Over two days last week, every one of Mosul's thousands of Christians fled the Sunni Jihadi invasion and they are not going back. All their ancient and beautiful churches and monasteries there will remain closed, and a handful have already been desecrated. In effect, a targeted religious cleansing of Christians has taken place in Iraq's second largest city and one known through much of the past 2,000 years as Nineveh, Iraq's Christian center.
ISIS jihadists, reportedly with support from a sizeable segment of Mosul's overwhelmingly Sunni population, have declared the establishment of a caliphate under medieval sharia rules and the black flag of Islamist extremism.
Some of the Sunnis among the quarter of the Mosul population who left on June 9 are returning. "I hope God supports them and makes them victorious over the oppression of al-Maliki," 80-year-old Abu Thaer, a Sunni resident of Mosul was quoted exclaiming about ISIS in today's press. His sentiment is not unusual within the strong Baathist pockets there. The rest of the city's population will be intimidated into acceptance, particularly since June 12 when ISIS executed the Imam of Mosul's Grand Mosque, along with a dozen other Muslim imams for refusing to swear allegiance to them.
But for Mosul's Aramaic-speaking Christians, returning to the new caliphate is unthinkable. The new order, as established in an eleven-point charter, would curb Christian rights, burden them financially by arbitrary "protection" taxes, endanger their women and girls by the risk of abduction and forcible conversion, and put them at an insurmountable disadvantage by discounting their testimony in the sharia courts that are at the heart of their governing system. If the extremist takeover of Baghdad's Dora neighborhood eight years ago is any example, their homes and properties would have been quickly seized by others and they would have no legal recourse. Instead, for now, they have chosen the uncertainty and hand-to-mouth existence of the displaced.
Of the mere 400,000 Christians who remain today in all Iraq, as many as half are in the north, the area including Mosul and the places to which the Mosul Christians fled. The newly displaced Christians have found temporary refuge in the ancestral Christian villages and towns of the surrounding Nineveh Plain and in Kurdistan, all of which are now being protected by the Kurdish peshmerga forces. Many of their community's leaders are now thinking about ways to make their stay in these places permanent.
I met yesterday with Pascale Warda, a Chaldean Catholic who was the Immigration and Refugee Minister for Iraq's interim government and now runs Hammurabi Human Rights group in Baghdad. A survivor of five assassination attempts, in which four of her bodyguards were killed, Mrs. Warda is no stranger to persecution. Her family comes from Dawaiya, a Christian village in Kurdistan that was near those gassed by Saddam Hussein in the 1980s. She told me that if things heat up in Baghdad, she and her family may go back to the north.
Warda raised the urgent need for housing for the Christians of Mosul to enable them to remain in the Christian villages of Nineveh and Kurdistan.
Joseph Kassab, founder of the Iraqi Christians Advocacy and Empowerment Institute (ICAE), based in Michigan, agrees and emphasizes that American reconstruction and resettlement aid will be essential to this effort, in addition to immediate, generous humanitarian aid. Both Warda and Kassab reason that there is nowhere else for them to go in that troubled region, and the West won't be willing to absorb such large numbers all at once.
But whether Iraq's remaining Christians will be able to have a future in their ancient homeland will depend on Western help and policies.
The wave of persecution that has been directed at Iraq's Christians after 2003 has never received much attention by either President Bush or President Obama's administrations, but it has been a grave human-rights problem. The campaign against Christians has encompassed 70 deliberate church bombings and assaults, as well as assassinations, an epidemic of kidnappings, and other attacks against clergy and laity alike. In recent years, particularly since 2004, a million of Iraq's Christians have been driven out of the country by such atrocities. This can be rightly called targeted religious cleansing, and it is a crime against humanity.
The American administration and congressional leaders need to act to help the Mosul Christians with their unique plight. But the suffering of this minority community threatens to be obscured by surrounding events and overlooked once again.
Chaldean Catholic patriarch Louis Sako's searing words about the plight of the Iraqi Christians last December, hang in the air: "We feel forgotten and isolated. We sometimes wonder, if they kill us all, what would be the reaction of Christians in the West? Would they do something then?"