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
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."
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."
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.