The End of Days for Iraq’s Christians

In the lands of the Old Testament, an endangered religious minority is being wiped out by the brutal Islamic State.

Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images
Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images

ERBIL, Iraq — Rania, an outspoken middle-aged woman with graying hair, loved her job as a nurse at a hospital in the Iraqi city of Mosul. She had worked there for 30 years — until one day she walked in and was told she was no longer welcome.

"The Islamic State told me I couldn’t work there anymore because I am Christian," she says. "But I told them that I am from Mosul, that Mosul is my home."

No longer. Instead, like thousands of other Christians, Rania has been made a refugee by the jihadists’ intensifying war against religious and ethnic minorities. After being stripped of her job, she was forced to flee her home after the Islamic State, which captured Iraq’s second-largest city on June 10, told Christians to either convert to Islam or pay a religious tax of $250 per month. Failure to do so would result in execution. According to several Christian families, the militants later revoked the tax as an option.

Even as Rania and her husband fled Mosul, however, the Islamic State extracted a tax from them at the checkpoint as they left the city. Rania recounted how the jihadists stripped fleeing Christians of their valuables, even taking the jewelry she was wearing. Her husband, Raad, a former government employee with a graying beard, slammed his tea on the table as she told the story.

"We were stripped of everything: money, wallets, ID, passport, watches. They took everything of value we had," he said.

The family’s home, along with those of other Christians in Mosul, was marked with the Arabic letter "N," for Nasrani — an Arabic word for Christians that many consider derogatory. Even while the family was still living in its home, the family was informed that the home was now the property of the Islamic State — the family’s understanding is that the home has now been looted.

Rania fled to the Mar Mattai Monastery, 10 miles northeast of Mosul, atop Mount Alfaf, along with 250 other Christians from the city. Run by the Syriac Orthodox Church, the monastery offers a semblance of peace and quiet far removed from the violence Rania fled. Despite the proximity of the Islamic State, her family feels safe there — the monastery, and aid organizations, supply them will all their basic needs. However, with no schools, jobs, or medical facilities there, they cannot make it a new home.

It has been a dramatic and catastrophic end for Christians in Mosul. A little more than a decade ago, the city was home to about 60,000 Christians — now, only a handful remain in the city. And they’re not the only Christian population under threat: On Aug. 7, the Islamic State seized the town of Qaraqosh, the largest Christian city remaining in Iraq, after the withdrawal of Kurdish forces. The city, which lies roughly 20 miles southeast of Mosul, was largely abandoned by residents as the jihadists advanced.

"It is no longer possible for Christians to live in Iraq," Rania says.

That’s now a widespread view among Iraqi Christians. Nagham, a middle-aged mother of two, fled Mosul in the dark of the night with her husband and two children. Rather than leave in silence, Nagham confronted the militants before departing. The evening she and her family fled, fighters stopped them in the middle of the street — her children screamed in fear as the militants pointed their guns at them.

"A man from the Islamic State said, ‘You don’t want to live with us, we’re Muslims,’" she said. "I replied that we were from Mosul. He wanted us to pay jizya [a religious tax] and to change our religion."

"These conditions are impossible, I told him. I yelled at him [but then] he yelled at us to leave and threatened to kidnap us," said Nagham. "They took all our money — they didn’t even leave the small bills. We really have nothing left."

Nagham is now living in a rented apartment with other family members in Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan. Considering how other people forced to flee Mosul are faring, she’s doing well: Her parents and siblings live overseas and are supporting the family. Nagham and her family want to apply for asylum in Europe. But they’re just sitting around now, waiting to see what happens to their country.  

"All of Iraq’s Christian are trying to get out of the country," she said. "The only possibility is to go somewhere else and build up something new."

U.N. Special Rapporteur on Minority Issues Izsák Rita says she is gravely concerned about not only the safety of Christians in Iraq, but also other minority groups — including Yazidis, Shabaks, and Turkmen. Tens of thousands of Yazidis, a Kurdish-speaking religious minority group, were recently forced to flee Sinjar, in the country’s western Nineveh province, after Islamic State fighters captured the town on Sunday.

Roughly 200,000 people fled the Islamic State invasion of northern Iraq to the relative safety of the Kurdish cities of Dohuk and Erbil. However, U.N. groups said at least 40,000 have taken refuge on Mount Sinjar, where they are currently stranded — and facing dire water and food shortages. At least 40 children have already died, according to UNICEF, while Kurdish leaders have appealed to the United States for immediate assistance to help reach the stranded refugees. The U.S. government is now reportedly considering airstrikes on Islamic State fighters and humanitarian food drops.

Meanwhile, Rita is pushing the Iraqi government in Baghdad to do more to help its citizens.

"The underlying issue here is that whoever might be the perpetrator of violence and atrocities against any population in a given country, the government is responsible to protect its people," she says.

In an extraordinary first, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki authorized airstrikes on Monday to support Kurdish forces struggling to contain the Islamic State’s advance in northwestern Iraq. Baghdad’s intervention, however, hasn’t been sufficient to turn the tide of the battle: The Islamic State reportedly captured the Mosul Dam on Aug. 7, which would give it control over water and electricity for the entire region.

Meanwhile, as the jihadist advance continues, the Christians of Mosul are still waiting for much-needed assistance.

Salwan, an engineer and father of two from Mosul, is just one of the men who have been abandoned by the Iraqi government one too many times. While the Iraqi government promised roughly $860 to each family that has fled Mosul, he complained that he’s still waiting for the money. When he heard that France was ready to welcome displaced Christians, he joined the long queue of people in Erbil applying for asylum.

Soon, he hopes to wave goodbye to his lifelong home.

"There is no future for Christians in Iraq," he said. "Christians in Iraq are over."

Sophie Cousins is a health journalist based in South Asia. She is currently writing a book on women’s health in the region. Twitter: @SophCousins

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