Islamist militants have threatened Iraqi Christians with death by "the sword" unless they accept Islam or pay a protection fee, triggering a panicked exodus from the northern city of Mosul, reports said.
"For the first time in the history of Iraq, Mosul is now empty of Christians," Patriarch Louis Sako told news agency Agence France-Presse
reported the ultimatum was issued by the Islamic State – which now controls a huge swath of Syria and Iraq – and read at mosques in Iraq's second-largest city, calling on Christians to comply by midday Saturday or face certain death.
The proclamation cited a historic contract called a "dhimma," under which non-Muslims in Islamic societies who refuse to convert are offered protection if they pay a fee, or "jizya," it explains.
"We offer them three choices: Islam; the dhimma contract — involving payment of jizya; if they refuse this they will have nothing but the sword," the IS statement said, according to the BBC.
Sako, one of the most senior Christian clerics in Iraq, said Christian families "are on their way to Dohuk and Irbil" in Kurdistan, AFP reported. He said militants had been seen tagging Christian houses with the letter N for "Nassarah," a term used for Christians in the Koran.
Iraq is home to one of the world's most ancient Christian communities but its population has dwindled amid growing sectarian violence since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003, AFP reported. It dropped to about 35,000 in June from as high as 60,000.
reported that Human Rights Watch says the extremist group is already "killing, kidnapping and threatening religious and ethnic minorities" in Mosul and other Iraqi cities and towns.
"Being a Turkman, a Shabak, a Yazidi or a Christian in ISIS territory can cost you your livelihood, your liberty, or even your life," Human Rights Watch Middle East Director Sarah Leah Whitson said in a press release issued from Duhok.
Human Rights Watch has documented violence against ethnic and religious minorities, reporting tens of thousands of families have already fled their communities near Mosul, CNN reported.
Village residents have described horrific attacks by ISIS fighters, who "seize local men and pillage homes and places of worships," Human Rights Watch said.
At least 2,400 Iraqis died in violence in June, according to the United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq, CNN reported.
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