Christian families in Iraq are fleeing the northern town of Mosul in droves after a string of unprovoked murders left at least 10 believers dead, a ministry working with persecuted churches reported.
In less than two weeks, five Christian individuals, including two students, and a family of five were gunned down. The intense violence has struck deep fear in the tiny Christian community causing some 40 to 50 families, each with an average of five members, to flee Mosul in the past week, according to Open Doors, which has workers in Iraq.
"For years Christians have been targeted in Mosul and the surrounding area," said Open Doors USA President/CEO Carl Moeller. "It is one of the most violent areas in Iraq. The massacre of an entire family and the other murders is horrible. It is getting more violent there every day."
The latest murder occurred Tuesday when an entire family of five was killed in their home. The attackers began with a drive-by shooting but then got out and forced themselves into the Christian home and killed the entire family, according to an Iraqi worker of Open Doors, who was not identified for security reasons. The assailants even reportedly threw two of the bodies outside as a "cruel warning" to other Christians.
The family that was killed was that of Assyrian Catholic priest Mazin Ishoo, who lived with his parents and brothers.
An Open Doors' worker in Iraq said Ishoo's family chose to stay in Mosul despite the growing violence because they had nowhere else to go, but also because they were determined to stay and serve the community.
Ministry workers also said they receive about ten phone calls a day from Iraqi Christians who want to leave Mosul.
It is estimated there were more than 100,000 Christians living in Mosul less than ten years ago, but today there are 150 to 300 families, or about 750 to 1,500 believers, in the formerly Christian stronghold.
Iraqi Christians say they do not know exactly why they have been the target of escalated violence in the past ten days, but perhaps it is related to politics. An election is scheduled to take place March 7 and attackers might want to benefit from causing political instability.
Government leaders have publicly pledged to protect Christians against attacks, but a Christian woman in Mosul told an Open Doors worker that the governor of Mosul and a high-ranking police officer came to her family and told her they could not guarantee her family's safety and that it would be better for her to leave the city.
The worker also said he received a phone call from a Christian woman who said she is trying to find a way to leave Mosul and expects all Christians in the city to leave. "Mosul will be empty of Christians soon," the worker reported the woman as saying.
"Please pray today for our fellow believers there," Moeller urged. "Pray for comfort for those who have lost loved ones. And safety for those who can't leave Mosul and for those who are fleeing."
The current turmoil in Mosul has been compared to the murders in 2008, when six Christians in Mosul were killed in less than a week, including three men within 24 hours. Their deaths sparked intense fear throughout the Christian community in Mosul and resulted in more than 15,000 Christians fleeing the city over a period of two weeks.
The U.N. High Commission for Refugees estimates that since 2003, some 250,000 to 500,000 Christians, or about half the Christian population, have left the country.