(ADDS MORE DETAILS, AND UPDATE ON FIGHTING)
By BosNewsLife Middle East Service with BosNewsLife’s Stefan J. Bos
BAGHDAD, IRAQ (BosNewsLife)– Thousands of Christians and other residents began fleeing Mosul on Tuesday, May 10, after Islamic militants overran much of Iraq’s second largest city, “killing hundreds” while seizing churches and government buildings.
As many as 150,000 people were trying to escape Mosul amid appeals for prayers and warnings that this may be the last exodus of what was a Christian stronghold. “What we are living and what we have seen over the last two days is horrible and catastrophic,” Najeeb Michaeel, a Dominican priest, wrote from Mosul.
He confirmed that gunmen of the ‘Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant’ (ISIL), who are inspired by terror group al-Qaida, took over churches after pushing out security forces and capturing military vehicles.
“The priory of Mar Behnam [Monastery] and other churches fell into the hands of the rebels this morning. . .and now they have come here and entered Qaraqosh five minutes ago, and we are now surrounded and threatened with death . . . pray for us,” he added in comments monitored by BosNewsLife.
THOUSANDS ARMED MEN
“Many thousands of armed men from the Islamic Groups of Da’ash [ISIL] have attacked the city of Mosul for the last two days. They have assassinated adults and children. The bodies have been left in the streets and in the houses by the hundreds, without pity,” he said.
“The regular forces and the army have also fled the city, along with the governor.” The exact death toll was not immediately clear amid confusion and chaos.
“Christian families are terrified. I was able to make my wife and children leave Mosul, but now I am stuck in the house and can’t move,” a Christian man reportedly said, as fighting continued.
Militants reportedly took 70 female students hostage at the University of Mosul, and took 28 Turkish truck drivers hostage in the city. About 3,000 prisoners were said to have been freed from the main jails.
Militants also seized Mosul’s airport, television stations and the governor’s office, reporters noted.
LAST CHRISTIAN EXODUS?
With attacks ongoing, Pastor Haitham Jazrawi suggested that the city of 1.8 million people will soon have no or very few Christians. “Ninety-nine percent of the Christians have left Mosul,” he explained in published remarks. Across Iraq, the Christian population has decreased from as many as 1.5 million to maximum 400,000 people in the last decade.
Open Doors, the aid and advocacy group supporting reportedly persecuted Christians, warned this could be the “last migration of Christians from Mosul.”
At least 200 families, many Christian, managed to reach the Mar Mattai Monastery and about 50 families an hour were reportedly arriving in Al Qosh, 45 kilometers (28 miles) from Mosul, seeking shelter at another monastery. Others fled as far as Dohuk, some 80 kilometers (50 miles) outside Mosul, while schools in mainly Christian villages also opened their doors, Christians said.
Local residents said new arrivals are desperate for mattresses and blankets, as many carry only a plastic bag with a few clothes. Some Christians claimed they were forced to leave their cars behind at check points and walk for many hours to safer regions.
Yet, Christians said it was difficult to hide as Islamic militants were also entering Christian villages, including Qara Qosh. Fighters were also seen on their way to Tikrit, the hometown of late Iraqi leader Sadam Hussein.
CHRISTIANS IN KURDISTAN
The crisis has added to concern among Christians in the neighbouring Northern Kurdish region who say they are praying for safety in Kurdistan.
Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki declared a state of emergency, imposed a curfew, and issued a call to arm citizens, moves that heightened questions about his ability to hold onto not only Mosul, but his entire nation.
Mosul and the surrounding areas were not the only places facing violence, with some attacks closer to the capital of Baghdad, leading to even more anxiety among Christians and other residents.
The ‘Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant’ wants to carve out a strict Islamic state based on Sharia, or Muslim law, introducing executions and corporal punishments for ‘non-Islamic’ acts.
Critics say reports of police and soldiers running from their posts in Mosul raised the prospect that the Iraqi government did not either have the will or resources to win this and other fights. (With reporting by BosNewsLife’s Stefan J. Bos).