WASHINGTON, July 19, 2014 – Christian families are fleeing the city of Mosul where their descendants have lived and practiced their faith for nearly two thousand years.
The exodus comes as the result of a letter from Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, leader of the Islamic State — formerly the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) — to Christians living in Mosul that they must convert to Islam, pay a fine or face “death by the sword.”
Fifty-two Christian families left the city of Mosul early Saturday, well before the noon (5 a.m. ET) deadline.
The letter arrived the same day that ISIS, a Sunni group so brutal that al-Qaeda has disavowed it, slaughtered 270 Syrians including national guard, security guards and employees at the Shaer gas field,
The United Nations has documented scores of abductions and killings as well as the destruction of Christian shrines and mosques by ISIS. On Friday the United Nations released a report on civilian casualties in Iraq.
A joint report by the United Nations human rights office in Geneva says that 1,531 civilians were killed in June and that for 2014 the civilian death toll us upwards of 5,576.
In June, 600,000 people were driven from their homes, doubling the number of internally displaced people in Iraq to more than 1.2 million, the report added.
Also run out of Mosul are the Yazidis, a tiny sect that has survived for centuries and whose theology fuses elements of Islam, Christianity and Zoroastrianism; Shabaks, who are often described as Shiites whose language is close to Persian and who take beliefs from different traditions; and Shiite Turkmen.
The letter countered promises by Baghdadi immediately after the group took over Mosul that ISIS would not persecute Christians, Shi’ites, or other religious groups.
ISIS-appointed governor of Mosul, Salman al-Farisi, said that non-converted families that wish to stay in Mosul would have to pay 550K Iraqi dinar, about $470 US, a princely sum for many families.
Some of the fleeing Christians headed for Irbil, which is controlled by Kurdish forces while the majority moved toward the province of Dohuk.
“We did not know how to act,” said Um Nazik a Mosul resident. “Are we going to get killed?”
Prior to Saddam Hussein’s overthrow, Mosul’s Christians, one of the oldest communities of its kind in the world consisting of some 30,000 persons, had lived in relative piece in the primarily Islamic area.
Since 2003, the number of Christians dwindled from over 30,000 to just a few thousand. Now, they have almost all left.
It was not an easy choice for Christians to leave the city. However, the demand letter combined with destruction of Christian sites prompted the exodus.
Witnesses report that ISIS has also removed the cross from St. Ephrem’s Cathedral, the seat of the Syriac Orthodox archdiocese in Mosul, hanging the black flag of ISIS instead.
Ghazwan Ilyas, the head of the Chaldean Culture Society in Mosul, says they have also destroyed statutes of the Virgin Mary.
“They did not destroy the churches, but they killed us when they removed the cross, this is death for us,” he said.
As Christian leave Mosul, ISIS has painted “Nasrani,” from Nazrene, a word often used to refer to Christians, on their homes “Property of the Islamic State of Iraq.”
In Baghdad, the Islamic State is responsible for the deaths of at least 27 persons in mostly Shi’ite Muslim areas. A suicide car bomber drove into a police checkpoint killing nine people, including seven police.
Twenty-one people were wounded in the Abu Dsheer district.
Nineteen people were killed in car bombs detonated in other areas in and around Bagdhad.