“I cannot believe my eyes when I see what ISIS has done to my church”

While most displaced Christians are still living in the Erbil refugee camp, the first 60 families have recently decided to return to Mosul, according to Patriarch Sako. Nadia, a Christian woman, visits the city for the first time after ISIS left. Jaco Klamer accompanied her and described the painful memories for Aid to the Church in Need. 

Lemons, grapefruits, oranges and figs grow in abundance in the three gardens of Nadia Younis Butti’s house in Mosul, the house her parents built from scratch. She used to enjoy the lush trees and alluring fruits, sitting in her rocking chair near the flourishing, scented bushes. On 17 July 2014, however, Nadia had to leave her house in Mosul, because ISIS had occupied the city. “With pain in my heart, I left.”

After the liberation of Mosul, Nadia returned to the city of her birth. “It is still extremely dangerous in Mosul,” sighs Nadia. “I just spoke to a police officer who lost a colleague this week, near the Mar Gurguis convent. He was shot at night. A lot of Mosul’s inhabitants have worked together with IS-jihadists for three years, and some might have relatives or family members who were with ISIS. There are a lot of Sunnits, who often supported IS. The city was released by the Iraqi army, which is supported by many Iranian Shiites. In Mosul, they are met with a lot of distrust: they aren’t seen as allies. For me, the city has not become safe since the recapture of Mosul.”

Time without worry

“Islamic State will always remain in Iraq.” This was the message a Jihadist wrote in black on a wall of the famous monastery of Saint George: Mar Gurguis, in Mosul. The Assyrian Nadia Younis Butti lets the words sink in while taking a look at the famous monastery, which has been completely destroyed by extremists.

“Each spring and each autumn, Christians gathered here with the monks in this monastery for three days,” she tells. “There were activities and we could spend the night here. I look back at that time without worry with great joy.”

Also Yohanna Youssef Towaya has many beautiful memories of the time where Christians could freely gather in the 17th century monastery of Saint George as well. Yohanna worked as a professor at the university of Mosul and lived in the city, but when the college got an extra building in Qaraqosh, he moved to that Christian city on the Nineveh plains.

With Nadia, he looks at the monastery’s dome, which is tilted, and walks through the imposing corridors of the monastery, of which the floors, walls, and arches have been stripped of the beautiful marble plates. Even for the altar, the jihadists showed no respect: it is wrecked. The marble plates have been stolen, only small pieces of it are scattered across the building. In a niche, dating from the 13th and 14thcentury stands a single statue: beheaded.

Praying during the demolition

In another niche, Nadia and Yohanna find prayer cards, a booklet with the New Testament and, weather-infested prayer books of the Chaldean Catholic Church, containing the well-known Morning Prayer:

“Our Lord and our God, at this time of morning, give salvation to the oppressed, release to the prisoners, recovery to the wounded, healing to the sick, return to those who are far away, protection to the kindred, forgiveness to the sinners, atonement to the descendants, exaltation to the righteous, support to those in need. (…) So act in Your kindness and mercy, now and ever shall be, world without end.”

“Amen,” whispers Nadia in the empty monastery, where no prayer has been heard in three years.

“The monks left for a monastery in Alqosh, where the prophet Nahum wrote his prophesies on the nearby city, Nineveh,” says professor Yohanna. “We aren’t sure the monks will ever return to Mosul, which is close to the ruins of Nineveh.”

An arrow on the walls of the monastery points into the direction of Mekka, so the IS warriors could say their prayers five times a day, during the demolition. Not even the graves of the monastery have been left alone during the occupation of ISIS: the gravestones have been thoroughly destroyed.

Cleaning up

Nadia and Yohanna drive through the devastated Mosul to Nadia’s house. They pass a UN storage unit, of which only the building structure is still standing. “Until 1996, I worked for the UN, for the WFP, in Mosul,” says Nadia. “The world had sanctioned Iraq, but we were allowed to trade oil for food and medicine. In those days, I was responsible for Mosul’s food supply.”

Nadia has to swallow as she enters her house’s garden. In 48 degrees Celsius, the fig tree is begging for water, and the rose bushes have obviously lacked her loving care. “You would take care of the garden,” she snaps at Mothes, the temporary inhabitant of her house. “You promised.”

