In March 2001, the Taliban dynamited the ancient Buddha statues of Bamian because the Taliban leader, Mullah Omar, claimed they were ‘idolatrous’ and idolatry is banned in Islam. In July 2014, ISIL destroyed the ancient tomb of the prophet Jonah in Mosul for the same reason. This site was considered a sacred site for Jews, Christians and Muslims for centuries. Tragically it is not just ancient cultural monuments that are being destroyed by ISIL. Other accounts refer to smashing of statues in churches and the looting of churches. What is especially worrying and amazing is their willingness to publicise their war crimes and not merely claim them for themselves, but boast about it.
There have been Christian communities in the Nineveh plain of northern Iraq for possibly 1700-1800 years. Some of the Christian communities in Syria and northern Iraq can trace their origins to the early spread of Christianity throughout the Middle East and then Roman Empire. For nearly two millennia they have survived but ISIL is possibly the most dramatic threat they have faced.
Initially Christians in Mosul hoped they might be spared the sectarian attacks on Shia by ISIL. Then on July 14, they noticed the Arabic letter ‘nuun’ ( ن ) for Nasriya (Christian) was daubed outside their properties. Then ISIL gave the estimated 35,000 Christians an ultimatum to 19 July – convert, pay the jizya tax, or be killed.
The jizya is a tax levied on non-Muslims in Sharia law. In ISIL’s case, the jizya was clearly protection money mafia style, and its onerous level was beyond the capacity of many. This left the Christians with no real option but to flee their homes and abandon their goods. Some claim they were robbed by militants as they fled, an added indignity.
ISIL also daubed the Arabic R ( ر ) for rafidah or ‘rejectors’ on the homes of Shia and minorities such as Shabaks and Yazdis and Turkman Shia. This is a Sunni term used to denigrate those who do not follow their particular religious interpretation.
More reports are coming out of stoning for adultery, beheading of Shia prisoners (often from the Iraqi or Syrian militaries) and even the execution of the Sunni imams in the main mosque in Mosul, who were seen to be not teaching ‘correct Islam’ and so had to be killed. One ISIL posting bragged about the execution of ‘rafideh’ for Eid – with horrific pictures of the terrified men in trucks, then kneeling before open pits to be executed.
It was these type of extremist actions that alienated the Sunni tribes from Al Qaeda in 2007 and lead to the ‘Awakening’ movement whereby Sunni tribal leaders supported the US against Al Qaeda. It is a disaster for Iraqis that the Iraqi Prime Minister al Maliki has become so sectarian in his policies and actions that the Sunnis feel they are better protected by supporting the Salafist extremists in ISIL than their own Government. Some Sunnis see Maliki as an ‘Iranian’ and others refer to the ‘good old days under Saddam’.
The willingness of ISIL to publicise their war crimes – beheading prisoners, shooting prisoners kneeling before ditches and smashing religious icons and statues – is extremely worrying. They obviously are not afraid of facing war crimes trials for their actions and probably they assumed they are immune from such prosecution may well be sadly right.
Sadly for the Christians and other minorities of Iraq and Syria, they will not be able to return to their homes for some time, if at all. The fact that many Palestinians still have their house keys from their homes in Israel which they fled in what they call the ‘Naqba’(catastrophe) of 1948 gives no hope to yet another group of refugees from the Middle East.
Iraqis tell me that this focus on religion and sect is new in Iraq. Baghdadi Christians and Muslims would celebrate each other’s religious holidays and exchange greetings and presents for Christmas and Eid. Intermarriage between Sunni and Shia families was not uncommon, especially in Baghdad. Now the situation has changed dramatically and sectarianism dominates. Militias are forcing out such Sunni/Shia couples from their homes, others are being forced to separate just because their spouse is a different sect.
The labelling of communities with letters designating their status will immediately create fears in our post holocaust world. We have seen this before. In an inversion of this, Iraqis in Baghdad and Irbil protested in the streets holding up signs saying things like ‘I am Iraqi and I am a Nasriyan’ or others said ‘We are all Nasriyans’. There were also protests in London and Paris with people wearing T-Shirts with just the Arabic letter on them, just as it has been seen in the graffiti daubed on homes in Mosul. On Lebanese TV a well-known TV personality wore a T-Shirt with the letter ‘nuun’ ( ن ) and said ‘We are all Nuun’. Others are putting the symbol and letter on Facebook in solidarity with the persecuted. 
Hopefully such intercommunal and intercultural/religious stands will become possible again in Iraq and Syria, though I fear it will take a long time before there is much progress and the extremists are isolated and disempowered.
Kerry Murphy is a Sydney solicitor who practices in immigration and refugee law.