As many as 80% of Syria’s Christians and 50% of Iraq’s Christians have left their countries since the start of the civil war in 2011, according to a report produced by Christian charities Open Doors International, Served and Middle East Concern, which said the arrival of IS was only the “tipping point” of a trend already gathering pace as Christians experienced a “loss of hope for a safe and secure future”. World Watch Monitor has heard some of their stories. In the snippets below, the interviewees are referred to by their initials alone, to preserve their safety.
“We lived in Mosul, northern Iraq until 2005 when bullets were shot into our home. Between June and July, 2005, terrorists tried to kidnap our son three times, but he was able to escape,” said S. H., a Christian father of five, adding that after this he moved with his family, including three disabled children, to Qaraqosh, 30km southeast of Mosul. But after Islamic State arrived there on 6 August 2014, the family was forced to flee again. “They gave us three options: conversion, death or jizya [a special tax for non-Muslims],” said S. H., adding that this time they fled to Lebanon, because “it is Christian and Arab-speaking”.
Another 43-year-old father of two girls, identified by his first initial, N., fled to Lebanon in February 2015 after IS gave him 24 hours’ notice to leave Baghdad, his job and his home, or he and his family would be killed. “My relatives, my cousin and his grandparents, were killed by bombings at their home, because they didn’t want to quit their job or convert.
Colleagues of mine were kidnapped. Some were freed for US$16,000, others were killed. They were told they must deny Jesus or they would be killed,” he said. It is not possible to know precisely how many people have been killed by IS but mass graves, some containing thousands of bodies have been found.
For 70 years another Christian family, identified as S. and H.K., had resided in the city of Hasakah, northeast Syria, where they had lived at peace with their Muslim neighbours. All that changed with the arrival of Islamic State. “Our neighbours joined IS and the group used them to communicate with us that we had three options: convert, leave, or die. They burned our farm at night to kill us, but we were not there. We escaped, going from village to village. We have two brothers, but now we don’t know anything about them. We have had no contact since we fled,” S. said.
A 71-year-old man told how he and his brother fled Syria to find refuge at his farm in Raqqa. “Our taxi driver was shot in the neck. My brother and I were locked up in a dark room for three days. This was the last time I saw my brother. Our captors stole my money. We were fed dog food and told to convert to Islam, or be killed. He said he was able to escape when the Syrian army attacked IS, and he fled to Lebanon. I had an interview with the French Embassy who told me it would take 20 days to get back to me. It has been two months during which I have survived three heart attacks” he said. “I could never go back to Syria,” he said. “I have had too much trauma.”
When IS entered the northern Iraqi town of Batnaya in August 2014, a Chaldean Christian family were unable to flee because of illness in the family. Militants came to their house repeatedly, threatening to rape and kill them if they would not convert or if they called on anyone for help, according to 63-year-old G. H. G. “After 22 days, IS took our whole family into El Sharkat prison in Mosul and stole everything we had,” he said. “They separated my 14-year-old son and me from my wife, daughter and our handicapped child. I thought they would kill my son and me.”
He went on “I did not know what would happen to my family. After four days they took my son and me to another prison, in Kirkuk, where we were for five days until they released us. In the meantime, my wife had been released from prison because of our handicapped child. She took our daughter and handicapped child to a church in Kirkuk where we were reunited.” Fearing for their lives, they fled to Beirut, but he said his daughter has psychological trauma and they will never go back: “We escaped death by a miracle. Next time we will not survive.”
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