KIRKUK, Iraq: Christians were fleeing Iraq’s city of Mosul en masse Friday after mosques relayed an ultimatum giving them a few hours to leave, the country’s Chaldean patriarch and witnesses said.
“Christian families are on their way to Dohuk and Irbil,” in the neighboring autonomous region of Kurdistan, Patriarch Louis Sako told AFP. “For the first time in the history of Iraq, Mosul is now empty of Christians.”
Witnesses said messages telling Christians to leave the city by Saturday were blared through loudspeakers from the city’s mosques Friday.
A statement dated from last week and purportedly issued by ISIS, which seized the city and large swathes of Iraq during a sweeping offensive last month warned Mosul’s Christians they should convert, pay a special tax, leave or face death.
“We were shocked by the distribution of a statement by ISIS calling on Christians to convert to Islam, or to pay unspecified tribute, or to leave their city and their homes taking only their clothes and no luggage, and that their homes would then belong to ISIS,” Sako said.
The threat was relayed in a letter distributed after Friday prayers, and states that the move was taken because representatives of the city’s dwindling Christian community failed to attend a meeting called by the Al-Qaeda splinter group.
The city was overrun last month by ISIS militants, spearheading a broader Sunni militant offensive, forcing thousands of residents to flee. Many of an estimated several thousand Christian residents of Mosul left the city as part of the exodus.
The letter told Christian residents that they had until Saturday noon to exit the city if they refused to either convert or pay the jizya, a religious tax on non-Muslims that vanished in the modern age.
After this deadline, if they fail to heed the warning, “the only option is the sword,” the letter read.
However, control over the city of Mosul appears to remain fluid – the government’s governor for the province, who fled during last month’s offensive, told The Guardian newspaper Friday a significant number of ISIS fighters had left Mosul.
Atheel Nujaifi said they were re-deployed to battle the Iraqi army further south, near the city of Tikrit, and that their places were taken largely by fighters from the Naqshabandi Army, widely believed to be headed by Saddam Hussein’s former lieutenant, Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri.
The news came as the United Nations accused ISIS fighters in Iraq of executing religious and other leaders as well as teachers and health workers, forcibly recruiting children and raping women among acts that amounted to war crimes.
A U.N. report focused on a range of violations committed against civilians, particularly by ISIS, although it also said Iraqi forces and allied fighters had not taken precautions to protect civilians from violence.
“[This] ... may also amount to war crimes,” the report found.
At least 5,576 Iraqi civilians have been killed this year in violence, the U.N. said in the most detailed account yet of the impact of months of unrest culminating in advances by Sunni militants led by the Al-Qaeda offshoot ISIS.
“[ISIS] and associated armed groups have also continued to ... perpetrate targeted assassinations [community, political and religious leaders, government employees, education professionals, health workers, etc.], sexual assault, rape and other forms of sexual violence against women and girls, forced recruitment of children, kidnappings, executions, robberies.”
The report also accused them of wanton destruction and plundering of places of worship and of cultural or historical significance.
“Credible information on recruitment and use of children as soldiers was also received,” the report noted.
“Every day we receive accounts of a terrible litany of human rights violations being committed in Iraq against ordinary Iraqi children, women and men, who have been deprived of their security, their livelihoods, their homes, education, health care and other basic services,” U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay said.
The report also details violations committed by government forces and affiliated groups, citing “summary executions/extrajudicial killings of prisoners and detainees,” which it said may constitute a war crime.
The Iraqi Interior Ministry said this week that an investigation had revealed ISIS had taken 510 Shiite prisoners from a prison in Mosul to an agricultural area and executed them – killing all but 17 who managed to flee.
The ministry said its report was based on testimony of one of the prisoners who fled. The report called on the government to investigate serious violations and to hold the perpetrators to account.
But the capacity of the Shiite-led caretaker government to do so in the face of a Sunni uprising that threatens to fracture the country on sectarian and ethnic lines may be limited.
Iraqi politicians have yet to complete the formation of a new government more than three months after parliamentary elections. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki faces pressure from Sunnis, Kurds and some Shiites to step aside after two terms in office in which his critics say he marginalized opponents.