BAGHDAD – The ancient Christian community of the northern Iraqi city of Mosul had all but fled by Saturday, ending a presence stretching back nearly two millennia after radical Islamists set them a midday deadline to submit to Islamic rule or leave.
The ultimatum by the Islamic State in Syria and the Levant (ISIL) drove out the few hundred Christians who had stayed on when the group’s hard-line Sunni Muslim fighters overran Mosul a month ago, threatening Christians and the diverse city’s other religious communities.
Last week the Islamic State, as ISIL has taken to calling itself, gave any remaining Christians a final choice to make by Saturday noon: convert to Islam, pay a religious tax, or face the sword.
A Catholic bishop from Mosul told Reuters that 150 Christian families had left in recent days and church leaders had advised the few families who wanted to negotiate with militants that they should also flee for their own safety. The Christians described their flight as a historic loss.
“We have lived in this city and we have had a civilization for thousands of years, and suddenly some strangers came and expelled us from our homes,” said a woman in her 60s who fled on Friday for Hamdaniya, a mainly Christian town controlled by Kurdish security forces to the southeast of Mosul.
Others were stopped by gunmen on the outskirts of the city and robbed of the goods they carried, suggesting the militants were implementing an order to Christians to leave behind all possessions.
“The Islamic State stopped my relatives at a checkpoint when they were fleeing and when they found out they were Christians, they took everything they were carrying, including their mobile phones,” said a Christian man, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
“They left them only with the clothes they were wearing,” he said, speaking from Hamdaniya.