by Dale Gavlak
AMMAN, Jordan (CNS) – The fall of Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, to Islamist militants in early June sent half a million residents scurrying for safety, but Christians from the city say they were targeted long before Iraqi security forces abandoned the major political and economic hub.
“We, Christians, have been objects of kidnapping, torture and killing by extremists hoping to extort money from us or to force us to convert to Islam – for several months,” said a young Iraqi Catholic man from Mosul, who identified himself simply as “Danny.”
Danny and about 350 Catholic families escaped the Mosul area to Jordan over the past three months, said Father Khalil Jaar, who is responsible for much of the Church’s care for Iraqi and Syrian refugees in the Jordanian capital, Amman.
Jordan currently hosts some 300,000 Iraqi refugees and more than 600,000 Syrians registered with the U.N., but authorities say there are more than 1 million Syrians sheltering inside the country.
“All the people are suffering. But as we are a minority – minority Christians – it is normal to suffer more than the others. But even the Muslims are suffering from these fanatic people,” Father Jaar told Catholic News Service (CNS).
“They don’t have mercy on anyone, Christian or Muslim. The only answer they have is to kill them.”
“That’s why people are afraid when they heard that the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) came and occupied their region. They immediately left their houses and came looking for a secure place,” the priest said.
Suad Saeed and her family escaped Iraq, arriving about three months ago in Jordan after ISIL militants killed her husband and kidnapped her son, demanding an enormous ransom to have him freed.
“They killed my husband in front of my son. He’s badly traumatized from this horrific ordeal. I desperately asked everybody I knew to help me pay the ransom. I couldn’t suffer another loss,” the Catholic woman told CNS. “Afterward, we had no other choice but to flee for our lives.”
Mosul and the surrounding Nineveh plain are the traditional heartland of Iraq’s Christian communities. Many Christians escaped to this region when they were forced to leave the capital, Baghdad, and other areas in recent years due to violence, kidnappings and bombings of church buildings.
“Christians are alarmed at the ISIL takeover of Mosul, fearful that this will further accelerate the decline of the Christian presence in Iraq,” according to rights group Middle East Concern.
Following the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq that toppled long-time dictator Saddam Hussein, violence against Christians rose, with reports of kidnappings, torture, church bombings and killings. Some Christians were pressured to convert to Islam under threat of death or expulsion, and women were ordered to wear Islamic dress. Many fled the turbulent country for the West.
Now, Iraq is again facing some of the deadliest sectarian violence in years.
The U.N.’s human rights chief, Navi Pillay, warned June 13 that she was “extremely alarmed” by reports of “summary executions” of civilians and Iraqi military by ISIL fighters in the Mosul area.
“The full extent of civilian casualties is not yet known, but reports received by … the U.N. Mission in Iraq suggest that the number of people killed may run into the hundreds and the number of wounded is said to be approaching 1,000,” said Rupert Colville, U.N. Human Rights Commission spokesman.
It is also believed that some civilians may have been killed in Iraqi military shelling in the area.
Many political analysts blame Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki for the country’s descent into sectarian strife. They say that he refused to live up to promises to include Iraq’s Sunni Muslim minority – once all-powerful under Saddam – as part and parcel of Iraq’s political process, instead, keeping power for himself and his Shiite majority.
Others also blame the U.S. for ridding Iraq’s seasoned military of members who served under Saddam, opting instead to create a whole new cadre of armed forces. Some of these disaffected former soldiers have joined the Sunni Muslim ISIL fighters to battle Iraq’s predominantly Shiite military.
ISIL’s end goal is to see an Islamic state established in vast parts of Iraq and Syria and stretching throughout the Middle East.