Images: Christians Are Fleeing Iraq, Persecution Under ISIS

For the first time in 2,000 years, there are no Christians in Mosul. What will become of other Iraqi Christians?

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.

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A Chaldean Catholic woman holds a rosary during a mass at Saint Joseph’s Church in the Ankawa suburb of Erbil, Iraqi Kurdistan, June 27, 2014. Many Iraqi Christians have fled to Erbil following the takeover of Mosul by Islamist militants.

“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.

Iraqis fleeing Mosul push a car past a Kurdish peshmerga soldier at the Khazer checkpoint between Nineveh and Erbil provinces, Iraqi Kurdistan, July 23, 2014. Since Sunni extremist forces from the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) took control of Mosul in June, waves of Turkmen, Shabak, and Christian minorities have sought refuge in Kurdish-controlled areas of Iraq.
Iraqis fleeing Mosul push a car past a Kurdish peshmerga soldier at the Khazer checkpoint between Nineveh and Erbil provinces, Iraqi Kurdistan, July 23, 2014. Since Sunni extremist forces from the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) took control of Mosul in June, waves of Turkmen, Shabak, and Christian minorities have sought refuge in Kurdish-controlled areas of Iraq.

“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.

Safa Hamet, age 5, sleeps on a classroom floor in a government school in the village of Jarahiyya where her family has been living for a month since fleeing Islamist militants in Mosul, Iraqi Kurdistan, July 21, 2014.
Safa Hamet, age 5, sleeps on a classroom floor in a government school in the village of Jarahiyya where her family has been living for a month since fleeing Islamist militants in Mosul, Iraqi Kurdistan, July 21, 2014.

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.”

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A protester wears a shirt with a spray-painted cross as Kurdish police block the path of Iraqi Christians marching in Erbil, Iraqi Kurdistan, in solidarity with fellow believers fleeing Mosul because of persecution by Islamist militants, July 24, 2014.

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.”

Zaynab Mohammad, age 18 months, clings to her father Hussein in their tent in the UNHCR Garmawa displaced persons camp in Iraqi Kurdistan, July 17, 2014. Their family’s tractor was stolen and house ransacked and looted by Islamist militants in Mosul.
Zaynab Mohammad, age 18 months, clings to her father Hussein in their tent in the UNHCR Garmawa displaced persons camp in Iraqi Kurdistan, July 17, 2014. Their family’s tractor was stolen and house ransacked and looted by Islamist militants in Mosul.

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.

A child plays with a soccer ball among tents in a UN-run displaced persons camp at Garmawa in Iraqi Kurdistan, July 17, 2014. The camp provides shelter to families fleeing the city of Mosul after its takeover by militant Islamists.
A child plays with a soccer ball among tents in a UN-run displaced persons camp at Garmawa in Iraqi Kurdistan, July 17, 2014. The camp provides shelter to families fleeing the city of Mosul after its takeover by militant Islamists.

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.

Leaders of Erbil’s Christian and Muslim communities lead more than 1,200 marchers in solidarity with Christians fleeing Mosul because of persecution by ISIS forces, July 24, 2014. The march targeted United Nations headquarters in Erbil during a visit by Secretary General Ban Ki Moon, demanding action to protect Christian minorities in Iraq.
Leaders of Erbil’s Christian and Muslim communities lead more than 1,200 marchers in solidarity with Christians fleeing Mosul because of persecution by ISIS forces, July 24, 2014. The march targeted United Nations headquarters in Erbil during a visit by Secretary General Ban Ki Moon, demanding action to protect Christian minorities in Iraq.

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.”

Catholic nuns hold signs with the Arabic letter "N" among Christians marching in Erbil, Iraqi Kurdistan, in solidarity with those fleeing Mosul because of persecution by ISIS forces, July 24, 2014. Marchers bore the letter "N" for Nasrani, an Arabic word meaning "Nazarene" or Christian, and the symbol Islamist forces spray-painted on Christians homes in Mosul.
Catholic nuns hold signs with the Arabic letter “N” among Christians marching in Erbil, Iraqi Kurdistan, in solidarity with those fleeing Mosul because of persecution by ISIS forces, July 24, 2014. Marchers bore the letter “N” for Nasrani, an Arabic word meaning “Nazarene” or Christian, and the symbol Islamist forces spray-painted on Christians homes in Mosul.

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.

Ryan Rodrick Beiler
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  • hassan

    what is the world waiting for ,,, why don’t they bomb ISIS ?… I’m beginning to believe that ISIS is the American Saudi army

  • nwcolorist

    Please President Obama, the world is looking to America to help these struggling refugees. Do you want to be known as the President who dithered while genocide rages in the Middle East. Make a plan and act on it!