The hundred thousand faces of suffering of the Iraqi Christians

Erbil is overwhelming, amid its semi-desert surroundings and its crushing 44-degree temperatures in the Iraqi summer. At first one is struck by a deceptive air of peace in this, the capital of Kurdistan. There is nothing to suggest that in this part of the world, at this very moment, the destiny of thousands and thousands of people hangs in the balance. You cannot hear it, you cannot see it or sense it, but the Islamist forces are just 25 miles from here; and just a week ago they were at the very gates of the city. Behind the church walls, in the schools and the sports centres, in the shade of half-finished buildings, the reality is hidden: hundreds and hundreds of refugees, even up to 70,000 of them, scattered around 22 reception points. One of the main ones is the Chaldean Catholic cathedral, better known for its Church of Saint Joseph in Ankawa, the Christian quarter of the city. It is estimated that around 670 families have sought refuge here and in the buildings in the immediate vicinity. A makeshift tarpaulin, or the shade of the buildings are all the relief they have to protect themselves against the crushing, implacable heat. Most of them are sitting on the ground, in small family groups, on mattresses or sleeping mats. Others are seated on plastic chairs. Ankawa is one vast waiting room. There are hundreds of faces, but only one story, one witness, one destination that unites them all: they are refugees, condemned to death for being Christians.

 

Damaged cross on St. George's Monastery (Mar Gurguis) in Mosul
Damaged cross in Mosul

 

On 6 August the Kurdish Peshmerga fighters, who were defending the Christian area to the north of Mosul, withdrew. The first bomb fell on the house of the Alyias in Qaraqosh, killing two children, David and Mirat, both cousins, who were playing in the garden, and gravely wounded a third person. The alarm rapidly spread from there throughout the city: “ISIS is at the gates, the Peshmerga are no longer defending us; take your families and flee!” Qaraqosh was a city of some 50,000, a Christian city for centuries. Everyone left with whatever they could carry. The only ones who remained behind were those who could not move from their houses, the sick and elderly. The people of Qaraqosh were joined by those from other smaller towns in the surrounding area, such as Bartella and Karemlesh. During those days an estimated total of 100,000 Christians left their homes in the region of Niniveh in an exodus of apocalyptic proportions, fleeing in the direction of Duhok, Zahko and Erbil. It is hard to imagine the panic people must feel within in order to leave without looking back, taking nothing with them but the clothes on their backs. But not so hard for those who already know and have lived for years surrounded by, suffocated by and attacked by this islamic findamentalism. Many of them still bear in their very bones the trauma of 10th June, when in the space of a few hours ISIS forces seized Mosul without anyone attempting to defend it. Nobody – neither its politicians, nor its army – moved a finger. In the city of Mosul alone, it is estimated that more than 1000 people have been murdered for their faith since the defeat of Saddam Hussein. Every family has its own tragedy, its own dramatic story; everybody has family members who were murdered, massacred: “This is my brother Salman, he was 43 years old; they shot him three times in the head, five years ago, in Mosul.” Next to the speaker, his mother slowly takes out the photo, holding it between both hands: there is so much pain in this gesture, in those eyes. They fled from Mosul and took refuge in a village close to the ancient monastery of Mar Mattai (Saint Matthew) where they had relatives. They thought they were safe there; hope was reborn for the future; but the advance of the Islamic State forced them to flee again. A few miles from there, Yacoub, another refugee, shows us his leg, crippled and covered with scars from the bomb that exploded in 2008 in a church in Mosul. When the jihadists issued their ultimatum to the Christians in Mosul in July, Yacoub fled with his four daughters to Al Qosh, then from there he left in a second exodus two weeks ago to the north of Duhok. He has lost his land, his home, everything he possessed; he has suffered the consequences of the destruction in his own body. But it is not the scars on his leg that trouble him; the great sadness for Yacoub is the future of his four daughters.

“Not for us, but for our children”, this is the unspoken appeal of a mother of one of the six Syrian Orthodox families who have found shelter beneath the awning of a tent in the Chaldean community of Mangesh – 16 children altogether. One of the little girls is singing a song in English, surrounded by all the other children: “They all love me, they all love me”. The children, who understand nothing of wars, or hatred, or massacres, who know nothing of what is happening, are not concerned about the future. It is strange to see so many children together, yet not see a single toy, a single doll. Many of the babies are lying directly on the floor, some of them are in little carry cots.

