The startling gains made by jihadist fighters in Iraq are placing the region’s already extremely vulnerable Christians in even greater peril, Christian advocacy groups are warning.
While hundreds of thousands of Iraqis are affected by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant’s takeover of key cities including the Ninawa (Nineveh) provincial capital, Mosul, minority Christians – some of whom trace their origins to the earliest years of Christianity – are among those with the most to lose.
In previous years, Christians fleeting violence in Baghdad or elsewhere in the south often headed for the Mosul area. The Nineveh Plain formed the historic homeland of Assyrians, an ancient non-Arab ethnic group in Iraq. Main Christian denominations include Chaldean Catholic, Assyrian, Syrian Orthodox, Armenian and evangelicals.
Syria was another key destination for Christians who were able to leave Iraq, but the civil war there made life even riskier across the border than at home, prompting some to return.
For many Christians in the Mosul area now, the autonomous Kurdish region to the north-east may offer the best short-term hope – if they are able to cross over. Chaldean archbishop Amel Nona told the Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) he believed all Mosul’s Christians had left the city, and spoke of efforts to find emergency accommodation in ancient Christian villages in the Nineveh Plain.
As the jihadists swept into Mosul this week, they reportedly looted and torched churches, raised their black “there is no god but Allah” flags and started demanding that women wear the Islamic veil.
The Assyrian International News Agency identified two of the targeted churches as the Chaldean Church of the Holy Spirit, and an Armenian church under construction, which it said was bombed.
Barnabas Fund, an aid agency that supports minority Christians in Islamic countries, said the attacks on churches were “a clear statement from ISIS that they are no longer welcome in Mosul.”
“It is feared that this latest exodus could be the final death knell for the Christians of Iraq,” said Barnabas international director Patrick Sookdheo.
“Having previously sought refuge in Syria, this is no longer an option, and as ISIS violence threatens the stability of the wider region, Christians have very few places of safety to which to run.”
An Iraq-based representative of the religious freedom advocacy group Open Doors sounded a similar warning.
“This could be the last migration of Christians from Mosul,” the organization quoted the representative as saying. Open Doors says an estimated 1,000 Christian families were living in the city as of Monday this week.
“The Islamist terrorists want to make Iraq a ‘Muslim only’ nation and as a result they want all Christians out,” Open Doors USA President/CEO Dr. David Curry said in a statement.