Mosul (Iraq) (AFP) – For Iraqi Christian Fadi and his young family, it is a lonely wait to see whether they will be executed soon.
Their Christian neighbours and friends have already fled the city of Mosul in Iraq’s north, which last month fell into the hands of Sunni jihadists led by the Islamic State group, which espouses an extreme form of Islam.
Along with the rest of the city’s estimated 25,000 Christians who had not already fled years of kidnappings, bombings and shootings, Sunni militants gave 36-year-old Fadi, his wife and son until Saturday to comply with a brutal ultimatum: convert to Islam, pay an unspecified tax, leave the city or die.
“I’m staying. I already feel dead,” Fadi, a teacher, told AFP by telephone moments before the deadline ran out.
“Only my soul remains, and if they want to take that I don’t have a problem,” he added, giving only his first name.
On Friday, Mosul’s mosques called through loudspeakers for Christians to leave, after centuries of being part of the once cosmopolitan city’s social fabric.
Fadi said he could not afford to flee and argued that the prospects for those who did were hardly better.
Islamic State (IS) militants robbed departing Christians of their belongings, he said, leaving them to face destitution in grim camps for the displaced.
“They were stopped by members of Islamic State, who took everything they had. Mobile phones, money, jewellery,” he said, speaking of the fate of some 25 Christian families who had recently fled.
“When my cousin and friends, from three families, tried to plead with them, they took their cars.”
IS fighters took control of Mosul and swathes of north and west Iraq in a sweeping offensive that began last month. Their leader has since then declared a “caliphate” straddling Iraq and Syria.
The group claims its goal is to return the lands they conquer to a state approximating that of early Islam, in which Jews and Christians who did not convert had to pay a “jizya” tribute to their Muslim rulers.
“From one old woman they took $15,000 (11,100 euros). She asked for just $100 of it so she could reach Dohuk. They told her that these are the funds of the Islamic State, and we cannot give it to you,” Fadi said.
Robbed of their cars and cash, many Christians were forced to walk to safety.
– Exodus –
Some of Mosul’s Christians might be able to afford to pay the jizya, but they appear unwilling to take their chances living under the thumb of rulers notorious for executing and crucifying their opponents.
“Maybe a few are still hiding in Mosul but I don’t think any would have decided to pay jizya or convert. There is no Christian who can trust these gangsters,” Yonadam Kanna, Iraq’s most prominent Christian leader, told AFP.
“They even took wedding rings from women fleeing the city at checkpoints… I am astonished they can claim to be Muslims.”
In a purported statement issued by IS last week which detailed the ultimatum for Mosul’s Christians, there will be nothing left for those who do not comply “but the sword”.
Ahlam, a 34-year-old mother of two boys, and her husband carried their children on their shoulders on their long march out of Mosul.
She described an exodus of hundreds of Christians walking on foot in Iraq’s searing summer heat, the elderly and the disabled among them.
“We first reached Tilkkef in a state of exhaustion. We hadn’t had anything to eat or drink for a whole day,” she said, referring to a town some 20 km (12.4 miles) north of Mosul where volunteers are picking Christians up in their cars.
“My husband and I were carrying our children on our shoulders the whole way.”
Many Christians are making their way to the relative safety of the city of Dohuk in Kurdish autonomous territory further north.
According to the IS statement, seen by AFP, any homes they leave behind become property of the insurgent group.
“I left my home in Mosul, that my family built decades ago. And it was taken away in an instant,” Ahlam said with tears in her eyes.
“Everything’s gone, all our memories. Our home has become property of the Islamic State.”