“We … will be the last to leave”
The heroes of faith in Iraq: Priests, seminarians and religious hold out while their flock is besieged by ISIS
As the crow flies, the town of Alqosh scarcely 15 kilometres away from the front line, where the heavily armed Kurdish Peshmerga forces and fighters of the Islamist terror organization ISIS are facing off. Behind them, extend the expansive Nineveh Plains, an area the jihadists conquered last year and declared part of their caliphate, which comprises parts of Syria and Iraq.
When the weather is good, you can see the Christian towns that are now under ISIS control from Alqosh with the naked eye. “Back there is my village Batnaya,” the Chaldean priest says and points in the direction of the Christian town on the Plains. “I was the priest there. Now it is ruled by ISIS.” The cleric talks about how fast everything went that summer, how ISIS continued to advance relentlessly and how more than 125,000 panicked Christians fled before them. “I was the last to leave Batnaya. The jihadists arrived shortly thereafter. Their first question was: Where is Father Steven?” He also reported stories of Muslims from neighbouring villages who had lived alongside Christians all of their lives, who had joined with jihadists, making of the situation “an especially bitter pill for us to swallow.”
“At night we often hear gunfire. But luckily we are quite a bit away from the fighting,” says Father Steven.
Father Steven now lives as a refugee in Alqosh, located only a few kilometres away from his parish in Batnaya. He has been joined by more than 480 Christian families from the area who have taken refuge in the small ancient Christian town characterized by its beautiful churches. A Chaldean bishop resides here where the ruins of a synagogue harbour the grave of the Old Testament prophet Nahum. It would not have taken much for the black flag of the caliphate to now be waving over Alqosh as well. “In early August they were right before Alqosh,” Father Steven says. “But for reasons unknown to us, ISIS turned back. That is what saved us.”
Ready to risk their young lives
His fellow brother Ghazwan believes that this was the work of God. “It is a miracle that we can still be here. The police told us in the summer to leave the town immediately because ISIS was advancing relentlessly. Because of this, at times there was no one left here.” Only about 100 brave young men held out in the mountains near Alqosh, the priest continues. “They were ready to risk their young lives to defend the town from ISIS. They were ready to die for their homeland.” At first Father Ghazwan was forced to flee with the remaining inhabitants. But only for a week. “That was the first week in our long Christian history here in Alqosh in which no Mass was celebrated.” However, this was not the case for long. “I returned on 15 August. I wanted to be with our young people.”
Dozens of priests and religious have been made homeless in the past year. They not only lost their convents, churches and monasteries, but also their schools and children’s homes, basically the entire apostolate that they had built up over the years. “We lost 23 of our monasteries and houses,” Sister Suhama says. The Dominican Sister now lives in a development of terraced houses near Erbil. Aid to the Church in Need is helping her and dozens of other homeless Sisters, monks and priests to start anew. “We were 26 Sisters in Qaraqosh alone. We led a flourishing community life there. Some of our Sisters are having trouble getting over the loss. At night they dream of soon being able to return.” A Sister from the same community cries quietly as she listens to Sister Suhama. Fourteen older Sisters have even died of sorrow since they fled.
It is our job to be with our people
Sister Suhama says that it has not been easy to continue to lead a regular monastic life under these circumstances. “After all, we have to take care of those of our people who are now living here. They have a lot of problems. However, we are trying hard to keep Mass and prayer in their proper place.” Most importantly, the people need to feel that the church is close to them, the Sister emphasizes. “It is our job to be with our people. I don’t believe it will happen, but should the day come on which every last Christian leaves Iraq: we priests and nuns will be the last to leave.”
Just like the Sisters, the two seminarians Martin and Randi have also lost their homes. With the support of Aid to the Church in Need, the young men are now studying at the seminary in Erbil. “ISIS has strengthened our vocation,” says Randi, a Syrian Catholic seminarian from Qaraqosh. “Losing your home is of course a bitter pill to swallow. My parents are now living here as refugees. However, it is fortunate that the people have survived. That shows me that God is a God of life and not of property and objects. God is taking care of us.” Martin agrees with him. The Chaldean from Karamlish, a town near Qaraqosh, is already a deacon. “Our village priest and I were among the last to flee after we had made sure that no one had been left in the village. We were able to save the Holy Eucharist and several liturgical books. But nothing else. I truly feared for my life,” he says. As they fled to Erbil, he thought that death could be near. He is overcome by sadness when he thinks about his lost home. “I only want to be consecrated as a priest when I can celebrate the first Mass in my village. I realise that this may take months or longer.” Deacon Martin has consciously made the decision to live in Iraq. “My parents live in the US. I also spent some time there. But I wanted to return to Iraq. My place is here. This is where I want to serve the people.”
Randi also feels bound to the faithful. “I don’t just want to serve at the altar, but also take care of the poor. And we now have more than enough of these.” It pains him to see how more and more Christians are leaving Iraq for good. “However, although our flock may be even smaller in the future, we Christians still have an important job to do here. We have to rebuild our country. Despite everything, we have to learn how to live with the Muslims again. We have to teach our children to respect and esteem the other. Or else this will be missing from Iraq.”
The Catholic pastoral charity Aid to the Church in Need supports religious, priests and seminarians who have been forced to flee from ISIS. This is achieved by Mass stipends for priests as well as direct emergency aid for housing and provisions.