The statement issued by the Islamic State, the al Qaeda offshoot which led last month’s lightning assault to capture swathes of north Iraq, and seen by Reuters, said the ruling would come into effect on Saturday.
It said Christians who wanted to remain in the “caliphate” that the Islamic State declared this month in parts of Iraq and Syria must agree to abide by terms of a “dhimma” contract – a historic practice under which non-Muslims were protected in Muslim lands in return for a special levy known as “jizya”.
“We offer them three choices: Islam; the dhimma contract – involving payment of jizya; if they refuse this they will have nothing but the sword,” the announcement said.
A resident of Mosul said the statement, issued in the name of the Islamic State in Iraq’s northern province of Nineveh, had been distributed on Thursday and read out in mosques.
It said Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, which the group has now named Caliph Ibrahim, had set a Saturday deadline for Christians who did not want to stay and live under those terms to “leave the borders of the Islamic Caliphate”.
“After this date, there is nothing between us and them but the sword,” it said.
The Nineveh decree echoes one that the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, the former name for the Islamic State, issued in the Syrian city of Raqqa in February, demanding that Christians pay the jizya levy in gold and curb displays of their faith in return for protection.
The concept of dhimma, governing non-Muslims living under Islamic rule, dates back to the early Islamic era in the seventh century, but was largely abolished during the Ottoman reforms of the mid-19th century.
Mosul, once home to diverse faiths, had a Christian population of around 100,000 a decade ago, but waves of attacks on Christians since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion to topple Saddam Hussein have seen those numbers collapse.
The resident of Mosul who saw the Islamic State announcement estimated the city’s Christian population before last month’s militant takeover at around 5,000. The vast bulk of those have since fled, leaving perhaps only 200 in the city, he said.
A Catholic bishop from Mosul told Reuters that 150 Christian families had left in recent days and church leaders had advised the few families who wanted to negotiate with militants that they should also flee for their own safety. [that leaves about 50 remaining]
The Christians described their flight as a historic loss.
“We have lived in this city and we have had a civilization for thousands of years – and suddenly some strangers came and expelled us from our homes,” said a woman in her 60s who fled on Friday for Hamdaniya, a mainly Christian town controlled by Kurdish security forces to the southeast of Mosul.
Others were stopped by gunmen on the outskirts of the city and robbed of the goods they carried, suggesting the militants were implementing an order to Christians to leave behind all possessions.
“The Islamic State stopped my relatives at a checkpoint when they were fleeing and when they found out they were Christians, they took everything they were carrying, including their mobile phones,” said a Christian man, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
“They left them only with the clothes they were wearing,” he said, speaking from Hamdaniya.
The Islamic State, an al Qaeda offshoot, relayed its ultimatum from mosque loudspeakers and spraypainted Christian properties with the letter “N” for Nasrani, or Christian, residents said.
Religious leaders have expressed alarm at the order. “It is forbidden for Christians to be rejected, expelled or wiped out,” said Chaldean Catholic Patriarch Louis Raphael Sako in a statement published on his official website.
“It is no secret the dire consequences this could have on the peaceful coexistence of the majority and minorities, and also among Muslims themselves in the near and long term.” [peaceful coexistence? Islamic State Torches Syriac Catholic Diocese in Mosul] and [Muslims Enter Churches, Tear And Rip Out All Of The Crosses, And Replace Them With The Antichrist Black Flags Of Islam]
Mosul lies across the Tigris river from the ancient city of Nineveh, at the heart of Mesopotamia. It thrived at a time when what is now Iraq was considered a “cradle of civilization”, and for centuries its population showed the importance of Iraq as a crossroad of trade and culture.
The overlapping of Muslim and Christian faiths in modern day Mosul is evident by the fact that the tomb of the Biblical and Koranic prophet Jonah is housed in a mosque in the city. [Muslims destroyed the tomb, see video]
That mosque is at risk of destruction along with others in Mosul considered heretical by the Sunni, ultra-conservative Islamic State, which rejects other branches of Islam such as Shi’ism and condemns the veneration of tombs.
Mosul, the largest city in northern Iraq, was once among the country’s most mixed. Waves of attacks on Christians since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion to topple Saddam Hussein eroded its once sizeable Christian population, mainly from the Assyrian and Chaldean denominations.
The worst blow in recent memory came when the Islamic State fighters and their allies swept into the city last month.
“It is a disaster,” said Nabil Khashat, a Christian who moved years ago to Arbil, in the semi-autonomous Kurdish region where many ethnic and religious minorities have taken refuge.
“I don’t think there is a destiny worse than that,” he said, referring to the Islamic State ultimatum.
The militants’ seizure of Mosul also drove other ethnic and religious minorities away, such as the Shabak and Turkmen Shi’ites and the Yazidis, an ethnically Kurdish group practicing a religion linked to Zoroastrianism.
Human Rights Watch said on Saturday that the Islamic State had been killing, kidnapping and threatening minority groups in a “vicious campaign” in and around Mosul in recent weeks.
The New York-based group said militants occupied a Syriac Orthodox church and removed a statue of the Virgin Mary from another church. On June 29, the militants kidnapped two Chaldean nuns and three Christian orphans and held them for two weeks.