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Monday 22 September 2014

4,000 desperate souls left huddling in church grounds

Fazel Hawramy

Published 10/08/2014 | 02:30

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Christian families rest in churches that they take shelter in Arbil, after fleeing from clashes in Mosul, Iraq . Feriq Ferec/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images
Christian families rest in churches that they take shelter in Arbil, after fleeing from clashes in Mosul, Iraq . Feriq Ferec/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

In the grounds of Archbishop Bashar Warda's cathedral, the last Christians of northern Iraq are trying to find shelter.

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So me huddle under parched shrubs. Others move in sync with the shadow from the church office that gives them a reprieve from the baking sun. Children and women mill around a makeshift food hall, while old men stare vacantly. There are 4,000 desperate souls in the church grounds. And all seem shocked to be here.

Inside, the archbishop is reflecting on a week that has all but ended coexistence in Iraq's Arab north-west. A multi-ethnic and religious understanding that had endured millenniums of war and insurrection could not withstand the latest purge, led by the ruthless jihadists of the Islamic State that rampaged through the area over the last week.

Gesturing outside his window where the human detritus of war lingered, he said: "These people could tell you they have had neighbours for 40 years who were the first to steal from their homes and celebrate the arrival of Isis.

"Until last Wednesday, roughly 70,000 Christians remained in Mosul and Nineveh, along with up to 200,000 Yazidis, Shabbak Shias and Turkmen. Almost all have now fled, with the exception of up to 40,000 Yazidis marooned on a mountain-top near the city of Sinjar that had been home to the sect for several thousand years.

Food and water has been slowly reaching the Yazidis in recent days. But with Isis fighters encircling them below, they have no way down the mountain. According to the Yazidi community, scores of people, among them children, have died there since Sinjar was overrun by the jihadists last Sunday.   

While less dire in terms of physical suffering, the fate of Nineveh's Christians is equally bleak: the Chaldean diocese in Irbil said that just 30-35 Christians remained in the town of Qaraqosh that until Thursday was home to 50,000  - the largest Christian urban centre in Iraq.

"We expected some sort of serious crisis like this, because we were in a position to know that Isis were taking so much money from the people of Mosul. And recently we were informed that certain people were sacked from their jobs just for being Christian.

"Isis members had earlier this month given Mosul's Christian community an ultimatum to pay $10,000 in tax to retain their faith and homes, or alternatively 48 hours in which to flee. Those who chose neither faced death. "They think they have the right from God to give orders," said Archbishop Warda. "There is no negotiating with them."

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