Leaders of Catholic churches in Iraq have flown to Europe to report on the Iraqi crisis, to try to find solutions for the country’s rapidly declining number of Christians. Their visit came amid reports that two nuns in Mosul, accompanied by two women and a boy, have been unaccounted for since Jun. 28.
They are believed to have been kidnapped by militants of the radical jihadist Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, or ISIL, also known as Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS. More recently, the group has taken to calling itself the Islamic State, or IS.
On July 9, the Patriarch of the Chaldean Catholic Church, Louis Raphael Sako of Baghdad, Archbishop Yohanna Petros Mouche of Mosul, and Bishop Youssif Mirkis of Kirkuk in Kurdish-controlled Iraq, held meetings in Brussels with high-level representatives of EU institutions and NATO. They discussed the situation and prospects for Christians in Iraq since the invasion of Mosul by IS last month and of the Ninevah Plains to the north, where there has been a high concentration of Christians. Many of the Christians had earlier fled Baghdad and other southern cities for the relative safety of the north. The Brussels meetings were organized by Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need.
The IS invasion has triggered a flood of Christians from the south of Iraq into the Kurdish-governed north-east, as well as neighboring countries. Christian leaders are concerned that the 2,000-year presence of Christianity in Iraq will become merely symbolic as the community flees the jihadist militants who continue to bring disorder and instability in Iraq.
A decade ago, around 2003, Iraq was home to 1.5 million Christians. After years of war and sectarian violence only about 400,000 are said to remain, and that number is now dropping rapidly.
"The next days will be very bad. If the situation does not change, Christians will be left with just a symbolic presence in Iraq," Reuters quoted Sako as saying during the Brussels meetings. "If they leave, their history is finished."
Mouche said many of those who fled Mosul wanted to return, but when they did, they found no water and hardly any electricity, just fear. In Kirkuk’s safer Kurdish zone, Christians are leaving at a rate of several hundred a day, Reuters reported on Wednesday.
"Our presence was a symbol of peace, but there's so much panic, and few Christians see their future in Iraq," Reuters quoted Mirkis.
Meanwhile sources close to World Watch Monitor said there is still no news of two nuns, Sisters Outor and Meskenta, who have been missing from IS-controlled Mosul since June 28. The nuns ran an orphanage for girls and had fled Mosul to Dohuk in the north earlier in June. It is believed that the IS kidnapped them when they returned to check on the situation of their orphanage. They were accompanied by two women, Hala Salim and Sara Khoshaba, and a child named Aram Sabah, who are also missing.
Local church authorities tried to obtain their release immediately after their disappearance, through confidential channels of mediation, but so far have been unsuccessful according to Agenzia Fides, the information service of the Pontifical mission societies.
The news service refuted, however, a false report that a priest and nun had also been kidnapped from Mosul. It reported that all priests left at the beginning of the offensive led by the jihadists.
Yesterday, July 10, reports emerged that last week militant members of IS appear to have dug up the grave of the Biblical prophet Jonah (revered by Muslims and Christians alike), in the east of Mosul. An Iraqi official Zuhair al-Chalabi is quoted by Iraqi News as saying "The elements of ISIL controlled the mosque of the Prophet Younis (Jonah) in Mosul since they invaded the city. It is still held by them until now...elements of ISIL engaged in the process of tampering with the contents of the Mosque."
"There is almost certain information stating the fact that the elements of ISIL dug up the grave of the Prophet Younis" Chalabi added.
The jihadist group has reportedly also destroyed graves and shrines of other prophets in Iraq. The militants believe worshipping relics and tombs is against the teachings of Islam.
The jihadist group has declared Sharia law in Mosul, and in at least one reported case is said to have forced Christians to pay the jizya tax for non-Muslims.
Currently in Mosul all construction work has stopped, leaving many unemployed. There is an increased demand for black colored clothing including veils and hijabs for women who are not allowed to walk in the streets unless accompanied by a male. All barber shops and women’s salons have closed, Christian Iraqi news source AINA has reported. AINA obtained information from a report prepared by the Hammurabi Human Rights Organization, an NGO based in Baghdad which monitors the human rights situation in Iraq, particularly of minorities.
In the Nineveh plains water and electricity continue to be severely limited. Residents who have dug wells are unable to purify the water for safe drinking. Relief efforts are not adequate, according to the report published on July 8. A handful of relief and church organizations are scrambling to help.
Open Doors International, which works with Christians under pressure for their faith worldwide, is one of them, partnering with local networks to distribute emergency relief. One of the partner workers reported.
"Shortly after the occupation of Mosul, refugees started coming to our church. It was a strange sight for me to see the church halls filled with people, it was so crowded! People aren't sleeping on beds, but put whatever they can find on the floor and sleep like that. Still they don't complain, they are relieved that they are out of the threatening situation around Mosul. A woman came to me and said: 'It's much better here than were I came from: we have electricity, running water and the church has air-conditioning. This was all destroyed in the place near Mosul I came from and at least we're safe here.'
...When it was time to distribute the relief packages, the families quickly gathered around us in the garden of the church. It was overwhelming. I saw the desperate faces of the old men and the mothers who came to collect their food and I felt so sorry for them. All were arguing over who should get a food package first. It was difficult for me to see them but at the same time I was happy that I could help them. It was really an honor for me to do that. The priest tried to calm them down. And then we started distributing the packages: rice, tomato sauce and even some canned meat was inside. The next Sunday when I went to church to worship one of the women came to me and told me how happy she was with the help she received: ‘It was exactly what we needed’ she said."
On Wednesday, July 9, Canon Andrew White, known as the ‘Vicar of Baghdad’, posted on his Facebook page “sadly the crisis here continues.” On July 8 he posted that the IS had destroyed many of the Shia Mosques in Mosul and had taken control of the churches.
“I wondered why I had not heard about churches being destroyed, then this morning I discovered why,” he posted. “They have set up their bases and headquarters in the churches.”
He said that while there are “huge problems” in the north, Baghdad has its own share without the presence of IS.
“Where we are in our compound it is safe, but we can hear the gun battles going on around us. Each day the homicide bombs continue, the murders increase; this month alone over 2,700 people have been killed and over one million people have been forced to leave their homes.”
He continued: “We do not know what each day will bring. The tragedy and despair is all around, but despite all of this we know for sure that the Lord is here and His spirit is with us. This I say so many times and we totally mean it.”