© Aid to the Church in Need

“We dropped everything and fled”

The convent of Sister Sanaa and her fellow nuns was destroyed by ISIS – Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) helps nuns and priests make a fresh start

By Oliver Maksan, ACN International

Adapted by Amanda Bridget Griffin, ACN Canada

© Aid to the Church in Need
© Aid to the Church in Need

In 2014, more than 120,000 Christians, dozens of priests and religious among them, were forced to flee ISIS in Iraq. Many have found refuge in the autonomous Kurdish regions of Iraq after losing everything – like Sister Sanaa. The Sister is Mother Superior of a Sacred Heart Sisters community. “ISIS blew up our convent in Mosul on November 24th. First, they tried to blow up the four crosses on the roof. Then, they destroyed the entire building. We don’t know exactly why,” she reported. “This made us very sad. It was a critical moment for our community; after all, it had been our spiritual home for many years. I joined our community in 1985; we had an active pastoral care program in Mosul. Among other things, we maintained a home for the elderly.”

The sisters’ suffering began months before the explosion that destroyed the convent. At the time, Sister Sanaa was not in the city. Returning from a journey, she wanted to get back to her fellow sisters at all costs. However, all access routes had been blocked since early June. “Days before the city completely fell into the hands of ISIS, fierce battles raged between the army and the jihadists. Our convent lay right in between. There was constant heavy fire. The sisters were very scared and thus left the convent and went to another house in Mosul. They were able to flee just before ISIS took over the city. It was truly at the very last minute,” she reported. “Our sisters were just able to consume the Blessed Sacrament before they fled. They did not want it to fall into the hands of the jihadists. However, they unfortunately had to leave the tabernacle itself behind. There wasn’t enough room in the car.” The community of Sisters then fled to Tilkef, a partially Christian city near Mosul. The sisters ran a printing company for liturgical books there. But, once more, they would soon have to flee. ISIS had also conquered Tilkef.

Sister Sanaa somehow found courage three more times after the fall of Mosul to return to the city now in the hands of the holy warriors of Islam. “We had been forced to leave our entire archive behind. As mother superior of the convent, I considered it my duty to save it. After all, it contains important documents representing one hundred years of our community’s memory.” Volunteers joined her on this extremely dangerous journey. “I did not want to make anyone go with me. It was very dangerous, after all. Other Sisters have been kidnapped by ISIS.” She managed to pass through checkpoints guarded by bearded ISIS fighters, who were flanked by the black flag of the caliphate, three times. And, the archive was saved.

© Aid to the Church in Need
© Aid to the Church in Need


A fresh start

Today, Sister Sanaa lives in Ankawa, a Christian suburb of the Kurdish regional capital of Erbil. Aid to the Church in Need has provided financial support to the twenty Sisters concerned, so they can make a fresh start. In addition, a temporary school is being set up for the children of Christian refugees where the Sisters will teach and earn a salary from the state which will help them to secure their future.

A machine for the production of altar breads, also acquired with help from ACN, contributes to their livelihood. The Sisters also sew cassocks and liturgical vestments supplying members of the clergy who had to leave everything behind as they fled from ISIS – such as Father Janan.

The Syrian-Catholic monk currently lives with his fellow Brothers in a settlement near Erbil where the Church has rented numerous flats with ACN’s help. “We fled from Bakhdida on August 6th. We even left our identity cards behind because everything had to go so quickly. We thought that the Kurdish fighters would protect us. However, when they suddenly pulled out, we dropped everything and fled.” Liturgical instruments, books and robes were left behind: they were not able to take anything with them. “Our fellow monks have given us liturgical vestments and books so that we can celebrate the liturgy. We are trying to continue our monastic life here as best as we can,” he said and showed the temporary chapel that they have set up on the ground floor of the terraced house. “The Liturgy of the Hours morning, noon and night provides structure to our day. And of course we celebrate Holy Mass.” Mass is held in a tent that serves as a church for the refugees. Plastic chairs are set up under a white canvas adorned only by an icon of the Redeemer and the Mother of God, and where dozens of women gather to pray the rosary. “We celebrate Holy Mass here. We have also baptized children here already. It is important that this refugee settlement has a spiritual heart. We may have lost our homes, but God is with us everywhere.”

© Aid to the Church in Need
© Aid to the Church in Need


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