It would seem that, this morning, for the first time in more than eighteen centuries, there are no Christians in Mosul, Iraq.
The city was founded on the west bank of the River Tigris, as the continuation of the more ancient Ninevah, which it is still sometimes called by the biblically inclined, including its Christian former residents. Gentle reader will recall that Ninevah (on the other bank) was sacked by the Babylonians, et alia, in 612 BC. The first rebuilding was done a few miles north; the most recent only a few centuries later, back at the natural bridgehead.
“Recent” is a relative term; all history is modern history, as I like to repeat. Old Mosul (“Mepsila”) is mentioned in Xenophon’s Anabasis, from when his Greeks were passing through, towards the end of the fifth century BC — a time when the ruins of Ninevah had already been forgotten. It was later a Christian city, before it became, by conquest, a Muslim city: yet it remained until the dawn of the present century an important Christian centre, seat of the Holy Apostolic Catholic Assyrian Church of the East, and of classical Syriac learning. The ruins of Christian monasteries may be found scattered through the surrounding desert; many survived long into the Islamic era. A story could be told about St Elijah’s monastery, for instance, just to the south of Mosul, which American soldiers helped to restore only a few years ago. Before Tamerlane, it had dispatched missionaries across India, China, and Central Asia, as well as delegates to distant Rome. By much older tradition, the tombs of several Old Testament patriarchs and prophets are to be found within the large area now under Mosul’s modern urban sprawl. (It is the largest city in Iraq, except Baghdad.) This includes the shrine associated with the tomb of Jonah, itself of extraordinary antiquity — torched and demolished last week.
All physical evidence that Christians ever lived in Mosul will soon be erased, if it has not been erased already. Shia Islamic shrines have also been demolished by the Sunni jihadis; and I gather that Mosul’s famous museum, one of several sites around the city under nominal protection of UNESCO as “world heritage,” has also been trashed by these iconoclasts.
Christians were still a substantial minority in Mosul, at the time of the U.S. and allied invasion in 2003. Their numbers had since been reduced considerably by Sunni Arab torments; last month it was estimated that only 35,000 remained. “ISIS” — the army of fanatics that has seized much of northern Iraq — marked their houses with the Arabic letter for N, which stands for “Nasrani,” or Nazarenes. (This is what Christians are called in the Koran.) Educated readers may note that the Nazis had the homes of Jews marked in a similar manner — back when that wasn’t really news, either.
The “final solution” for Mosul’s Christians was blared from loudspeakers in the minarets of the city’s Sunni mosques after Friday prayers. They would have twenty-four hours to flee, taking nothing but the clothes they were wearing. Those found still in the city, after noon yesterday, would be put to the sword. A third option, conversion to Islam, was mentioned only for the record. Any intending to do that would surely have done it by now. The possessions of all Christians had been “nationalized,” according to the announcement — everything they owned now belonged to the Islamic Caliphate of Iraq and the Levant.
This last point, though a technicality, is important to understand the sequence of events. Because the Christians now owned nothing, it would be impossible for them to pay thejizyah — the Islamic tax for non-Muslims. (Over the centuries, throughout the many lands conquered in the name of the Prophet, from Morocco through Indonesia, Christians who valued an easy life above that of Christ gradually converted to Islam, the principal reason being to avoid paying this onerous protection money, to say nothing of the occasional pogrom.) The amount of the tax — payable wherever and whenever it is demanded — is currently fixed in neighbouring Syria, wherever the jihadis of ISIS have taken over from the regime of Bashir Assad, at one half-ounce of pure gold per head for every man, woman, or child. I gather cash equivalents are not acceptable. Gold is hard for the Christians to obtain under prevailing conditions; it is one of many factors exerting an upward influence on the international gold price.
Details, details: I wish that our Western media were capable of spotting and recording them, on almost any topic. Not being in Mosul myself, currently, I cannot attest to the details in any of the reports I have read. (One may find the main event mentioned even by the BBC and CNN, if one examines their websites forensically.) But from previous familiarity with radical Islam, several small things struck me. One was that the announcement of Christian dispossession was phrased with bureaucratic precision, specifying that “the clothes they are wearing” must under no circumstances be used to conceal coins, jewellery, or a long list of other portable valuables, all of which were to be left in the homes which the jihadis would now secure.
It would be a mistake to assume that because they value human life so lightly, the jihadis are indifferent to the values of the bazaar. Note that their conception of heaven is also presented in market terms: as so many virgins in payment to a “martyr,” plus luxuries and treasures also carefully denominated. One might call it a transcendental materialism — religion in the form of compelled material transactions, and in that sense not fundamentally different from the democratic liberalism of our own Nanny States.
The Christians have fled, by necessity many on foot under the killing sun of the Mesopotamian summer, mostly towards Kurdistan: the one part of northern Iraq the jihadis have not yet attempted to subjugate. That is also where Western refugee aid is most likely to be available. At this point, we cannot guess how many will make it alive. Certainly the number of dead will vastly exceed those tallied in the airliner that was shot down in eastern Ukraine — the story now at the top of Western media headlines, for the plane was full of Europeans.
We pray, with least compulsion, for our own. Granting that is how things must be, by nature, those who remain Christian in the West should recall that Christians everywhere are our own.