Last week, the militant group known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) forced 10,000 Christians living in the Iraqi city of Mosul to pack up their belongings and flee. The mass exodus of Christians comes as the largest forced displacement in the region since the Ottoman Empire drove tens of thousands of Armenians out of modern day Turkey during the nearly 100 years ago.
ISIS has been targeting Christians ever since it first got started. As a militant group fighting against both the forces of President Bashar al-Assad and rebel groups in Syria’s civil war, ISIS wreaked havoc on Syrian Christians, torching churches in the historic Christian city of Maaloula and kidnapping bishops. Still, Mosul’s large Christian population remained determined to remain in the city where their ancestors have lived for 1,600 years.
That all changed when ISIS issued a statement last Thursday ordering the city’s Christians to convert, pay a hefty religious tax, or face execution on Saturday. For the first month of their occupation, ISIS apparently did not carry out attacks with Christians as the main targets, instead focusing on Shiite Muslims. The militants invaded the city, Iraq’s second largest, in early June as part of a lightning advance through Iraq that took the world by surprise and vastly expanded the territory under the group’s control.
According to Ignatius Aphrem II, patriarch of the Syriac Orthodox Church in Antioch and All the East, most Christian families fled to Kurdistan or the surrounding Nineveh Plains, while others wound up in Syria, Lebanon and Jordan. The last 1,500 families to leave Mosul were robbed at ISIS checkpoints as they fled. “If Isis stays, there is no way the Christians can return,” Father Boutrous Moshi told reporters with the Guardian from a Christian area southeast of Mosul.
A Mosul shopkeeper, added, “there is no one left. It’s not just the Christians. It’s also the Shia that are being targeted.” ISIS is known for lashing out against all those who do not prescribe to their version of Sunni Islam, contributing to the continued breakdown of Iraq’s relatively secular society following the 2003 U.S.-led invasion. Religious divisions have only been further intensified by Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s sectarian politics.
Yesterday, Patriarch Aphrem II called together a meeting of Christian leaders from Iraq, Lebanon and Syria to discuss the situation in Mosul. He called the scale of the forced displacement, looting, and robbery “unprecedented in the history of Christian-Muslim relations in this region.” While the group plans to form a delegation to address the U.N. about these issues, the patriarch told members of the meeting not to expect help from the West and instead to rely on local allies of the Christian community, like the Kurds. His cynicism makes sense in light of the past decade in Iraq, which has seen Western-backed governments come to power that have repeatedly failed to protect Christians from brutal attacks by Sunni and Shiite extremists. In the years leading up to Saturday’s final evictions, Mosul’s Christian population has dwindled significantly from its 2003 total of 35,000. Now, some families who fled are saying not a single Christian remains in the city.
Western figures’ record of calling attention to persecution of Christians in the Middle East has been spotty at best and have in recent years often been tinged with criticism of the Obama administration or President Obama himeslf. The same Virginia Senator, Richard Black, who published a letter praising Syrian President Assad for the “heroic rescue of Christians” living in Syria has been noticeably silent on persecution of Christians in Iraq or the bombing of Palestinian Christians as part of Israel’s ongoing offensive in the Gaza Strip. Senator Rand Paul’s occasional concern for Christians in Syria is similarly selective.
Leading Muslim scholars were quick to speak out against the mass forced displacement. Sheikh Khalid Al Mulla, head of the Iraqi Scholars Association and a prominent Sunni, accused ISIS of “falsely wearing the dress of Islam to displace the Christian brothers who live with us for thousands of years. Religious scholars should take responsibility in upholding the true voice of Islam,” he added.
Will Freeman is an intern with Think Progress.