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Has Last Christian Left Iraqi City of Mosul After 2,000 Years?

Image: Displaced Christians who fled the violence in Mosul, Iraq

Displaced Christians who fled the violence in Mosul, Iraq, walk towards the town of Qaraqoush on the outskirts of Mosul, Iraq. The message played over loudspeakers gave the Christians of Iraq's second-largest city until midday Saturday to make a choice: convert to Islam, pay a tax or face death. AP

QARAQOSH, Iraq -- Samer Kamil Yacub was alone when four Islamist militants carrying AK-47s arrived at his front door and ordered him to leave the city.

The 70-year-old Christian had failed to comply with a decree issued by the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS). Yacub's hometown of Mosul had boasted a Christian community for almost 2,000 years. But then the al Qaeda-inspired fighters who overran the city last month gave Christians an ultimatum. They could stay and pay a tax or convert to Islam -- or be killed.

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Yacub, 70, was one of the few Christians remaining beyond last Saturday's noon deadline. He may have even been the last to leave alive.

"[A] fighter said, ‘I have orders to kill you now',” Yacub said just hours after the Sunni extremists tried to force their way into his home at 11 a.m. on Monday. “All of the people in my neighborhood were Muslim. They came to help me —about 20 people — at the door in front of my house. They tried to convince ISIS not to kill me.”

The rebels spared Yacub but threw him out of the city where he had spent his entire life. They also took his Iraqi ID card before informing him that elderly women would be given his house.

In June, ISIS declared a caliphate covering parts of Syria and Iraq, decreed that all of the world's Muslims must pledge allegiance to their leader and said it wanted to be known as just "Islamic State." In Syria, ISIS brought back seventh-century laws to govern Christians after seizing the city of Raqqa. "They have no mercy," one Christian living there told NBC News in March. In Mosul, ISIS this week ordered shopkeepers to cover the faces of mannequins and blew up a mosque that was said to be the tomb of the Prophet Jonah, who was swallowed by a whale in a biblical story.

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While an estimated 2 million Christians called Iraq home in the 1990s, church leaders say that figure plunged to around 200,000 by last year. The sudden rise of ISIS has sent many other Christians fleeing in terror.

Yacub, who struggles to walk, explained that he stayed in Mosul not because he wanted to, but due to his severe health problems. He eventually made his way to Qaraqosh, about 20 miles southeast of Mosul, finding refuge in the Christian city that is under the protection of Kurdish peshmerga troops. He now spends his nights on a thin mattress in an unfinished housing project with dozens of other refugees.

Two of Yacub’s new housemates are Raida Samir-Kaman, 35, and sister Ruwayda, 30. They fled Mosul bound for Qaraqosh with their brother at 3:30 p.m. the day before ISIS' deadline. At a militant checkpoint, the women were taken out of their car and ushered into a nearby trailer by a female ISIS member dressed in full hijab.

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Its interior was barren, but for a small bed in the corner which was covered in a continually replenished mountain of money, gold, and jewelry. The female ISIS agent searched the women, finding money in their bags and hidden within Raida’s clothes. She took it all from them. Next she removed their earrings one by one, placing them in the pile on the bed. She tried to take off Ruwayda’s bracelets, but they got caught on her arm. Eventually the agent was able to yank them off, injuring Ruwayda in the process, and she added them to the growing pile.

“We asked them for 10,000 or 100,000 [Iraqi Dinars -- about $8.50 or $85.00] just to take a taxi, or for pocket money,” Raida recalled. “And she refused that.” Once finished, an ISIS fighter who had been standing guard outside the trailer came inside and picked up all the loot, loading it into a car to take it back to Mosul.

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Ahead of the sisters in the checkpoint line was a young girl with a ring on her finger. She wept as an ISIS militant tried to pull it off as it kept getting stuck. Even further ahead, Raida remembers seeing an elderly woman pulled out of a car in a wheelchair. ISIS seized the car, forcing her roll through the checkpoint on her own.

More than 400 of these refugee families have passed through Qaraqosh alone. This is only a fraction of the the several thousand Christians who were in Mosul until recently. Of those, about 35 families have stayed at the local seminary, where the Archbishop of Northern Iraq for the Syriac Catholic Church is based. Surrounded by many smaller towns controlled by ISIS, it has become a border town of sorts: a haven near the front lines.

Image: Iraqi Christians who fled the violence in the northern city of Mosul
Iraqi Christians who fled the violence in the northern city of Mosul pray at a church in the village of Qaraqosh on July 19. SAFIN HAMED / AFP - Getty Images

The situation in Qaraqosh is not all rosy, though. Since the fighting between ISIS and the peshmerga last month, water and electricity have become more scarce, leading many to leave. Now the city mostly relies on generator power for electricity and upon imported shipments and freshly dug wells not far from nearby ISIS-controlled towns for its water supply.

For now, Qaraqosh is safe. But whether that will remain the case is another question.

According to Yacub, one of the ISIS militants offered a chilling farewell as he left the checkpoint.

"Go to your family in Qaraqosh," the fighter said. "Go there. We're coming there, too."

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