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After An Ultimatum, Christians Flee Iraqi City


In Iraq the Christian community of Mosul dates from the very beginnings of Christianity. And now it appears to be coming to an end. Christians left Mosul en masse this weekend after an ultimatum by ISIS, the self-styled Islamic State, which has made Mosul its de facto capital. They were told to leave, convert to Islam, pay a poll tax or die. NPR's Leila Fadel spoke with some of those who fled to a small Christian village 12 miles from Mosul.

LEILA FADEL, BYLINE: It's Sunday morning mass at the Tahira Syriac Catholic church in the northern village of Qaraqosh. In the wooden pews are some of the displaced who fled here for sanctuary. After the Sunni extremist group that told Mosul last month gave them a deadline to leave by Saturday. There are at least 250 families seeking refuge in this Christian Village. Of low slung buildings and a view of Mosul on the horizon. Among them is Faiza Eissa, a 55-year-old nurse. She is at the Catholic seminary in Qaraqosh to register with the church as displaced.

FAIZA EISSA: (Foreign language spoken).

FADEL: She sobs as she recalls what happened on Thursday night. Five men came with guns, their faces covered, they hit her pregnant daughter-in-law. We don't need more Christians they told her. And then they total her to get out. She went out to gather there things, no, they said, your house and your belongings are spoils of war. So, she left in her skirt, shirt and house slippers.

EISSA: (Foreign language spoken).

FADEL: Now, she doesn't know where to go. The gunmen took the family passports too.

EISSA: (Foreign language spoken).

FADEL: Eissa says her Muslim friends wanted to help but they're afraid of the gunmen too. The Sunni extremist group has declared an Islamic state in parts of Syria and Iraq, with Mosul as its de facto capital. Ethnic and religious minorities, including Muslims, are being persecuted under the group's brutal interpretation of Islamic law. They fled after killings, kidnappings and destruction of their property. Sunni Muslims who speak against the Islamic state aren't spared either.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Foreign language spoken).

FADEL: People who fled their homes say the buildings have been marked, the letter N is spray-painted in red on Christian home for the Arabic word, Nasara, a reference to Christians in the Quran, accompanied with the words, the property of the Islamic State. Shia homes have also been marked. The stories of the displaced Qaraqosh are nightmarish, many people forced to walk out of their own city, with only the clothes they were wearing. Armed men stealing medication for a child with leukemia and telling the mother, let your bishop buy you more.

SHRAB AL EISSOU: (Foreign language spoken).

FADEL: At the Syria Catholic Church Father Shrab al Eissou speaks to us after Sunday mass. He says these are not actions of a human being, they have no mercy, no kindness, they even took the earrings from a baby girl. He stops speaking, grabs his head and shakes it in shock. This is disgusting, he goes on, it something we can't deal with, we can't understand. Killings and forcing people to become Muslim? What is this, he asks, where did it come from? Is this the true Islam-commendation? For people trying to immigrate, soon there may be no Christians here for the first time in two millennia.

EISSA: (Foreign language spoken).

FADEL: Back at the seminary, Faiza Eissa, the nurse says this is the second time she's fled Mosul in a month. She had to go back because she ran out of money. Why didn't the church help she asks? A man tells her they're doing the best they can. Qaraqosh has no water and little electricity.

FERIAL KATAN: (Foreign language spoken).

FADEL: Another woman, Ferial Katan, joins the conversation. She recounts a similar story of men coming to her home and she and her family fleeing in fear. At a checkpoint armed men pulled her into a nearby mosque and stripped her of her gold cross and jewelry. The only thing she has are her house keys and the family's IDs that she wrapped in a black plastic bag and hid in a money pouch under her clothes.

FADEL: She pulls out her keys to show me, keys she may never use again.

EISSA: (Foreign language spoken).

FADEL: The women know of nine Christians who stayed behind and converted to Islam under duress. They couldn't bring themselves to leave their homes, their memories, their lives. Leila Fadel, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.