Advocates for religious minorities in Iraq and Syria pleaded for more American help Wednesday to preserve their heritage and ancestral homes against the onslaught of Islamic State (IS) insurgents.
Sister Diana Momeka, a Dominican nun living at a Roman Catholic convent, told a congressional panel on Capitol Hill in Washington she was routed by IS fighters from her residence in Mosul, Iraq's second-largest city, last year. The nun, wearing a white habit, said she and 120,000 other people were given three death-defying choices: convert to Islam, pay a penalty or flee the city.
She said they fled terrified to Iraq's Kurdistan region where Kurds allowed them to enter but provided little other assistance, leaving many to live on the streets for months before finding shelter.
‘What have we done?’
"There are many who say, why don't the Christians just leave Iraq and move to another country and be done with it?" Momeka said. "To this question, we would respond, 'why should we leave our country? What have we done? The Christians of Iraq are the first people of the land,” added she.
Momeka said the insurgents have taken their homes, and their religious artifacts are being destroyed.
"We want nothing more than to go back to our lives," Momeka said. "We want nothing more than to go home."
For months, a U.S.-led coalition has launched airstrikes in Mosul and nearby in support of Iraqi ground troops, but IS fighters still control the region.
Momeka and three other victims of the IS attacks testified before the House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee.
‘Under mortal theat’
Congressman Ed Royce, a California Republican who is chairman of the panel, said the religious minorities - Syrian and Chaldean Christians, Yazidis, Alawites and others - "are under mortal threat in their ancestral homelands."
Royce said the IS "has unleashed a campaign of brutal violence, depraved violence, not only against Muslims and fellow Sunnis who do not share their radical beliefs, but against vulnerable religious and ethnic minorities."
He said an IS demolition battalion is specifically assigned to destroy the art and artifacts of religious minorities, essentially to eliminate evidence of their existence in various regions of the Middle East.
Royce said that with the fall of Mosul last June, two million people were uprooted. He said refugees need more assistance, with safe zones created to protect them from the fighting, even if it proves costly.
"While it's important to weigh the cost of these options," Royce said, "we cannot lose sight of the fact that people are being kidnapped, people are being tortured, women are being raped and children, and they're being killed every day."