The city of Mosul’s honeymoon period with the Sunni Muslim extremist group that now controls it, is over. After initially stating that it would not harm Christians and other minorities in the northern Iraqi city, the group that took control of Mosul at the beginning of June this year has started making moves against locals from religious minorities.
In a statement issued to the city’s citizens, the group, known as the Islamic State, gave anyone in town of another religion or sect, three choices: Paying them a tax, converting to their version of Islam or death.
The leaders of the IS group had asked senior members of the Christian community, including clerics, to meet with them and “expose themselves to the Islamic State” on the morning of July 17, 2014, Duraid Hikmat Tobia, the adviser to the governor of Ninawa on minority affairs, explained. Tobia is a former resident of Mosul and he recently got a call from the militants in Mosul telling him that they had confiscated his house.
The Christian community leaders were asked to go to the city’s Social and Cultural Club, Tobia says.
However after holding a meeting, the Christian group decided not to attend the meeting because they were not sure of the IS group’s intentions, and because they knew they were likely to be presented with only those three unpalatable options again, Tobia says.
It didn’t take long for the IS group to respond to this non-compliance by the city’s Christians. On Thursday night the group issued another statement saying that the so-called Caliph – the leader of IS, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi – had done local Christians a “great favour by allowing them to leave all by themselves and cross the borders of the Islamic Caliphate by Saturday, July 19, 2014. After this date there is nothing between us and them but the sword”, the statement said.
A lot of locals questioned the validity of this statement when it was first seen all over Iraqis’ Facebook pages on Friday morning. However their doubts vanished after the same statement was read aloud at Friday prayer meetings in mosques around town. Within 24 hours, almost all of the Christians in Mosul had packed their belongings and were leaving, or on their way to doing so. Except for one.
One local Christian man, Nael, heard about the statement and immediately returned home to tell his wife and family to prepare to depart. He had heard parts of the statement from loudspeakers at a mosque near their home.
As Nael’s family was preparing itself to depart and packing frantically, all of their mobile phones were ringing. Fellow Christians and Muslim friends were calling to tell them about the deadline and to urge them to leave the city as quickly as they could.
It only took Nael’s family about an hour to get ready to leave. But one member of their family refused to move: Nael’s 62-year-old mother. She said she was going to stay and guard the house in which she had spent more than half of her life. Her sons, her neighbours and other relatives all begged her to leave – but Nael’s mother would not be moved. She was so stubborn that eventually Nael’s family were forced to leave without their matriarch.
This was far from the first move against the city’s Christians by the IS group. As thousands of Christians had already fled the city when the extremists took over, the IS group also “confiscated” the houses they had left behind, ruling them IS property.
A week before the Saturday deadline, many were wondering about the “N” sign that had painted on many houses and buildings in Mosul. It turned out to be a code that the place had Christian owners, with the letter “N” standing for Nazarene, which is how the IS group describe Christians.
The group then went further, adding a sentence that said “property of the Islamic State” under the “N”. They then asked those who were renting the houses to pay their rent to the IS group fighters rather than to the Christian landlords.
The IS group has also stormed local churches, burned crosses, smashed religious statues and pictures and looted furniture. The latest attack was on an ancient monastery, Mar Behnam monastery, which dates from the 4th century and is located south east of Mosul. The IS group expelled the clerics there and raised their own black flags over the building.
When the IS group first started targeting Christians, there were a lot of protests on Facebook and on other social media. But often the anger expressed online was louder than that whispered about in private conversations and meetings.
One of the Facebook pictures that stirred many was a picture of two young men from Mosul, one Christian, one Muslim. They had been best friends for years and as the Christian began to leave, his Muslim friend hugged him tightly. Both started to cry. The Muslim friend looked so helpless.
The Christians of Mosul have suffered a lot over the last decade as the city had become a hub for first Al Qaeda, and then IS, activities. But Saturday was by far the worst day.
Forty days ago, there were more than 10,000 Christian Iraqis in Mosul, Tobia says. Now almost all have mostly left. Many have made their way into the semi-autonomous and relatively secure, neighbouring region of Iraqi Kurdistan. Others have gone to towns on the Ninawa Plain where there is a Christian majority and which are controlled by Iraqi Kurdish troops. Almost all of them had to leave everything behind – homes, money, belongings not to mention their Muslim friends and neighbours.
As yet the people of Mosul have done nothing to resist the IS group. And this is not because they are happy with what the Sunni Muslim extremists are doing in their city but because they know that the group’s members will kill anyone who hinders their project.
At the points where the Christian exodus left the city, fighters from the IS group then relieved fleeing Christians of anything they had managed to carry out of the city. Militants took Nael’s family’s car, all the gold and jewellery they had – Nael’s wife begged them not to take her wedding jewellery - and even their mobile phones.
Carrying his youngest child on his shoulder, Nael then led his broken hearted family out of the so-called Islamic Caliphate. They used the US$8 that the IS gunmen had left them to catch a taxi to Qosh, a town on the Ninawa Palin controlled by the Iraqi Kurdish.
Neighbours say that up until 11.50am on Saturday, Nael’s mother was still in her house in Mosul. However around lunchtime three men from the IS group entered the house and forced the older woman to get into one of their cars. The car was last seen heading for one of the city’s eastern exits.
Neighbours say that the old woman took nothing with her except a cloak the IS fighters forced her to put on before she left the house.