ERBIL, Kurdistan Region – For around 100 Christian refugees forced into making an Assyrian church in Tel Kaif their home, there was no question of staying behind in Mosul after an ultimatum by the city’s new Islamic State (IS) rulers.
"They stormed into our home in the middle of the night and ordered us to leave with only our clothes,” said one homeless Christian at the Mashriq Assyrian Church in Tel Kaif, where many from the faith have fled since the fall of Mosul last month.
“They said, ‘if you convert to Islam you can stay in your home, otherwise get out of here,’” recounted an elderly Christian man, one of the 105 people being cared for by church priests who said they are expecting more refugees to arrive.
“They took everything: the television, computer, money, gold. I had a chicken I wanted to take for food, but even that they did not let me take,” the elder told Rudaw in a weak, trembling voice.
All of the Christians -- who include Chaldeans and Assyrians or Kurds and Arabs – told similar tales of first being ordered to either convert to Islam or pay a special tax, and then being warned to convert or die.
"No one was allowed to bring money or gold,” said a refugee. “They took it all.”
On Saturday, there were reports of the IS torching centuries-old Churches. There were unconfirmed reports the extremists had been marking Christian homes in Mosul with red paint, adding greater terror among the Christians and swelling their fleeing numbers.
Thousands of Christian families have fled to the Kurdistan Region, adding to the hundreds of thousands of Iraqi and Syrian refugees who have found sanctuary in the autonomous enclave, the only portion of Iraq where peace still prevails.
According to information obtained from sources by Rudaw, only 200 of Mosul’s 5,000 Christians still remain in the city.
“There is a systematic campaign to expel an entire people of this country from their ancestral land,” raged Salim Toma, a Christian and former MP in the Kurdistan Region
He said that providing food and water alone cannot resolve the problem, and that a diplomatic and political solution was urgently needed.
“First the massacre of the Christians must be stopped, and then like other people we should have a place to live,” said Toma, complaining that Iraq’s dithering government and the international community were not taking the issue seriously.
“Unfortunately, there has not been a serious position (toward the Christians). Only the Kurdistan Regional Government has opened the door and embraced them,” Toma said, explaining that the KRG had provided food, water and electricity for Mosul to alleviate suffering.
Amid political indecision in Baghdad, Toma complained there was no government in Iraq, and that Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki had not bothered to seriously address what was happening to the Christians.
By contrast, he said, Kurdish officials had tried to help in every way, and had tried to raise international concern. “Checkpoints are open for them; schools have become shelters for the Christians; many local NGOs are assisting, too,” Toma said.
Kurdish Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani has appealed to his people and the world to help. "After the terrorists armed groups seized control of Mosul, the Christians in the city face mass murder,” Barzani said in a statement.
There have been reports of looting and theft: IS militants raided a church in eastern Mosul and looted what was inside; they stormed several poultry farms owned by Christians, kidnapping seven people.
The former MP said that Christian communities are contacting the UN, the United States and international NGOs for assistance, because refugee numbers exceed the KRG’s capacity to deal with them.
Omid Sabah, spokesperson of the Kurdish presidency, said that “acts have caused a number of deaths among Christians,” and that many had fled to the Kurdistan Region for shelter.
Meanwhile, the KRG’s religious affairs minister, Kamal Muslim, visited refugees in Tel Kaif: “KRG is prepared to do whatever it can, and the Kurdistan Region is a shelter for affected people from anywhere,” he told the homeless Christians.
Christians in Iraq have been leaving their ancestral lands since the upheaval unleashed by the 2003 US-led invasion. They have been especially targeted by the sectarian violence that has buffeted Iraq since then.
According to unofficial figures nearly two million Christians lived in Iraq before the invasion. Now, the number has dwindled to an estimated 600,000.
Over the past decade, 61 attacks have been launched against Churches across Iraq’s Arab-populated lands, and thousands of Christians have been killed or vanished.
Toma said that the majority of Christian refugees would choose to live in Kurdistan and the Nineveh plains that have been their ancestral home, should Kurdistan declare independence.
"Most of them are with us,” he said.