Last year the world focused on the mistreatment of Iraq's Christians by the Islamic State. But in fact the extremists had been harassing Mosul's Christians for a long time, in a campaign to push them out of Iraq.
Samer al-Sheikh is still holding onto the hope that he might one day return to his house and carefully planted garden. Although his chances of going back to the northern city of Mosul, which is currently controlled by the extremist group known as the Islamic State, are slim, al-Sheikh is staying positive. Currently the language teacher, who once took classes in the central Dawasah neighbourhood in Mosul, is living in Erbil. Because al-Sheikh is Christian by denomination, he and his wife and two daughters have found a home in Ainkawa, the mostly-Christian-populated neighbourhood in Iraqi Kurdistan's capital city, Erbil.
But that doesn't stop al-Sheikh from thinking about his home in Mosul, now confiscated by the Islamic State, or ISIS group; they moved in just one week after he left.
He knows that the fighters took all of his furniture and property – his family left with only the clothes they had on – and sold them at a special second hand market that the extremists have established, named Spoils from the Christians, set up to on-sell Christians' property. And through people still living in Mosul, he also knows that part of his fence has been knocked down so the ISIS group can drive their vehicles into his garden; and he knows that his garden – he knows all the plants in it – will have been ruined.
The same kinds of confiscation and looting of Christian property were also carried out in other towns around Mosul, including in the Sukkar, Muhandiseen and Zuhoor neighbourhoods. Around a month later the same thing happened in the formerly Christian-majority towns and cities of Tal Keif, Qaraqosh, Karamles and Bartalah.
The information that most of the world has about how the ISIS group, which bases its ideology on its own version of Sunni Islam, confiscated the property of Mosul's Christians isn't the whole story, al-Sheikh says. This kind of activity had been going on long before last June, when Iraqi security forces left the city and the ISIS group took it over properly.
“Since its formation in 2006, the ISIS group had been tampering with property in the province,” al-Sheikh explains, “especially property belonging to Christians living abroad.”
The story is taken up by Ahmed Fathi, a local lawyer specializing in real estate law. In Mosul property was being transferred into new owners' names by the ordinary court of first instance in the city. This was happening because the real estate registration department had closed down on the eastern side of the city, where the majority of Mosul's minorities lived, including Christians.
“The department closed because a number of the department's directors and staff were killed – most likely by the ISIS group – and other staff and managers were threatened,” Fathi says.
So anyone wanting to buy or sell property in Mosul now had to go to the general court. But this also gave fraudsters and gangsters the opportunity to grab land or property that is not theirs. Here is how they do it: They file suits against Iraqis living abroad, dead people, immigrants or detainees, claiming they have the right to sell the property or to rent it out. Since 2003, a lot of Mosul's Christians have immigrated, and many now live abroad.
Then when the fraudster goes to court to have the property put in his name, he will claim that he has paid full price for the property to, for example, an Iraqi living overseas. The fraudster gives the address of the person from whom he allegedly bought the property and the court then tries to notify the seller of the property.
If the person is not present at the address given, the law allows the officer of the court to designate that the seller's address is unknown. The seller is notified of this by a court notice published in a daily newspaper, asking them to get in touch. But if they don't get in touch within a month, and the court finds that the fraudster is already living in the property they “bought”, the court rules it can be theirs – and a verdict is issued against the unwitting seller in absentia.
“When the buyer, usually a member of the ISIS group, won the lawsuit, he would sell the property in an official way to a new owner,” Fathi continues. “And all the money obtained from these property transactions would go to the ISIS group, to fund their illegal activities.”
In 2010, the ISIS group was growing more powerful in Mosul – they were like a mafia controlling certain parts of the unstable city. And because real estate was a source of income, they tightened their grip on the market as much as they could.
Around then a rumour began to circulate saying that local Christians were secretly selling their property using courts outside of Mosul, in Christian-freindly towns like Tal Kaif and Qaraqosh, so that the ISIS mafia wouldn't find out about it.
Three property owners, Christians, were killed that year, shortly after selling their land.
In 2013, the ISIS group doubled down on efforts not to let any Christians sell their property in Mosul. The ISIS members said it belonged to them. To many, this was a clear sign that the extremist group was planning to take over, if not all of Mosul, then at least that side of the city. It was a sign that security forces in the area did not appear to notice.
After the ISIS group managed to take over Mosul in June last year, real estate belonging to Christians was annexed to the group's Bayt Al Mal, or House of Money. By then almost all of the city's Christians had left, having been confronted with two options: convert or pay a special, implausible tax.
Members of the ISIS group went around town painting an “N” sign on many houses and buildings in Mosul. It turned out to be a code that the place had Christian owners, with the letter “N” standing for Nazarene, which is how the ISIS group describe Christians. Later the group went further, adding a sentence that said “property of the Islamic State” under the “N”. They then also asked those who were renting the houses to pay their rent to the ISIS group fighters rather than to the Christian landlords.
The ISIS group also took the records held by the real estate registration department in other towns they had captured, like Qaraqosh and Tal Afar, and sorted through them to find Christian-owned properties. These were all simply transferred into the ISIS group's name.
The extremist group also carefully went through records in other departments in and around Mosul to find Christian-owned property they could confiscate, including the Department of Agriculture, industrial federations, the local Chamber of Trade, the local notary's office and the traffic department. Property they were then able to seize included vehicles, farmland and businesses.
Land on the western side of Mosul, in the Hawi Kanisa area, that had been owned by Christian families for generations is now populated by random and make-shift housing, accommodation for hundreds of Iraqis, who have come from nearby villages because they support the ISIS group.
Al-Sheikh has been following up on what's been happening to his, and other Christians' property, from his new home in Erbil. He's been here a year, two months and 23 days but he's carefully kept in touch with friends still living in Mosul via messaging apps. The fighters from the ISIS group who are occupying his house apparently come from Qayyarah, a district about 60 kilometres south of Mosul and from Shirqat in neighbouring Salahaddin province.
That's why when he heard that some of the fighters left and never came back – that they were killed during fighting – al-Sheikh began to celebrate. He did a little jig, he shed a little tear and then he went to light some candles at church and to distribute sweets to his new neighbours. “That is God's justice,” he said.
Written by Nawzat Shamdeen for Niqash.org.
Photo of Assyrian Children who fled from Mosul by Christiaan Triebert.