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Christians are under siege in Iraq, according to several reports emerging from the city of Mosul.
Chaldean Archbishop Amel Nona says he thinks Mosul’s last remaining Christians have left the city, which until 2003 was home to 35,000 faithful.
Describing reports of attacks to four churches and a monastery in Mosul, Archbishop Nona, 46, said, “We received threats… [and] now all the faithful have fled the city. I wonder if they will ever return there.”
The archbishop, who in the ensuing crisis sought sanctuary in Tal Kayf, a village two miles from Mosul, described to the Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need how the local community were doing their best to provide for crowds of people flooding out of the city and into the surrounding Nineveh plains, where there are a number of ancient Christian villages.
“Up at 5am yesterday [June 10] morning we welcomed families on the run and we have tried to find accommodation in schools, classrooms and empty houses.”
He said: “We have never seen anything like this—a large city such as Mosul attacked and in chaos.”
The archbishop said that in the 11 years following the 2003 US-led overthrow of Iraq’s President Saddam Hussein, Christians in Mosul had declined from 35,000 to 3,000 and that “now there is probably no one left.”
He said the attacks on Mosul began June 5 but were initially confined to the western part of the city. “The army began bombing the affected areas but later in the night between Monday and Tuesday, suddenly the armed forces and the police left Mosul, leaving it to the mercy of the attackers,” he said.
The archbishop questioned reports claiming the militants responsible for the attacks are part of the Islamic State of Iraq and Levant (ISIS), a terrorist organisation linked to Al Qaeda and in control of key areas of north-west Syria. The group is also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.
“I do not know yet who the group is behind these attacks,” Archbishop Nona said. “Some speak of ISIS; others think other groups are responsible. We have to wait until we have a better understanding of the situation. What we do know is that they are extremists; many people have seen them patrolling the streets.”
BBC reports have described ISIS ambitions to create an Islamist caliphate spreading from northern Iraq across to northwest Syria.
Meanwhile, a hastily composed email from a Dominican friar in Iraq and published on several blogs paints a very grim picture for the Christians of Mosul.
Father Najeeb Michaeel, O.P., describes the scene as “apocalyptic:”
Bad news. I write you in a situation of violence in Mosul that is very critical and even apocalyptic. Most of the inhabitants of the city have already abandoned their houses and fled into the villages and are sleeping in the open without anything to eat or drink. Many thousands of armed men from the Islamic Groups of Da’ash have attacked the city of Mosul for the last two days. They have assassinated adults and children. The bodies have been left in the streets and in the houses by the hundreds, without pity. The regular forces and the army have also fled the city, along with the governor. In the mosques, they cry “Allah Akbar, long live the Islamic State.” Qaraqosh is overflowing with refugees of all kinds, without food or lodging. The check points and the Kurdish forces are blocking innumerable refugees from entering Kurdistan. What we are living and what we have seen over the last two days is horrible and catastrophic. The priory of Mar Behnam and other churches fell into the hands of the rebels this morning. . . . and now they have come here and entered Qaraqosh five minutes ago, and we are now surrounded and threatened with death. . . . pray for us. I’m sorry that I can’t continue . . . They are not far from our convent. . . . Don’t reply. . . .
The email was translated by a fellow Dominican and posted by Father Gregory Pine, O.P., on a blog of the magazine First Things,
Father Pine explains that Dominicans have been ministering in Iraq since 1750 and that Father Najeeb founded the Center for the Digitization of Oriental Manuscripts there. “Over the years Father Najeeb has collected hundreds of priceless Christian manuscripts to preserve them, as well as to make digital copies that they may be made widely available,” Father Pine writes.
Fides, the missionary news agency, also paints a grim picture of the situation in Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, where militants released thousands of prisoners.
“As Fides has learned, the attack of al Qaeda militants has accelerated the flight of Christian families to the villages in the Nineveh Plain, where in recent days the presence of the Peshmerga Kurdish militia has strengthened,” the agency says. “Those who were unable to flee are now trapped in their homes, with a curfew and constant interruptions in electricity and water supply.”
“During the al Qaeda offensive, the clashes were concentrated in the western suburbs, site of the Chaldean cathedral,” Fides says. “Chaldean Bishop Amel Shamon Nona and the other bishops of Mosul launched an appeal to keep churches and mosques open to pray for peace, also inviting shopkeepers to ensure that people have access to food and basic foodstuffs.”
If the attacks are indeed the work of ISIS, the citizens of Mosul, particularly its Christian community, have good reason to pray, according to Nina Shea, writing at National Review.
“The ruthlessness of ISIS, an offshoot of al Qaeda, has been legendary,” says Shea, director of the Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom. “Its beheadings, crucifixions, and other atrocities against Christians and everyone else who fails to conform to its vision of a caliphate have been on full display earlier this year, in Syria.”
In February, for example, in the northern Syrian state of Raqqa, ISIS compelled Christian leaders to sign a 7th-century dhimmi contract, she writes. “The document sets forth specific terms denying the Christians the basic civil rights of equality and religious freedom and committing them to pay protection money in exchange for their lives and the ability to keep their Christian identity,” Shea explains.
“Since 2003, Iraq’s Christian community has suffered intense religious persecution on top of the effects of the conflict and, as a result, it’s shrunk by well over 50 percent,” Shea writes. “Mosul, the site of ancient Nineveh of the Assyrians, who converted to Christianity in the first century, has become the home of many Christians who remained. Considered by Christians the place of last resort inside Iraq, Mosul and the surrounding Nineveh Plain has been home to many Christian refugees driven out of Baghdad and Basra. Mosul has the only university, the best hospitals, and the largest markets serving the Christian towns and villages of the Nineveh Plain. The plain, itself, is now at grave risk of direct jihadi attacks and the possibility of being cut off from an essential city.
“Once upon a time, some of the Mosul Christians might have fled to Syria, but they now have few options,” Shea continues. “More will give up on the region altogether and join their relatives and former neighbors in Michigan, California, Sweden, and elsewhere in the West. The fall of Mosul is a serious blow for the Iraqi state, and the implications for Iraq’s Christian community are devastating.”