Dozens of Iraqi Christian families have fled their hometown of Mosul after Islamist hardliners gave them a choice of converting, praying, or dying. This treatment has been denounced by influential Islamic scholars.
Fleeing Christians described being stopped by gunmen on the
outskirts of the city and robbed of their possessions, suggesting
the militants were implementing an order for Christians to leave
behind everything they had. That was the final straw for many,
including Zaid Qreqosh Ishaq, who was forced to flee with his
"We had to go through an area where they had set up a checkpoint," he said. Islamic State group militants "asked us to get out of the car. We got out. They took...our things, our bags, our money, everything we had on us,” he told AP.
With nothing more than the clothes on their backs, Ishaq's family fled to St. Joseph Church in the northern Kurdish city of Irbil. But they may be forced to move to camps that have been set up for the flood of Christians trying to escape the violence.
The Christian community has been living in the Mosul area for nearly 2,000 years. Now the city is under the control of Sunni militants from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS/ISIL), who formed the Islamic State (IS) in the regions of the country they captured. The militants imposed a deadline last Saturday for Christians to convert to Islam, pay a tax, or face death.
Such treatment of the Christians has led to criticism from moderate Sunni Islamists, including the International Union of Muslim Scholars.
"The International Union of Muslim Scholars (IUMS) condemns the forced expulsion of the Christian brothers of Iraq from their homes, cities and provinces," the group said in a statement posted on the website of its leader, the influential cleric Sheikh Youssef al-Qaradawi, on Tuesday.
"These are acts that violate Islamic laws, Islamic conscience and leave but a negative image of Islam and Muslims,” the group added.
The IUMS comprises of senior Sunni religious scholars from around the world who have moderate views of Islam. They reject the Islamic State as being too extreme and say its doctrine contradicts the true teachings of Islam. It also denounces the militant group's declaration of a caliphate in Iraq and Syria as illegal under Muslim law, saying that such a development can only be made after enough legitimate representatives of Muslim peoples have pledged their allegiance.
The Islamic State, an Al-Qaeda offshoot, relayed its ultimatum
from mosque loudspeakers and spray painted Christian properties
with the letter "N" for Nasrani, or Christian, residents said.
The UN said on Sunday that at least 400 families from Mosul – including other religious and ethnic minority groups – had sought refuge in the northern provinces of Irbil and Dohuk.
Mosul is home to some of the most ancient Christian communities, but the number of Christians has dwindled since 2003. On Sunday, militants seized the 1,800-year old Mar Behnam Monastery, located about 25 kilometers (15 miles) south of Mosul. The resident clergymen left for the nearby city of Qaraqoush, according to local residents.
Noel Ibrahim, who fled Mosul last week with his family, said gunmen from the Islamic State stopped cars and stole cash and gold from women inside.
"One of the gunmen told us, 'You can leave now, but do not ever dream of returning to Mosul again,'" Ibrahim told AP.
The IUMS urged the Islamic State to allow Christians to return to their homes, saying the forced expulsion amounts to "spreading discord” – a serious crime in traditional Muslim law.
"They [Christians] are native sons of Iraq and not intruders," the group said. "The aim must be to bury discord, unite the ranks and solve Iraq's problems, rather than thrusting it into matters that would further complicate the situation," it added.
The Islamic State has vowed to continue its offensive to try and capture Baghdad, although it appears to have stopped for now after overrunning Iraq's predominantly Sunni areas. However, the country's government has been unable to launch an effective counter-offensive against the militants, and politicians are still struggling to form a government after April’s elections.
In Baghdad, newly-appointed Speaker of Parliament Salim al-Jabouri said on Tuesday that the only way to tackle the growing violence is a quick consensus among feuding political parties over the selection of a new government.
"Such acts should be confronted and this can be done through the establishing of democratic institutions that will start when the president of the republic is chosen and the Cabinet is formed," al-Jabouri said.