The End of Days for Iraq's Christians

In the lands of the Old Testament, an endangered religious minority is being wiped out by the brutal Islamic State.

ERBIL, Iraq — Rania, an outspoken middle-aged woman with graying hair, loved her job as a nurse at a hospital in the Iraqi city of Mosul. She had worked there for 30 years -- until one day she walked in and was told she was no longer welcome.

"The Islamic State told me I couldn't work there anymore because I am Christian," she says. "But I told them that I am from Mosul, that Mosul is my home."

No longer. Instead, like thousands of other Christians, Rania has been made a refugee by the jihadists' intensifying war against religious and ethnic minorities. After being stripped of her job, she was forced to flee her home after the Islamic State, which captured Iraq's second-largest city on June 10, told Christians to either convert to Islam or pay a religious tax of $250 per month. Failure to do so would result in execution. According to several Christian families, the militants later revoked the tax as an option.

Even as Rania and her husband fled Mosul, however, the Islamic State extracted a tax from them at the checkpoint as they left the city. Rania recounted how the jihadists stripped fleeing Christians of their valuables, even taking the jewelry she was wearing. Her husband, Raad, a former government employee with a graying beard, slammed his tea on the table as she told the story.

"We were stripped of everything: money, wallets, ID, passport, watches. They took everything of value we had," he said.

The family's home, along with those of other Christians in Mosul, was marked with the Arabic letter "N," for Nasrani -- an Arabic word for Christians that many consider derogatory. Even while the family was still living in its home, the family was informed that the home was now the property of the Islamic State -- the family's understanding is that the home has now been looted.

Rania fled to the Mar Mattai Monastery, 10 miles northeast of Mosul, atop Mount Alfaf, along with 250 other Christians from the city. Run by the Syriac Orthodox Church, the monastery offers a semblance of peace and quiet far removed from the violence Rania fled. Despite the proximity of the Islamic State, her family feels safe there -- the monastery, and aid organizations, supply them will all their basic needs. However, with no schools, jobs, or medical facilities there, they cannot make it a new home.

It has been a dramatic and catastrophic end for Christians in Mosul. A little more than a decade ago, the city was home to about 60,000 Christians -- now, only a handful remain in the city. And they're not the only Christian population under threat: On Aug. 7, the Islamic State seized the town of Qaraqosh, the largest Christian city remaining in Iraq, after the withdrawal of Kurdish forces. The city, which lies roughly 20 miles southeast of Mosul, was largely abandoned by residents as the jihadists advanced.

"It is no longer possible for Christians to live in Iraq," Rania says.

That's now a widespread view among Iraqi Christians. Nagham, a middle-aged mother of two, fled Mosul in the dark of the night with her husband and two children. Rather than leave in silence, Nagham confronted the militants before departing. The evening she and her family fled, fighters stopped them in the middle of the street -- her children screamed in fear as the militants pointed their guns at them.

"A man from the Islamic State said, 'You don't want to live with us, we're Muslims,'" she said. "I replied that we were from Mosul. He wanted us to pay jizya [a religious tax] and to change our religion."

"These conditions are impossible, I told him. I yelled at him [but then] he yelled at us to leave and threatened to kidnap us," said Nagham. "They took all our money -- they didn't even leave the small bills. We really have nothing left."

Nagham is now living in a rented apartment with other family members in Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan. Considering how other people forced to flee Mosul are faring, she's doing well: Her parents and siblings live overseas and are supporting the family. Nagham and her family want to apply for asylum in Europe. But they're just sitting around now, waiting to see what happens to their country.  

"All of Iraq's Christian are trying to get out of the country," she said. "The only possibility is to go somewhere else and build up something new."

U.N. Special Rapporteur on Minority Issues Izsák Rita says she is gravely concerned about not only the safety of Christians in Iraq, but also other minority groups -- including Yazidis, Shabaks, and Turkmen. Tens of thousands of Yazidis, a Kurdish-speaking religious minority group, were recently forced to flee Sinjar, in the country's western Nineveh province, after Islamic State fighters captured the town on Sunday.

