BAABDA, Lebanon — Joseph Toman leaned on the heavy wooden door of St. Raphael Chaldean Cathedral and sighed in exasperation.
He wore a dirty shirt and his weathered feet peered out of a pair of tattered sandals, a far cry from the rest of the well-dressed Lebanese church attendees that milled around to discuss the morning’s Mass.
“I am going to starve to death,” he said, half to himself, as his eyes pricked with tears.
The 80-year-old Christian, who grew up in Mosul, left his home in Baghdad just 15 days ago. He heard about the advancing forces led by Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) — a religiously intolerant and violent extremist group that recently took over huge swaths of northern Iraq — and decided to use all of his savings to flee to Lebanon.
He is now renting a small apartment in Dikwaneh north of Beirut, but with no work and no family to help him, he is quickly running out of money. “We need help, we can’t pay rent,” Toman said, referring to other Iraqi Christians who have made the same journey as him out of fear for their lives.
Although he was barely able to afford the taxi ride from his home to the cathedral in Baabda — the Lebanese headquarters of the Chaldean sect that many Iraqi Christians are part of — he felt it was important that he attend Sunday’s Mass anyway, especially as it was held to show solidarity with people exactly like him.
“I only have God and the church,” he added.
ISIS, which recently changed its name to Islamic State, gave Christians in Iraq’s northern city an ultimatum last week to convert to Islam, pay a religious tax or be killed, forcing hundreds of families to flee and tearing apart a community that has existed since the earliest days of Christianity.
The militants spray-painted Christian houses with the Arabic letter “N” for “Nasrani,” or “Christian,” to identify them.
To symbolically counteract this surge in religious intolerance, children at the cathedral Sunday held up signs of words beginning with “N” that represent Christian values: “narham,” we are merciful; “nashkor,” we are thankful; “nousalli,” we pray; and “naghfor,” we forgive, among others.
© Assyrian International News Agency.