BARTELLA, Iraq — Abu Imad wasn’t particularly worried when masked gunmen from a range of militant Islamist groups took control of the northern city of Mosul, where he lived.
“When they came in June and drove out the army, things became normal quickly. I didn’t see any reason to flee,” he said, sitting in St. Georges Syriac Catholic Church in Bartella, a dusty flyspeck Christian village less than 20 miles from Mosul.
“There were no problems at first, and the only sign of a change was that the traffic police were men that we did not know,” he said. “Some were Iraqi, and others spoke (classical Arabic) so it was hard to tell where they were from. Some didn’t speak Arabic at all, but they treated everyone in a good way, and so I didn’t want to leave.”
But then on July 12, Islamists marked Abu Imad’s house with an “n,” for Nusari, a derogatory Arabic term for a nonbeliever. “When I asked them why, they said, ‘To mark your house as protected if outsiders come to Mosul.’ That’s when I grew worried,” he said.
A week later, Abu Imad, a Syriac Catholic, had packed up and left.
He and the rest of northern Iraq’s multitude of Christian sects have plenty of reason to worry about the self-proclaimed Islamic caliphate that’s taken hold in much of northern and western Iraq and eastern Syria since Mosul fell to the Islamic State on June 9. The men who lead the caliphate adhere to the most austere and literal interpretation of Islam, one that subscribes to the notion that improperly pious Muslims can be killed and that Christians, Jews and other monotheistic minorities must pay a protection tax or face a similar fate.
“It’s a financial punishment for refusing to become Muslim,” said the rector of St. Georges, Father Ammar, explaining “jizya,” a tax the ancient caliphates levied on non-Muslims. Father Ammar, following local custom, gave only his first name.
Christians _ Syriac Catholics, Chaldeans, Yazidis and a slew of other smaller sects _ have been part of the social fabric of northern Iraq and eastern Syria for centuries. They enjoyed protection from secular governments, including the late Saddam Hussein’s in Iraq and President Bashar Assad’s in Syria. They even benefited under the Shiite Muslim government of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki, who’s preferred to focus sectarian repression on Sunni Muslims, the Shiites’ historical political and religious rivals. That’s helped the Christians avoid the charge of regime collaboration, which their community has often been accused of in Syria and Iraq.
“Maliki ignored the Christians, which for them is probably a good thing,” summed up an Iraqi journalist in Baghdad, who didn’t want his name attached to the comment because of stringent anti-criticism laws imposed on the country’s news media. As for Saddam, he loved the Christians because they were the one group he knew could never overthrow him, the journalist said.
Not so with “daash,” as nearly everyone in Iraq calls the Islamic State, using its Arabic acronym. Within weeks of its takeover of northern Iraq, it’s shown that Christians are expected to obey the rules, whatever century they may come from.
Within days of the appearance of the scarlet “n” on Abu Imad’s house, the Islamic State’s Islamic law council demanded a meeting with the top religious authorities from the Christian sects in Mosul, in many cases calling on the officials to come to Mosul from Baghdad for the session.
“They really think they’re an Islamic state and can just call a meeting with other legitimate religious leaders. It’s insane,” said Father Ammar, whose Baghdad-based bishop was summoned to the session but chose not to attend. “I’m not even a bishop and am from Qarakosh, but I wasn’t going to go to negotiate jizya.”
The meeting was announced for June 17, and when not a single religious leader from any of the Christian communities attended, the Islamic State took offense.
“The next day we received the notification. We had only two choices, and jizya was not one of them,” said Abu Imad, who admits that he was likely to have considered paying a reasonable tax to keep his home. “Convert to Islam or leave.”
“You could have stayed and died,” Father Ammar pointed out, noting the third option.
Abu Imad, however, left. “At each checkpoint out of town, daash searched our belongings,” he said. “They stole anything of value: gold, money, laptop computers. When they found something they wanted, they just shouted ‘jizya’ and took it.”
As many as 6,000 Christians are thought to have fled Mosul in the wake of the order to convert. About 400 have come to Bartella, where they’ve been taken in by the town’s residents. Many more are waiting for processing in the nearby town of Qarakosh, where a small amount of United Nations-supplied emergency aid is available.
How many Christians remain in Mosul and its suburbs is an open question. The community hasn’t been large for centuries, and emigration has shrunk it further since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003. The United Nations estimated that the community stood at about 35,000 in 2005. Rumor has it that three families stayed behind and converted _ a number so precise that it raises questions about its credibility.
Father Ammar worries that more Christians will arrive, driven from other villages under Islamic State control, and that it will be difficult to accommodate them in Bartella and Qarakosh, which together have just 60,000 residents.
“We’ll have to start sending people to Kalak,” he said, referring to a growing refugee camp halfway between Mosul and Irbil, where U.N.-supplied tents house increasing numbers of refugees who can’t afford to rent homes in Kurdistan’s skyrocketing real estate market and don’t want to return to life under the Islamic State.
Father Ammar also worries about what’s to become of Christian life in an area where the faith has existed for more two millenniums. Already, the Islamic State, whose fundamentalist beliefs prohibit any form of idolatry or artistic representations of the human form, has made a point of clearing the city of images it finds offensive, removing or destroying the ubiquitous statues of the Virgin Mary and burning a collection of portraits of past Syriac Catholic bishops kept in the 1,800-year-old monastery where Father Ammar’s order is headquartered. So far, Father Ammar said, the monastery itself survives.
“They have only destroyed Muslim tombs used by the Shiites and the Sufis so far,” he said. “But we fear the worst for so much of our history. Mosul goes back to the oldest Christian communities in the world, one of the first places where Christ was accepted by an entire community.”
Bitterness abounds. In Qarakosh, where fighters from the Kurdish peshmerga militia maintain a front line just a mile or so from Islamic State positions and regularly come under sniper and mortar fire, one refugee from Mosul said he knew exactly whom to blame for the situation.
“Goddamn George Bush,” Abu Fadi spat out in English as he stood in line in the 100-degree heat to register for aid. “He removed Saddam, and this is all his fault.”
Then, in Arabic, he turned his anger on the current U.S. administration, which is still formulating what, if anything, it will do in response to the rapid advance of the Islamic State.
“Tell Obama I lost my house because of America, and now he’s a coward and won’t come save us from these animals,” he said.
Prothero is a McClatchy special correspondent. Email: email@example.com; Twitter: @mitchprothero