Isis takes Iraq’s largest Christian town as residents told – 'leave, convert or die'

Tens of thousands of terrified people have been displaced as Christians flee Qaraqosh

beirut

Christians from the town of Qaraqosh were fleeing today after it was taken by fighters from the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (Isis) on Wednesday night.

The town had previously been a safe haven for those fleeing Mosul and for those hoping Christianity had a future in the country. “Before we thought we could stay. But now, there is no way Christians can go back to Iraq,” says Abu Maykel, a 29-year-old clerk who fled the village last week.

He hoped he could maybe remain in his ancestral homeland, but had to reconsider when Isis started to close in on Qaraqosh, a Christian village of 50,000 people. The town had been cut off from water and electricity ever since Isis took Mosul. Food had been hard to come by and distant shelling constant, but he remained.

However, 10 days ago, the shelling intensified. “It was less than a kilometre away. Just the sounds of it scared my wife and children,” Abu Maykel explains. The family decided to leave, joining an exodus which has further weakened Iraq’s Christian population.

Displaced families from the minority Yazidi sect, fleeing the violence, walk on the outskirts of Sinjar, west of Mosul. Tens of thousands fled the weekend assault on Sinjar and are now surrounded, according to witnesses and the United Nations, after the Sunni militants inflicted a humiliating defeat on Kurdish forces who had held towns in the area for years Displaced families from the minority Yazidi sect, fleeing the violence, walk on the outskirts of Sinjar, west of Mosul.

On Wednesday night, his fears were confirmed as overstretched Kurdish Peshmerga forces left their posts and the town, as well as a string of neighbouring Christian villages, fell to Isis.

Under Isis rule, Christians face a stark choice: convert or die. “I was given three days to decide whether to become Muslim, pay jizya – a special tax imposed on Christians under Islamic rule – or leave,” says Khalil Touma, a 43-year-old driver from Mosul. Adamant that Christians should have to pay no such tax in Iraq and afraid that they might come back later and demand more, Mr Touma chose to leave for Lebanon. In the last month, every other Iraqi Christian has also left Mosul, which was once home to a Christian population of 60,000.

An Isis-issued ultimatum to Christians remaining in Mosul expired on 19 July. Houses belonging to Christians were daubed with the letter “N” – short for Nasare – a Muslim term for Christians which derives from Nazareth, the home town of Jesus. “It’s like being marked with an ‘X’,” said Haitham Hikmat Hermez, 46, a driver who fled.

Properties were confiscated and given to Muslims. Those leaving were not allowed to take much with them. Refugees tell stories of wedding rings being confiscated, some even being cut off with fingers attached to them. They share videos of churches, such as the tomb of Jonah – of Jonah and the Whale fame – being bombed. All are certain there is no future for them in Iraq.

Today it was reported that Washington was considering launching air strikes against Isis and providing direct humanitarian relief to Iraqi religious minorities.

There has been concern about the exodus of Iraqi Christians from the church in the UK. Andrew White, Anglican Vicar in Baghdad, said: “It looks as if the end could be very near,” for Christians in Iraq during a call with Radio 4’s Today on 26 July. On Wednesday, the Catholic Bishops Conference of England and Wales urged for prayers and an end to “the violent persecution that threatens to extinguish the Christian community” in Iraq, while Pope Francis called on world governments to take measures to protect the Christians that have been driven from their villages in Northern Iraq, and to provide them with humanitarian aid.

Video: Iraqis on Sinjar Mountain terrified of Isis threat

Appealing to the international community, the Pope called on leaders to “put an end to the humanitarian drama underway, adopt measures to protect those who are threatened by violence and assure them necessary aid, especially urgent for those who are homeless and depend on the solidarity of others.”

But priests here feel that not enough is being done by the West. “All I hear is silence,” says Father George, an Assyrian priest struggling to take care of 40 families that have registered at his church so far. “Where are the States? Where is the UN? Until now, they have done nothing!”

France’s offer of asylum to Iraqi Christians horrifies him, as it does most of Lebanon’s clergy. The country, with its own flailing Christian minority, feels Christians belong in the Middle East. “They should stay here, this is their land” says Father George.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
News
ebooksNow available in paperback
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Training and Development Consultant

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This software development organisation are loo...

Recruitment Genius: Digital Designer

£25000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This digital production agency ...

Recruitment Genius: PHP Developer

£35000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This digital production agency ...

Recruitment Genius: Admin / Studio Manager

£17000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This digital production agency ...

Day In a Page

Homeless Veterans campaign: Donations hit record-breaking £1m target after £300,000 gift from Lloyds Bank

Homeless Veterans campaign

Donations hit record-breaking £1m target after huge gift from Lloyds Bank
Flight MH370 a year on: Lost without a trace – but the search goes on

Lost without a trace

But, a year on, the search continues for Flight MH370
Germany's spymasters left red-faced after thieves break into brand new secret service HQ and steal taps

Germany's spy HQ springs a leak

Thieves break into new €1.5bn complex... to steal taps
International Women's Day 2015: Celebrating the whirlwind wit of Simone de Beauvoir

Whirlwind wit of Simone de Beauvoir

Simone de Beauvoir's seminal feminist polemic, 'The Second Sex', has been published in short-form for International Women's Day
Mark Zuckerberg’s hiring policy might suit him – but it wouldn’t work for me

Mark Zuckerberg’s hiring policy might suit him – but it wouldn’t work for me

Why would I want to employ someone I’d be happy to have as my boss, asks Simon Kelner
Confessions of a planespotter: With three Britons under arrest in the UAE, the perils have never been more apparent

Confessions of a planespotter

With three Britons under arrest in the UAE, the perils have never been more apparent. Sam Masters explains the appeal
Russia's gulag museum 'makes no mention' of Stalin's atrocities

Russia's gulag museum

Ministry of Culture-run site 'makes no mention' of Stalin's atrocities
The big fresh food con: Alarming truth behind the chocolate muffin that won't decay

The big fresh food con

Joanna Blythman reveals the alarming truth behind the chocolate muffin that won't decay
Virginia Ironside was my landlady: What is it like to live with an agony aunt on call 24/7?

Virginia Ironside was my landlady

Tim Willis reveals what it's like to live with an agony aunt on call 24/7
Paris Fashion Week 2015: The wit and wisdom of Manish Arora's exercise in high camp

Paris Fashion Week 2015

The wit and wisdom of Manish Arora's exercise in high camp
8 best workout DVDs

8 best workout DVDs

If your 'New Year new you' regime hasn’t lasted beyond February, why not try working out from home?
Paul Scholes column: I don't believe Jonny Evans was spitting at Papiss Cissé. It was a reflex. But what the Newcastle striker did next was horrible

Paul Scholes column

I don't believe Evans was spitting at Cissé. It was a reflex. But what the Newcastle striker did next was horrible
Miguel Layun interview: From the Azteca to Vicarage Road with a million followers

From the Azteca to Vicarage Road with a million followers

Miguel Layun is a star in Mexico where he was criticised for leaving to join Watford. But he says he sees the bigger picture
Frank Warren column: Amir Khan ready to meet winner of Floyd Mayweather v Manny Pacquiao

Khan ready to meet winner of Mayweather v Pacquiao

The Bolton fighter is unlikely to take on Kell Brook with two superstar opponents on the horizon, says Frank Warren
War with Isis: Iraq's government fights to win back Tikrit from militants - but then what?

Baghdad fights to win back Tikrit from Isis – but then what?

Patrick Cockburn reports from Kirkuk on a conflict which sectarianism has made intractable