MOSUL, Iraq: Hundreds of Christian families fled their homes in Mosul on Saturday (Sunday in Manila) as a jihadist ultimatum threatening their community’s centuries-old presence in the northern Iraqi city expired.
President Jalal Talabani flew home after 18 months abroad for medical treatment but restricted access at the airport in his Kurdish fiefdom of Sulaimaniyah offered no clue as to his health.
There was little hope in any case that the 80-year-old’s return could buck Iraq’s downward spiral as bickering politicians prepared to pick his successor, and the country’s worst crisis in years reaped its daily harvest of dead and wounded.
An Agence France-Presse correspondent in Mosul, the main Iraqi hub of the Islamic State (IS) group’s proclaimed “caliphate,” said Christians squeezed into private cars and taxis to beat the noon deadline.
“Some families have had all their money and jewelry taken from them at an insurgent checkpoint as they fled the city,” said Abu Rayan, a Mosul Christian who had just driven out with his family.
The jihadists, who have run the city since a sweeping military offensive that began six weeks ago, had told the thousands of Christians in Mosul they could convert, pay a special tax or leave.
An earlier statement by Mosul’s new rulers had said there would be “nothing for them but the sword” if Christians did not abide by those conditions by 9:00 am Manila time on Saturday.
While some families initially appeared prepared to pay the “jizya” Islamic tribute to stay in their homes, messages broadcast by mosques on Friday sparked an exodus.
A teacher who gave his name only as Fadi was among a handful who had decided to stay.
“I’m staying. I already feel dead,” he told AFP by telephone moments before the deadline ran out.
“Only my soul remains, and if they want to take that I don’t have a problem,” he added.
Chaldean patriarch Louis Sako, who heads the largest Christian community in Iraq, estimated there were still 25,000 Christians in Mosul on Thursday.
The Iraqi Red Crescent said at least 200 families had fled on Saturday alone.
“This is ethnic cleansing but nobody is speaking up,” Yonadam Kanna, Iraq’s most prominent Christian politician, said.