Concern and Support for Iraqi Christians Forced by Militants to Flee Mosul

Baghdad — A day after Christians fled Mosul, the northern city controlled by Islamist extremists, under the threat of death, Muslims and Christians gathered under the same roof — a church roof — here on Sunday afternoon. By the time the piano player had finished the Iraqi national anthem, and before the prayers, Manhal Younis was crying.

“I can’t feel my identity as an Iraqi Christian,” she said, her three little daughters hanging at her side.

A Muslim woman sitting next to her in the pew reached out and whispered, “You are the true original people here, and we are sorry for what has been done to you in the name of Islam.”

The warm scene here was an unusual counterpoint to the wider story of Iraq’s unraveling, as Sunni militants with the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria gain territory and persecute anyone who does not adhere to their harsh version of Islamic law. On Saturday, to meet a deadline by the ISIS militants, most Christians in Mosul, a community almost as old as Christianity itself, left with little more than the clothes they were wearing.

Some went on foot, their cars having been confiscated; others rode bicycles or motor scooters. Few were able to take anything of value, as militants seized their money and jewelry. Some — just a few, and because they were not healthy enough to flee — submitted to demands that they convert to Islam to avoid being killed.

“There are five Christian families who converted to Islam because they were threatened with death,” said Younadim Kanna, a Christian and a member of Iraq’s Parliament. “They did so just to stay alive.”

On Sunday, outrage came from many corners of Iraq, and beyond.

In a public address, Pope Francis expressed his concern for the Christians of Mosul and other parts of the Middle East, “where they have lived since the beginning of Christianity, together with their fellow citizens, offering a meaningful contribution to the good of society.”

He continued: “Today, they are persecuted. Our brothers are persecuted and hunted away; they have to leave their homes without being allowed to take anything with them.”

Ban Ki-moon, the United Nations secretary general, released a statement condemning “in the strongest terms the systematic persecution of minority populations in Iraq” and particularly the threat against Christians.

And Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, who is struggling to remain in power as Iraq’s political factions negotiate to form a new government, said Sunday, “The atrocities perpetrated by ISIS against our Iraqi citizens, the Christians in Nineveh Province and the attacks on the churches and houses of worship in the areas that fall under their control, reveal without any doubt the terrorist and criminal nature of this extremist group that poses a dangerous threat to the humanity and the heritage and legacy that has been preserved over centuries.”

He called on the “whole world to tighten the siege on those terrorists and stand as one force to confront them.” That was perhaps a reference to the influx of foreign fighters into Iraq, many of whom have also fought in Syria’s civil war. On Sunday, ISIS issued a statement claiming responsibility for two suicide attacks in Baghdad on Saturday, and said that one had been carried out by a German citizen, and the other by a Syrian.

The gathering on Sunday at St. George Chaldean Church, built in 1964 and situated in a Shiite Muslim neighborhood, was as much about Iraqi solidarity as it was a gesture of condemnation for the persecution of Christians. In many ways Iraq’s struggle today is the same as it has been since the country was founded nearly a century ago, at the end of World War I: how to establish a national identity larger than a particular faith or ethnicity.

In the pews Muslims and Christians alike held signs that read, “I’m Iraqi. I’m Christian.” Muhammad Aga, who organized the event over Facebook, spoke, and listed Iraq’s many narrower identities: Christians, Arabs, Kurds, Shabaks, Turkmen, Yazidis, Sunnis and Shiites. “All of those people who carry Iraqi identity,” he said.

The church’s patriarch, Louis Raphael Sako, said, “I carry every Iraqi in my heart.”

After the service, two men, cousins in their 60s, stood in the church courtyard. They grew up in Mosul, and moved to Baghdad as teenagers. They have witnessed much of Iraq’s traumatic history of coups, revolutions, wars and sectarian cleansing, and have stayed the whole time.

“You have to be angry,” said Faiz Faraj, 65, a retired teacher. “You must cry.”

But, he said, “Iraqis have suffered for a long time, but this will pass.”

His 9-year-old granddaughter, Lana Fanar, recited at the service a poem written by a well-known Iraqi poet in 2006, as Iraq was in the grip of sectarian killings. Its words could be spoken of any of Iraq’s previous traumas, or today:

“I cry for my country. I cry for Baghdad. I cry for the history and the glory days. I cry for the artists, for the water, for the trees. I cry for my religion. I cry for my beliefs.”