-- ZENIT.org News Agency
Islamists Seize Monastery in Northern Iraq
Monks of Mar Benham Forced to Leave With Nothing But Their Clothes
BAGHDAD, July 22, 2014 (Zenit.org) - Jihadist militants have taken over one of the Iraq's best-known Christian landmarks and expelled its resident monks, a cleric and residents said Monday.
Fighters from the Islamic State (ISIS) stormed Mar (Saint) Behnam, a fourth-century monastery run by the Syriac Catholic church near the predominantly Christian town of Qaraqosh in northern Iraq, on Sunday.
AFP reports the monks reportedly pleaded to be allowed to save some of the monastery's relics but the fighters refused and ordered them to leave on foot with nothing but their clothes. After fleeing, the residents who included some families were eventually picked up on a deserted road by Kurdish peshmerga fighters who drove them to safety.
The incident was the latest move by ISIS, which in June declared a "caliphate" straddling large swathes of northern Iraq and Syria and threatening the Christian presence in both countries.
Over the weekend, hundreds of families fled Mosul, leaving Iraq's second largest and once-cosmopolitan city empty of Christians for the first time in almost two millennia.
The jihadist fighters want to create a state based on an extreme interpretation of Sharia Law and have targeted all minorities in the Mosul area. AFP reports that other religious minorities such as Shiite Turkmen, Shabak and Yazidis have suffered even more than the Christians, who have largely escaped summary executions since ISIS swept the region in early June.
Mar Behnam is a major Christian landmark in Iraq and a site where the local community and pilgrims traditionally pray for healings and fertility.
On Sunday, Pope Francis said he was viewing the situation "with concern" and called on the faithful to remember the people of Iraq and the Middle East in prayer.
A group on Facebook has called for a day of prayer and fasting for persecuted Christians this coming Friday, July 25th, especially those suffering in Iraq. The page can be found here.
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