Sleiman is carrying his three-year-old daughter in his arms. “What has she done for them to throw her of her land and make her have to live like this?” “Like this” in this case means living eight families to a single room, with mattresses, food and water given them by the Church, in infernal heat and in subhuman conditions. In Erbil there are field tents set up for those who cannot find space in the rooms of a sports centre, with around eight persons in each. It is like an inferno during the day, given the extreme temperatures reaching as high as 48° inside the tent. At night time there is the danger of being bitten by rats and scorpions.

“We are saving our lives, the honour of our wives and daughters, and our faith.” These are the three principal reasons for their precipitate flight. And this swift action is what has saved them from suffering the fate of the Yazidi community, who were massacred, raped and enslaved. Nevertheless, for the Christians of Niniveh, Qaraqosh, Al Qosh, Telfek and so many other places, they have been robbed of something more than purely material things, namely, hope. “I cannot go on living here”, laments the father of David, one of the boys killed by the Isis bomb in Qaraqosh. “This country is drenched with blood”. The mother, a young woman clothed completely in mourning, buries her head in her hands, weeping. They have no papers, no passports. They don’t know how to go about requesting a visa, but they keep repeating over and over again that they want to go, they don’t care where, but simply out of this land of suffering. Here there are no specialist staff to help them deal with their trauma and tragedy; they are crowded together with all the other refugees in a school in Ankawa. His brother Adeeb used to work for the dam in Mosul. In broken but clear English he asks, “Why is it that the Muslims who come from outside have their rights recognised in the European countries, while here they treat us like dogs – yet in our case we haven’t even come from outside – this is our country, isn’t it?” Adeeb speaks of the biblical roots of Niniveh, of the land of the Tigris and Euphrates, of the presence of the Christians in Mosul since the second century, of the monastery of Saint Matthew, of the Aramaic language, the maternal language of Christ, of the Syrian and Chaldean Catholics, of the Orthodox Christian communities and of an entire, centuries-old religious and cultural heritage, now wounded by death.

Yet this past is also present, real and active. The priests, religious and bishops are all trying to help in whatever way they can. They are everywhere, calling, organising, asking, listening, counselling, praying. What would become of them if the Church were not here? Who would care for them? In Erbil, as in Duhok, where there are another 60,000 or so Christian refugees scattered among the villages and hamlets to the north of the city – some even as far as the frontier with Turkey. The work being done by the Church is extraordinary.

Father Samir is a Chaldean Catholic priest in one of these villages to the north of Duhok. He tells of the shock of that first day when, throughout the night until the morning, this innumerable exodus of people continued to arrive, filling the streets, sleeping in their cars, on the pavements. In the parish catechetical centre alone there are now 77 families, Syrian Orthodox, 321 people altogether, of whom 35 are children. Father Samir does not return home before one or two in the morning. Days of work have continued since then, without a minute’s pause. At 10 o’clock at night there is a call on his mobile phone explaining that two Yazidi families are on the roadway with nothing. Father Samir goes out to find them, to bring them matresses and to find them a place to stay in his sister’s house.

Bishop Emil Nona, the Chaldean Archbishop of Mosul, is one of five bishops who have likewise been expelled and displaced and who have lost their homes. He comes round, accompanied by a priest, bringing packets of foodstuffs, visiting the communities, noting  their needs: mattresses, tents, a fridge, medicines. He counsels and encourages them. This is a time when the suffering Church comes face to face with the heroic Church which truly lives the Gospel. It is a Church which needs the support, the prayers and the solidarity of its Christian brothers and sisters throughout the world.

In Erbil, Duhok and Zakho, all over Iraq, the face of suffering is seen on so many faces and in so many tears, and there is little hope left: “Only that of a Christian when the merely human has disappeared”. And everywhere one hears the unanimous cry: “Help us, we cannot continue like this. We, the Christians of Iraq are victims of disaster, holding out our hands in the hope that someone will save us from death.” They are hoping that the international community will respond and that it will not be the Church alone who comes to their aid. It is a matter of more than mere Christian charity; it is a matter of salvaging the present, the past and the future of an ancestral culture and religion. And so they are calling for immediate aid to help them get out of these makeshift camps, from those tents, suffocating beneath the sun. But also for lasting help – protection and security, the right to live their faith, which for the Iraqi Christians is their very culture and identity and which they wish to live in their own land – the land that belonged to their fathers and grandfathers.

