Convert or get out

Convert or get out

The rapid advance of the Islamic State (IS), formerly known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levent (ISIL), in the lands of Iraq and Syria have left us all wondering over the reasons, the nature and the purpose that such an extreme Islamic movement serves in the reshuffling of the cards currently taking place in Turkey’s neighborhood. ISIL itself, however, have left us in no doubt over their rules and understanding of life.

Their regular use of social media and their gruesome videos of the mass assassinations of those who refuse to adopt to sharia, as well as the impressive speech of the leader Bagdati from the upper gallery of Mosul’s great mosque, all made us think, that we are probably witnessing the turning of a new page in the politics of the region. ISIL seems to be here to stay. There will probably be a Part Two of an al-Qaeda type phenomenon providing the West enough justification for furthering its interventional policy towards a new “Islamic terror.”

In a world that looks increasingly more unstable, the dramatic exodus of the last remaining members of one of the oldest Christian communities in the world, would seem like a minor affair. After all we are talking about a handful of frightened people, some elderly and disabled, walking out of Mosul last Saturday under the scorching Iraqi sun. Their belongings had been robbed by ISIL fighters who took their cars and cash before sending them off.

They had to leave. The new regime of Mosul gave them no choice. The stark warning read out in the mosques last Friday and heard through loudspeakers in the city, was clear: “We offer [Christians] three choices: Islam; the dhimma contract... or if they refuse this they will have nothing but the sword,” They chose to leave. Most found refuge in other Iraqi cities not yet lost or in Iraqi Kurdistan where there is tolerance towards religious minorities.

So as of yesterday Mosul is now completely empty of Christians “for the first time in history,” said lamented Patriarch Louis Sako.

Christians had been in Mosul since the beginning of Christianity. They survived under several rules and rulers. They managed to survive under Persians, Arabs, Selçuks, Ottomans; they helped the Arab rulers by translating the works of ancient Greek authors into Arabic. Until a decade ago they numbered around 100,000. The first Iraqi war in 2003 brought an anti-minority feeling and made them targets.

Only a few thousand were left just before their final expulsion last Saturday.

But that was not the original jihadist stance. Using their favorite publicity tool, social media, ISIL had initially assured minorities that they would not touch them as long as they observe their rules. But after Friday’s announcement the rules changed.

It is this attitude to forget promises and commitments, to forfeit ancient contracts of coexistence which kept cultures and faiths of the area alive for thousands of years. And this is the most frightening of all.

To upset the cultural and faith balances by force is as dangerous and destructive as upsetting the natural environment. The Christian community of Mosul survived in a state of sharia, trusting the current rulers that they would abide by the rules of sharia, as a fully protected community, as dhimmi.

This allowed them equal rights for property, contract and residence; they could even consume pork and alcohol as long as they did not perform these acts in public. Of course, they had to pay their special tax (jizya) but their protected status was not challenged.

That ancient contract of dhimma was broken in Mosul. Last week, the caliphate of Islam asked Christians either to convert to Islam, to leave or stay and pay the jizya. After having lost their trust and being frightened for the future, they opted to go.  Such contracts survived in time only through trust and historical memory. “We have lived in this city and had a civilization for thousands of years – and suddenly some strangers came and expelled us from our homes,” a Christian from Mosul said to Reuters. 

Patriarch Theofilos III of Jerusalem in his official statement thinks the problem has serious implications for the future of the region. “The inhumane statement (by ISIL) is contrary to the peaceful symbiosis of Christians and Muslims in Iraq and in the entire Middle East region throughout the centuries and completely goes against the principles and values of these monotheistic religions.”