Over the weekend, militants from the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria set fire to a 1,800-year-old church in Mosul. Hundreds of Christian families have also fled the city after being threatened if they did not convert or pay a tax.
The jihadist group issued a Saturday deadline for Christian residents of Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, to leave, pay, convert or die. After noon on Saturday, the group announced over loudspeakers from the city’s mosques, “nothing but the sword” was offered.
“For the first time in the history of Iraq, Mosul is now empty of Christians,” said Chaldean patriarch Louis Sako, who heads Iraq’s largest Christian community to AFP. Christian families are now on their way to Dohuk and Arbil, both in the autonomous Kurdish region of the country.
The Christian population of Iraq was estimated at 1 million prior to the 2003 American invasion. Since then, they have been frequent targets of militant bombings and other attacks, prompting many to flee the country. Now, Church officials estimate only 450,000 Christians remain.
ISIS “seems intent on wiping out all traces of minority groups from areas it now controls in Iraq,” Human Rights Watch said in a statement Saturday.
Leaving is not enough for ISIS, however, as many Christians found their property and belongings confiscated by the militants. “Some families have had all their money and jewellery taken from them at an insurgent checkpoint as they fled the city,” Abu Rayan, a Christian who left Mosul with his family told AFP news agency on Saturday.
“Some of our homes have already been confiscated and I know families who have handed their keys to neighbors, asking them to look after their property with the hope they would return one day.” Rayan said.
Sites important to Christians have also suffered at the hands of ISIS. In addition to the burning of the church Saturday, a YouTube video released July 9 shows the destruction of a tomb which government officials identify as the tomb of biblical Jonah. It was attacked with a sledgehammer. Earlier this month, it came to light that much of ISIS’s funding came from the illegal sale of artifacts. What the group does not sell, it says it will destroy, as it considers the artifacts blasphemous. Additionally, scholars are concerned that even artifacts left untouched by ISIS will be destroyed in the crossfire between insurgents and authorities.