The Mosul purge: How good is the media coverage?

The purge of Christians from Mosul in northern Iraq — home to thriving Christian communities almost since biblical times — is a historic human rights abuse. Yet mainstream media have done comparatively little coverage on it, probably because they’re stretched thin with the twin stories of the airline shoot-down in Ukraine and Israel’s invasion of Gaza. Also, of course, the Islamic State is in no mood to allow access to the “kafir” media.

Still, some reports have emerged, and some are brave, sensitive and frank on what the Christians are suffering.

The New York Times is often tone-deaf on religion in the U.S., but the newspaper has distinguished itself in stories like this one. Tim Arango’s newsfeature opens with an anecdote on the loss shared by Iraqi Christians and many Muslims:

BAGHDAD — A day after Christians fled Mosul, the northern city controlled by Islamist extremists, under the threat of death, Muslims and Christians gathered under the same roof — a church roof — here on Sunday afternoon. By the time the piano player had finished the Iraqi national anthem, and before the prayers, Manhal Younis was crying.

“I can’t feel my identity as an Iraqi Christian,” she said, her three little daughters hanging at her side.

A Muslim woman sitting next to her in the pew reached out and whispered, “You are the true original people here, and we are sorry for what has been done to you in the name of Islam.”

The warm scene here was an unusual counterpoint to the wider story of Iraq’s unraveling, as Sunni militants with the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria gain territory and persecute anyone who does not adhere to their harsh version of Islamic law. On Saturday, to meet a deadline by the ISIS militants, most Christians in Mosul, a community almost as old as Christianity itself, left with little more than the clothes they were wearing.


The article logs the outrage over the Islamic State’s brutality, from leaders as diverse as Pope Francis and Ban Ki-moon, secretary general of the United Nations. Arango plays up the angle that the militants are enemies of most Iraqis, not just Christians:

The gathering on Sunday at St. George Chaldean Church, built in 1964 and situated in a Shiite Muslim neighborhood, was as much about Iraqi solidarity as it was a gesture of condemnation for the persecution of Christians. In many ways Iraq’s struggle today is the same as it has been since the country was founded nearly a century ago, at the end of World War I: how to establish a national identity larger than a particular faith or ethnicity.

In the pews Muslims and Christians alike held signs that read, “I’m Iraqi. I’m Christian.” Muhammad Aga, who organized the event over Facebook, spoke, and listed Iraq’s many narrower identities: Christians, Arabs, Kurds, Shabaks, Turkmen, Yazidis, Sunnis and Shiites. “All of those people who carry Iraqi identity,” he said.

Of course, the rally may be overplaying the pan-Iraqi spirit. If the nation were that unified, I doubt the northern regions would have fallen to the jihadis so fast.

Even two days before, the Times’ Alissa J. Rubin turned out a story on an Islamic State meeting in which they ordered Mosul’s Christians out by Saturday. Alissa Rubin’s fine reporting blends an overview with personal stories, both of them excruciating. One example:

Interviews on Friday with Christian elders and leaders suggest that in fact many had hung on, hoping for an accommodation, a way to continue the quiet practice of their faith in the city that had been their home for more than 1,700 years. Chaldeans, Assyrians and other sects, including Mandeans, a Gnostic community who revere John the Baptist, could still be found in Iraq, and many made their home on the plains of Nineveh in the north of the country, an area mentioned in the Bible’s Book of Genesis.

Friday’s edict, however, was probably the real end. While a few scattered souls may find a way to stay in secret, the community will be gone.

A YouTube video shows ISIS taking sledgehammers to the tomb of Jonah, something that was also confirmed by Mr. Hikmat. The militants also removed the cross from St. Ephrem’s Cathedral, the seat of the Syriac Orthodox archdiocese in Mosul, and put up the black ISIS flag in its place. They also destroyed a statue of the Virgin Mary, according to Ghazwan Ilyas, the head of the Chaldean Culture Society in Mosul, who spoke by telephone on Thursday from Mosul but seemed to have left on Friday.

“They did not destroy the churches, but they killed us when they removed the cross, this is death for us,” he said.

