Reportage by: Mohammad al-Rubai’i; Basim Francis and Muwafack Mohammad
Al-Hayat – “Crowding at the checkpoints and borderlines, gathering in the waiting halls and travel company offices, looking for any way to take them out of the country where they have lived since 1800 years. Their Churches closed their gates before the people and their bells are tolled no more.”
As such, Benyamin Butrus, an Iraqi priest, summarizes the story of horror lived by the Christians of Iraq since ISIS organization entered Mousil city, from June 10 till mid-August 2014.
Butrus, who is using the ground as his bed at Ibrahim al-Khalil borderline access point, waiting for a visa to enter the Turkish territories, believes that no Christian person is thinking of staying in Iraq after the Iraqi State failed to protect them from ISIS, and after the Kurdish Peshmerga forces let them down and left their areas in Ninawa Plains without fighting, and after their own fellow citizens from Mousil participated in looting their properties, and after Kurdistan Region, the last resort of the Christians itself has become threatened by ISIS which is no more than 35 kilometers far.
Priest Lazar Matti believes exactly in the same thing. In the past, the priests used to urge the Christians to stay in Iraq because it is their historical home, but now “nobody could protect the Christians, and their stay in Iraq would mean that they will always be exposed to death, whether at the hands of al-Qaida, or ISIS, or whatever name Islamic extremists may take in the future.”
Christians who survived death, priests, Christian politicians agree in tens of testimonies which is gathered by this reportage during a whole month of Christian wanderings, that the staying of Christians in Iraq has become something “impossible” after they became, like other minorities in Iraq, victims of the struggle between the main components of Iraq (Kurds, Sunnis and Shiite), and after the Western countries have lost their credibility in protecting the minorities, and they never moved to protect about one million Christians, Turkmanis, Yazidis, and Shabak, but moved only when their strategic interest with Kurdistan region was at stake.
From the First Home of Christianity to the Unknown
Priest Butrus’s journey was not the first one, a month ago, he flew with more than 10.000 Christian person from Mousil City which is considered the first home of Christianity in Iraq, utilizing a special pardon from Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the Caliph of ISIS in which he gave them the following options: to convert to Islam, or to pay jizia (taxes), or death, or leaving the city before the noon of July 19.
Afterwards, priest Butrus decided to run away from Talkif town of Christians where he resorted for a short time, heading to Duhok Kurdish city. At that time, the Peshmerga forces were retreating towards Kurdistan, leaving behind about 200.000 Yazidi people facing death, slaughters, looting, displacement and kidnapping of their women at the hands of ISIS militants.
Later, priest Butrus had to leave once again, from Duhok city to Ibrahim Al-Khalil Borderlines, few hours after ISIS militants’ arrival very close to the city.
The course of the journey of priest Buturs has much in common with the story of immigration in which more than 100.000 Christian person went astray and were lost far from Mousil city and the towns of Ninawa plain lands, and priest Simon Danial summarizes the story of chasing his compatriots and displacing them as being “a replicated version of the story of the Jews of Iraq. The latters vanished completely from the country in less than two decades, but the Christian version of the story was more humiliating and more brutal, it may not need two years to be accomplished.”
The story began, Priest Simon Daniel says, when ISIS organization entered Mousil City in June 10, and the Iraqi Forces unexpectedly collapsed, and withdrew to leave the city under the mercy of ISIS militants.
Priest Danial remembers that, at that day, the population of Mousil city welcomed the ISIS militants, and that thousands of them joined ISIS, while most of Christian families escaped like the Shabak families and the Shiite Turkmani ones, since the firstdays of ISIS arrival to the city, there are some families which returned to the city on the basis of some guarantees from the people of Mousil and from ISIS that nobody will harm them.
Priest IzzatNajeebYousif, father of a local church, believes that the Christians were deceived and ISIS and its supporters “were not trustworthy at all.” He adds that the churches warned their congregations from returning to the city, because ISIS may make a massacre for them whenever it extend a complete control over the city, and if it shows mercy on them, ISIS will oblige them to convert to Islam, pay jizia taxes or to leave the city.
The expectations of the Christian Churches proved to be accurate, as the course of events proved, as the priest of one Armenian church in Mousil said. During less than one week after ISIS entered the city, the agents of the PDS (Public Distribution System) of food rations stopped the shares of the Christians, then some public power generators stopped the power supply for the Christians, then the local population required them to comply with the Islamic costumes “to show respect to the feelings of Muslims.”
NadeenSleiwa, a mathematics teacher, remembers that PDS agent in al-Hadba’a District in Mousil told her: “You are Christians and we don’t know whether the Islamic State (ISIS) will include you in the food distribution system or not.”
Sleiwa believes that it is possible for the Christians to understand why ISIS want to suppress them and displace them, but they would never understand why some of the people of Mousil helped them.
Dr. Faris Kamal Nadhmi, a university professor in Saladin University, says that the Christian personality is a peaceful personality by nature, therefore we do not expect from them a violent behavior in the societies where they live, and this point has always encouraged others to target them.
Father Matti al-Banna, priest of Um al-Noor Church believes that extremism found its way to some classes of Mousil community since 2003 when the US forces entered Iraq. That is why Mousil city was one of the first areas in which the Christians were targeted in Iraq: “I myself left Mousil in 2004 as I knew early what could they do to Christians whom they believe to be kafirs (infidels).”
