By Alroy Menezes
An Iraqi man carrying a cross and a Koran attends a mass at Mar Girgis Church in Baghdad, July 20, 2014. REUTERS/Ahmed Malik
The plight of Christians and other minority groups in northern Iraq has taken a turn for the worse, according to reports, as thousands fleeing regions controlled by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, have been robbed of their possessions at ISIS checkpoints.
ISIS, a Sunni extremist group that advocates Islamic Shariah law, is reportedly persecuting Christians in Iraq, forcing them to flee their homes in Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, even as Muslims in Baghdad showed solidarity with persecuted Christians by joining them in symbolic protests across the city. Mosul is one of the holiest cities of Christianity in the Middle East and the ancient churches of Mosul are some of Christianity’s oldest.
At a rally in Baghdad, many Christians who arrived in the city after fleeing the violence of ISIS in the north held up signs that read, “I am Iraqi, I am Christian.” They were joined by Muslims expressing solidarity with the Christian community, also holding up the same signs, a report said.
ISIS reportedly issued an ultimatum to Mosul’s Christians ending Friday, to either convert to Islam, or pay the Islamic tax for non-Muslims known as jizya, or leave Mosul. However, a day before the city’s minority communities fled, ISIS took away the option of paying the tax and staying back, reports said.
“The world must act, speak out, consider human rights,” Bishop Shlemon Wardooni of the Chaldean Catholic Patriarch and head of Iraq’s largest church, said on Sunday, adding that the Iraqi state was weak and divided and Muslim leaders had remained silent. “We haven’t heard from clerics from all sects or from the government,” he told Reuters.
Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, on Sunday, condemned the treatment of Mosul’s Christians, saying it showed “the extreme criminality and terrorist nature of ISIS” while U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said ISIS actions were akin to “a crime against humanity.”
Pope Francis, in his weekly public prayers on Sunday, said: “I learned with great concern the news that came from the Christian communities in Mosul. Today they are persecuted. Our brothers are persecuted. They’ve been driven away. They must leave their homes without being able to take anything with them.”
On Sunday, about 200 Muslims attended the rally in Baghdad, with some marking themselves with the Arabic letter “N” for “Nazarene,” or Christian.
Christian leaders thanked Muslim supporters for standing up for their right to live in Iraq. “What gives us hope is a group of citizens – I do not want to say Muslims but they were Muslims – from Baghdad carrying slogans saying ‘I am Iraqi, I am Christian,’” Maysar Bahnam, a priest at Mar Korkis Catholic Church in Baghdad, told Al Arabiya. “They prayed in solidarity with us, saying that we are people from this land.”
On Twitter, hashtags such as #WeAreN and #IamNasrani served to share news and pictures of the plight of Iraqi Christians, and for helping organize support demonstrations.
Families leaving from the checkpoints on the eastern side of the city were reportedly harassed and robbed of their possessions. People also reported that money, jewelry and documents were taken from them, while the Daily Beast reported that women had crucifixes torn from their necks. Christian families and church leadership were among the last of Mosul’s minority communities such as Shabak, Shia, Yezidi, Turkmen and Kurds to leave the city, according to reports.