The Christian community in Mosul, northern Iraq, one of the oldest in the world, has fled the city en masse. After the Islamic State (IS) issued an ultimatum giving them until noon on 19 July to convert to Islam, pay a tax, leave, or be killed, many fled the city and chose the uncertainty and hand-to-mouth existence of being displaced.
For the first time in the history of Iraq, Mosul is now empty of Christians.
Mosul, 250 miles north-west of Baghdad, is the second largest city in Iraq and the place where many Christians believe Jonah was buried. It stands on the west bank of the Tigris River, opposite the ancient Assyrian city of Nineveh.
Dr Suha Rassam, who was born and raised in Mosul, recalls: “Mosul was rich in old historical churches and monasteries, most of which abound in architectural features. We would often have school trips to the many monasteries that surrounded Mosul and sometimes we would stay for days in the monastery. Sadly, most of those monasteries have been overtaken by the extremists; their crosses have been replaced with the black flag of IS.”
Dr Rassam is one of the trustees of a British-based charity, Iraqi Christians in Need (ICIN), which is trying to provide emergency aid to the people who were forced to flee Mosul.
After IS militants stormed Mosul, they tagged all the Christian homes with the letter N for “Nassarah”, the term by which the Qu’ran refers to Christians.
George, a displaced Christian from Mosul, said: “On Friday a warning was read out in Mosul’s mosques, and broadcast throughout the city on loudspeakers. ‘We offer [Christians] three choices: Islam; the jizya (a form of tax), or leave ... if they refuse this they will have nothing but the sword.’
He added: “We left our homes and all our belongings so that we might save ourselves. We have no idea how long we will stay and what we will do in the future. As we passed their checkpoints they began pelting us with a torrent of vile insults. They stole our passports, jewellery and our money. We walked under the furnace heat of summer, with the children and the elderly”.
In 2003, before the allied invasion of Iraq, it was thought that Christians in Mosul numbered as many as 55,000. That number dwindled due to a wave of migration. Some estimates put the most recent numbers about 3,000, out of a city of 2 million people.
For the first time in 1,600 years, Sunday Mass was not held in Mosul. Within days Christianity has been wiped out. Western countries, whose intervention has led to the chaos we see unleashed in Iraq, have turned a blind eye to the cleansing of Christians of Mosul.
The words of the Chaldean Catholic Patriarch, Louis Sako, about the plight of the Iraqi Christians still echo in the air.
“We feel forgotten and isolated. We sometimes wonder, if they kill us all, what would be the reaction of Christians in the West? Would they do something then?”
Robert Ewan is a freelance journalist based in London.
The Iraqi Christian community is holding a demonstration on Saturday outside the Houses of Parliament at 12pm.
Ex-ambassador condemns Government 'silence' over Mosul 24 July 2014