"Convert to Islam or face the sword, Iraqi Christians told by Sunni extremists," by Matthew Fisher, Postmedia News, June 22, 2014:
ANKAWA, Iraq — Convert to Islam or face the sword.
That was the stark message Christians in the Syrian city of Raqqa received last year when ultra-fundamentalist Sunni extremists, proclaiming themselves to be members of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), seized power and launched a reign of terror against Shiites and Christians that has included beheadings and at least three crucifixions.
Aware of ISIL's ferocious reputation for murder and mayhem, thousands of Christians who lived in Mosul and the surrounding Nineveh Plain fled in panic when ISIL rebels captured Iraq's second largest city from government forces on June 10. Many of those who escaped have sought refuge in this Christian enclave in the Kurdish city of Irbil, only an hour's drive away from Mosul.
"All who are left there now are a few handicapped or sickly Christians," said a Chaldean Catholic nun wearing a blue habit whose religious community fled Mosul on foot, walking north for four hours on June 10 along with thousands of other Christian and Muslim refugees.
They all feared persecution at the hands of the insurgents who had suddenly arrived in their midst because they follow a harsh 7th century interpretation of the Qur'an that demands not only that women mostly stay indoors, but that church bells must never be rung, crosses must never be displayed and Christians must pay a "gold tax" in return for their lives.
The nun pleaded repeatedly that her name and her order not be disclosed, lest the rebels read her comments on the Internet.
"They've taken down every monument in Mosul, whether they depict Iraqi political figures or Catholics," she said in impeccable French that she polished during a year studying in Montreal.
"They removed a statue of the Virgin Mary but as far as I know they have not destroyed it."
About 120 parishioners attended Sunday mass at St. Elias Chaldean Catholic Church in Ankawa where Father Shahar gave a homily about the need for reconciliation. "I hope that peace will come again to Syria, to Baghdad, to Mosul and to Iraq," was the priest's only reference to the sectarian violence now convulsing the country.
Fear permeated the congregation on a day when ISIL fighters claimed another border town with Syria, making it easier for them to move arms in both direction because they control a large swath of northern Syria where they have been fighting Bashar Assad's regime.
There have been Christians in Iraq since the 1st century when two disciples of Jesus brought the gospel here. As recently as 2003 Iraq had 1.5 million Christians. But since then there have been more than 70 attacks on churches, several priests have been murdered and the number of Christians has plummeted to less than less than 500,000. This latest spasm of sectarian violence is likely to lead to another mass exodus.
A 72-year-old parishioner, who would only give his name as Dominique, said he had been forced to leave Mosul for Baghdad in 1960 after his father was murdered for being a Christian. When the church he attended in Baghdad was blown up a three years ago, he, his wife and their son sought sanctuary in Irbil's Christian suburb of Ankawa.