'Convert to Islam or leave': The battle of religions in Iraq

  • Article by: MITCHELL PROTHERO , McClatchy News Service
  • Updated: July 26, 2014 - 7:08 PM

In parts of Iraq, non-Muslims face a tax or even death.

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Iraqi Christians and Muslims attended a church service in Baghdad to show support for Christians forced to leave Mosul, a northern city controlled by Islamist extremists.

Photo: Adam Ferguson • New York Times,

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– Abu Imad wasn’t particularly worried when masked gunmen from a range of militant Islamist groups took control of the northern city of Mosul, where he lived.

“When they came in June and drove out the army, things became normal quickly. I didn’t see any reason to flee,” he said, sitting in St. George’s Syriac Catholic Church in Bartella, a flyspeck Christian village less than 20 miles from Mosul.

“There were no problems at first, and the only sign of a change was that the traffic police were men that we did not know,” he said. “Some were Iraqi and others spoke [classical Arabic], so it was hard to tell where they were from. Some didn’t speak Arabic at all, but they treated everyone in a good way, and so I didn’t want to leave.”

But then on July 12, Islamists marked Abu Imad’s house with an “n,” for Nusari, a derogatory Arabic term for a nonbeliever. “When I asked them why, they said, ‘To mark your house as protected if outsiders come to Mosul.’ That’s when I grew worried,” he said.

A week later, Abu Imad, a Syriac Catholic, had packed up and left.

He and the rest of northern Iraq’s multitude of Christian sects have plenty of reason to worry about the self-proclaimed Islamic caliphate that’s taken hold in much of northern and western Iraq and eastern Syria since Mosul fell to the Islamic State on June 9. The men who lead the caliphate adhere to the most austere and literal interpretation of Islam, one that subscribes to the notion that improperly pious Muslims can be killed and that Christians, Jews and other monotheistic minorities must pay a protection tax or face a similar fate.

“It’s a financial punishment for refusing to become Muslim,” said the rector of St. George’s, Father Ammar, explaining “jizya,” a tax the ancient caliphates levied on non-Muslims. Father Ammar, following local custom, gave only his first name.

Within days of the appearance of the scarlet “n” on Abu Imad’s house, the Islamic State’s Islamic law council demanded a meeting with the top religious authorities from the Christian sects in Mosul, in many cases calling on the officials to come to Mosul from Baghdad for the session.

When not a single religious leader from any of the Christian communities attended, the Islamic State took offense.

“The next day we received the notification. We had only two choices, and jizya was not one of them,” said Abu Imad. “Convert to Islam or leave.”

“You could have stayed and died,” Ammar pointed out, noting the third option.

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