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Que signifie pour vous cette visite ?

La visite du Pape nous remontera le moral, plus que toute autre chose. Tous les yeux de la planète seront dirigés vers Baghdeda. Le monde saura ainsi ce qui est arrivé à cette ville : les terribles destructions et la migration forcée. Ce serait également bien si nous recevions ensuite un peu plus d’aide et de soutien. Cette visite est très importante pour nous qui sommes ici, surtout après l’énorme migration forcée de tant des nôtres. Cette visite signifie que nous ne sommes pas seuls et qu’il y a des gens qui prient pour nous. Cela nous donnera de l’espoir, nous encouragera à rester dans notre pays et à ne pas le quitter.

Qu’aimeriez-vous dire au Saint-Père ?

Si j’ai l’occasion de le rencontrer, je voudrais le remercier pour sa visite qui nous rend très heureux, et pour ses prières. Je tiens également à le remercier pour toute l’aide qu’il nous a procurée ces derniers temps. Je n’oublie pas sa grande solidarité et le geste qu’il a fait en vendant aux enchères la Lamborghini qu’on lui avait donnée pour soutenir avec l’argent récolté la reconstruction de la plaine de Ninive. Je voudrais aussi qu’il continue à prier pour nous afin que la paix arrive en Irak.

Qu’aimeriez-vous lui montrer à Qaraqosh/Baghdeda ? Que devrait-il visiter ?

Je voudrais lui montrer l’église historique Al-Tahira et des photos de Baghdeda, je voudrais qu’il voie comment l’État Islamique l’a détruite et comment les gens d’ici ont eu le courage de la reconstruire.

¿Qué significa la visita para usted?
La visita del Papa levantará el ánimo y la moral, más que cualquier otra cosa. Todos los ojos del mundo se dirigirán a Baghdeda. Así, el mundo sabrá lo que le sucedió a esta ciudad. La terrible destrucción y la migración forzada. También sería bueno si luego recibimos más ayuda y apoyo. Esta visita es realmente importante para nosotros, los que estamos aquí, especialmente después de la enorme migración forzada de tantos de los nuestros. La visita significa que no estamos solos y hay quienes rezan por nosotros. Esto nos dará esperanza, nos animará a permanecer en nuestra tierra y no dejarla.

¿Qué le gustaría decirle al santo padre?
Si tengo la oportunidad de encontrarme con él: quiero agradecerle su visita, que nos hace muy felices, y su oración. También quiero darle las gracias por todo lo que nos ha ayudado durante el último periodo. No me olvido de su gran solidaridad y del gesto de subastar el Lamborghini para apoyar con ese dinero la reconstrucción de la llanura de Nínive. También quiero que siga orando por nosotros para que la paz llegue a Irak.

¿Qué le gustaría mostrarle en Baghdeda /Qaraqosh? ¿Qué debería visitar?
Quiero mostrarle la histórica iglesia Al-Tahira y fotos de Baghdeda, quiero que vea cómo fue destruida por ISIS y cómo la gente de aquí ha sido tan fuerte para reconstruirla nuevamente.

Was bedeutet der Besuch für Sie?
Der Besuch des Papstes wird die Stimmung und die Moral heben, mehr als alles andere. Alle Augen der Welt werden auf Baghdida gerichtet sein. Dann wird die Welt erfahren, was mit dieser Stadt passiert ist, die schreckliche Zerstörung und die erzwungene Migration. Es wäre auch gut, wenn wir anschließend mehr Hilfe und Unterstützung bekommen würden. Dieser Besuch ist wirklich wichtig für uns hier, besonders nach der großen Zwangsmigration so vieler unserer Leute. Der Besuch bedeutet, dass wir nicht allein sind, und dass es Menschen gibt, die für uns beten. Das wird uns Hoffnung geben, es wird uns ermutigen, in unserem Land zu bleiben und es nicht zu verlassen.

