Will Christians in Iraq Survive the Aftermath of ISIS?

The 4th century monastery of St. Matthew. ISIS fighters were four kilometers from Iraq’s oldest monastery, which houses the tomb of a saint revered by Syriac Christianity, Alfaf, Iraq, Nov. 2, 2016. (PHOTO CREDIT: J. Dettmer/VOA)
The 4th century monastery of St. Matthew. ISIS fighters were four kilometers from Iraq’s oldest monastery, which houses the tomb of a saint revered by Syriac Christianity, Alfaf, Iraq, Nov. 2, 2016. (PHOTO CREDIT: J. Dettmer/VOA)

“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 Diyarbakır, 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.”

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SOURCE: VOA News, Jamie Dettmer