Roughly 200,000 people fled the Islamic State invasion of northern Iraq to the relative safety of the Kurdish cities of Dohuk and Erbil. However, U.N. groups said at least 40,000 have taken refuge on Mount Sinjar, where they are currently stranded -- and facing dire water and food shortages. At least 40 children have already died, according to UNICEF, while Kurdish leaders have appealed to the United States for immediate assistance to help reach the stranded refugees. The U.S. government is now reportedly considering airstrikes on Islamic State fighters and humanitarian food drops.

Meanwhile, Rita is pushing the Iraqi government in Baghdad to do more to help its citizens.

"The underlying issue here is that whoever might be the perpetrator of violence and atrocities against any population in a given country, the government is responsible to protect its people," she says.

In an extraordinary first, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki authorized airstrikes on Monday to support Kurdish forces struggling to contain the Islamic State's advance in northwestern Iraq. Baghdad's intervention, however, hasn't been sufficient to turn the tide of the battle: The Islamic State reportedly captured the Mosul Dam on Aug. 7, which would give it control over water and electricity for the entire region.

Meanwhile, as the jihadist advance continues, the Christians of Mosul are still waiting for much-needed assistance.

Salwan, an engineer and father of two from Mosul, is just one of the men who have been abandoned by the Iraqi government one too many times. While the Iraqi government promised roughly $860 to each family that has fled Mosul, he complained that he's still waiting for the money. When he heard that France was ready to welcome displaced Christians, he joined the long queue of people in Erbil applying for asylum.

Soon, he hopes to wave goodbye to his lifelong home.

"There is no future for Christians in Iraq," he said. "Christians in Iraq are over."

Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images


The War Within Gaza

With a cease-fire holding, a battered Hamas now begins its battle with enemies within for control over the future of the Strip.

HEBRON, West Bank — Muhammad Elias Abu Aysha talks with his hands, punctuating each statement by slamming a fist into his palm. A stocky man with a thick beard just beginning to go white, he walks with a slight limp and appears vaguely put out that he has not yet been arrested by the Israelis, like much of his family. "It's because I'm not good for anything," he jokes, cracking a small smile -- the only one of our visit.

We are standing in the destroyed house of Amer Abu Aysha, one of the alleged Hamas operatives whom Israel has accused of being responsible for the June 12 abduction and murder of three Israeli teenagers, which marked the beginning of the current round of violence. The external wall of the home's second floor has been blasted away by an explosion; soot from the resulting fire covers the floor and ceiling. The stairs appear to have been destroyed with hammers, as if someone was looking for a hidden compartment, and outside lies a pile of burned mattresses and appliances. Muhammad says it is all the work of Israeli soldiers, who tore the house to pieces looking for evidence of his nephew Amer's location. The house had been ripped apart during the police's search for the teens' killers, but the whereabouts of Amer Abu Aysha and the other suspect, Marwan Qawasmeh, remain unknown.

"Just because [Amer] prays, they claim he is Hamas," Muhammad says. "You should defend your religion. Hamas has been popular since its inception -- because it has religion."

But Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, whose Fatah movement dominates the West Bank, is a member of the same religion, isn't he?

"No!" Muhammad waves a finger in the air sharply, and pauses to compose himself. "People are getting killed in Gaza and he's not going to the United Nations, he's not doing anything.... Many people are afraid of the PA [Palestinian Authority] even if it says it's with the resistance. All its statements are deceptions."

Almost two months after the abduction of the three Israeli teenagers, the war in Gaza appears to be nearing its end. A 72-hour Egypt-brokered cease-fire began this morning, as Israel pulled the last of its troops out of the Gaza Strip.

Now comes the spin game: Hamas will no doubt tout its success. It has withstood some Israeli leaders' calls to eliminate the movement in the Gaza Strip, fired thousands of rockets into Israel, and proved a far deadlier opponent for the Israeli military than in previous conflicts. Its popularity is also surging in the West Bank, a fact admitted by Palestinian leaders with no love for the Islamist movement, and confirmed by public opinion polls.