Was würden Sie dem Heiligen Vater gerne sagen?
Wenn ich die Gelegenheit habe, ihn zu treffen: Ich möchte ihm für seinen Besuch, der uns sehr glücklich macht, und für sein Gebet danken. Ich möchte mich auch bei ihm für alles bedanken, was uns in der letzten Zeit geholfen hat. Ich werde nie seine große Solidarität vergessen sowie die Geste, den Lamborghini zu versteigern (siehe Link zur Meldung), um mit diesem Geld den Wiederaufbau der Ninive-Ebene zu unterstützen. Ich möchte auch, dass er weiterhin für uns betet, damit im Irak Frieden einkehrt.

Was möchten Sie ihm in Baghdida /Karakosch zeigen? Was sollte er besuchen?
Ich möchte ihm die historische Al-Tahira-Kirche zeigen und Bilder von Baghdida, ich möchte, dass er sieht, wie alles von ISIS zerstört wurde und welcher Kraft die Menschen hier es wiederaufgebaut haben.

What does the Pope’s visit mean to you?
The papal visit will lift up our spirits and morale more than anything else. All the eyes of the world will be on Baghdeda. And in this way the world will know what happened to this city. The terrible destruction and the forcible ethnic cleansing. It will also be a good thing if afterwards we get more support and help. This visit is really important to us, to those of us who are living here, especially after the massive ethnic cleansing and expulsion of so many of us. His visit means that we are not alone and that there are people who are praying for us. This will give us fresh hope and encourage us to persevere, here on our own soil, and not leave it.

What would you like to say to the Holy Father?
If I get the opportunity to meet him, I would like to be able to thank him for his visit, which has made us very happy, and for his prayers. I would also like to thank him for all he has done to help us in recent times. I have not forgotten his great gesture of solidarity in auctioning the Lamborghini in order to use the money to help pay for the reconstruction of our homes on the Niniveh plains. I would also like to ask him to continue praying for us and for peace to return to Iraq.

What would you like to show him in Qaraqosh/ Baghdeda? Which places should he visit?
I would like to show him our historic Al-Tahira church, and some photos of Baghdeda. I’d like him to be able to see how it was destroyed by IS and how the people here have worked so hard recently to rebuild it once more.

Qu’est-ce que cette visite signifie pour vous ?

La visite du Pape est ce que nous désirions le plus ici. C’est une grande bénédiction. Nous avons un grand désir de le voir. Ce qui rajoute de l’importance à cette visite, c’est la situation de vulnérabilité que nous, chrétiens, subissons en Irak. Il y a plusieurs raisons à cette fragilité, toutes sont les séquelles de l’État Islamique. Toutes ces destructions ont grandement contribué à l’émigration des chrétiens. De nombreux problèmes pèsent sur nous. Mais par sa visite, le Pape nous donnera de l’espérance et de la confiance, il nous encouragera et réduira notre fardeau. Bien que la situation soit instable en Irak en ce qui concerne la sécurité, tout spécialement dans le domaine politique, on s’attend à ce qu’à l’arrivée du Pape, sa sécurité soit correctement assurée.

Qu’aimeriez-vous dire au Saint-Père ?

Je voudrais lui demander de me donner sa bénédiction, de bénir mon travail et le dévouement des prêtres d’ici, et de bénir le peuple par ses prières. Je voudrais lui demander d’aider tous ceux qui sont en danger dans ce pays, qu’ils soient chrétiens ou musulmans. Qu’il tente de mobiliser les pays du monde entier pour soutenir ce pays qui a besoin d’aide.

Qu’aimeriez-vous lui montrer à Qaraqosh/Baghdeda ? Que devrait-il visiter ?

J’aimerais qu’il visite l’église Al-Tahira, parce que c’est un symbole et un élément du patrimoine de Baghdeda. Cette église est la mère, le foyer et le patrimoine de chacun des habitants de Baghdeda. Nos ancêtres ont construit cette église, nous avons tous le sentiment d’en faire partie. Bien sûr, nous serions heureux qu’il visite de nombreux endroits, des églises, monastères et maisons traditionnelles, et qu’il rencontre également beaucoup de gens qui ont le désir de le voir.

