Erbil, Iraq – Most Christian families have now fled Iraq’s second largest city, Mosul. The most recent exodus began on June 10 with the city’s takeover by the armed group known as the Islamic State group. Fears were exacerbated when two nuns and three orphans were kidnapped by the group’s supporters.
Though they were released after 17 days, the displacement further accelerated on July 19 with the announcement that Christians had the choice to either convert to Islam, pay a religious tax, leave, or face death.
Other religious minorities have been similarly targeted for persecution and expulsion. According to the United Nations, members of the Yazidi and Shabak communities who refused to convert or leave were sentenced to death by religious courts and executed.
Those who fled saved their lives but little else, clogging checkpoints, schools, churches, UN camps, and homes of relatives as they fled to the safety of areas controlled by the Kurdish Peshmerga forces.
“They were all looted, harassed and humiliated,” says Aziz al-Zebari, a Christian from Ankawa, a suburb of Erbil, the capital of Iraq’s Kurdish region, whose relatives were among those displaced from Mosul. “They made it out in their bare clothes.”
All money and valuables were taken by the Islamic state group, Zebari told Al Jazeera. One family spoke of how their two pre-teen daughters were made to undress to see if they were hiding money inside their clothes. An elderly man’s medicine was stolen by the fighters when they looted his house, a witness who did not wish to give his name said; living alone and without his medicine, the man died.
“It’s an act of cleansing,” says Zebari. “They are wiping out our community.”
During this process of harassment and expulsion, Islamic State group fighters identified and marked the houses of Mosul’s Christians with the circled Arabic version of the letter “N” (pronounced noon), referring to the word Nasara, an archaic Arabic term for Christians. While Arabic-speaking Christians refer to themselves as Masihiyin (followers of the Messiah), religious Muslims often use the term Nasara to refer to followers of Jesus of Nazareth – a title that does not connote divinity.
As news of this practice spread, the symbol was converted to a badge of solidarity by Christians and Muslims alike. Twitter hashtags like #WeAreN and #IAmNazrene quickly spread, with many replacing their profile photos with graphics depicting the letter being used by the Islamic State group to mark homes.
Zebari was among the more than 1,200 Christians, many of them carrying signs or shirts emblazoned with the symbol, who marched in a demonstration to the UN headquarters in Erbil during a visit by Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, demanding greater protection for Iraq’s Christian minority. “We are not happy with just denouncements,” says Zebari. “We are looking for actions.”
Unlike Kurds and Shia Muslims, Christians enjoyed relative freedom and tolerance under the regime of former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. But after the US-led invasion in 2003, some armed groups associated them with the western “crusaders”. As Christians began to be targeted by violence, many fled the country.
While Iraq’s Christians numbered some 1.5 million before the war, estimates of those remaining now are as low as 200,000.
“My brother is in America,” says Nasrat Mansour, sporting a “Jesus” baseball cap at the demonstration. Though his brother has encouraged him many times to emigrate, he refuses, “because this is our land. This is our home”.
As in other recent demonstrations in Baghdad, Christians weren’t the only ones marching in Erbil. Leaders of the Muslim community walked side by side with Christian clergy to demand an end to the violence engulfing the country. “I am a Muslim living in Iraq,” says Suras al-Munai, a resident of Ankawa. “I am here today with my brothers and sisters, the Christian people, to say I am against what is happening in Mosul.”