Iraqi Christians appeal for prayer amid militant takeover

In this 13 June 2014 photo, an Iraqi refugee girl from Mosul stands outside her family's tent at Khazir refugee camp outside Irbil, 217 miles (350 kilometres) north of Baghdad, Iraq.(AP)

Christians are being urged to pray amid the chaos of a violent extremist takeover in Iraq.

Over half a million people have fled Mosul in the past week, with many heading to nearby Kurdish provinces in northern Iraq.

The Anglican Communion reports that at least one Assyrian church in Mosul was burned down by insurgents belonging to the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS).

The Diocese of Cyprus and the Gulf, one of four dioceses in the Episcopal Province of Jerusalem and the Middle East, has issued an urgent appeal for prayer amid concerns for the Christians fleeing, as well as those who have chosen to remain.

The diocese said Iraqi Christians were feeling especially vulnerable following the treatment of Christians in the northern Syrian province of Raqqa, where ISIS took control in February.

The militants demanded Christians there pay the jizya tax for non-Muslims and adhere to strict Sharia rules. 

Many hundreds of thousands of Christians have already left Iraq in the years since the US-led invasion of 2003, which led to a rise in violent attacks against the Christian community, and the onslaught of ISIS has prompted fears that the Christian presence will disappear from Iraq entirely.

"Mosul and the surrounding Nineveh plain is the traditional heartland of Iraq's Christian communities," the diocese said.

"Many Christians fled to this region when forced to leave Baghdad and other areas in recent years.

"Christians are alarmed at the ISIS take-over of Mosul, fearful that this will further accelerate the decline of the Christian presence in Iraq."

Christians have asked the diocese specifically for prayers that:

  • The Christians of Mosul will know the close presence of Jesus, the guidance of the Spirit and the protection of the Father
  • Those who have chosen to remain in the city would not be subjected to violent or unjust treatment
  • Humanitarian assistance would reach all who are in need, whether having been displaced or remaining in Mosul
  • Christians throughout Iraq will know the peace and presence of Jesus each day, and will remain faithful to him and clear in their testimony
  • The Iraqi authorities will act decisively to improve security for all citizens of Iraq.

As the international community considers how to address the crisis, the Archbishop of Baghdad told UK charity Aid to the Church in Need that foreign intervention would not help and that the priority was for Iraqi leaders to "work together" in overcoming the crisis.

Archbishop Jean Sleiman said roads into the capital were blocked and that flights out of the airport were fully booked until the end of the month.

"In responding to this crisis, the international community should think of the common good, not their own interests. They should think of peace," he said.

Christian Aid has launched an appeal to step up relief operations to support those fleeing the ISIS offensive.

It reports that some 200,000 have gone to the city of Dohuk and another 100,000 to Erbil, both in the north-east of Iraq and cities that were already "hard-pressed" because of the influx of tens of thousands of refugees from the Syrian conflict.

Christian Aid's humanitarian programmes manager, Adrian Ouvry, said: "This is a crisis on top of a crisis. Large numbers have fled to an area where there is already a serious humanitarian crisis as a result of the Syrian conflict.

"Over 220,000 Syrian refugees are already in northern Iraq trying to escape the fighting in their own country. These emergencies are on a huge scale. There is an overwhelming need for help."

Christian Aid partners will be providing around 50,000 Iraqi refugees with food, water, and hygiene and sanitation kits in the short term. Long-term assistance will include cash for work.

Hero Anwar, senior programme officer with Christian Aid partner, REACH, said: "For now we have to focus on emergency response. People cannot stay in a place where they are under threat. They have had to flee their homes with nothing. They need to basic items just to survive."

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