Militants seize ancient monastery in Iraq, dismantling 1,700-year-old Christian community

By Catherine Harmon
The Mar Behnam monastery near Mosul, Iraq
Monks are told: “You have no place here anymore, you have to leave immediately”
As Christians flee Northern Iraq to escape persecution by Islamic extremists, the BBC reports that the 1,700-year-old Mar Behnam monastery, near Mosul, has been seized by ISIS forces and the community of monks who lived there ordered to leave taking “only the clothes they were wearing.”

The Mar Behnam monastery is run by the Syriac Catholic Church and is near the predominantly Christian town of Qaraqosh, to the south-east of Mosul.

A member of the Syriac clergy quoted the militants as telling the monastery’s residents: “You have no place here any more, you have to leave immediately.”

He said the monks asked to be allowed to save some of the monastery’s relics but the fighters refused.

Local Christian residents told AFP news agency that the monks walked for several miles before they were picked up by Kurdish fighters.

Earlier this month, Isis issued an ultimatum in Mosul, citing a historic contract known as “dhimma,” under which non-Muslims in Islamic societies who refuse to convert are offered protection if they pay a fee, called a “jizya”.

“We offer them three choices: Islam; the dhimma contract – involving payment of jizya; if they refuse this they will have nothing but the sword,” the Isis statement said.

Isis issued a similar ultimatum in the Syrian city of Raqqa in February, calling on Christians to pay about half an ounce (14g) of pure gold in exchange for their safety.

Iraq is home to one of the world’s most ancient Christian communities but its population has dwindled amid growing sectarian violence since the US-led invasion in 2003.

Meanwhile, the Italian press is reporting that over the weekend Pope Francis telephoned the patriarch of the Syrian Catholic Church, Patriarch Ignatius Youssef III Younan, to assure him of his prayers for the Christians of Iraq. From Catholic News Agency’s story:

[Italian Catholic news agency SIR] reports that during their 9 minute conversation, the Pope reassured the patriarch “that he follows closely and with concern the drama of forced and threatened Christians in the Iraqi city of Mosul.”

SIR referred to other reports coming from the Syrian-Catholic Patriarchate, which stated that Patriarch Younan “thanked the Pope” and asked him to “intensify” his efforts to engage world leaders by bringing them face-to-face with the fact that the province of Nineveh is undergoing “a mass cleaning based on religion.”

At the end of the call Pope Francis gave his apostolic blessing to the patriarch and to “all the Christian people of the East,” assuring that he “will always be present in his prayers for peace and security.”