But the threats facing Hamas are also looming ever larger. The economic destruction in Gaza is estimated at over $4 billion, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has demanded that the rehabilitation of the Palestinian territory be linked to Hamas's demilitarization. It finds itself beset by enemies from all sides: Not only do Israel and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi control the crossings into and out of Gaza, but partisans of Hamas and Fatah -- despite frequent pronouncements of Palestinian unity -- still nurse a healthy distrust of one another.

Even before the Gaza conflict erupted, the relationship between Hamas and Abbas was growing increasingly strained. The June 2 formation of a unity government, according to a senior Palestinian official involved in brokering the deal, featured several ministers close to Abbas, but not one Hamas representative. In return for this subordinate position, the official said, Hamas expected to achieve the normalization of life in Gaza -- an easing of the Israeli economic blockade and an infusion of funds from the Palestinian Authority.

"Abu Mazen broke his promises," the official said, using Abbas's colloquial name. "He never sent his prime minister to Gaza, and never paid the salaries [of the roughly 40,000 government workers]."

Hamas's mistrust of Abbas is mirrored by Fatah officials' hostility toward the Islamist movement. From his office in the city of Nablus, Fatah lawmaker and former spokesman Jamal Tirawi endorsed the current modest demonstrations across the West Bank in support of Gaza -- but warned against larger protests, which he said would only serve Israel and Hamas's foreign patrons.

"Israel wishes to see us proceed in this violent track [large demonstrations in the West Bank]," Tirawi said. "We also are aware of the Qatari-Turkish project, which aims at dividing the Palestinian national dream and creating a state in the Gaza Strip."

Tirawi referred to a supposed plot by former Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi to cede part of the Sinai Peninsula to Gaza, which would have served as a new Palestinian state. The goal of this alleged scheme, which was pushed by anti-Muslim Brotherhood Egyptian media, was to create an Islamist-run state that excluded the West Bank.

"After the failure of [Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip] Erdogan and the Qataris in keeping Morsi [in power] in Egypt, they're keen on establishing another Islamic Brotherhood stronghold in the Gaza Strip," Tirawi said.

Such talk may appear to belong to the realm of conspiracy theory but it is a sign of just how deep the mistrust between the two primary Palestinian factions goes. If the reconstruction funds for Gaza are filtered through the Palestinian Authority, Hamas will no doubt fear that the money will be used to bolster Fatah's position in the territory -- a suspicion reinforced by suggestions from former Israeli officials that Abbas's security forces will be empowered to once again take control of the Gaza Strip.

The war seems to be winding down, but the coming struggle for control of Gaza will be perhaps more important for Hamas's future. The Islamist movement faces the challenge of re-arming and rebuilding Gaza -- all the while arrayed against two hostile countries that control all the crossings into and out of the territory. Hamas has officially made peace with Fatah, its primary Palestinian rival, but the relationship remains plagued by suspicions that each faction seeks to weaken and subjugate the other.

Hamas, however, is not without its friends -- even in the West Bank. In Hebron, Ibrahim al-Qawasmeh, a man in his 60s wearing a simple off-white shirt and a bushy beard, walks to his small shop, trailed by his teenage son. He is the brother of Abdullah al-Qawasmeh, a Hamas military commander gunned down in Hebron in 2003, and the uncle of Marwan Qawasmeh, the other alleged Hamas operative named by Israel for his suspected involvement in the murder of the three Israeli teenagers.

Like Abu Aysha, Qawasmeh claims to have no knowledge of his nephew's involvement in the crime, or his current location. But he insists that Marwan was guided by a hatred of injustice, and a true understanding of Islam -- neither of which could be driven out by Israel or what he describes as Hamas's corrupt Palestinian rivals.

"We are deep-rooted on this land, like the olive trees," he says. "Maybe you can break the branches, but the roots will never be broken. And once these roots find the right environment, they will all grow back and make beautiful trees."

Photo by HAZEM BADER / Stringer