After being issued an ultimatum from ISIS in Mosul, some of the city’s last Christian families have fled, only to be robbed of their last possessions at ISIS checkpoints. Friday at noon was the deadline for Christian families to meet ISIS’s demands: Convert to Islam, pay an anachronistic Islamic tax for non-Muslims known as jizya, leave Mosul, or be killed. But the day before the final exodus, Christians were informed jizya was no longer an option. The order came to convert, leave, or die.
Gathered along an unlit street on the edge of Hamdaniyah, a majority Christian town on the outskirts of Mosul, large, well-dressed families of refugees from Mosul shared their stories in their only remaining set of clothes, trying to make sense of what had happened. According to the Iraq-based Hammurabi Human Rights Organization, whose field office was receiving internal refugees in Hamdaniyah, 1,500 Christian families have fled Mosul in the last four days. They were the last of the last.
Those families leaving from the checkpoints on the eastern side of the city were harassed and robbed of their possessions but ultimately allowed to leave Mosul with only the clothes on their backs and possibly cab fare. All families who fled on the last morning reported having money, belongings, jewelry, and even documents stolen from them. Women had crucifixes torn from their necks.
Those who were received by aid organizations in neighboring Hamdaniyah, Bartella, and elsewhere were despondent and in a state of shock when they arrived at shelters for refugees. Most had been assured by ISIS fighters during the first week after the takeover that their communities would be protected, as ISIS’s animosity initially was directed toward the city’s Shia. But all that changed in the past week.
As they left Mosul, Christian families were cursed and abused by ISIS fighters at the checkpoints on the outskirts of the city for abandoning their homes and not converting to Islam. According to the fleeing families, it was apparent that fighters were locals from their accents and covered faces, but the Christians suspected many of being the freed prisoners who have joined ISIS’s ranks last month.
Not quite all the families chose to flee; a few Christians were reported to have converted to Islam in order to save their families’ lives and their property. Converting Christians reported to mosques in Mosul, where they performed a profession of faith, the shahada, and received a document from members of ISIS confirming their conversion to protect them from reprisals in the future. Some Christian families reported that they did so only to save their families but would appear at mosque every Friday for prayer as ordered.
As a center of Christian antiquity, Mosul is considered by many Middle Eastern Christians to be one of their holiest cities. The ancient churches of Mosul and the surrounding area are home to some of Christianity’s oldest churches and relics, some already destroyed or looted by ISIS. In retaliation for the failure of Christian leaders to appear at a meeting ISIS announced at one of its city headquarters, the teachers union building, the Qalb Al Aqdas (Sacred Heart) church, was burned down. Christians from Mosul reported outdoor crosses being taken down and ISIS fighters seizing all churches whose condition they now know nothing about. Beyond the more than 20 churches in Mosul, Christian families and church leadership hastily abandoned extensive Christian-owned properties and homes throughout the city, making them the last of Mosul’s minority communities to flee, following the Shabak, Shia, Yezidi, Turkmen, and Kurds.
Yet many have arrived at Christian communities such as Hamdaniyah, known as Qara Qosh by Iraqi Christians, to find neighborhoods already impoverished by the repercussions of the ISIS takeover of Nineveh province. Unlike communities in Kurdish provinces, the outlying villages around Mosul that are under Kurdish protection—many of them communities of religious minorities—depend on Mosul for their utilities. With electricity and water cut off, the Kurdish-controlled villages of Nineveh provinces have been forced to buy water from tanker trucks and hastily dig new wells at a time when their livelihoods also have dried up. Seventy percent of Qara Qosh's business came from Mosul, a resident said, and much of their valuable farmland is now located beyond the berm of Kurdish protection and under ISIS control. Four hundred businesses have been shuttered in just the last 40 days. The disruption from the ISIS takeover is triggering a regional economic depression in northern Iraq whose effects are just beginning to be felt.
In a row of unfinished houses at the edge of Qara Qosh, groups of four and five Christian families were settled into family homes, beneficiaries of the generosity of the community. With the Kurdish region swamped by a quarter-million Syrian refugees and tens of thousands of other displaced Iraqis, seeking shelter among fellow Christians was the only alternative to the dusty, powerless tents of the Al Khazair camp in the brutal summer heat at the border of the Kurdish region.
The girls helped their mothers prepare a simple meal as the men smoked outside and reflected on their abject state. Asked if they had Sunni friends in the city, a man replied, “All our friends were Sunnis.” Those around him concurred. They have received tearful phone calls from their Sunni friends and neighbors over the last two days who confessed they could not stop ISIS from looting their homes. According to the refugees, many are more distraught over the Christian exodus than the Christians are.
The more brutal and coercive approach of the ISIS authorities toward minorities in Mosul stands in contrast to its attempts to placate the city’s Sunni Arab majority and enforce its Islamic law with a light touch. Residents of Mosul reported that the mostly local ISIS fighters have not been seen molesting citizens in public and have allowed men to hang out and smoke Nargheela in local cafes. The new ISIS government in Mosul has worked to maintain services, but gasoline was selling for 2,000 Iraqi dinar a liter (about $6 per gallon) before supplies dried up completely. Neighborhoods were running local generators just long enough to watch World Cup matches before shutting them off, as daily electricity is down to an hour a day. The inability to refrigerate has meant the end of perishables in Mosul such as meat and dairy. ISIS has been eager to court tribes that can help it support the population and administer its now sprawling territory, with some tribal figures publicly offering ba’yah, or an official pledge of loyalty, to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
Many Moslawi Christians could not help but recall with grim humor the apocryphal story, well known to the Christians of Mosul, of the Jewish exodus from Mosul in the 1950s. As the story goes, the Jewish women of the city packed up their things in a bundle on their backs and were seen being forced out of the city on a Saturday, the Jewish sabbath. A Christian bystander smiled at the departing procession when a Jewish woman turned to her and said, “You shouldn’t be smiling. Tomorrow is Sunday.”