray-painted by ISIS forces to mark Christian homes in Mosul.
Christians weren’t the only ones marching. Leaders of Erbil’s Muslim community walked side by side with Chaldean Catholic and Orthodox clergy to demand an end to the violence.
“I am a Muslim living in Iraq,” says Suras Al-Munai, a resident of Ankawa. “I am here today with my brothers and sisters of the Christian people to say I am against what is happening in Mosul.”
“My brother is in America,” says Nasrat Mansour, sporting a “Jesus” baseball cap and a sign reading “STOP ISIS” at the demonstration. Though his brother has encouraged him many times to emigrate, he refuses, “Because this is our land. This is our home.”
Top image: Displaced Iraqis ride in the back of a truck at the Khazer checkpoint between Nineveh and Erbil Provinces in Iraqi Kurdistan, July 9, 2014. These families are primarily Shia Turkmen fleeing Mosul because of violence from fighters of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) as well as air attacks by Iraq’s central government forces. According the the BBC, more than a million people have fled their homes as a result of the fighting in recent months.
All images courtesy of the author.