¿Qué significa la visita para usted?
La visita del Papa es lo que más hemos deseado aquí. Es una gran bendición. Sentimos un gran anhelo de verlo. Lo que agrega importancia a esta visita son las condiciones tan vulnerables que sufrimos los cristianos en Irak. Hay varios motivos para esa fragilidad, todas las secuelas que ha dejado el ISIS, esa enorme destrucción ha llevado en gran medida a la emigración de cristianos. Muchos problemas pesan sobre nosotros. Pero cuando nos visite, nos dará esperanza, confianza y aliento y reducirá esta carga. Además del hecho de que la situación de seguridad en Irak, especialmente la política, es inestable, se espera que a la llegada del Papa se garantice su seguridad de manera correcta.

¿Qué le gustaría decirle al santo padre?
Querría pedirle que me dé su bendición, que bendiga mi servicio y la entrega de los sacerdotes aquí y que bendiga al pueblo a través de sus plegarias. Le pido que ayude a todos los que están en peligro en este país, ya sean cristianos o musulmanes. Que intente movilizar a los países del mundo para que apoyen a este país que necesita ayuda.

 ¿Qué le gustaría mostrarle en Baghdeda / Qaraqosh? ¿Qué debería visitar?
Me encantaría que visite la iglesia Al-Tahira, porque es símbolo y patrimonio de Baghdeda. Esta iglesia es madre, hogar y herencia de cada uno de los habitantes de Baghdeda. Nuestros antepasados ​​construyeron esta iglesia, todos nos sentimos parte de ella. Ciertamente, nos alegraría que visitara muchos lugares, iglesias, monasterios y casas tradicionales,  también que vea a muchas personas que anhelan verlo.

Was bedeutet der Besuch für Sie?
Der Besuch des Papstes ist das, was wir uns hier am meisten gewünscht haben. Es ist ein großer Segen. Wir spüren eine starke Sehnsucht, ihn zu sehen. Was diesen Besuch noch wichtiger macht, sind die äußerst prekären Bedingungen, unter denen wir Christen im Irak leiden. Es gibt mehrere Gründe für diese Zerbrechlichkeit. All die Folgen, die ISIS hinterlassen hat, diese enorme Zerstörung hat in großem Maße zur Auswanderung von Christen geführt. Viele Probleme lasten auf uns. Aber wenn er uns besucht, wird er uns Hoffnung, Zuversicht und Ermutigung geben und diese Last verringern. Auch wenn die Sicherheitslage im Irak, insbesondere die politische Situation, instabil ist, hoffen wir, dass bei der Ankunft des Papstes seine Sicherheit ausreichend gewährleistet ist.

 

Was würden Sie dem Heiligen Vater gerne sagen?
Ich möchte ihn bitten, mir seinen Segen zu geben, meinen Dienst und die Hingabe der Priester hier zu segnen und die Menschen durch seine Gebete zu segnen. Ich bitte ihn, all jenen zu helfen, die in diesem Land in Gefahr sind, ob sie nun Christen oder Muslime sind; und die Länder der Welt zu mobilisieren, um dieses Land, das Hilfe braucht, zu unterstützen.

Was möchten Sie ihm in Baghdida / Karakosch zeigen? Was sollte er besuchen?
Ich möchte, dass er die Al-Tahira-Kirche besucht, denn sie ist ein Symbol und Erbe von Baghdida. Diese Kirche ist die Mutter, die Heimat und das Vermächtnis eines jeden einzelnen Menschen in Baghdida. Unsere Vorfahren haben diese Kirche erbaut, wir alle fühlen uns als Teil von ihr. Sicherlich würden wir uns freuen, wenn er viele Orte, Kirchen, Klöster und traditionelle Häuser besuchen würde, und auch, wenn er viele Menschen treffen würde, die sich danach sehnen, ihn zu sehen.

What does the visit mean to you?
The papal visit is the thing we have longed for most of all here. It will be a great blessing. We have a great yearning to see him. What gives added importance to this visit is the so very vulnerable situation that we are suffering as Christians in Iraq. There are many reasons for this vulnerability, including the aftermath of what IS left behind, the enormous destruction which has led in such large measure to the emigration of the Christians. There are many problems weighing on us. But when he comes to visit us, he will give us new hope and confidence and some relief from this burden. In addition there is the fact that the security situation in Iraq, and especially the political situation, is so unstable, so we are hoping that when the Pope does arrive they will guarantee his security in the way that they should.

