BAGHDAD: The ancient Christian community of the northern Iraqi city of Mosul had all but fled by yesterday, ending a presence stretching back nearly two millennia after radical Islamists set them a midday deadline to submit to Islamic rule or leave.
The ultimatum by the Islamic State drove out the few hundred Christians who had stayed on when the group’s hardline Sunni Muslim fighters overran Mosul a month ago, threatening Christians and the diverse city’s other religious communities.
This week the Islamic State gave any remaining Christians a final choice to make by yesterday noon: convert to Islam, pay a religious tax, or face the sword.
A Catholic bishop from Mosul said that 150 Christian families had left in recent days and church leaders had advised the few families who wanted to negotiate with militants that they should also flee for their own safety.
“We have lived in this city and we have had a civilization for thousands of years — and suddenly some strangers came and expelled us from our homes,” said a woman in her 60s who fled on Friday for Hamdaniya, a mainly Christian town controlled by Kurdish security forces to the southeast of Mosul.
Others were stopped by gunmen on the outskirts of the city and robbed of the goods they carried, suggesting the militants were implementing an order to Christians to leave behind all possessions.
“The Islamic State stopped my relatives at a checkpoint when they were fleeing and when they found out they were Christians, they took everything they were carrying, including their mobile phones,” said a Christian man, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
“They left them only with the clothes they were wearing,” he said, speaking from Hamdaniya.
The Islamic State, an Al Qaeda offshoot, relayed its ultimatum from mosque loudspeakers and spray-painted Christian properties with the letter “N” for Nasrani, or Christian, residents said.
Religious leaders have expressed alarm at the order. “It is forbidden for Christians to be rejected, expelled or wiped out,” said Chaldean Catholic Patriarch Louis Raphael Sako in a statement published on his official website.
“It is no secret the dire consequences this could have on the peaceful coexistence of the majority and minorities, and also among Muslims themselves in the near and long term.”
Mosul lies across the Tigris river from the ancient city of Nineveh, at the heart of Mesopotamia. It thrived at a time when what is now Iraq was considered a “cradle of civilization”, and for centuries its population showed the importance of Iraq as a crossroad of trade and culture.
The overlapping of Muslim and Christian faiths in modern day Mosul is evident by the fact that the tomb of the Biblical and Koranic prophet Jonah is housed in a mosque in the city.
That mosque is at risk of destruction along with others in Mosul considered heretical by the Sunni, ultra-conservative Islamic State.
The militants’ seizure of Mosul also drove other ethnic and religious minorities away, such as the Shabak and Turkmen Shias and the Yazidis, an ethnically Kurdish group practicing a religion linked to Zoroastrianism.