In a church in the northern Iraq city of Sulemaniyah, Munira Aziz lay in a corner, her hip broken, her voice almost gone and a piece of cardboard the 74-year-old woman’s only protection from the blistering sun streaming in through a broken window.
About 170 miles from the home in Mosul she may never see again, she was at least safe. She considers herself lucky.
“We heard the gunshots outside our door, and knew the terrorists were killing Christians,” Aziz said in a raspy whisper. “But we hoped someone might rescue us. We cowered inside for two days, then knew we had to leave. We gathered some clothes and left at night.”
Mosul, a home to Christians for two millennia, has been purged of them. Long a minority on the vast Ninevah plains, and accustomed to persecution, they nonetheless survived alongside Muslims. But when the bloodthirsty jihadist marauders known as Islamic State moved in, seizing Iraq’s second-largest city and announcing a caliphate of strict Shariah law, Christian homes were marked with the letter “N,” for Nasare — a Muslim term for Christians which derives from Nazareth. They were told to convert to Islam or die. Those who could, fled, said Aziz.
Unable to sit up, Aziz recounted her family’s escape from Mosul, where endless Islamic State shelling left her neighborhood demolished. Six members, ranging in age from 8 to 78, made their way to the Christian town of Qaraqosh, only to find jihadists had overrun it, too. The next stop in the painful exodus was Erbil, where they wandered the streets for days, sleeping in gardens and on roads before getting back on the move again.
“There were Christians everywhere we went. In every garden, and in every doorway, there are just so many with nothing and with nowhere to go,” Aziz said. “But I am so happy now we are safe, we are the lucky ones.”
In Sulemaniyah, they found shelter — and hundreds of fellow refugees — at Maryouss Church. More than a dozen Christians pack into 100-square-foot rooms to sleep in a scene played out at every Christian church in the region, safe at least for now from merciless fighters from Islamic State, the terrorist group formerly known as ISIS.
Several of the Christian refugees told similarly harrowing tales of escaping with little but their lives and faith. Grateful for help and happy to be alive, they bear the suffering of recent weeks with a fortitude borne of years of persecution. For many, this is not the first time they have had to flee. In fact, Christians here have been persecuted for decades, first under Saddam Hussein, then by a succession of jihadists groups.
Many of Iraq’s Christians have never known a real home, only the feeling of moving from place to place — always in limbo.
A 10-year-old boy named Aws, staying at Maryouss and playing near Aziz, replied to a query about whether he wanted to go home.
“No, this is nicer,” he said quietly, displaying a hand-drawn Orthodox cross on his arm.
Aws’ father was killed by jihadists and his family fled their home in northern Iraq when he was a toddler. They rebuilt their lives in a village near Mosul, but now they have fled again, because, he said, “the bombs were too close, and the windows all smashed. Many people were dead.”
His mother, who refused to give her name out of fear, told me she had spent the last few years saving to buy a home in her new village, but suddenly again had nothing. She cleaned the whole house before leaving it, hoping that perhaps one day she can go back.
Christians told FoxNews.com that converting to Islam, even under threat of death, was never an option.
“People say it would be easy to become a Muslim, but my religion is everything I now have — why would I give that up?” one said. “I would die first.”
Their hopes now lie with the Kurdish Peshmerga, which, backed by U.S. airstrikes and working with Iraq’s national army, is fighting the Islamic State. They have won back control of several key cities and retaken the critical Mosul Dam. Christians hope the Kurdish fighters will help them regain their homes.
“Please, tell the world what is happening,” Aziz said. “Please tell the world we just want to go home. We just want to live,we just want to be safe.”