The most prominent Christian landmark in Iraq was emptied of its Christians on Sunday. Mar Behnam is a Syriac Catholic church that was built by a fourth-century Assyrian king. The church was his penance for killing his son, a Christian convert. It is now under the control of Islamic extremists from ISIS, and the monks having been sent away with nothing but the clothes on their backs, according to AFP. They walked for miles before Kurdish Peshmerga forces picked them up and took them to Qaraqosh.
The monks were the last Christians to leave the plains of Iraq; a few still live in Baghdad, but the rest have fled to Kurdistan.
Panicked refugees began fleeing Mosul for Kurdistan as soon as ISIS troops arrived. ISIS began enforcing its extremist brand of Islam on residents in June, and Christians began to feel particular danger. Several nuns left Mosul to accompany orphans to Kurdistan, but when they returned to protect their monastery, they were kidnapped. They were finally released last week and are now in Dohuk, according to World Watch Monitor.
Their release was last week’s only bright spot for the Iraqi Christians. ISIS announced via loudspeakers in Mosul that any Christians who remained after noon on Friday must pay a special tax or die. Open Doors, a group that supports persecuted Christians worldwide, described the departure of the region’s last Christians:
At the checkpoints of ISIS, Christians had to leave everything behind (cars, gold, money, mobile phones). The only possessions they could keep were their clothes. They had to walk to safer places, mostly in northern Iraq, while traveling in blistering heat.
A World Watch Monitor source in Erbil, the capital of the Kurdistan region, said a Christian family in Mosul reported by phone that explosions were heard during the night last Thursday in Mosul. On Friday, as the family attempted to pass through a Mosul checkpoint, ISIS agents forced them out of their car and confiscated their belongings and put them in a separate vehicle. Then the militants drove them several minutes down the road, and ultimately forced them out to continue their journey on foot, according to the source.
The Christians who leave Mosul go to Kurdistan, as the Kurdish government and army has protected them, according to Christian Post. For those who have the means and desire, it can be a departure point for Turkey and beyond. In Defense of Christians, an organization that advocates specifically for the Christians in the Middle East, issued a statement urging the international community to protect the living relics of the cradle of Christianity – the Christians. The organization’s president, Toufic Baaklini siad:
With the United Nations Security Council convening to address other matters in the Near and Middle East, we urge that the persecution of Christians in Mosul be added as an agenda item as a first step to deploying an international peacekeeping force.
According to the president of Open Doors, David Curry:
“The persecution and treatment of Christians in Mosul is unprecedented in modern times,” he says. “This latest forced exodus of Christians further shows why Western governments and the people in the West need to cry out in support for religious freedom in the Middle East and elsewhere. If this does not move us concerning the near extinction of Christianity in the Middle East, it’s likely nothing else can.
The church at Mar Behnam from the fourth century is a reminder that Christianity has survived and faced persecution in Iraq for centuries, but the Christians themselves have now fled.