Al-Banna adds that this is not the first time for the Christians to encounter displacement. It happened in 2007 and once again in 2008 when they cut into pieces the bodies of some priests, and killed Priest FarajRahu. Then, they migrated from Mousil and Baghdad after the events Our Lady of Salvation Church , and the wave of exploding churches in Autumn 2011.
In brief, as Father Al-Banna said, most of Christians knew that they will leave Mousil city one day, but it never passed in their minds that their departure will be in such a humiliating way.
The shocking moment came, MiladMansoor, a Christian activist says, when ISIS announced via loudspeakers at the day-break of Friday 18 July, that Christian people have to choose between conversion to Islam, paying the jizia (tax), death by the sword, or departure before 12 pm Saturday 19 July.
Many Christains who heard the announcements of ISIS hurried to leave Friday morning, they were not sure that ISIS will implement their threats. But with the start of the Friday prayer, everyone made sure that ISIS are determined to dismiss the Christians.
Muhammad Mrewan, a Kurd from al-Hadba’a district in Mousil, said that the imams of mosques repeated the announcement at noon, and warned the people of Mousil against helping the Christian people because their priests refused to attend to discuss the future of the Christian in Mousil, with the leaders of the Islamic State.
Mrewan said that he made haste soon the Friday prayers are over to notify his neighbor Stephen Yelda of the necessity of leaving the city as soon as possible. In the afternoon, Stephen and his family have already left the city of Mousil.
Most Christians spent the night of 18-19 July packing their luggage, preparing their important things and valuables, getting ready to leave the next morning, says Dr. SaadGurges, “it was a horrible night, and sad as well, imagine yourself looking at the walls window and corridors of your house and you are quite sure that it you will never see them once again.”
In the way to the North Gate of Mousil City, anxiety was almost killing Sarah Yousil, professor of organic chemistry, “I expected that they will kill me with my husband and children, and will not allow us to escape their fist.” But in contrast to what all fleeing Christians, as the father of the Arminian Church says, the militant allowed them to leave without exposing them to beating or killing, “I had to leave late after making sure all my congregation have left the city, I believe the militants knew me to be a clergy although I wore ordinary clothes (not religious garment), but they didn’t hurt me.”
Stephen Matti remembers that the militants stopped him at the barrier of the checkpoint where there are more than 15 cars for the militants, they asked his wife and children to get out of the car, ordered him to park the car in the road-side and bring the keys, “When I came back to join my family, I found them rummaging the handbags of my wife and daughters, they took all gold items, and all the money we have, then an armed militant asked me in an Iraqi accent to take my family and leave. . . I did silently and prevented my wife from any objection lest they kill us.”
Retired diplomat SalimTuma said that the biggest harm and disappointment he felt was not when the militants took his car, money, gold, cell-phones and legal documents, rather “what hurt me was that rude way in which an Afghani militant with long hair and beard and with bad smell spoke with me, telling me in bad Arabic that no single infidel will stay in Mousil from now on.”
At noon, July 19, more than 1200 family left Mousil, they left their houses, belongings, and were stripped off money and even their IDs and legal documents, they have no choice but displacement to Kurdistan region and Ninawa Plains.
Priest George feels sorrow, not only because Mousil city has become devoid of Christians for the first time since 18 centuries, but also because some of the participants in looting them and stealing their properties were their own compatriots of the Arabs with whom they lived for centuries.
The Barrier of Horror
The writers of this reportage documented tens of testimonies of displaced persons about what did they encounter in the inspection checkpoint:
Salim Zia: The militants took the savings of my entire life, one of them rummaged my wife’s and daughter’s handbags, then he put their jewelry in a sack, asked for our IDs and legal documents.
Um Mariam: We left Friday afternoon, when we arrived the checkpoint, they asked me and my little daughters to go to a nearby mosque, there, three veiled women inspected as after taking off our clothes, I knew that they are afraid we have hidden our gold and jewels. That inspection was so humiliating, but I could not object as I was concerned about my daughters and my family.
NadinShawkat: The militant took our money and jewels. One veiled man was speaking in the accent of villagers, he put my I-phone and a ring I inherited from my mother in his pocket and put the rest of stuff in the sack. Another militant took our legal documents and passports.
Abu Rami: They took from me 16 million Iraqi Dinars (about 13.000 US dollars), a laptop, my brand new Hyundi car, all documents of the family and of the car, in addition to jewelry of about $ 5000.
Nora Mikhail: They took all the money, jewels and legal documents, and one veiled man asked me to deliver my daughter’s ear-rings. At first I thought he is not serious, so I objected, but when he tries to take them himself, I begged him to do it myself.
Samuel Zia: They tool the car, the jewels and the documents, and when they demanded that I take down my father from his wheelchair, I begged them to let us keep it. At last they agreed that I take him the taxi, and leave the wheelchair and go.
YouhannaIfram: I recognized someone from a distance, he was a mechanic in our neighborhood who joined ISIS when they entered to Mousil. I was concerned if he knows me and intends to harm me and my family, I favored to deliver all I have of jewels and money and walk away as fast as I can, when I got far from the barrier, I took my breath.
Tania Fuwad: I tried to convince them to leave to me a sum of less than $50 saying that we need it for transportation or to buy water and bread but in vain. They took it by force from my hands.
Priest Paulus George: They stripped me and my family of all money, jewels, cell-phones and electronics, then they took the car, and when I refused to five the documents and passports, an Asian militant took them by force asking me to leave the city of my grandfathers, Mousil, on feet.
• This report is written with the support of Iraqi Investigative Press Network (NIRIJ)