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Sparrows sit on crosses at St. Matthew’s monastery on Mount Maqloub, northeast of Mosul, Jan. 7, 2004.

Iraq’s Assyrian Christians Fear ISIS Threat to Heritage!

Mohammed A. Salih – Almonitor

Sparrows sit on crosses at St. Matthew's monastery on Mount Maqloub, northeast of Mosul, Jan. 7, 2004.
Sparrows sit on crosses at St. Matthew’s monastery on Mount Maqloub, northeast of Mosul, Jan. 7, 2004.

ALQOSH, Iraq — When militants led by the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) — now known as the Islamic State — stormed Iraq’s second-largest city, Mosul, on June 10, Um Hanna and her extended seven-member family hastily rushed toward the safer town of Alqosh, 50 kilometers (31 miles) to the north.

In Alqosh, the family lives in a two-room house offered to them free of charge by a local resident. As a Christian family, they thought if they stayed in Mosul their fate would be annihilation at the hand of the militants.

“It was a dangerous situation for Christians,” Um Hanna told Al-Monitor, standing among her family members. “No one knows how the situation in Mosul will end for Christians.”

So far, at least, the worst fears of Um Hanna and many others like her have not come true.

Many like Um Hanna expected ISIS to engage in a campaign of eliminating non-Muslims — such as Christians and followers of the ancient Mesopotamian Yazidi faith. ISIS, it was assumed, would soon embark on destroying their cultural heritage in Mosul. A number of Christian community leaders Al-Monitor spoke with estimate a couple hundred Christians might still be in Mosul. But, the jihadists seem to have refrained from acts of large-scale violence against those groups or the systematic destruction of their religious or cultural symbols.

This stands in contrast to their track record in neighboring Syria, where they have engaged in a brutal campaign of killing significant numbers of followers of other religions. The ISIS militants in Syria have also destroyed religious and archaeological sites of minorities.

Comparatively, in Mosul, a few Christian monks and individuals appear to have been subjected to abductions. Accounts of killings are disputed and unverifiable at this point.

Despite media reports of ISIS plans to destroy Christian archaeological relics and religious sites, so far only a statue of the Virgin Mary appears to have been destroyed, based on accounts provided to Al-Monitor by knowledgeable sources on the ground.

The statue was removed from al-Tahera Chaldean Church in the Shifa quarter of Mosul just days after ISIS swept the city. On June 29, ISIS forces also turned a church used by the Catholic Chaldean Archeparchy of Mosul into an office, according to Basem Ballo, the mayor of the town of Talkeyif, less than 10 miles northeast of Mosul. Ballo, a Christian, told Al-Monitor that he maintains contacts in Mosul and said the archeparchy’s building did not have archaeological value.

While some websites and sources that Al-Monitor spoke to have suggested that the 3,200-year-old Assyrian statue of a half-human, half-animal winged mythical creature known as Lamassu had been destroyed, antiquities officials in Mosul vehemently denied that.

“I go to work every day and regularly check with my employees at different archaeological sites and I can tell you none of the ancient sites or antiques have been destroyed so far,” a senior source in Mosul’s antiquities department, who did not want to be identified because of security concerns, told Al-Monitor.

There is a consensus among the multiple sources Al-Monitor spoke to that no destruction of churches or Assyrian and Christian archaeological sites in Ninevah has occurred so far.

“No churches, monasteries or ancient sites have been yet destroyed inside Mosul by the armed groups,” Anwar Hadaya, a Christian member of the Ninevah Provincial Council who currently resides outside Mosul, told Al-Monitor. “This should not be a source of praise for them, but perhaps they are trying to send a message to the world that they are revolutionaries, not terrorist groups.”

Others agree that ISIS has tried to present a different image of itself.

“They [ISIS] know that they need to improve their image,” Abdulhadi Mohammed, a pseudonym for a journalist based inside Mosul who did not want to use his real name for security reasons, told Al-Monitor. “The image that ISIS had among people was that they are killing people, taking their valuables and destroying their properties. This has not been how they have largely acted in Mosul.”

Although the bulk of media coverage of Iraq’s ongoing turmoil appears to be focused on ISIS, in reality the revitalized Sunni Arab insurgency is a loose alliance of different groups with often diametrically opposing ideological and political objectives.

The Jaish Rijal al-Tariqa al-Naqshbandiya (JRTN) — the Army of the Men of Naqshbandi Order — is a key player in the insurgency. Led by Saddam Hussein’s former deputy, Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri, the JRTN ranks are full of former military officers and loyalists of Hussein’s Baath Party.

In addition, members of the Sunni tribes, disgruntled with the marginalizing policies of the Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s government, are a major component of the insurgency. Many used to serve in the ranks of the Awakening Council forces formed by the United States following its troops’ surge in 2007 to fight al-Qaeda and other extremist groups.

This might partially explain the unexpectedly less violent approach toward non-Muslim religious minorities in Mosul and other parts of Iraq dominated by Sunni militants. The common denominator among these diverse groups is a shared opposition to Maliki’s rule, the increasingly Shiite-dominated security forces and their alleged mistreatment of Sunni Arabs.

The Sunni militants have, however, shown less compassion toward Shiite soldiers and in some cases even civilians. The ISIS-led Sunni militants have engaged in a ruthless campaign of massacring dozens of Shiite Muslims in areas south of Kirkuk. They also summarily executed dozens of Shiite soldiers arrested at an air force academy in Tikrit.

Seeing the wave of brutality that ISIS sometimes appears to proudly publicize online, many Christians in Ninevah are concerned that despite the relative restraint ISIS has shown, conditions might change.

“We have serious fears as to what might happen,” Hadaya, a Ninevah Council member, said. “They have not embarked upon destroying the churches and other religious and archaeological sites, but we fear that might happen at any moment.”

Ninevah is closely tied to Christian Assyrian heritage. It was once the seat of the Assyrian empire and a long-standing bastion of Christianity in Iraq and the broader region. There are also many Chaldean Christians in Ninevah.

Some here in Iraq worry that as it strengthens its foothold, particularly with the announcement of a caliphate, ISIS might seek to impose a strict version of Sharia.

“Their policies and behavior might become more severe after they founded the caliphate,” Abdulghani Ali Yahya, a Kurdish journalist and commentator who used to visit and live in Mosul for extended periods, told Al-Monitor. “They might go for something like duplicating the Taliban’s experience in Afghanistan.”

In the modest house where they have currently settled, Um Hanna’s daughter-in-law interjects in our conversation and cannot hide her anxiety about the circumstances Christians are facing.

“There is no future for Christians in Mosul anymore. No one knows what will come next,” she said. She did not wish to reveal her name out of fear that her few remaining relatives in Mosul might be identifiable. “We are a minority and yet we have paid the biggest price of any group during these past years.”