What is happening in Iraq?

Last Friday, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) gave Christians in Mosul an ultimatum: convert to Islam, leave the area, or die. ISIS had seized a large section of the country’s northern region in June, including the city of Mosul, the second largest city in Iraq. Since the takeover, the militant group has been putting pressure on Christians and other religious minorities in the areas. Most of the remaining Christians departed the city last week.

According to CNN, a total of 52 Christian families left the city early Saturday morning, with an armed group prohibiting some of them from taking anything but the clothes on their backs.  But a few Christians were reported to have converted to Islam in order to save their families’ lives and their property. All 30 churches and monasteries in the city are under ISIS control. AINA News reports that crosses have been removed from all of them, some have been burned, destroyed, and looted, while many other are been used as ISIS centers. “ISIS seems intent on wiping out all traces of minority groups from areas it now controls in Iraq,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “No matter how hard its leaders and fighters try to justify these heinous acts as religious devotion, they amount to nothing less than a reign of terror.”

[The information in this paragraph was originally based on a UN report which as has since been come under question. Further updates will be provided when the issue is clarified: Along with the widespread religious persecution, ISIS is also embarking on a campaign that violates the human rights of Muslim women in the area. The UN reports ISIS has ordered all girls and women between the ages of 11 and 46 in and around the city to undergo female genital mutilation. Female genital mutilation—the partial or total removal of external female genitalia—is used as a means of suppressing a woman’s sexual desire.]

How many Christians live in the Mosul?

A decade ago, about 35,000 Christians lived in the city of 2 million people. But that number had dwindled to approximately 3,000 by the time of the ISIS takeover, and only few hundred Christian families remained in the city until recently.

What is the significance of Mosul?

Mosul is one of the holiest cities for Middle Eastern Christian groups. The city, located on the west bank of the Tigris River in northern Iraq, is opposite the ancient Assyrian city of Nineveh. The city of Ninevah is mentioned in the Bible in Genesis, 2 Kings, Isaiah, Jonah, Nahum, Zephaniah, and Matthew. Along with its Biblical connection, the city reportedly contains the tomb of the Old Testament prophet Jonah. A mosque built upon the burial site was blown up by ISIS on July 24 because the militants claimed the mosque had become a place for apostasy.

Who is ISIS?

ISIS (also known as ISIL) is the group that during the Iraq War was often referred to as “Al-Qaeda in Iraq.” ISIS stands for The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (the group is actually called “The Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant” but most western media translate “Levant” as “Syria.”). The group claims it is an independent state with claims to Iraq, Syria, and Lebannon. It was established in the early years of the Iraq War and pledged allegiance to al-Qaeda in 2004. The group has targeted military and governments of Iraq and Syria but has also claimed responsibility for attacks that have killed thousands of Iraqi civilians. According to a study compiled by U.S. intelligence agencies, ISIS has plans to seize power and turn the country into an fundamentalist Islamic state.

How did ISIS take control of Mosul?

The short answer: the Iraqi army ran away. Iraqi officials told the Guardian two divisions of Iraqi soldiers – roughly 30,000 men – simply turned and ran in the face of the assault by an insurgent force of just 800 fighters. Senior government officials in Baghdad were equally shocked, accusing the army of betrayal and claiming the sacking of the city was a strategic disaster that would imperil Iraq’s borders.

What can be done to protect these Christians?

Most Christians in Mosul have fled 55 miles to the east, to the city of Erbil, the capital and largest city of the Kurdistan Region of Iraq. Erbil’s governor, Nawzad Hadi, has pledged to protect fleeing Christians and other minority groups. The territory is currently home to more than 2 million refugees and internally displaced people from Iraq and Syria, according to the United Nations.