The Arabic “nun” symbol, or N, which stands for Nazarene and refers to Christians, ominously began appearing, stamped in red, on Christian homes in Mosul, Iraq, two weeks ago.
By mid-July, it was accompanied by another statement, painted in black, “Property of the Islamic State.” And with that, the Christians found their worst fears confirmed.
On July 19, ISIS, the Sunni Muslim insurgent group declaring itself the Islamic State, carried out unabated and unabashed religious cleansing against Christians and the non-Sunni Muslim communities. Today, in this place of Nineveh of the Bible, the ancient heart of Iraqi Christianity, there’s not a single Christian left. All have been stripped of their possessions and deported.
In recent years, Iraq’s Christians have experienced relentless persecution by various extremist groups, and, along with a civil conflict in which the Christians remain neutral, it has taken a hard toll on their numbers. In 2003, Iraq’s Christians, at 1.4 million, were among the region’s most robust Christian communities. Since then, more than a million of them have fled. Their banishment from Mosul is irreversible.
Whether these newly displaced people, among the last Christians to speak Aramaic, Jesus’ own language, will be able to remain in the region at all is likely to depend on America’s response.
Remarkably, after their mass deportation, the Iraqi government did nothing to help Mosul’s Catholics, Orthodox and Protestants, even while the Iraqi Army failed to protect them, allowing ISIS to handily capture Iraq’s second largest city on June 10. Baghdad, however, did manage to send planes and bus convoys to evacuate the Shiites among the exiled minorities. Iraq’s government facilitated the resettlement of Mosul’s Turkmen and Shabak Shiite communities in Najaf and elsewhere in the south, reported Archdeacon Emanuel Youkhana with the Christian Aid Program. (ISIS did not target Turkmen and Shabak Sunnis.)
Left to fend for themselves were the Christians and a few remaining Yezidis (a dozen Yezidis recently in their home province of Sinjar had their eyes gouged out and were then killed by ISIS for refusing to convert to Islam).
Following these events, Chaldean Catholic Patriarch Sako registered the “shock and pain” of all Iraq’s church leaders, emphasizing their sense of raw “injustice.”
“How much the Christians have shared here in our East specifically from the beginnings of Islam. They shared every sweet and bitter circumstance of life … .Together they built a civilization, cities and a heritage. It is truly unjust now to treat Christians by rejecting them and throwing them away, considering them as nothing,” the patriarch effectively eulogized.
The eradication of the 2,000-year-old Christian presence from Mosul is indeed shocking. The recent release of several kidnapped Orthodox nuns and orphans had given some hope that, influenced by local Sunnis, ISIS would eschew the barbarism that is its stock and trade in Syria.
One Mosul Muslim, law professor Mahmoud al Asali, did speak up for moderation, but was then murdered. A Baghdad gathering of Muslims wearing “I am a Christian” signs in solidarity was ignored. No such mercy was to be had.
Unless they converted to Islam or paid protection money, the Christians were told, they would get “nothing but the sword.” It was now clear, the 30,000 to 50,000 Christians who fled Mosul over the last decade wouldn’t be able to return, and the several hundred still remaining there this month needed to get out fast. (Iraqi Christian parliamentarian Younadam Kannan said at least five Christian families too sick to leave renounced their faith for Islam “to stay alive,” though one of their daughters did flee.)
Before casting out the Christians, Shiites and Yezidis, Caliph Ibrahim, as ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi now is called, made certain to take all the possessions of the “unbelievers.”
Cars, cellphones, money, wedding rings, even one man’s chicken sandwich, were all solemnly declared “property of the Islamic State” and confiscated. A woman who gave over tens of thousands of dollars was also stripped of bus fare to Erbil.
With temperatures in the area reaching 120 degrees, the last of the exiles left on foot, carrying only the small children and pushing the grandparents in wheelchairs. Those who glanced back could see armed groups looting their homes and loading the booty onto trucks.
ISIS has set out to erase every Christian trace. All 30 churches were seized and their crosses stripped away. Some have been permanently turned into mosques. One is the Mar (Saint) Ephraim Syriac Orthodox Cathedral, newly outfitted with loudspeakers that now call Muslims to prayer. The 4th century Mar Behnam, a Syriac Catholic monastery outside Mosul, was captured and its monks expelled, leaving behind a library of early Christian manuscripts and wall inscriptions by 13th-century Mongol pilgrims.
Christian and Shiite gravesites, deemed idolatrous by ISIS, are being deliberately blown up and destroyed, including on July 24, the tomb of the 8th-century B.C. Old Testament Prophet Jonah, and the Muslim shrine that enclosed it.
Before fleeing, the Vatican reports, the Orthodox Christian community did successfully spirit away the relics of Thomas the Apostle who, it is said, introduced Christianity to Nineveh.
The last of Mosul’s Christians, those some 5,000 professors, doctors, lawyers, mechanics and their families that left between June 10 and July 19, find themselves suddenly destitute and homeless because of their faith. Some went to the nearest Nineveh Christian villages, temporarily sheltering in schools and churches. These villages would be vulnerable to ISIS attacks, too, but for their protection by the Kurds, who are, themselves, Sunni Muslim. Water and electricity have been cut off for some by ISIS, who told one Christian town official, “You don’t deserve to drink water,” reported Archdeacon Youkhana. The residents are desperately digging wells.
Many more have fled to Kurdistan, where there are ancestral Christian villages and big cities.
On July 19, the Kurdish Regional Government issued a statement welcoming the Christian exiles. It pledged the KRG to continue its “efforts and abilities to help those displaced” and called on the Kurdish people “to give all they can to aid the displaced Christian families.” It notes the Iraqi government “did not assume its responsibilities toward the displaced persons living in Kurdistan.”
ISIS control over Iraq’s territory presents an enormous threat to the region.
The religious cleansing of Mosul’s minorities is only part of the problem, but it is a grave crime against humanity, as well as a humanitarian catastrophe, that should no longer go overlooked in U.S. policy.
Nina Shea is director of Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom