AMMAN, Jordan — The first Iraqi Christians fleeing Islamic State militants reached the safety of Jordan, helped by King Abdullah II and Catholic aid groups.
“Our money has run out,” said an Iraqi Catholic woman, Um Muwataz, as tears streamed down her face.
“The Islamic State put a big red Arabic letter ‘N’ on our home, claiming the house as their property. We had no other choice but to flee, first to the northern Kurdish city of Irbil and now here to Jordan. We’ve spent our last penny,” the former teacher said, her body tensing.
“N” is the first letter of an Arabic word for Christian, “Nasrani” or Nazarene.
“Never in my life could I imagine such a thing happening to us, Christians,” she told Catholic News Service.
Um Muwataz and her family of four managed to fly to Amman from Irbil with about 100 Iraqi Christians from Mosul, Qaraqosh, and surrounding Christian villages, beginning Aug. 13.
But she said she was concerned for her married daughter and the rest of the family stuck in Irbil, because the young woman’s 6-month-old twins do not have Iraqi passports. Nor they can return to Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, to apply for these travel documents.
Ra’ed Bahou, Catholic Near East Welfare Association’s regional director for Jordan and Iraq, told CNS that about 1,000 Iraqi Christians from the Mosul area were expected to enter Jordan under special arrangements by King Abdullah.
Caritas, the Catholic Church’s humanitarian nongovernmental aid agency, is among the organizations assisting the refugees at a Catholic facility outside Amman by providing food, water and lodging.
They are the latest wave of Iraqi refugees seeking shelter in Jordan, which is still hosting 300,000 Iraqis from the 2003 U.S.-led war. At the height of the conflict, Jordan hosted some 1.5 million Iraqis.
“Since 2003, we have been suffering,” said a refugee who identified himself as Safwan, a 43-year-old engineer. “But this is the biggest suffering yet to befall us. Never in the past 1,700 years has there been no Christian presence at all in Mosul.”
Safwan said he, his 8-months-pregnant wife and two young sons escaped Mosul twice: first, when the area came under Islamic State bombardment in June; in early July they snuck out of the city.
“We left but heard that those who fled after us unfortunately had their cars, gold, money, even baby’s pampers and milk stolen from them by the Islamic State militants,” he said.
Safwan said it was impossible to remain in Mosul with the militants imposing Islamic law, or Shariah, demanding Christians either convert to Islam, pay a “protection” tax or leave.
He said he feared his wife could be taken from him as rumors were rife of the extremists kidnapping and selling some women, both Christians and Yezidis, another religious minority fleeing for their lives.
An Iraqi Syriac Catholic priest identified only as Fr. Nour has worked with authorities to bring the Christians to Jordan. He and the Christians are appealing to the world community to intervene and stop the destruction of Iraq’s religious and ethnic communities at the hands of Islamic State militants, who have conquered vast swathes of Iraqi territory.
“It’s the extermination of Christianity in Iraq,” he said. “Why is international opinion still silent?”
“Please save us from death,” Fr. Nour pleaded. The priest’s father, mother and family have been stuck in Kurdistan, “sleeping in the street,” because there are simply no more places of refuge for the tens of thousands that have fled the violence. He said he cannot bring his family to Jordan because they lack travel documents.
Fr. Nour said two Iraqi bishops are “sleeping with Christians in the streets, walking with them and crying.”
“There is death to everything we once knew in Iraq,” said a 52-year-old telecom employee, Riad Riah Qatul. “How could we ever return and live there once again?”
Many of the Christians said they have no other hope but to reunite with close relatives living in the United States, Australia and Germany.