MOSUL, Iraq — Ever since the Islamist group ISIS, or the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, stormed through the northern part of Iraq, the entire world has been watching its every move. What started as a swift campaign to grab a sizable swath of territory has now slowed down and the organization’s next test is whether it can govern the areas it so quickly took by force.
So far, ISIS has been able to offer what various rebel groups in Syria have been unable to provide: steady water and electricity, security and stability. However, these advantages come at a price: decreased freedoms and a constant fear of those in power. Just recently, ISIS stoned a woman to death in the northern Syrian town of Tabaqa for adultery – the first public execution of its kind to be held in the rebel-held region.
And this is a minor example of the fear many citizens are living under.
One of the most notable actions ISIS has taken since forcibly claiming its land was forcing hundreds of thousands of Christians to either leave the area or pay a tax in order to evade death. The Christian community in Mosul and Northern Iraq has been embedded in the region for centuries, as seen by several churches and monasteries in the area. Since the fall of Saddam Hussein’s rule, members of the Christian community have slowly been fleeing the area, but their flight has increased exponentially since ISIS took control.
Even though very few have decided to stay and quietly practice their faith, ISIS has forced the entire community to pull up their roots tracing back 1,700 years. Many Christians have fled to the nearby town of Al Qosh, where they are waiting to see what ISIS will do next.
Since forcing the entire Christian community out of the area, ISIS has taken to destroying symbols and buildings of the Christian community. Sledgehammers were taken to the tomb of Jonah, and crosses on the St. Ephrem’s Cathedral were replaced with black ISIS flags.
This was just the start.
ISIS went on to seize the Mar Behnam monastery and force out the monks with nothing but the clothes on their backs.
All of these religious sites were places of Christian pilgrimage, or of historic and symbolic importance to the community, with many dating as far back as the 4th century. While none of these buildings have been reported to be completely destroyed, the pain is no less for those who worshiped them.
“They did not destroy the churches, but they killed us when they removed the cross, said Ghazwan Ilyas, head of the Chaldean Culture Society in Mosul who has since fled the city. “This is death for us.”
The actions taken by ISIS are heinous and have already caused international uproar. However, the resistance within Iraq has been fractured and incredibly weak, and any sort of coordinated international response has yet to materialize.
While ISIS may offer some things that other rebels and governments don’t, actions like those directed towards the Christian community, combined with brash statements and media, have already earned the group the ire of everyone outside of their territory.
Despite strong condemnations of ISIS’ actions, many are waiting to see if the international community or the Iraqi army will organize and eradicate its presence. Until then, we will continue to wait and watch as hundreds of thousands are forced from their historic communities and becoming refugees within their own country.
– Andre Gobbo