As jihadists with the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant capture wide swaths of territory in northern Iraq, seizing military equipment and massacring Iraqi soldiers as they proceed, Christians are particularly alarmed and have fled in droves, not knowing if they will ever see their homes again.
Churches have been looted and burned and women have been forced to wear the Islamic veil in Mosul, a major city in northern Iraq that was captured last week, the Christian Post reported.
The Tablet, a British Catholic news weekly, quoted local Christian officials who described a scene of chaos and devastation.
Canon Andrew White, vicar of St George’s Anglican church in Baghdad, said, “The Christian center of Iraq has been totally ransacked. The tanks are moving into the Christian villages destroying them and causing total carnage. The ISIS militants are now moving towards Kirkuk … to the oil fields that provide the lifeblood of Iraq. We are faced with total war that all the Iraqi military have now retreated from.”
The Chaldean Catholic Archbishop of Mosul Amel Nona said his city was now at “the mercy of the attackers” one week after the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (known as ISIL or ISIS) seized Mosul, sending Iraqi Army and police officers who used to protect the Christians fleeing.
Archbishop Nona told the charity group Aid to the Church in Need, “Now there is probably no one left. We received threats … [and] now all the faithful have fled the city. I wonder if they will ever return there.”
Fr. Najeeb Michaeel said that the ancient monastery of Mar Behnam as well as other churches had fallen into the hands of insurgents. “We are now surrounded and threatened with death,” Michaeel said. “Pray for us.”
The Associated Press reported Monday that since the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, at least half of Iraq’s Christian population has fled the country to escape attacks by Sunni Muslim militants.
After the fall of Mosul to the Al Qaeda offshoot that has imposed strict Islamic law and prohibitions on the practice of Christianity, the remaining Christians are now “emptying out,” the AP wrote.
“I’m not going back,” a woman named Lina who fled Mosul told the AP.
“Each day we went to bed in fear,” Lina, 57, said. “In our own houses we knew no rest.”
She gave only her first name due to fears for her safety.
The AP noted that Christians were “emptying out communities that date back to the first centuries of the religion, including Chaldean, Assyrian and Armenian churches.”
The mayor of the town of Alqosh near the autonomous Kurdish zone in northern Iraq to where 160 Christian families from Mosul fled over the past week said this was the sixth time in 11 years that his town has welcomed Christians seeking refuge.
A man named Abu Zeid told the AP that he would not be returning to Mosul.
“It’s a shame because Mosul is the most important city in Iraq for Christians,” he said.
The capital of the Nineveh Province, Mosul is believed to be the site of the burial of the biblical prophet Jonah.
The AP reported that Iraq had more than 1 million Christians before 2003, but now church officials estimate that fewer than half remain in Iraq, a result of repeated acts of persecution including church bombings by Islamist groups.
In 2008, the Chaldean Catholic cardinal was kidnapped and killed.
In Mosul, before 2003 the Christian population numbered 130,000. Until early this month, there were 10,000. Since last week, when the ISIL took over the city, only 2,000 Christians remain, Abu Zeid told the AP.
Christians in Bartella, a town 10 miles outside of Mosul, said they are living in fear. With the Iraqi army gone, about 600 lightly armed Christian militiamen are guarding the town.
Captain Firaz Jacob who leads the defense group told CBS News what he thought might happen if ISIL attacked Bartella: “I don’t know, but maybe they’ll do what they’ve done in other places and kill us.”
In a column for Britain’s Catholic Herald, Max Wind-Cowie wrote Friday, “This is the final scene in the grotesque, theatrical death of Iraqi Christianity. A people who once numbered more than a million, who just a decade ago enjoyed the use of more than 300 blossoming churches, now faces extinction.”