BAGHDAD — By 1 p.m. on Friday almost every Christian in Mosul had heard the Sunni militants’ message — they had until noon Saturday to leave the city.
Men, women and children piled into neighbors’ cars, some begged for rides to the city limits and hoped to get taxis to the nearest Christian villages. They took nothing more than the clothes on their backs, according to several who were reached late Friday.
The order from the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria came after Christians decided not to attend a meeting that ISIS had arranged for Thursday night to discuss their status.
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“We were so afraid to go,” said Duraid Hikmat, an expert on minorities who had done research for years in Mosul. He fled two weeks ago to Al Qosh, a largely Christian town barely an hour away, but his extended family left on Friday.
Since 2003, when Saddam Hussein was ousted, Mosul’s Christians, one of the oldest communities of its kind in the world, had seen its numbers dwindle from over 30,000 to just a few thousand, but once ISIS swept into the city in early June, there were reports that the remaining Christians had fled.
Interviews on Friday with Christian elders and leaders suggest that in fact many had hung on, hoping for an accommodation, a way to continue the quiet practice of their faith in the city that had been their home for more than 1,700 years. Chaldeans, Assyrians and other sects, including Mandeans, whose Christianity is close to that of the Gnostics, could still be found in Iraq, and many made their home on the plains of Nineveh in the north of the country, an area mentioned in the Bible’s Book of Genesis.
Friday’s edict, however, was probably the real end. While a few scattered souls may find a way to stay in secret, the community will be gone.
A YouTube video shows ISIS taking sledgehammers to the tomb of Jonah, something that was also confirmed by Hikmat. The militants also removed the cross from St. Ephrem’s Cathedral, the seat of the Syriac Orthodox archdiocese in Mosul, and put up the black ISIS flag in its place. They also destroyed a statue of the Virgin Mary, according to Ghazwan Ilyas, the head of Chaldean Culture Society in Mosul, who spoke by telephone on Thursday from Mosul but seemed to have left on Friday.
“They did not destroy the churches, but they killed us when they removed the cross, this is death for us,” he said.
Christians are among several minorities who are being systematically expelled or killed by ISIS, according to a United Nations report on civilian casualties in Iraq released on Friday.
Among them are Yezidis, a tiny sect that has survived for centuries and whose theology fuses elements of Islam, Christianity and Zoroastrianism; Shabaks, who are often described as Shiites whose language is close to Persian and who take beliefs from different traditions; and Shiite Turkmen.
The Yezidis and the Shabaks are being persecuted in the Sinjar area west of Mosul, according to the United Nations and interviews with members of both communities. The United Nations has documented scores of abductions and killings as well as the destruction of shrines.
During the past few days, ISIS has been setting up checkpoints along a road that the Shabaks have been using to flee the area and apprehending them, according to Shabak families who have escaped. While sometimes ISIS appears to abduct people for ransom, in many cases there have been summary executions.
The United Nations report noted that extrajudicial killings had also been carried out by Iraqi security forces and allied militias, and warned that the executions on both sides might constitute war crimes.
At least 1,531 civilians were killed in June alone, bringing the civilian death toll in the first half of the year to a minimum of 5,576, according to the joint report by the United Nations human rights office in Geneva and the United Nations mission in Iraq. More than 600,000 people were driven from their homes during June alone, doubling the number of internally displaced people in Iraq to more than 1.2 million, the report added.
For the Christians displaced from Mosul, sudden departure has meant a series of treks — first to nearby Christian villages like Bartella and Hamdaniya, already badly overcrowded, then to Kurdistan, a semiautonomous region of Iraq where there is more tolerance for Christians.
As the Christians leave Mosul, ISIS has painted the Arabic letter that means “Nasrani,” a word often used to refer to Christians, on their homes. Next to the letter, in black, are the words: “Property of the Islamic State of Iraq.”
The militants have also told Muslims who rent property from Christians that they no longer need to pay rent, said a businessman who rents from a Christian. The landlord now lives in Lebanon.
Many Christians interviewed expressed a sense of utter abandonment and desolation as well as a recognition that the sound of church bells mingled with the Muslim calls to prayer, the ultimate symbol of Mosul’s tolerance, would likely never be heard again.
“We are not thinking of going back to Mosul, we have left homes with our memories,” said Omar who had just arrived in Bartella and did not give his surname. “It is a sad time for Christians.”