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Tragedies of Christians Living Under Rule of Islamic State

Christian Under IS Refugees
Christian refugees from Mosul who now live in camps in Iraq hold a prayer session for the thousands of fellow Christians who have had to flee Mosul from Islamic State in August 2014. Photo Gail Orenstein/NurPhoto.

After the “Islamic State” in June 2014 took control of large swaths of northern Iraq and Mosul, 450 kilometers north of the capital Baghdad and the second largest city in Iraq, the radical group destroyed the oldest Christian monastery in Mesopotamia, the St. Elijah Monastery, which is older than 1,400 years and was built by the Chaldean Catholic. This was not the first time the extremist group destroyed a monastery. It previously committed similar acts and destroyed a number of ancient buildings that belong to both Christians and non-Christians, because these buildings violate their interpretation of Islam. The European Union Mission to Iraq had announced that IS militants, after the occupation of Mosul, burned several churches in the city.

The Christian community in Iraq and in Mosul in particular, is one of the oldest Christian communities, dating back to the early stages of Christianity. Christians and their civilization in Mesopotamia were subject to killing, destruction and displacement throughout history. The tragedy of Christians, whose numbers before the fall of Saddam Hussein and his Ba’athist regime were more than 1.5 million according to figures from Hammurabi Human Rights Organization, began in 2003 and reached a peak when Islamic State captured Mosul.

Kamil Zuzu, leader of the Chaldean Syriac Assyrian People’s Council, announced in his speech to the European Union in 2013 that the number of Christians in Iraq is estimated to be 300,000 only. He stressed that this drop in the number of Christians is the outcome of organized operations in Iraq against the Christian minority.

The latest chapter of the suffering of Christians in Iraq concluded with IS entering the Governorate of Ninawa in early June 2014 and launching attacks on Mosul. With the passage of days and the collapse of the Iraqi army following IS’ successive attacks, the group captured the city of Mosul and most of the areas of the Ninawa Governorate on 10 June 2014. Abu-Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of IS announced the establishment of the Islamic State and proclaimed himself to be a caliph on 4 July 2014.

In a statement distributed in Mosul, IS gave Christians the choice to either convert to Islam or be given protection in return for paying jizyah [a type of tax paid by non-Muslims). If they refuse to accept either option they would be beheaded. In the same statement Christians were invited to attend a meeting to discuss their situation, which they refused. Subsequently, IS issued a statement on Friday 18 July, 2014 ordering the Christians “who do not want to convert to Islam or pay jizyah to leave the city of Mosul and the Caliphate State by Saturday noon on their own, otherwise killing them will be the only choice.”

After the statement issued by al-Baghdadi, a mass exodus of Christians started from the city of Mosul and surrounding villages towards safe areas in the Kurdistan Region. IS did not allow Christian families to take any personal property with them, and erected barriers and confiscated all items carried by the Christian refugees. This led Mosul to become vacant of Christians. Louis Sako, patriarch of the Chaldean Catholic Church, announced that “for the first time in the history of Iraq, Mosul is now empty of Christians”. As indication of the gravity of the situation, Reverend Joseph Francis, patron of the Association of Christian Churches in Baghdad, said that what is happening in Mosul is “ethnic cleansing” and called for securing international protection for Christians .

Hostile acts by IS against Christians did not stop at the expulsion from their city, but the group’s attacks also targeted their personal property and holy places. With the start of forced migration of families and individuals, IS wrote/painted the letter “N” [English equivalent of an Arabic initial that stands for Christians] on the walls of any real estate owned by Christian families, and announced them Islamic State property. According to some reports, IS distributed this property to its members and put others on auction.

IS militants also attacked Christian holy places such as capturing the premise of the Assyrian Orthodox Archdiocese of Mosul, and removing the cross from St. Ephraim Cathedral in late June 2014. IS gunmen also stormed a Chaldean church in Al-Shifa neighborhood, demolished the statue of the Virgin Mary and the church clock, and bulldozed a Christian cemetery in July of the same year. In addition, IS militants blew up St. George Church and the nunnery located in the Arab neighborhood in Mosul on November 24, 2014. The Associated Press, through use of satellite images revealed this in 2016, with the destruction estimated to have taken place between 27 August and 28 September 2014. The extremist group also destroyed St. Elijah Monastery, the oldest Christian monastery in Mesopotamia, which belongs to the Chaldean Catholic and its construction dates back to more than 1,400 years .

In a report issued by the United Nations in cooperation with the United Nations Mission in Iraq (UNAMI) and the office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (UNHCR), stressed that the practices of IS against religious and ethnic minorities, including Christians, is “a systematic and large scale policy” that aims to repress and expel minorities permanently, as IS is depriving them of their basic rights and deliberately subjecting them to all kinds of abuses in blatant contravention of the international humanitarian law and human rights laws.”

Another sign of IS policies of displacement and religious cleansing in the areas under its control was the announcement made by Raad Jalil Kajaji, head of the Endowments of The Christians, Ezidian & Sabian Mandaean Religions Divan, that IS forces bombed the small town of Qaraqush, leading to the displacement of thousands of Christians late July 2014. IS forces also denied basic services of water and electricity to villages Tall Kayf, Barqalah, Bashiqa, and Sinjar, forcing the residents of these areas to flee as well.

Impact of IS Practices on Christian Minority

Islamic State’s occupation and tight measures have had a major impact on the Christian minority and their lives. With the exodus of Christian families from the territory of the Islamic State in the Ninawa Governorate and them moving to the Kurdistan region, these families have lost property and livelihood. This has also affected the social fabric of Christians, because some of them live in camps in the region or live in buildings that are still under construction, whereas others have immigrated to European countries. Also, (Christian) students suffered many problems in terms of the academic levels and living standards. Students faced “educational and administrative obstacles beyond their control” and were affected by “high prices of needs in the Kurdistan region compared to the living standards in their original areas,” according to the bi-annual report issued by Hammurabi Human Rights Organization in 2015 on violations against several Iraqi minorities.

Only a few families remained in Mosul for various reasons such as having an elderly or ill member of the family, and in order to avoid possible punishment proclaimed by IS, some of these claimed to have converted to Islam or they escaped to hide in different areas of the city and started to practice their religious rituals in secret.