The CNN report on Mosul is pretty short — 367 words, versus the 847 of the Times piece — and most of it is three days old. The report is still gripping for showing the Islamic State’s brutality, starting with the headline: “ISIS to Christians in Mosul: convert, pay or die.”

The group is ruthless also for seizing all the Christians’ possessions before throwing them out, CNN reports:

A total of 52 Christian families left the city of Mosul early Saturday morning, with an armed group prohibiting some of them from taking anything but the clothes on their backs.

“They told us, ‘You to leave all of your money, gold, jewelry and go out with only the clothes on you,’” Wadie Salim told CNN.

The main CNN update is a 2:42-minute video, which tells how the refugees the need to skirt cities on the way out of the Islamic State territory — stretching a 10-hour drive to four to seven days. One memorable quote from a man: “We brought nothing. Not even clothes. Just horrors.” Unfortunately, Arwa Damon’s report focuses on fleeing Shia Muslims, although the text centers on Christians.

CNN says, oddly, that the militant group is “notorious for its brutality — the group is so violent that al Qaeda has attempted to distance itself from its former affiliate.” Oddly, because Al-Qaida brought down two U.S. embassies and the World Trade Center, as well as committing other horrendous acts.

Also offered by CNN is a helpful map of the reach of the Islamic State, stretching from Al-Bab in northwestern Syria to Al-Saadiya in eastern Iraq. Another map is color-coded to show the geographic lay of the main sects and ethnic groups — Shia, Sunni, Kurd and mixed. But it doesn’t show the other groups — Shabaks, Turkmen, Yazidis or Christians — mentioned in the New York Times story.

The BBC produced a workmanlike story. It lacks the anecdotal sensitivity of the CNN and Times pieces, but it’s still effective in showing the harsh rule of the Islamic State:

Isis has control of large parts of Syria and Iraq and said last month it was creating an Islamic caliphate.

The ultimatum cited a historic contract known as “dhimma,” under which non-Muslims in Islamic societies who refuse to convert are offered protection if they pay a fee, called a “jizya”.

“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 Isis statement said.

Better is the accompanying video, in which the BBC’s Jiyar Gol rides to the battlefront with Peshmerga soldiers from Kurdistan. He interviews a Christian family from Mosul, who had to walk part of the way because Islamic State fighters took their car. A little girl tells Gol that the first militant she saw was holding a sword.

Today’s Zalman, based in Istanbul, patched together a roundup of coverage by AP and Reuters. One unusual contribution is a phone interview with a Chaldean Catholic bishop — from an ethnic group older than the Arabs themselves:

The bishop said the solution to the crisis should be in Iraq’s own hands but the state was weak and divided, and Muslim leaders had failed to speak out.

“We haven’t heard from clerics from all sects or from the government,” he said. “The Christians are sacrificed for Iraq.”

The article notes also that the Islamic State has destroyed Shiite mosques and Muslim shrines, considering them “heretical.”

Today’s Zalman offers a valuable voice in the world chorus because Turkey is Sunni, like the Islamic State itself. Therefore, the militants can’t claim to be speaking for their whole movement, let alone all Muslims.

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About Jim Davis
  • David A. Michelson

    Jim, interesting post. One thing I would like to see more coverage on is the marking of houses and property in Mosul belonging to religious minorities. This has been mentioned briefly in the formal press but only Twitter and bloggers seem to have photos and details. Do your readers know of any reports that have sources for the photos of the markings or details about how wide spread it was in Mosul?

    • Jim Davis

      Thanks, David. I believe the BBC mentioned some of that. How many houses were so marked isn’t easy to learn because, of course, western media are not allowed into Mosul. But I suspect that by now, pretty much all the houses left by Christians are occupied by Muslims.

  • DeaconJohnMBresnahan

    I know the mainstream media likes to bash Fox. But I saw two long reports on the Mosul situation on Fox and caught nothing about it on other news channels. It seems Fox covers a lot of what other TV newsys don’t bother with. Doesn’t CNN and MSNBC understand that their ratings are rock bottom because so many news viewers have caught onto the fact FOX covers stories they can’t be bothered with and that FOX does the relentless digging into scandals the way media used to pride itself on as a check on government power..


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