IRBIL, Iraq — Iraqi Christians who fled the northern city of Mosul rather than convert to Islam by a deadline imposed by extremist militants said they had to leave most of their belongings behind and gunmen stole much of what they did manage to take along.
The comments paint a dire picture of life for the ancient community that has long struggled to survive in the midst of a mainly Muslim country.
Most Christians left Mosul, Iraq's second-largest city, after the Islamic State group and other Sunni militants captured the city on June 10 — the opening move in the insurgents' blitz across northern and western Iraq. As a religious minority, Christians were wary of how they would be treated by hard-line Islamic militants.
Some remained, but the numbers have dwindled further after the militants gave them a deadline of last Saturday to convert to Islam, pay a tax or face death. That was the final straw for many, including Zaid Qreqosh Ishaq, 27, and his family who fled to the relatively safe self-rule Kurdish region.
"We had to go through an area where they had set up a checkpoint," he said. Islamic State group militants "asked us to get out of the car. We got out. They took... our things, our bags, our money, everything we had on us."
Like so many of the families that fled Mosul, Ishaq's took refuge at the St. Joseph Church in the northern Kurdish city of Irbil. But they may be forced to move to camps that have been set up for the flood of Iraqis trying to escape the violence.
"I don't know what is going to happen to us," Ishaq said. "Our future is uncertain."
The U.N. said on Sunday that at least 400 families from Mosul — including other religious and ethnic minority groups — had sought refuge in the northern provinces of Irbil and Dohuk.
Mosul is home to some of the most ancient Christian communities, but the number of Christians has dropped since the outbreak of sectarian violence that began after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion that ousted Saddam Hussein. About 25 Christian families remain in the city, Duraid Hikmat, an official with the Ninenveh governor's office, told the Associated Press. Most of the people who stayed behind could not travel for medical reasons and have found sanctuary in the homes of their Muslim neighbors, he added.
On Sunday, militants seized the 1,800-year old Mar Behnam Monastery, about 25 kilometers (15 miles) south of Mosul. The resident clergymen left to the nearby city of Qaraqoush, according to local residents.
"Even here in Qaraqoush, we do not feel safe because IS militants are only few kilometers away," said Father Sherbil Issou, another priest who fled Mosul.
Noel Ibrahim, who fled Mosul last week with his family, said gunmen from the Islamic State group stopped cars and stole cash and gold jewelry from the women.
"One of the gunmen told us, 'You can leave now, but do not ever dream of returning to Mosul again,'" Ibrahim said.
Irbil's governor, Nawzad Hadi, has pledged to protect fleeing Christians and other minority groups. The territory is currently home to more than 2 million refugees and internally displaced people from Iraq and Syria, according to the United Nations.
Meanwhile, the Army of the Men of the Naqshbandi Order — a collection of former members of Saddam's now-outlawed Baath party said to be helping the Islamic State group in its conquests — disassociated itself from violence against Iraq's minority groups.
"Our army is an extension of the former national Iraqi army and includes all the factions of the Iraqi people such as Sunnis, Shiites, Arabs, Kurds, Turkmen as well as Christians, Yazdis and Sabeans who want to liberate Iraq and relieve it from subordination," the group said in a message posted on its official website Tuesday. "We don't have any connection or coordination with any group ... which calls for dividing Iraq and its people on ethnic and sectarian basis."
The Islamic State group has vowed to continue its offensive on to Baghdad, although it appears to have crested for now after overrunning Iraq's predominantly Sunni areas. But the country's government has been unable to launch an effective counter-offensive against the militants and politicians are still struggling to form a government after April elections.
Yacoub reported from Baghdad. Associated Press journalists Maeva Bambuck in Irbil and Vivian Salama, Sinan Salaheddin and Qassim Abdul-Zahra in Baghdad contributed to this report.