April 24, 2024
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ISIS conquests across northern Iraq have been comprehensive in recent weeks. Taking control of large parts of the region, they de­clared a Caliphate last month. And one group who has especially suffered at their hands is the Christians that have been a part of the re­gion’s landscape for almost two millennia.

Following ISIS’ consolidation of power in the region, these longstanding communities have faced brutal treatment. In what can only be considered persecution and discrimination of the highest degree, ISIS has targeted the Christians of Mosul by daubing their homes with the Arabic letter N, marking them out as Nasarah, Christians.

In a concerted and deliberate plan of ethnic cleansing, ISIS then offered Chris­tian families three choices: convert to Is­lam, pay the Jizya tax (a tax of 14g of pure gold that Christians must pay in addition to normal taxes for the privilege of their faith), or leave their homes. Anyone who could not pay or refused to convert to Is­lam was threatened with death.

Mass exodus

In these circumstances and fearing the worst, many chose to flee and Mosul— just recently home to thousands of Chris­tians—has been emptied of this ancient community. Stripped of all their posses­sions, even medicines, many were forced to walk 70km to safety, eventually heading to Dohuk in the Kurdish region of the coun­try. The 15 Christian families who chose to stay in Mosul, did so by converting to Islam in order to retain their homes and posses­sions. But the homes of those who left the city were confiscated as the property of the newly formed “Islamic State.”

This forced exodus has ended the signif­icant Christian presence in Mosul that pre­dated the coming of Islam by several centu­ries. In a region that has seen the rise and fall of many political powers, ISIS’ policies under­mine the long co-existence of Muslims and non-Muslims in the region.

In Mosul, ISIS militants have begun to desecrate the city. They are physically ren­dering it into their extreme, minimalist in­terpretation of Islam. And their actions have not solely focused on Christian build­ings. The ancient tomb of Jonah (a major landmark in Mosul which was venerated by Christians, Jews, and Muslims alike) has been leveled and Shi’a shrines and mosques have been destroyed too.

In their bid for “Islamic purity,” the ISIS militants have particularly targeted Chris­tian buildings. The diocesan headquarters of the Syrian Catholics in Mosul has been torched, having existed since the late nine­teenth century. All crosses from the 22 churches in Mosul have been removed and churches have been turned into mosques or destroyed.

Deathofanancientcommunity

With Christian communities extending out of Mosul and across the Ninevah plains, ISIS has also extended its focus on the surrounding countryside. Militants seized the ancient Mar Behnam Monastery, reputedly founded on the spot where the royal Sassanid brother and sis­ter, Behnam and Sara, were martyred in the 4th century then home to Syrian Catholic monks. The monks were expelled and refused permis­sion to take any of the holy relics housed in the monastery.

This raises real fears that these historic items, together with the manuscript collec­tions there, will be destroyed. There is also the likelihood that the monastery, parts of which date from the 13th century and num­ber amongst a handful of buildings in Iraq that survive from the Mongol Il-Khanate period, will be desecrated and destroyed.

Christians have lived in Iraq since close to the religion’s birth—they first began to settle in the region around the 2nd centu­ry and must be counted as amongst the ear­liest witnesses to the Christian faith. Their churches and monasteries have been an in­tegral part of the landscape for centuries, producing some of the finest examples of architecture. The communities have lived in relative accord with their Muslim neigh­bors down the centuries, each contributing to each other’s cultures.

Following the 2003 Allied offensive, Chris­tians in Iraq have endured many atrocities, the most notable being the massacre on October 31, 2010, at the Our Lady of Salvation Church in Karrada, Baghdad. Now the Christians, who have contributed in many different ways to the culture and economy of Iraq, do not meet ISIS’ stringent definitions of who is acceptable.

Their persecution raises the real possi­bility that this ancient community will be eliminated from its homeland in Iraq. It also marks the end of the notion of “civi­lized dialogue,” a tenet that has lasted since the Abbasid period where Muslims and non-Muslims lived alongside each other. It is paradoxical that ISIS, which aims to em­ulate the Caliphate of old, instead adopts tactics that can only be described as brutal and befitting of uncouth barbarians.

DISCLOSURE STATEMENT:Erica C D Hunt­er receives funding from AHRC for her ma­jor project ‘The transmission of Christian texts at Turfan.’ The Conversation is funded by the following universities: Aberdeen, Birming­ham, Bradford, Bristol, Cardiff, City, Durham, Glasgow Caledonian, Goldsmiths, Lancas­ter, Leeds, Liverpool, Nottingham, The Open University, Queen’s University Belfast, Salford, Sheffield, Surrey, UCL and Warwick. It also receives funding from: Hefce, Hef­cw, SAGE, SFC, RCUK, The Nuffield Foundation, The Ogden Trust, The Wellcome Trust, Esmée Fairbairn Foun­dation and The Alliance for Useful Evidence

By Erica C.D. Hunter/theconversation.com Senior Lecturer in Eastern Christianity at SOAS, University of London

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