By Ahmed Rasheed and Maggie Fick
BAGHDAD (Reuters) - The ancient Christian community of the northern Iraqi city of Mosul had all but fled by Saturday, ending a presence stretching back nearly two millennia after radical Islamists set them a midday deadline to submit to Islamic rule or leave.
The ultimatum by the Islamic State drove out the few hundred Christians who had stayed on when the group's hardline Sunni Muslim fighters overran Mosul a month ago, threatening Christians and the diverse city's other religious communities.
This week the Islamic State gave any remaining Christians a final choice to make by Saturday noon: convert to Islam, pay a religious tax, or face the sword.
A Catholic bishop from Mosul told Reuters that 150 Christian families had left in recent days and church leaders had advised the few families who wanted to negotiate with militants that they should also flee for their own safety.
The Christians described their flight as a historic loss.
"We have lived in this city and we have had a civilization for thousands of years - and suddenly some strangers came and expelled us from our homes," said a woman in her 60s who fled on Friday for Hamdaniya, a mainly Christian town controlled by Kurdish security forces to the southeast of Mosul.
Others were stopped by gunmen on the outskirts of the city and robbed of the goods they carried, suggesting the militants were implementing an order to Christians to leave behind all possessions.
"The Islamic State stopped my relatives at a checkpoint when they were fleeing and when they found out they were Christians, they took everything they were carrying, including their mobile phones," said a Christian man, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
"They left them only with the clothes they were wearing," he said, speaking from Hamdaniya.
The Islamic State, an al Qaeda offshoot, relayed its ultimatum from mosque loudspeakers and spraypainted Christian properties with the letter "N" for Nasrani, or Christian, residents said.
Religious leaders have expressed alarm at the order. "It is forbidden for Christians to be rejected, expelled or wiped out," said Chaldean Catholic Patriarch Louis Raphael Sako in a statement published on his official website.
"It is no secret the dire consequences this could have on the peaceful coexistence of the majority and minorities, and also among Muslims themselves in the near and long term."
HEART OF MESOPOTAMIA
Mosul lies across the Tigris river from the ancient city of Nineveh, at the heart of Mesopotamia. It thrived at a time when what is now Iraq was considered a "cradle of civilization", and for centuries its population showed the importance of Iraq as a crossroad of trade and culture.
The overlapping of Muslim and Christian faiths in modern day Mosul is evident by the fact that the tomb of the Biblical and Koranic prophet Jonah is housed in a mosque in the city.
That mosque is at risk of destruction along with others in Mosul considered heretical by the Sunni, ultra-conservative Islamic State, which rejects other branches of Islam such as Shi'ism and condemns the veneration of tombs.
Mosul, the largest city in northern Iraq, was once among the country's most mixed. Waves of attacks on Christians since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion to topple Saddam Hussein eroded its once sizeable Christian population, mainly from the Assyrian and Chaldean denominations.
The worst blow in recent memory came when the Islamic State fighters and their allies swept into the city last month.
"It is a disaster," said Nabil Khashat, a Christian who moved years ago to Arbil, in the semi-autonomous Kurdish region where many ethnic and religious minorities have taken refuge.
"I don't think there is a destiny worse than that," he said, referring to the Islamic State ultimatum.
The militants' seizure of Mosul also drove other ethnic and religious minorities away, such as the Shabak and Turkmen Shi'ites and the Yazidis, an ethnically Kurdish group practicing a religion linked to Zoroastrianism.
Human Rights Watch said on Saturday that the Islamic State had been killing, kidnapping and threatening minority groups in a "vicious campaign" in and around Mosul in recent weeks.
The New York-based group said militants occupied a Syriac Orthodox church and removed a statue of the Virgin Mary from another church. On June 29, the militants kidnapped two Chaldean nuns and three Christian orphans and held them for two weeks.
PURIST SUNNI VISION
Since overrunning Mosul on June 10 at the beginning of a lightning offensive across northern Iraq, the Islamic State has gradually taken steps that echo its tactics in neighboring Syria, where it has seized territory in the northeast since last year.
Its decree in Mosul mirrored one that its fighters issued in the Syrian city of Raqqa in February, demanding that Christians pay the 'jizya' levy in gold and curb displays of their faith in return for protection.
Christians in other parts of Iraq worried that the campaign to clear Christians from Mosul will extend throughout Nineveh province, a vast area that stretches to the Syrian border.
"I am afraid that the Islamic State's threat will reach the Christian villages in Nineveh plain," said Juliana Daoud, a Christian from Nineveh and a professor at Basra University. "If so, this is the last nail in the Christians' coffin in Iraq."On Thursday, militants carried out the first public punishment in Mosul, an eyewitness said, lashing a man up to 10 times who they said had harassed a women in a market.
(Additional reporting by Raheem Salman; Writing by Maggie Fick; Editing by Dominic Evans and Rosalind Russell)