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Sophie Cousins, Mosul, IraqAugust 1, 2014

As Iraq risks becoming a failed state, the toll is also making itself felt in the persecution of minority groups, most notably Iraq's Christians, thousands of whom have been forced to flee the fighting.

Peshmerga Checkpoint
Image: S. Cousins

"We had not anticipated what would happen to us when we arrived at the exit point of the city. There were a few people standing in the middle of the street and they instructed us to stop in front of them," Naghm, a middle-aged woman, told DW as she recounted the day her family was forced to flee Mosul, Iraq's second-largest city.

"One man from the Islamic State said, 'you don't want to live with us, we're Muslims.' I replied telling him that we were from Mosul. He wanted us to pay Jizya (a religious tax) and to change our religion," she continued.

"These are impossible conditions, I told him. He yelled at us to leave and threatened to kidnap us. They took all our money - they didn't even leave the small bills. We really have nothing left."

Sadly Naghm's story is not an isolated one. Thousands of Iraqi Christians were forced to flee the northern city of Mosul after being told to convert to Islam or face execution by the fighters of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), who captured the city on June 10, as Iraqi soldiers abandoned their posts and sought to escape the militants' advance.


Many sought refuge in the east and north to the semiautonomous region of Kurdistan, controlled by Kurdish Peshmerga fighters.

Raad Ghanem and his wife, along with about 250 others, fled to the picturesque Mar Mattai Monastery, 20 kilometers from Mosul, atop Mount Alfaf.

Monastery copyright: Sophie Cousins
The monastery has offered respite - at least temporarilyImage: S. Cousins

They were one of the last families to leave the ancient city.

The blissful peace and quiet of the monastery, which is run by the Syriac Orthodox Church, is a far cry from the violence Iraqis were facing.

"When we left in the middle of the night, we were stripped of everything. Money, wallets, jewellery, ID, passports, watches, everything," Ghanem said as he took a sip of sweet tea in a crowded room at the monastery.

"At the Daesh checkpoint on the way out of the city, my wife was even stripped of her earrings. They took everything of value we had."

History destroyed

It is estimated that a decade ago there were about 60,000 Christians in Mosul but after a series of attacks on the minority group, the population has been reduced to half as of June this year.

The expulsion of the Christian community from the city has drawn widespread international condemnation from figures such as the Pope and Iraq's embattled prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki.

But jihadists have not only rid the city of Christians, they have also begun blowing up and destroying an array of historic monuments.

Last week jihadists destroyed the tomb of the biblical prophet Jonah, whose story features in the traditions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. It was apparently one of two dozen shrines that have been marked for destruction by the ISIS fighters.

"They changed our church into a mosque, ruined historic museums and destroyed a monastery and manuscripts that were 1,000 years old. Iraq is gone. Iraq is finished. We're finished. It's impossible for us to go back," Ghanem said.

Former professor at Mosul University, George Marzina Kariumi Al-Qabo, agreed. "We used to live in peace in Mosul," he told DW.

"It is just heartbreaking what has happened. There used to be respect between the different ethnic and religious groups. And now what? It's over."

Naghm said the destruction of the city was inconceivable. "When I heard about what happened to the churches and to the mosques it broke my heart. This is not only about religion, this is also about our country," she said.

"We can't repair the damage."

Christians' future

The resounding message Iraqis conveyed to DW was that they believed it was no longer possible for Christians to live in the country anymore.

view of land copyright: Sophie Cousins
The outlook for the Christians is almost as bleak as the landscapeImage: S. Cousins

"The houses of Christians were especially marked. It was written that they were the property of the ISIS. After that, all the properties were robbed. All our things were taken. We came here just with the clothes on our back," Nadia Naif Ishaq, a mother of three said.

"Iraq is over for us. What is the solution? How long will we have to be here? How long will this last?"

Naghm, who is now living in Erbil, the capital of Kurdistan, with her husband and two children, said she would never return to Mosul.

"Mosul will never be the same," she said. "Every Christian in Iraq is trying to get out of the country. The only possibility is to go somewhere else and build up something new. This is not about the future of adults, but about the future of our children."