The UK head of a Catholic charity for persecuted Christians is calling on people to take part in a demonstration outside London’s Houses of Parliament after Iraqis fled their homes following dire threats from Islamic extremists.
Neville Kyrke-Smith, National Director of Aid to the Church in Need, issued an appeal for people to join UK Iraqi Christians in an act of solidarity at Parliament on Saturday (26thJuly) at 12 noon.
The event, organised by Eastern-rite Church leaders in London, follows reports that over the past few days more than 1,500 people have fled Mosul city, northern Iraq.
Their sudden departure comes after the Islamic state, formerly called the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS), issued an ultimatum calling on Christians and other “polytheists” to convert to Islam or pay the jizya Islamic tax.
In a “declaration”, the Islamic State, which governs a large swathe of land straddling northern Iraq and Syria, warned Christians and others that “if they refuse, there is nothing for them but the sword”. The jihadists gave a deadline of 12 noon on Saturday (19thJuly).
Amid reports of Christians fleeing Mosul on foot by night, Mr Kyrke-Smith said: “This is an exodus in anguish as Christians flee terror into exile from their ancient homelands where for centuries they have built understanding and trust between different communities.
“Like Biblical times, we cry with them ‘by the waters of Babylon’ in tears and prayers.”
Mr Kyrke-Smith asked that supporters unable to come to Saturday’s demonstration “join us in prayer” at 12 noon by saying the Angelus prayer to the Virgin Mary for all people suffering in the Middle East.
The demonstration outside Parliament is being led by the leaders of Eastern churches with strong Iraqi links led by Syrian Orthodox Archbishop Toma Dawood, Syrian Catholic Monsignor Nizar Semaan, Chaldean Catholic Father Nadheer, with pledges of support from Iraqi Christians in Cardiff and Birmingham as well as London.
Since the Islamic State seized control of Mosul six weeks ago, the city’s last remaining Christians have effectively been forced out.
Reports declared that for the first time in 1,600 years no Sunday Mass has been celebrated in Mosul.
Crosses, statues and other Christian symbols have been removed from the top of church buildings in the city and in some cases have been replaced by the Islamic State’s black flag.
In other instances, churches dating back to Christianity’s early days in the region have been ransacked, with ancient books, scrolls and other artefacts destroyed.
An 1,800- year old Syriac Catholic Church was reportedly desecrated and burnt to the ground.
In latest reports, the militants have marked homes known to belong to minority faith groups.
Christians’ homes have been labelled with the Arabic letter for ‘N’, referring to ‘Nazarenes’, an Islamic term for Christians.
Iraqi Christian media said imams in Mosul declared on loud speakers that Christians should leave or face death.
Amid a dire shortage of basic provisions, local officials have been forbidden from issuing Christians with food, electricity and fuel.
Those trying to leave have been stopped and forced to hand over belongings including money and cars and so have had to continue their journey on foot.
Their homes and other possessions left behind have been seized by the jihadists.
Meanwhile there are reports that yesterday (Sunday) afternoon forces affiliated to the Islamic State stormed the ancient monastery of Mar Behnam, outside Mosul, expelling the head of the monastery, priests and lay workers.
In a message to all people of goodwill, Chaldean Catholic Patriarch Louis Raphael I Sako of Baghdad, stated: “It is truly unjust to treat Christians by rejecting them and throwing them away, considering them as nothing.”
The Patriarch said there had been hopes of lenience towards Christians especially after the release of two religious Sisters and three orphans kidnapped in Mosul.
ACN is providing emergency support – food, shelter and medicine – to Christians in Nineveh who fled Mosul in the days that followed the capture of the city and stands ready to do more.
Aid to the Church in Need is an international Catholic charity under the guidance of the Holy See, providing assistance to the suffering and persecuted Church in more than 140 countries.