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Christians take flight from Mosul

13 June 2014

HUNDREDS of Christian families are among the estimated half-a-million Iraqis who have fled from the northern city of Mosul and other towns in the north of the country this week, after their takeover by Islamist fighters.

In Mosul alone, four churches and a monastery were attacked, and the Chaldean Archbishop, the Most Revd Amel Nona, told Aid to the Church in Need, a Roman Catholic charity, that he believed that all the 3000 Christians who remained living there had fled. The Christian community of Mosul once numbered 35,000.

When forces of the al-Qaeda offshoot the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham (the Levant) (ISIS), helped by former Ba'ath party activists and other Sunnis, occupied and raised black flags over key institutions in Mosul, Iraqi security forces put up scant resistance, before fleeing for their lives. Archbishop Nona said: "We have never seen anything like this - a large city such as Mosul attacked and in chaos." Thousands of prisoners have been released from jails in areas controlled by ISIS.

The loss of government control over Mosul represents a body-blow to the Christian community in Iraq. The city, which has been relatively quiet over recent months, was regarded as one of the most secure in Iraq. It has been home to a wide range of religious and ethnic groups, who have generally lived side by side without problems.

In recent years, thousands of Christians have sought shelter there, fleeing from violence and persecution in Baghdad and other cities in the south.

Now, scores of Christian families are seeking sanctuary again, this time in the area of northern Iraq controlled by the Kurdish Regional Government. Churches in this region are struggling to cope with the influx of displaced Christians.

A Dominican friar, Fr Najeeb Michael, sent a message to a fellow priest on Tuesday, which spoke of "a critical and apocalyptical situation of violence in Mosul. Most of the inhabitants have already abandoned their houses and fled into the villages, and are sleeping in the open without anything to eat or drink."

He said that ISIS fighters had killed adults and children, and their bodies had been "left in the streets, and in the houses, by the hundreds, without pity". ISIS fighters were approaching the friary: "We are now surrounded and threatened. Pray for us."

The Revd Andrew White, Canon of St George's, Baghdad, and head of the Foundation for Relief and Reconciliation in the Middle East (FRRME), who is outside Iraq at present, issued a statement saying: "Things are so bad now in Iraq, the worst they have ever been. The Islamic terrorists have taken control of Mosul which is in Nineveh Province, the main Christian stronghold. We urgently need help and support. Please, please help us in this crisis." (www.frrme.org)

An appeal for support has also come from the Barnabas Fund. The international director of Barnabas Aid International, Dr Patrick Sookhdeo, said: "The last few days have been utterly terrifying for the Christians of Iraq, who once again are being driven from their homes by Islamist militant violence." He added that the Fund was sending aid "to meet their immediate practical needs, and is upholding them in prayer at this traumatic time. Please support us in this vital ministry to our Iraqi brothers and sisters." (https://barnabasfund.org)

Having secured Mosul, the ISIS-led Sunni forces moved on to Tikrit, the home town of former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein. Once again, the Iraqi army was routed, leaving equipment, including tanks and heavy weapons, in the hands of the insurgents.

It is hard to see ISIS being forced out of Mosul and Tikrit and the towns and villages near by in the foreseeable future. The Iraqi army has been trying since December to retake the towns of Fallujah and Ramadi, in Anbar province, west of Baghdad - without success. These are traditional centres of Sunni power, and provided a base for al-Qaeda groups during the occupation of Iraq by the United States. The army's failure to recapture the two towns in Anbar has allowed ISIS to push northwards and eastwards.

The expectation is that the Islamists will now seek to capture more territory close to Baghdad, with the aim of encircling the capital. At this point, if the Iraqi army is still ineffective in stemming the advance, Shi'a militias could reappear, possibly with support from the Iranian Revolutionary Guards.

President Obama has said that the United States is discussing what action to take to help the Iraqi government resist the Islamist surge, but the likelihood is that the support will be limited to drone strikes and the sharing of intelligence. But the use of drones and other intelligence methods to pinpoint ISIS positions and movements on the ground will be of limited use if the Iraqi army lacks the ability to take and hold territory north and west of the capital.

At present, too, there appears to be no framework to enable a political solution even to bring the fighting to an end, let alone see the removal of ISIS fighters from Mosul, Tikrit, and elsewhere. Sunni political leaders, weak in the first place, have been overwhelmed by a force that has no interest in a peace deal and which still scents easy victories ahead.

The Kurdish Regional Government, for its part, shows no sign of wanting to challenge ISIS, as long as the latter does not threaten Kurdish territory. Also, the departure of the Iraqi army from the north has offered the Kurds the chance to take full control of Kirkuk, the oil city that they have coveted for decades, along with other disputed areas.

New borders are being drawn in Iraq, and the long-discussed fragmentation of the country into Shi'a, Sunni, and Kurdish regions is looking more likely today than in the past.


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