Islamic State of Iraq demands conversion or death for Christians

The cross at the summit of the Orthodox Christian cathedral in Mosul was removed by Muslim militants and replaced with the black flag of Islam.

During a Sunday sermon, Pope Francis expressed concern for Christians forced to flee Iraq's second-largest city, Mosul, where Christians have resided for centuries. During his traditional blessing of pilgrims assembled in St Peter’s Square at the Vatican on July 20, the pontiff offered prayers for Christians in Iraq who "are persecuted, chased away, forced to leave their houses without out the possibility of taking anything" with them. It has been reported that the last Christians living in Mosul have left, while many of them headed for the Kurdish region to the north.
 
Members of the ISIS Islamist terrorist organization currently battling the Iraqi government began issuing over mosque loudspeakers an ultimatum on July 17: pay a head tax known as jizya, convert to Islam, or face death. Iraq’s Christian community dates back to the time of the apostles of Jesus, sending missionaries during the first centuries of the first millennium as far away as China and India. 
 
Pope Francis called for dialogue instead of death-dealing. He said "violence is not overcome with violence. Violence is overcome with peace."
 
Mosul lies across the Tigris River, near the Biblical city of Nineveh in the heart of Mesopotamia. While it had a Christian population of approximately 100,000 ten years ago, that number plummeted following the U.S.-led invasion in 2003. At the time the Islamic State seized Mosul, there were some 5,000 Christians left. 
 
The leader of the so-called Islamic State, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, warned Christians that they had until July 19 to “leave the borders of the Islamic Caliphate.” He said further, “After this date, there is nothing between us and them but the sword.” The Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, which is the previous former name for the Islamic State, captured Mosul earlier this month and declared the formation of a “caliphate” in parts of Iraq and Syria. The Muslim death threats were announced on loudspeakers throughout Mosul
 
(Arabic letter 'Nun': The letter N symbolizing Christians)
 
Leaders of the various Catholic and Orthodox churches told believers that they should flee rather than negotiate with the Islamic State. Christians abandoned the area by the end of July 18 and in time for the traditional Muslim call to prayer. Speaking to AFP was Chaldean Catholic Patriarch Louis Sako: “Christian families are on their way to Dohuk and Arbil, [in the neighboring autonomous region of Kurdistan].” He added, “For the first time in the history of Iraq, Mosul is now empty of Christians.”
 
On July 18, Christians took taxis or begged rides to reach the nearest Christian villages. Many escaped with nothing but the clothes on their backs.
 
In recent days, according to Patriarch Sako, Muslims have been tagging Christian homes and businesses with the Arabic letter “Nun” - N in English – a reference to the Koranic  epithet used for Christians: “Nassarah”(Nazarenes).  “We were shocked by the distribution of a statement by the Islamic State calling on Christians to convert to Islam, or to pay unspecified tribute, or to leave their city and their homes taking only their clothes and no luggage, and that their homes would then belong to the Islamic State,” Sako said. Next to the letter, in black, were scrawled the words: “Property of the Islamic State of Iraq.”
 
"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," an elderly Iraqi Christian woman said, according to Reuters. The militants told Muslims renters that they no longer need to pay rent to Christian landlords.
 
Catholic Patriarch Ignace Joseph III Younan of Antioch said in an interview with Vatican Radio, "The latest news is disastrous. We repeat, with great affliction, that which we have always said: religion must not be mixed up with human or political relations, etc. If enmities exist between Shiites, Sunnis, or whoever else it may be, this must not be in any way a reason for attacking innocent Christians and other minorities in Mosul and elsewhere. Nor is it a reason for destroying places of worship, churches, Episcopal residences, parishes – in the name of a so-called terrorist organization which neither cares about nor heeds religion, having no regard for international conscience. We declare, with great distress, that our bishopric in Mosul has been completely burned down: manuscripts, libraries, etc. But they have already announced that all Christians must convert to Islam or else they will be executed. It is a terrible thing! And this puts the international community to shame!"
 
Some Christians had remained in Mosul in the hope of reaching an understanding with their new Muslim overlords so as to continue peacefully practicing their religion. Chaldeans and Assyrians Catholics and Orthodx, as well as Mandean Christians had lived for on the plains of Ninevah, near the birthplace of the Patriarch Abraham, for 2000 years. Mosul lies across the Tigris river from Nineveh, at the heart of Mesopotamia. It used to have a Christian population of around 100,000 a decade ago, but the numbers decreased drastically due to waves of attacks on Christians following the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq. The Friday Muslim edict may mean an end to that presence.
 
Muslim militants removed the cross from St. Ephrem’s Cathedral, the seat of the Syriac Orthodox archdiocese of Mosul, and replaced it with the black flag of Islam. They also destroyed a statue of the Virgin Mary, according to Ghazwan Ilyas, the head of the Chaldean Culture Society in Mosul
 
 
Besides Christians, the Muslim marauders are also systematically killing and expelling other minorities. According to a United Nations report, among these minorities are the Yazidis, a tiny pacifistic sect whose theology fuses Islam, Christianity and Zoroastrianism. Also persecuted are Shiite Turkmen and the Shabaks, both of which the Sunni militants of ISIS consider heretical. The UN has documented scores of abductions and killings as well as the destruction of shrines, including the tomb of Prophet Jonah – revered by Jews, Christians, and Muslims. Member of ISIS are stopping the fleeing Christians and robbing them of anything in their possession.
 
 ISIS has set up checkpoints along a road that the Shabaks have been using to flee Mosul. While some people had been abducted by ISIS for ransom money, there have also been numerous summary executions and beheadings. The group kidnapped at least 200 Shabaks, Turkmen and Yazidis, killing at least 11 of them, according to the New York-based Human Rights Watch.
 
 
During the month of June, at least 1,531 civilians were killed, bringing the civilian death toll in the first half of the year to a minimum of 5,576, according to a joint report by the United Nations human rights office in Geneva and the United Nations mission in Iraq. More than 600,000 people were driven from their homes during June alone, doubling the number of internally displaced people in Iraq to more than 1.2 million, the report added.
 
The current persecution and dispossession of Christians by Muslims resembles a similar campaign against Iraqi Jews during the Second World War. The Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, a prime Muslim religious leader, worked in concert with Adolf Hitler and National Socialist Germany to murder Jews, seize their property, and extinguish their presence in a place where they had lived for six thousand years. Recounted in his book ‘The Farhud’, author Edwin Black detailed how mostly Muslim sympathizers of Nazi Germany’s anti-Semitic policies sought to exterminate Jews even before the establishment of the modern Jewish state of Israel, setting the stage for similar pogroms in Muslim states in the Mideast and North Africa during the latter half of the 1940s.


Spero News editor Martin Barillas is a former US diplomat, who also worked as a democracy advocate and election observer in Latin America. He is also a freelance translator.

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