ALFAF, IRAQ - “Daesh were in the road, they reached the road between the two villages just down there, then they retreated, maybe two or three of their pick-ups reached there and then they went back to Bashiqa city,” says head monk Yousif Ibrahim, one of the Assyrian Orthodox priests and a guardian of the tomb of St. Matthew, or Mor Mattai, a 4th century monk revered as a saint in Syriac Christian churches.
“It was the will of our God to protect the monastery” from the Islamic State terror group, says the 42-year-old monk, who was born in Mosul, 20 kilometers away and which can be seen from the monastery, the oldest in Iraq, from its perch on the side of the rugged Mount Alfaf.
Columns of black and white smoke are pluming from the city, especially from two of its eastern neighborhoods, which Iraqi elite forces this week managed to overrun after fierce fighting.
The monastery was founded in 363 by the hermit Mor Mattai after he fled persecution in Amid, now modern Diyarbak?r, under the Roman Emperor Julian the Apostate. Pilgrims have traditionally come to the monastery in search of divine help. Some sleep in the room housing the tomb or near by, hoping the saint will cure an illness or bless them with a longed-for child.
For two years — from August 2014 when IS militants seized Mosul and swept across Iraq’s Nineveh plains — the seven monks of St. Matthew’s monastery refused to leave and were protected by a small detachment of Kurdish peshmerga fighters.
Four kilometers of windy road separated Daesh from the sandy-colored walls of the monastery, which houses not only the tomb of the Mor Mattai but also a library of ancient Christian manuscripts. Many precious relics, including the saint’s bones, were transported for safe-keeping to the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, Irbil, an hour’s drive away.
Even so, IS would have had a field day, no doubt, in wrecking the monastery, making it yet another victim of the relentless destruction of heritage and religious sites the terrorist group considers heretical. In Mosul, the militants reduced to rubble last year the 1,400-year-old St Elijah monastery, where the Greek letters chi and rho, representing the first two letters of Christ’s name, were carved at the entrance.
“We have been waiting for two years for the Nineveh plains to be liberated,” says Yousif. But even when the plains have been cleared of IS militants, the head monk fears what will happen next.
Like most Christians VOA has interviewed in the last week, Yousif remains pessimistic about the future of Christianity in Iraq. “Our people are looking for a guarantee for the tragedy not to be repeated — you have to understand that our problems predate Daesh,” says Yousif.
“When visiting Mosul even before Daesh I wouldn’t wear my religious clothes,” says the bearded monk, who, when he isn’t talking about dark things, has an infectious laugh. He points to the killing of Christians in 2006 in Mosul in a wave of sectarian violence that took also the life of his older brother. Much of the fury powering that episode of Sunni Muslim violence was in reaction to Pope Benedict XVI’s public reflections on Islam during a tour in Germany — when he quoted a 14th-century Byzantine emperor as calling Islam “evil and inhuman.”
Among other Christian victims, a Syriac Orthodox Church priest was beheaded. Yousif reflects sadly on what he sees as a long war by Muslim militants to empty Iraq and Syria of Christians. “Every period we have a different name — Taliban, al-Qaida, ISIS. Now they are talking about a new group emerging, and every generation they become crueler. Everyone knows what is happening but there is no will by the international community to defend Christianity,” he argues.
Since the second century and the origins of Christianity in the Nineveh plains of northern Iraq, Christians have been unfortunate in their neighbors, suffering attacks and massacres at the hands of Persians, Muslims and even, long ago, Kurds. And if geography is destiny, then it is surprising Christians are still here, but for how much longer they aren’t sure.
Iraqi battlefield success against the Islamic State terror group doesn’t mean the sectarianism of the past will be exorcised. Many people here argue an even messier war could succeed this one, with Shiites, Sunnis, Kurds and Christians battling each other in a series of micro-conflicts.
In the once down-at-heel and now wrecked Christian town of Bartilla, part of the monastery’s diocese, the population halved in the years after Saddam Hussein’s ouster and before Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi announced his caliphate of fear.
Since the 1990s, hostility from the government of Saddam Hussein—and, since his fall, sectarian killings and bombings and an increasingly aggressive Islamist political culture—have forced more than two-thirds of Iraq’s Christian to flee overseas, to other countries in the region or Europe and the United States, slashing the population from 1.2 million to not much more than 200,000.
The Nineveh plains, the original Assyrian heartland, where many Christians speak Assyrian as their first language and Arabic their second, was experiencing an exodus despite Christian leaders earmarking the strip of land sandwiched between Mosul and Iraqi Kurdistan as a possible place of refuge when sectarian attacks in Basra and Baghdad mounted after the American-led invasion of Iraq.
Now they fear that a deal between the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) and the central Iraqi authorities in Baghdad, an agreement they claim the U.S. has brokered, won’t ease their plight — even though that is exactly what it is meant to do. The deal would see Christian majority territory being split between the KRG and Iraq. Many of the big towns, including Bartilla, would remain Iraqi under the plan and it would divide the diocese Yousif and his fellow monks oversee.
Christians fear that the Christian towns and villages that remain part of Iraq will be re-populated by Sunni Muslims — possibly imperiling those Christians who remain.
All week, Christians have been crowding a checkpoint on the Mosul-Irbil highway trying to get permission to visit their homes in Bartilla and other Christian towns, including Qaraqosh. Iraqi soldiers are not allowing most through, saying the towns are not safe yet. But noticeably some Kurdish Shiites have been allowed to pass.
“They let others go through,” fumes 58-year-old Sami. He arrived in northern Iraq from the southern Iraqi city of Basra last month. A wine-seller, he fled after a friend, another wine-seller and hotelier, was killed. He has a family home in Qaraqosh.
Like nearly all the Christians at the checkpoint, he says none of his family will settle back in the plains unless it forms part of a protectorate guaranteed by international powers or if it becomes part of the KRG.
Abdul, aged 70, agrees, nodding vigorously. “No Christian has any life in Iraq,” he laments. He left Baghdad and headed to family properties in the plains five years ago after he paid a ransom to kidnappers to free his son. An engineer, he built two houses and a shop in Qaraqosh. He knows they have been razed but wants to salvage personal possessions left.
Asked about the future, he responds bleakly, “What can I do?”. He adds: “If there is any way for me to leave Iraq, I will. It is just impossible here.”
On the other side of the checkpoint a lot of destruction awaits these Christians when they are eventually allowed to enter.
Bartilla, a town that dates back more than 1,000 years, is full of collapsed buildings, wrecked storefronts, charred cars. Glass and spent and live cartridges litter streets, there’s unexploded ordnance too in the ruins. And in some areas groups of red flags planted by bomb-disposal teams to indicate mines and explosive devices.