- The Washington Times - Monday, July 21, 2014

The Islamic State group’s demand that Christians in the city of Mosul convert to Islam or face death could be part of an attempt to win support among local Muslims via a harsh interpretation of the Koran to justify the violent threats against the religious minority, religion and human rights experts said.

“They do seem bent on creating a purely Islamic state that has no place for Christians, in particular, or any religious minority,” said Todd Daniels, Middle East regional manager at International Christian Concern.

“They’re really looking to divide the country on Sunni and Shia lines,” he said. “That does allow them to get local support in Mosul, so that [Islamic State] militants themselves aren’t going to be able to rule and control the city, but have local support and [will] be able to have a longer local presence.”

Ahead of a Sunday deadline set by the Islamic State, most Christians in Mosul have fled to Kurdish-protected areas, leaving behind churches and homes that have been seized by the terrorist insurgents, who have taken control of large swaths of Iraq over the past six weeks.

The militants’ leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, has declared himself the head of a caliphate, or Islamic state, that is to be ruled by Shariah law.

He has positioned about 3,000 fighters in Iraq and some 7,000 in Syria, according to a U.S. intelligence official. The ranks are comprised of Sunni Muslims, who have a history of violent fighting with Shia Muslims, despite being rooted in the same faith.


SEE ALSO: ISIL ratchets siege of Christians by starving those in Mosul


While it is not clear if forced conversion is justifiable in the Koran, it does contain passages that encourage “tolerant religious society,” Mr. Daniels said.

“There are very strong Islamic voices condemning this kind of thinking,” he said of forced conversion.

Other religious voices, as well as leaders in the international community, have taken a stand against the Islamic State’s demands.

Pope Francis on Monday prayed for peace, and said he was praying for “[my] dear brothers and sisters who are persecuted, I know how much you suffer; I know that you are deprived of all. I am with you in faith in He who conquered evil.”

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon condemned the persecution of religious minorities, saying “any systematic attack on the civilian population, or segments of the civilian population, because of their ethnic background, religious beliefs or faith may constitute a crime against humanity, for which those responsible must be held accountable.

“All armed groups, including [the Islamic State] must abide by international humanitarian law and protect civilians living in areas they control,” Mr. Ban said.

Yasmeen Hanoosh, professor of Arabic studies at Portland State University, said that, as far as she knows, “only Christians who are sick or for other reasons cannot physically move or are under immediate death threat are converting to Islam.”

“It’s been reported that five families have converted, while tens of thousands have fled the city,” Ms. Hanoosh said. “Converting or paying tax isn’t really salvaging the situation because many have lost their jobs, food rations and neighbors’ sympathy/protection on the basis of their religion.”

Ms. Hanoosh said the Iraqi people are torn between the “need to express loyalty to [the Islamic State] and conform to their precepts and those [who] are condemning [the Islamic State] openly by citing verses from the Koran that emphasize harmony, acceptance and ‘no forcing’ in Islam.”

Jocelyne Cesari, a senior fellow at the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs and a scholar of Islam and Middle Eastern politics, compared the fighting to what occurred in Northern Ireland between Protestants and Catholics.

Ms. Cesari said the forced conversion puts “pressure on the international community and media for a reaction, to show they have the power. They want to show they have the upper hand.

Ms. Cesari said most Iraqi Christians have fled, but a few groups remain.

“It doesn’t mean the Christians in Iraq are safe, nobody is safe,” she said. “Christians who remain in Iraq are not safe.”

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