July 19, 2014 will go down as just another day in the calendar of humanity, characterized by many wars and events worldwide. However, that day should become a day of remembrance for Christianity in the Middle East. It is the day of the total eradication of Christian presence in the Iraqi area of Mosul (ancient Nineveh), conquered a month ago by the warriors of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) known today as the Islamic State (IS). The new Islamic State is headed by the self-proclaimed Caliph, Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, now known by his followers as Khalifa Ibrahim.
The Islamic State (IS), that today occupies large regions of Iraq and Syria, issued an ultimatum on July 17 to the remaining Iraqi Christians in the city of Mosul. The Christians were given three choices:
Accept the dhimmi status and pay jizya (Arabic per capita tax) to Islamic Sharia courts. (Non-Muslim citizens of an Islamic state are granted a dhimmi status allowing residence in return for jizya tax collected from non-Muslims)
The ultimatum added that IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi decided to allow Christians who did not agree to convert or pay extra taxes to leave the northern Iraqi city by noon Saturday, July 19. After that, the message said, “The only option is the sword.”
Centuries before the Muslim conquest of the region in the 7th century, the Assyrians in the Biblical city of Nineveh (today Mosul) converted to Christianity during the 1st and 2nd centuries. While the majority of the people in Mosul in modern times were Sunni Muslims, Mosul had communities of Assyrian Christians, Arab Christians, Syriac Orthodox, and Protestants.
Since the crisis broke out, about 500,000 people, Christians and Muslims, fled Mosul in June 2014 causing a humanitarian, economic and political crisis. Iraq’s Christian population, one of the oldest in the world, has been decimated since the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq — cut by most estimates to less than half its size a decade ago. By some estimates, Christians numbered 1.4 million people. In 2014, the estimation is that less than 400,000 are left in Iraq.
A few weeks ago, in early July 2014, IS militants seized the Chaldean archdiocese in Mosul, sacking the building and destroying every Christian symbol. They followed by destroying Mosul’s Church of St. Ephrem, home to the Syriac Orthodox archbishopric. They did so despite a call by the imam from the nearby mosque to respect places of worship. The Jihadists responded to the appeal by saying that “there is neither bishop nor church in the Islamic state.”
The IS attitude towards non-Muslims was already in evidence during the conflict in Syria. In most of the places that fell under their influence, the Jihadists immediately expelled the Christian population or imposed on those who chose to stay the status of dhimmis with the payment of the jizya as a compensation for their continued presence in the territories conquered by the IS. Such behavior was also observed in other Jihadist organizations such as Jabhat alNusra.
Parallel to their policy towards Christians, the Jihadists embarked on a campaign to destroy shrines of worship, declaring that those shrines were not accepted by Islam. The destruction of holy pilgrimage shrines was also carried out in Mali and Libya as a model copied from the Taliban in Afghanistan – all representing the extreme interpretation of the Salafi school of thought. In Tabaka (east Syria), the IS destroyed the mosque of Fatima al-Zahraa because it was a Shiite place of worship. The IS destroyed a mosque in Rakka in March 2014 (east Syria) named after ‘Ammar ibn Yasir, one of the most loyal and beloved companions of Muhammad and Ali. He is referred to by Shiites as one of the “Four Companions” of the prophet Mohammad.
In Mosul, the IS blew up the tomb of Jonah the prophet in July.
Parallel to this behavior and beyond the summary executions of people associated with the Syrian or Iraqi regimes (the hated Nussayris – Shiites) the IS Jihadists began applying in their “Caliphate” the toughest interpretation of Muslim jurisprudence in relation to punishments administered to Muslims and non-Muslims. In the territories of the IS smoking is forbidden as well as listening to music and could be punished by beating. Major crimes are punished by:
Stoning (Had al-Rajm in Arabic ) of women convicted of adultery or prostitution.
Crucifixion (Salb) for murder.
Amputation of limbs for thieves.
Today, there is no doubt that the ultimate goal of the IS is to establish a Caliphate extending from the Levant (from the eastern shores of the Mediterranean Sea, including Lebanon and Israel) through Afghanistan and other central Asian Muslim Republics (countries “beyond the river”- Mawara alnahr) which used to be grouped in what the Arab historiographers called Khurassan, including ultimately the Uyghur territory in southwest China. Khurassan is considered by the Jihadists to be the place where they will first defeat their enemies in the Muslim version of Armageddon. The final battle will take place in the Levant.
The IS attitude toward the Mosul Christians is certainly the model to be applied in other places if and when the IS scores other territorial victories. The fate of those Christians can only arouse fear among the different minorities in Syria and Iraq that a similar fate could be theirs and convince them to actively support the Syrian and the Iraqi regimes’ efforts to quell these insurgents. One thing is definite: the so-called “Arab Spring” was the death knell to the minority communities in the different countries where they have been living for centuries in the Middle East.
Col. (ret.) Dr. Jacques Neriah, a special analyst for the Middle East at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, was formerly Foreign Policy Advisor to Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Deputy Head for Assessment of Israeli Military Intelligence.