An elderly Christian widow has shared how ISIS militants forced her to spit on a cross, mocked her for speaking the language of Jesus, and threatened to kill her unless she converted to Islam.
Persecution watchdog World Watch Monitor shares the story of Zarefa, a woman who living in the predominantly Christian town of Qaraqosh when ISIS overtook it in 2014. At the time, fighters issued an ultimatum to Christians: pay a tax, convert to Islam, or die by the sword. While most Christians fled the town, Zarefa decided to stay, as her husband was dying and unable to flee.
While raiding the house where Zarefa was staying, ISIS fighters found a few crucifixes and other Christian images - and forced the elderly woman to desecrate them.
"They forced me to spit on the Cross," Zarefa recalled. "I told them that it was not appropriate, that it was a sin. He said that I must spit. 'Don't you see that I have a gun?' he asked me. I said to myself, 'Oh, the Cross! I am weak, I will spit on you. But Lord, I ask you to take revenge for me. I cannot escape from this.'"
Shortly after ISIS overtook the town, Zarefa's husband died, leaving her lonely and vulnerable. She moved in with neighbors, but IS fighters harassed them and robbed them of all their valuables.
"One day, the man whose house I was a guest in never came home," she said. "Some people said he was killed and buried in an open area. Others said that he fell in a hole. Another one said that only God knows what happened to him. The fact is that we have not seen him since."
Days before the terrorist group invaded Qaraqosh, a group of Muslim teenagers mocked Zarefa for speaking in Syriac - a language closely related to the Aramaic that Jesus spoke.
"Speak our language!" they shouted, in Arabic.
Eventually, ISIS fighters forced Zarefa and another elderly woman to move to nearby Mosul.
"We told them that we don't want to leave; that we belong here," Zarefa said. "That this is our home; we want to stay here. But they made us leave against our will. In the night, they took us from our house, they put bags over our heads and asked us if we had converted to Islam."
Terrified, Zarefa admitted she "quickly told them that I had".
After spending time in an ISIS prison, Zarefa and her friend managed to return to Qaraqosh as "Muslim" women, but when they arrived, they found three IS soldiers waiting to question them.
"They requested that we openly profess adherence to Islam," Zarefa says. "I begged them and asked them why we must do such a thing. 'We will not add anything to your case by converting to Islam,' we told them. 'Let us choose our own way and religion.'"
The leader of the group drew a gun, pointed it at Zarefa's heart, and threatened to kill her if she didn't convert to Islam: "What would you do if you were in our position?" she asked. "He said something, asked us to repeat it, and then asked if we were Muslims. 'Yes,' we said. 'Yes, we are.' And then they left."
However, the harassment didn't end. The elderly woman said different IS fighters continually came to their home and demanded money and valuables at gunpoint. The forced her to remove her clothes and stole the remaining money she had hidden in her undergarments.
"Then that man pushed me down on the couch, put his gun on my chest, and threatened me because he was convinced there was more to rob," she recalled. "He shouted at me: 'We will be cruel to you until you obey.'"
Today, Zarefa is still recovering from the traumatic experience, even though her hometown was liberated in the first day of Mosul Liberation Operation in 2016. During their occupation of the town, ISIS militants looted hundreds of Christian homes and desecrated churches, even turning them into their training camps. Propaganda photos released by the group showed militants vandalizing monasteries and churches, smashing statues and replacing the cross with their black flag of terror
The Gospel Herald reported in November that for the first time in two years Iraqi Christians were able to celebrate mass in Qaraqosh, at the Church of the Immaculate Conception that had been partially destroyed by the terror group.
At the time, Father Ammar reinstated the cross on his church, helped by Christian soldiers guarding the village.
"After being away for exactly 811 days, after being attacked by the forces of darkness and evil, we have come back to worship in freedom," he said, and shared he was able to locate 40 ancient documents from his church's history, untouched by IS.
"I brought those back to our people...For us those documents are our link with our history and are therefore very important," he said.