ERBIL, Iraq — Sunni militants in northern Iraq gave Christians a zero-sum ultimatum: Convert to Islam or die.
For at least one family in Qaraqosh, a city once considered the "Christian capital of Iraq," escape came before it had to choose.
"Thank God that we're here in safety," the Christian man, who asked not to be identified for his safety, said just days after he and his family fled the bloody rule of Islamic State fighters. They have taken shelter in Erbil, a city of 1.5 million that has become a safe haven for religious minorities who have escaped the brutal Sunni insurgents.
Qaraqosh, once a town of 40,000, has been terrorized by ISIS fighters amassing power and laying down harsh Sharia law. The man said he saw militants lash a fellow Christian with a water hose 20 times just for smoking a cigarette. He and his family lived in constant terror, feeling they were always being watched.
"Sometimes, you would not see any fighters — and within minutes, the street was full of them," he said. "We were always afraid."
Just weeks after the town fell to ISIS fighters, only a few dozen Christians remain in Qaraqosh and streets are now deserted, the man told NBC News. "Maybe only 50 to 75 Christian people, most of them elderly, are there, unable to flee," he said, adding that he and many others realized too late that ISIS fighters were there to stay.
U.S. airstrikes and military support to Iraqi and Kurdish forces may have temporarily stunted the terrifying rise of ISIS militants — but in recent weeks, they have tightened their grip on several towns and villages in northern Iraq, according to interviews with several eyewitnesses.
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Eyewitnesses in Mosul, Iraq's second-largest city and the largest Iraqi city currently under ISIS control, told NBC News in phone interviews that insurgents there have committed atrocities. They said several women were executed after an Islamic court found them guilty of committing adultery and that at least seven men were killed because they spoke out publicly against the tyranny of ISIS.
These horrifying stories are just the latest accounts of ISIS’ barbarism. The militant group has been accused of massacring countless civilians and takes responsibility for the beheadings of two American journalists, Jamey Foley and Steven Sotloff.
However, instead of destroying the community as they did in Christian towns, the Sunni militants of ISIS are trying to keep order in Mosul, a predominantly Sunni city. Locals say ISIS has taken over many functions of government, including the court system and education.
A copy of an exam schedule at a local college of medicine obtained by NBC News is headed with “The Islamic State” in bold font and bears the logo of ISIS. Underneath it lists the various subjects including physics, chemistry, and surgery and the statement “we pray for you to you succeed and excel in this life and the afterlife."
Locals told NBC News that many Sunnis at first accepted the reign of ISIS because it had stunted the sectarian violence in Mosul, for which they blamed Shiite militias and the Shiite-controlled central government.
"Sometimes, you would not see any fighters — and within minutes, the street was full of them. We were always afraid."
“We have not lived in peace before the way we do now,” one man, who identified himself as Mohammed, said. “It is true that the elements of Islamic State sometimes behave in a weird way, but still we are happy because people have not been detained by the government for nothing. There are no explosions of IEDs or car bombs.”
It appears that ISIS has been able to keep the city functional. Mohammed said that local markets are filled with vegetables and fruit.
“Last month prices of sugar, rice and flour went high, but this month these items were brought in by local and Syrian tradesmen,” he said. “Now prices went down again.”
Mohammed added that hospitals are suffering from a lack of medical supplies but that pharmacies are still stocked and the prices for medicine has stabilized.
Fred Abrahams, a special advisor at Human Rights Watch, who is currently assessing the situation in northern Iraq, said that many Sunnis turned to ISIS either actively or by acceptance because of their hatred for the central government.
“The long record of abuse of policy by the Iraqi government opened the door for ISIS to come in with such speed,” he said. “Many Sunni tribes and people, who don’t necessarily agree with all ISIS tactics, have accepted them.”
But support for ISIS among the Sunni population seems to be waning as they show their full brutality.
“The people in Mosul have changed their view toward ISIS after discovering the real face of those who claim that are Muslims,” one local journalist said adding that many locals are turned away by the many executions enforced through the Islamic courts that ISIS has established.
A local political analyst, who continues to live in Mosul, said that behavior and actions of ISIS militants, especially the destruction of local mosques, have turned the population against them.
“Now the people of Mosul are willing to be liberated from the tyranny of ISIS militants,” he said.