It may have been hard to imagine conditions for Christians in Iraq getting much worse than they already were, but two days ago they did. Insurgents from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), apparently at the time only lightly armed, swept through Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, as Iraq army, police and other security melted away, removing their uniforms and abandoning check points. Many even reportedly surrendered their weapons and armored equipment directly to ISIL. The Islamic insurgents, who seek to create a Muslim caliphate in Syria and Iraq, have seized Tikrit, the hometown of the deposed and executed Saddam Hussein, and Baiji, where they are attempting to wrest control of the country’s largest oil refinery from government troops, and now threaten a run against the Iraqi capital of Baghdad itself.
“Now in Mosul jihadist militants control the city and the situation is calm. But we do not know who they are and what they want to do now,” Amel Shamon Nona, Chaldean Archbishop of Mosul, told Fides today. More than 500,000 of Mosul residents are in flight, many on foot, and essentially the entire remnant Christian population has left the city. The fate of those who remain, mostly those too sick or elderly to escape, is unclear. ISIL militants were so brutal in their treatment of Christian and non-Sunni Muslims in Syria that it has been disowned even by Al Qaeda.
The ISIL attack, which intelligence sources believe took months of preparation, caught all parties by surprise. Just days ago Iraqi Christians through their political parties were in fact attending a conference to discuss the possibility of stabilizing the position of Iraqi-Christians in the conflict-ridden nation. They hoped to create an autonomous province in the Nineveh Plain, the area in the Iraqi north that now has the heaviest concentration of the country’s dislocated Christians. That project, aimed at stemming the exodus of Christians from Iraq and creating a safe zone for those who choose to remain, appears fatally damaged by the renewed fighting.
Iraqi lawmakers tried to hold a session to vote on declaring a state of emergency today, responding to a request by the prime minister, but too few members of parliament showed up and they were unable to reach quorum to vote. The Wall Street Journal reposts that Iraq's government may be seeking air support from the United States in an effort to repel Islamist militants. Reports from Mosul indicate that ISIL has commandeered a fleet of U.S. humvees and at least two attack helicopters left behind by fleeing Iraqi military.
Of the collapse of Iraqi security in the face of the ISIL advance, "what has happened is a mystery,” Archbishop Nona said. “It is not known how soldiers and police managed to leave the city in less than an hour, leaving weapons and means of transport. All this raises many questions.”
Iraqi military have also abandoned Kirkuk and its surrounding villages, creating a security vacuum that was quickly filled by Kurdish Peshmerga militia who arrived from the autonomous Iraqi Kurdistan at the request of the city’s leadership. Witnesses report that Kirkuk residents remain behind doors, anticipating an attack.
"The advance of the ISIL militiamen,” Chaldean priest Qais Kage told Fides, "is favored by large tribes and Sunnis clans. What happened in Mosul is significant: such a big city cannot fall in a few hours without support from within. The chaos and political division of the country, due to sectarian conflicts, promotes the advance of the militants who have come from outside: the Iraqi army has left everything in their hands.”
"Today", said Father Qais, "Kurdish militias have made some maneuvers around the city, to deter possible attacks.”
Meanwhile, in the four Chaldean parishes, prayers are carried out every day, he said. “We have suspended catechism and activities with young people for safety reasons,” Father Qais said, ”but the churches are open. In this month dedicated to the Sacred Heart of Jesus, we celebrate Mass every day and pray asking the Lord to save us from new outbreaks of sectarian violence.”
Fides reports that the Archbishop Nona and his priests have found shelter in villages in the Nineveh Plain such as Kramles and Tilkif, a few tens of kilometers from Mosul. The archbishop denied rumors of attacks on churches by ISIL. He explained that one church was looted by gangs who took advantage of the disorder created by the ISIL attack on Mosul.
The archbishop said, “Muslim families living in the surrounding area have called their Islamist militants, who intervened, putting an end to the looting. The same Muslim families phoned us to let us know that they themselves are controlling the church and will not allow the jackals to return.”
An Armenian church still under construction was damaged during the assault on Mosul because of its proximity to an army base attacked by jihadists.
Archbishop Nona could not confirm the rumors about the alleged imposition of the Islamic veil on Christian women made by the jihadists but points out that any Christians remaining in Mosul, locked up in their own homes, are mostly elderly unable to flee because of their age and health. He points out that, among the hundreds of thousands of residents who fled Mosul, the vast majority are Muslims.
PHOTO: This family fled the fighting in Mosul and are close to the Khazair checkpoint. They hope to stay in Erbil city until it is safe to return home. © UNHCR/R.Nuri