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One year since Mosul fell to Islamic State militants and forced Christians to flee

15 June 2015

On 10 June 2014, the city of Mosul, Iraq’s second city, fell to Islamic State (IS) militants in a brutal display of control. Ousting Christians from their homes and seizing them for themselves, IS forced Christians to flee with nothing except the clothes they were wearing. One year on, the city is empty of its Christians and the city’s population is ruled according to the Islamists’ strict interpretation of Islamic law.

Barnabas helps Iraqi Christians fleeing Islamic State militants
Barnabas helps Iraqi Christians fleeing Islamic State militants

Even before IS had reached Mosul, Christians had been leaving the city at a rate of around ten a day in fear of its advance; only those who were the most vulnerable, the elderly and the sick, were left. But on 9 June last year, police visited senior Christian leaders in Mosul and advised them that the entire Christian community should leave.

Mariam, a Christian doctor who refused to leave at first said, “I had to flee as Mosul fell. I escaped with my body unharmed, but my soul remained where I had left it: at home. After moving to Irbil [in Iraqi Kurdistan] I received shocking news: Islamic State had confiscated my house and marked it will the letter ‘N’.” After taking hold of the city, IS began marking Christian homes and properties with the Arabic letter N that stands for “Nisrani” (Nazarene, i.e. Christian) along with the statement “Property of the Islamic State of Iraq”.

Soon after, they issued an ultimatum to Mosul’s Christians: convert to Islam, pay the jizya* tax, or be killed. Given until noon on 19 July to comply, any Christians left in Mosul fled, many of them going north into Iraqi Kurdistan. Even as they fled, they were stripped of their possession at checkpoints.

An estimated 200,000 Christians fled Mosul and other nearby towns and villages in the Plains of Nineveh when they fell to IS last summer. Many of them are still living in Iraqi Kurdistan, while others have moved on to nearby countries or further afield. There have been incidents of IS kidnapping and enslaving women and children in northern Iraq as they advanced into the area. There is no prospect of Christians being able to return home to the traditional heartland of Christianity in Iraq.

Mosul continues to be ruled by IS militants and the city’s population lives in fear of the group’s severe punishments for failures to comply with the group’s extreme interpretation of sharia (Islamic law). Punishments are carried out in public and residents are sometimes forced to watch.

There are extreme shortages of fuel and there are no jobs to be had. “The rich have been relying on their savings, those with a salary are just about getting by, but the poor have been left to the mercy of God,” said Hisham, a local resident.

Women are forced to cover up completely, hospitals are exclusively for the use of IS fighters, and schools are said to be places of indoctrinating children in IS ideologies. “Even simple leisure activities like picnics are banned now in Mosul, under the pretext that they are a waste of time and money,” said Hisham.

“Many people have done what they could to hold on for a year,” said another Mosul resident. “Hope gave them patience. But can we do this one more year? I don’t know.” For Mosul’s exiled Christian community, the situation is extremely precarious. Barnabas Fund has launched Operation Safe Havens to rescue Christians in danger and to resettle them with dignity.

* Jizya is a tax prescribed by sharia (Islamic law) that is paid by Jews and Christians living under Islamic rule in return for being allowed to keep their own religion. Payment of the tax is a recognition of the inferior status of non-Muslims as a subjugated minority and if they refuse to pay it, or refuse to adhere to the demeaning regulations imposed on them, then the Muslim majority no longer needs to protect them and they can legitimately be killed.