Political and religious leaders expressed outrage and demanded action Sunday after ISIS militants drove Mosul’s Christians from the northern Iraqi city, effectively ending a presence there dating back to Christianity’s earliest years.
Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki condemned the actions of ISIS and said it showed “the extreme criminality and terrorist nature of this group.”
He instructed a government committee set up to support displaced people across Iraq to help the Christians who had been made homeless, but did not say when the army might try to win back control of Mosul.
“The world must act, speak out,” Chaldean Catholic Bishop Shlemon Warduni said, a day after a deadline expired for Christians to choose between death and submission to the rule of the Al-Qaeda splinter group.
Hundreds of Christian families left the city ahead of the ultimatum, many of them stripped of their possessions as they fled for safety, the remnants of a community that once numbered in the tens of thousands.
“Gunmen lurking like thieves took everything from them – even women’s rings, cars, cell phones ... because they are fanatics,” Warduni told Reuters by telephone from the city of Irbil, 80 kilometers away in the autonomous Kurdish region.
The bishop said the solution to the crisis should be in Iraq’s own hands, but that the state was weak and divided, and Muslim leaders had failed to speak out.
ISIS gave the city’s Christians a choice: convert to Islam, pay a religious tax, or face the sword.
In his weekly public prayers, Pope Francis said that he was troubled by the ultimatum.
“I learned with great concern the news that came from the Christian communities in Mosul and other parts of the Middle East, where they have lived since the birth of Christianity and where they have made significant contributions to the good of their societies,” he said.
“Today they are persecuted. Our brothers are persecuted. They’ve been driven away. They must leave their homes without being able to take anything with them.”
One Christian who left Mosul last week described how he fled with his family when he learned of the ISIS ultimatum.
“We gathered all our belongings and headed for the only exit. There was a checkpoint on the road and they were stopping cars there,” 35-year-old Salwan Noel Miskouni said.
When the militants saw they were Christians they demanded gold and money. When the family initially said they had none, one of the fighters grabbed their 4-year-old son by the hand and threatened to abduct the child.
“My sister emptied her entire handbag with our money and gold and her ID. They let the car pass and the child go,” Miskouni said.
Iraq’s Christian communities date back to the first centuries of the religion, but modern Iraq’s Christian population has dropped from the roughly 1 million people who lived there before the 2003 U.S.-led occupation to just under half, or an estimated 450,000, today.
ISIS Saturday claimed responsibility for four bombings in Baghdad, among a string of attacks that killed at least 27 people earlier in the day. The violence was among the most significant in Baghdad since an ISIS-led offensive last month seized large parts of the country.
In a statement that was posted online, the group said that two of the attacks were carried out by suicide bombers who were named as Abu al-Qaaqaa al-Almani and Abu Abdul-Rahman al-Shami.
The names indicate they were German and Syrian, respectively.
In the northern city of Sulaimaniyah, Iraq’s ailing president returned to the country after more than 18 months abroad for medical treatment following a stroke in late 2012, state television said Saturday.
Jalal Talabani is wrapping up his second consecutive term as president, and is not eligible to run for the post again.