(CNSNews.com) – The startling gains made by jihadist fighters in Iraq are placing the region’s already extremely vulnerable Christians in even greater peril, Christian advocacy groups are warning.
While hundreds of thousands of Iraqis are affected by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant’s takeover of key cities including the Ninawa (Nineveh) provincial capital, Mosul, minority Christians – some of whom trace their origins to the earliest years of Christianity – are among those with the most to lose.
In previous years, Christians fleeting violence in Baghdad or elsewhere in the south often headed for the Mosul area. The Nineveh Plain formed the historic homeland of Assyrians, an ancient non-Arab ethnic group in Iraq. Main Christian denominations include Chaldean Catholic, Assyrian, Syrian Orthodox, Armenian and evangelicals.
Syria was another key destination for Christians who were able to leave Iraq, but the civil war there made life even riskier across the border than at home, prompting some to return.
For many Christians in the Mosul area now, the autonomous Kurdish region to the north-east may offer the best short-term hope – if they are able to cross over. Chaldean archbishop Amel Nona told the Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) he believed all Mosul’s Christians had left the city, and spoke of efforts to find emergency accommodation in ancient Christian villages in the Nineveh Plain.
As the jihadists swept into Mosul this week, they reportedly looted and torched churches, raised their black “there is no god but Allah” flags and started demanding that women wear the Islamic veil.
The Assyrian International News Agency identified two of the targeted churches as the Chaldean Church of the Holy Spirit, and an Armenian church under construction, which it said was bombed.
Barnabas Fund, an aid agency that supports minority Christians in Islamic countries, said the attacks on churches were “a clear statement from ISIS that they are no longer welcome in Mosul.”
“It is feared that this latest exodus could be the final death knell for the Christians of Iraq,” said Barnabas international director Patrick Sookdheo.
“Having previously sought refuge in Syria, this is no longer an option, and as ISIS violence threatens the stability of the wider region, Christians have very few places of safety to which to run.”
An Iraq-based representative of the religious freedom advocacy group Open Doors sounded a similar warning.
“This could be the last migration of Christians from Mosul,” the organization quoted the representative as saying. Open Doors says an estimated 1,000 Christian families were living in the city as of Monday this week.
“The Islamist terrorists want to make Iraq a ‘Muslim only’ nation and as a result they want all Christians out,” Open Doors USA President/CEO Dr. David Curry said in a statement.
“The situation for Christians has deteriorated each year over the past 10 years. Iraqi Christians have faced kidnappings, threats and even death for being followers of Jesus. And they have little faith in their government to provide security as we see in the tragedy unfolding this week.”
Open Doors urged Christians to pray for their Iraqi brothers and sisters caught up in the conflict.
ISIS’s conduct in Syria, where it is engaged in the jihad against the Assad regime but has also been fighting against other rebel groups, gives Christians in Iraq particular cause to be fearful.
In areas under its control, including its stronghold in the north, Raqqa, ISIS militants have imposed Taliban-like shari’a regulations, enforced through brutal punishments including public beheadings and crucifixions.
Sookdheo recalled that earlier this year Christians in Raqqa were given the choice between converting to Islam, paying the jizya tax – a humiliating Qur’an-mandated tribute to be paid by conquered non-Muslims – or risk death.
“Earlier this month, ISIS confiscated houses and land belonging to Christians in Raqqa; the owners were forced to leave the area,” Sookdheo reported. “ISIS has turned the main Armenian church in Raqqa into an office for the management of Islamic affairs and the promotion of shari’a.”
Under its former name, al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), ISIS was responsible for the deadliest single act of violence against Iraqi Christians. Its Oct. 31, 2010 attack on Baghdad’s Our Lady of Salvation church cost the lives two priests, 44 congregants and seven Iraqi security force members. Five terrorists were also killed.
When AQI claimed responsibility for the church assault, it called Iraqi Christians “legitimate targets” and warned that the “killing sword will not be lifted.”
(A brief White House statement issued the following day did not identify the victims as Christians or note that the killings took place in a church. It condemned “this senseless act of hostage taking and violence by terrorists linked to al Qaeda in Iraq that occurred Sunday in Baghdad killing so many innocent Iraqis.”)
In a hard-hitting statement Thursday Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.), a veteran advocate for religious freedom on Capitol Hill, lamented the plight of Iraq’s beleaguered Christians and attributed the jihadists’ effective carving out of “a terrorist state in the heart of the Middle East” to the administration’s policies on both Iraq and Syria.
“The president’s precipitous withdraw from Iraq and continued failure to develop a coherent policy to fight extremists in Syria has undermined the ability of the U.S. and our allies to prevent these troubling developments which have seismic consequences for the region and U.S. national interests,” Wolf said.
“The utter lack of urgency on the part of the administration with regard to ISIS’s efforts to solidify its territorial gains is baffling at best, and inexcusable at worst,” he said. “Thousands of innocents will be affected in unimaginable ways, not the least of which are vulnerable religious minorities which for centuries have inhabited these lands.”
A 1987 census recorded 1.4 million Christians in Iraq, and in the 1990s the Christian population was estimated at over 1.2 million. Many left the country following the toppling of Saddam Hussein and while there are no accurate figures available today, advocacy groups believe there are fewer than 400,000.