 

What would you like to say to the Holy Father?
I would like to ask him to give me his blessing, to bless my ministry and the hard work of all the priests here, and also to bless all the people through his prayers. I would ask him to help all those in danger in this country, whether they are Christians or Muslims. And that he might strive to encourage the countries of the world to support this nation, which is truly in need.

What would you like to show him in Qaraqosh/ Baghdeda? What places ought he to visit?
I would love him to visit the Al-Tahira church, because it is a symbol and a rich cultural legacy of Baghdeda. This church is the mother, the home and the inheritance of every one of the inhabitants of Baghdeda. Our forefathers built this church, and we all feel we are a part of it. Of course, we would be happy for him to visit many different places – churches, monasteries and traditional homes – and also for him to be able to meet all the many people who are longing to see him.

Que signifie pour vous cette visite ?

Elle a une valeur morale, et non pas économique. Cette question occupera l’opinion publique mondiale, et tout spécialement irakienne. J’ai l’impression d’y tenir une place importante.

 

Qu’aimeriez-vous dire au Saint-Père ?

Ce sera formidable de faire sa connaissance, et je voudrais lui dire : « Nous avons besoin d’une protection internationale parce que notre communauté chrétienne a subi une migration forcée ».

Qu’aimeriez-vous lui montrer à Qaraqosh/Baghdeda ? Que devrait-il visiter ?

J’aimerais lui montrer les églises et les maisons brûlées, afin qu’il voie les dégâts que l’État Islamique a laissés derrière lui dans cette ville. Et aussi notre Musée du patrimoine de Baghdeda pour lui présenter notre histoire et notre culture.

¿Qué significa la visita para usted?
La visita tiene un valor moral, no económico. Este tema ocupará la opinión pública en el mundo y especialmente en Irak. Siento que tengo un lugar importante en él.

 

¿Qué le gustaría decirle al santo padre?
Será genial conocerlo y querría decirle “necesitamos protección internacional, porque nuestra comunidad cristiana ha sufrido una migración forzada”.

¿Qué le gustaría mostrarle en Baghdeda /Qaraqosh? ¿Qué debería visitar?
Me gustaría mostrarle las iglesias y las casas quemadas, para que vea el daño que dejó ISIS en esta ciudad. Y también nuestro Museo del patrimonio de Baghdeda para presentarle nuestro historia y cultura.

Was bedeutet der Besuch für Sie?
Der Besuch hat einen moralischen Wert, keinen wirtschaftlichen. Er wird die öffentliche Meinung in der Welt und insbesondere im Irak beherrschen. Ich habe das Gefühl, dass ich einen wichtigen Anteil daran habe.

Was würden Sie dem Heiligen Vater gerne sagen?
Es wird großartig sein, ihn zu treffen, und ich möchte ihm sagen: „Wir brauchen internationalen Schutz, weil unsere christliche Gemeinschaft unter der erzwungenen Auswanderung gelitten hat“.

Was möchten Sie ihm in Baghdida /Karakosch zeigen? Was sollte er besuchen?
Ich möchte ihm die Kirchen und ausgebrannten Häuser zeigen, damit er den Schaden sieht, den ISIS in dieser Stadt angerichtet hat. Und auch unser Heimatmuseum in Baghdida, um ihm unsere Geschichte und Kultur näher zu bringen.

What does this visit mean to you?
This visit has a moral value rather than an economic one. This is a topic that will engage public opinion around the world and especially in Iraq. I feel as though I have an important part to play in it.

What would you like to say to the Holy Father?

It would be wonderful to be able to meet him, and I would like to be able to say to him, “We need international protection, because our Christian community was forcibly displaced.”

What would you like to show him in Qaraqosh/ Baghdeda? What places should he visit?
I would like to be able to show him the churches and houses that were burnt out, so that he could see the destruction left behind by IS in this city. And also our Baghdeda Heritage Museum, so that we can show him our history and culture.