With Mothes, Nadia assesses the damage: a couple of the rose bushes have not survived her absence. She tells us how she didn’t recognize the house when she and her mother first saw it back after the city’s liberation of ISIS. “Our home was damaged and dirty: all of our belongings had been thrown around. A beautiful painting of Josef, Maria and Jesus had been broken. We didn’t want to stay in Mosul for long and agreed with our neighbors that they would clean the house. I will sell the house as soon as I have the opportunity, in December me and my mother will decide what to do with it.”

Nadia is temporarily subletting the place to a Muslim family from Mosul: the forty-year-old Mothes and the thirty-three year old Zahra with their children Ufram, who is eighteen, Razak, who is fifteen, and the ten-year-old Ibrahim. During the occupation of ISIS, the family had fled to Basra, and they cannot return to their own home, because that has been destroyed.

Mothes was an officer in the Iraqi army. He tells us how he deserted after an attack from Al-Qaida. “I left Iraq and, after a journey through Samos, Greece, Germany and Denmark, I ended up in Sweden. My wife had stayed behind in Iraq and I did not receive permission to bring her to Sweden. After living in Sweden for one year, I returned to Iraq. My wish is to live in Mosul, but I will go abroad as soon as things are getting restless here again.”

Noah’s Ark

Nadia and Yohanna also enter the impressive church of the Holy Spirit. It appears that the church, built in the shape of Noah’s ark, has since the liberation in April been a shelter for four families from Zummar, which lies in the north of Iraq. Each family inhabits a separate room of the church, which was in the news in 2010 when the bishop was abducted and two priests and their guards were murdered. A third priest escaped, visited and took care of his colleagues’, his father’s and his brothers’ graves for years, and moved to Australia. “Long lives the caliphate!” The walls clad by ISIS seem to shout.

The new inhabitants of the church fled their houses from the increase in violence from ISIS three years ago. Abdullah, Mohammed, Mohammed, Muntaha, Nawaf, Raha, Raeid, Saher Yassur and Wassif are running excitedly through the large, empty hall of the church. “Due to the war, our children haven’t been able to go to school for three years,” sighs Khalil Hassan Mahammed (36). “We don’t know when this situation without a future will change.”

While his 35-year-old wife Helala Ali Saleh puts the finishing touch to the meal, Khalil tells us that they are Muslims and had to survive under ISIS’s reign for a long time. “We could not live in our own house anymore and had to stay in a refugee camp for one and a half years. Since January, the distribution of food has stopped: in the past months we received a food supply only once.”

Now the men try to provide for their families. “Sometimes I sell bottles of water, but it is hard for me to work because my leg is paralysed,” says Khalil. “Sometimes I can help restore houses that have been destroyed. That way, I can earn some money for my family.”

Khalil and Helala have no idea when they will be able to leave the church and return to their own village. “The Kurds have conquered our territory, but we heard that they have robbed our houses and destroyed them with bulldozers. The war with ISIS is over, but we still haven’t received permission from our liberators to return to our area. We don’t even know whether we’ll ever live in Zummar again.”

“Pay ransom or pay with your life”

“I can’t believe my eyes when I see what ISIS has done to my church,” whispers Nadia, while fighting tears, as she enters the Syrian Orthodox Church Mor Afraïm. “I remember sitting here, in the midst of my friends when the Mass was served very well. I remember being on the square outside with all the church members and using the rooms for meetings: the women in the rooms on the left, the men on the right. Thinking about that time saddens me deeply.”

“After the turn of the century, it was already getting worse for Christians in Mosul,” she recalls. “In 2008 and 2009, Christians were threatened, abducted and killed for their faith. I received a letter once that said I had to pay, or I would pay with my life. A well-known priest was abducted and slaughtered. His body was found back in pieces.”

“Now, the IS warriors have robbed every church, demolished them and covered them with texts: the marble plates are off the floors, the walls and arches have been broken and taken. Even the different floors have been damaged, to retrieve the threads of steel. I’m not sure my church will ever be fully restored,” Nadia sighs, as she walks past the church’s sanitary facilities that have been set outside to be sold. “The reconstruction of this church will cost a lot of money and energy, and for whom are we rebuilding it? All the Christians have left Mosul.”

“When I just looked up, I suddenly felt intense happiness. I saw that the blue dome with Jesus’ image had survived the occupation of ISIS reasonably well.  And, although not much of its beauty has remained, this image shows how beautiful my church was. The jihadists have only been able to destroy the edges of the picture. Seeing Jesus above me, in this destroyed church, gave me great joy.”

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