LONDON - Religious leaders warn that Sunni militants of the Islamic State group in Iraq and Syria are trying to ethnically cleanse the region. The ancient Yazidi communities have been particularly targeted for brutal treatment. Christians also are fleeing their homes, prompting fears that religions and sects that have existed for millenia could be wiped out. However, while some flee, many communities are digging in and preparing to fight.
The outside of Basima al-Safar’s home is adorned with colorful images of Jesus Christ, the Virgin Mary and scenes from the Bible. Standing out amid the surrounding sandstone dwellings, the building is impossible to miss.
Last month, al-Safar and hundreds of others were forced to flee their homes in the northern Iraqi city of al-Qosh - one of the most ancient Christian settlements in the world. She returned after Kurdish Peshmerga forces pushed back the IS militants.
“The Islamic State came here and tried to kick us out of our home and country… they are strangers in this land,” she said. “The people who got harmed the most by this are the Christians and the Yazidis.”
Since her return, al-Safar has transformed her house into a museum of Iraq’s Christian heritage. With IS militants dug in just a few kilometers away, it is a brave stance.
At the Monastery of Lady Mary in al-Qosh, Father Gabriel Tooma is helping to hand out food parcels to desperate villagers.
He said that for the families living in this old city, conditions are tough. “We don't know what the future will be like for this old city, its culture, its history and its faith,” he added.
Not for centuries have Christians and other ethnic minorities in the region faced such an existential threat, said Erica Hunter of the Center of Eastern and Orthodox Christianity at the University of London.
“Certainly the 14th century under Timur Lang or Tamerlane, the very zealous Islamic leader who came from Uzbekistan, not from the Middle East, who ethnically cleansed throughout Iraq, throughout Iran. That was a great low point. I think ISIS match Timur Lang,” said Hunter.
Behind al-Qosh, the monastery of St. Hormizd dates back to the 7th century. It has survived the IS advance. Other holy sites may not be so lucky.
“The monasteries, relics, icons which are medieval and truly precious to the whole of Iraq’s cultural heritage probably have been destroyed if one knows ISIS’s track record,” said Hunter.
The monastery of St. Hormizd offers a spectacular view south towards Mosul and the territory now under IS control. Wielding his AK-47 rifle, Kurdish Peshmerga fighter Fadi Gorges Abid said they will defend al-Qosh to the death.
"When the families left Al-Qosh, there were only about 60 armed men to defend the city,” he said. “The next day the number grew to 200, and more and more over the following days.”
Christian communities that have fallen to IS have been forced to convert to Islam, pay a special tax, or be killed.
“It’s extremely distressing that more attention is not paid and the eastern Christians of whatever denomination because there are several denominations, do feel as if they have been neglected by the West,” said Hunter.
Religious minorities in Iraq have lived through centuries of persecution. They are determined to hold out against the latest threat, no matter how potent.