Convert, pay or face death. Christians living in Mosul faced these three stark choices. On Monday, the French government gave them a fourth – seek asylum in France.
The French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius announced on Monday that the country was ready to welcome all Iraqi Christians fleeing persecution from Islamist militant group the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIL). They also released humanitarian aid in order to assist their passage.
Mosul was once home to the largest Christian community in Iraq, with up to 60,000 living alongside their Muslim neighbours before the US-led invasion in 2003. The community can trace their roots back to the first century. However, their numbers have steadily dwindled to just a few thousand. Last week, after ISIL issued an edict, the last Christians of Mosul were forced to flee, many with nothing but the clothes they were wearing. The UN estimates that only 20 Christian families remain in the city.
Over the course of a month the Islamist militants have swept across northern Iraq and Syria with frightening efficiency, taking control of cities and establishing a caliphate. Iraq has been thrown into turmoil, and even Shia Muslims are threatened by the advance of the Sunni group, an Al Qaeda offshoot. Footage emerged on Youtube of ISIL destroying the tomb of Jonah.
At St. Ephrem’s Cathedral, the seat of the Syriac Orthodox archdiocese in Mosul, an ISIL flag flies in the place of the cross.
In the age of internet activism, a hashtag movement has emerged to highlight their plight. #WeAreN, is trending on Twitter. The ‘N’ denotes ‘Nazarene’, the name given to Jesus of Nazareth and depicts Christians in Muslim tradition.
The Arabic letter ن, or “n” was painted on doorways by Islamist militants to mark out the Christian inhabitants and has now a symbol of solidarity online.
Facebook users have used their keyboards to organise events in solidarity with Christians in Mosul. The hosts of one Facebook group hope to see a worldwide event on August 1.
Christians are not the only minority group facing persecution in Iraq: also under threat are Yazidis and Shabaks to the west of Mosul. The UN has recorded a number of abductions and killings as well the destruction of shrines.