Archbishop recalls terror that forced Iraqi Christians to flee for their lives

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Iraqi cleric, now visiting family in Toronto, says fellow Syriac Orthodox believers faced exile or death in the face of Islamic State.
Archbishop of Mosul Mor Nicodemus Dauoud Matti Sharaf, now living in exile from the ancient Christian community in Mosul, has recently visited family in Toronto.

Archbishop of Mosul Mor Nicodemus Dauoud Matti Sharaf, now living in exile from the ancient Christian community in Mosul, has recently visited family in Toronto.
By: Debra Black Immigration Reporter, Published on Sat Aug 08 2015

For four days, Archbishop Nicodemus Daoud Matti Sharaf heard bombs going off outside his home in Mosul. Shuttered inside, he knew little about what was going on, other than that the Iraqi army and Islamic State fighters were battling for control of the city he loved.

As he sits in his brother’s home in Richmond Hill, the battle for Mosul seems very far away. The calm suburbs are a respite for him. The 39-year-old Archbishop of the Syriac Orthodox Church in Mosul, Kirkuk and the Kurdistan region of Iraq is here for a rest, to visit his family — his brother and his wife and their children, along with his parents, who all live here now — and to reach out to the Iraqi Christian community across the GTA.

Last year in early June, the Islamic State extremist group was closing in on Mosul. Iraqi Christians and other minorities were fearful of the outcome. But many, like the Archbishop, were determined to hold tight.

“We hear the voice of the bombs,” he tells the Star. “Boom. Boom. Boom. Boom. But we cannot go out to know what is the situation outside. There was a curfew.”

For more than a decade, the region has been in turmoil. Life has not been easy for Iraqi Christians, especially the clergy. Since 2003 and the U.S. invasion of Iraq, the Christian community — made up mostly of followers of the Chaldean Church and the Assyrian Church there, said to be as old as the religion itself — has been decimated.

At least half of the country’s Christian population has fled for safer regions such as Kurdistan or even other countries.

“For 10 or 11 years, we lived in Mosul without government,” explains Archbishop Sharaf. “There is no real government in Iraq. It’s like a chess game.”

Before the Islamic State group captured Mosul, Al Qaeda had a strong presence in the city, making everyday life difficult for both Christians and Muslims, says the Archbishop. Al Qaeda would force Muslims to pay a heavy tax, collecting millions, and then would kidnap Christians for a hefty ransom.

In those last few days before the fall of Mosul, the Archbishop didn’t believe a time would come that he would have to leave his beloved archdiocese. But he worried about his parishioners and prayed for peace.

Then on the afternoon of June 9, 2014, he got a call from the Interior Minister of Kurdistan — a friend of his — telling him he should leave Mosul. But how could he leave, he wondered. His car would be a target. He couldn’t walk on the streets for fear of being shot.

Not knowing what to do, the Archbishop called an acquaintance in the Iraqi Army who also advised him to leave as soon as possible. He told him he would send an army escort for him. Three minutes later, the escort arrived and Archbishop Nicodemus Daoud Matti Sharaf was told he had five minutes to pack up his belongings and be escorted out of Mosul.

“I left the archdiocese house with very little — just my clothes. I forgot to take my laptop. I took just my passport and seven manuscripts that are very old.”

But he left behind hundreds of other valuable religious manuscripts dating, he says, to the second and third century of Christianity. As the entourage left, the Archbishop called his priests and parishioners on his two mobile phones, frantically advising them to get out.

All around him, thousands of others were also fleeing with little more than the clothes on their back. It is an image that still haunts him today — lines of exiles walking out of their homeland in shock and fear.

A few weeks later, some of those same exiles returned to Mosul, hoping to pick up the pieces of their lives, the Archbishop says. But the Islamic State had different plans, telling them they must convert, pay a heavy tax or die, he says. Indeed, one Toronto Iraqi Christian told the Star his mother and sister were given that exact choice. There was no choice for them. They fled and now are in a refugee camp in Jordan.

Those who incorrectly believed they could return to life as usual under the Islamic State once more had to leave their homeland. This time, however, they tried to take their possessions, says the Archbishop. But Islamic State fighters were waiting for them at checkpoints and stripped them of all their worldly goods, he says.

“They took everything from them — their cars; money, gold, even baby diapers. And they told them: ‘You are dogs.’ ”

Now he, along with thousands of other Iraqi Christians, is living in exile in Ankawa, a small town in the autonomous region of Kurdistan, 90 kilometres north of Mosul.

In total, the Archbishop estimates there are about 140,000 Christian Iraqi refugees in Kurdistan, most of them from Mosul. Prior to 2003, estimates suggest, there were 130,000 Iraqi Christians in Mosul alone. Just before Islamic State took over Mosul, they were down to about 10,000, according to Associated Press.

In exile, accommodations and food supplies are sparse. Many families are sharing caravans or shipping containers as shelter, while others are luckier and share a simple home.

At first the church was able to help provide shelter and food, but the costs have become overwhelming and international relief is needed, he says. And they’re not alone. Other exiles include the Yazidis, a religious Kurdish group also targeted by Islamic State.

“We lost everything — our churches, our monasteries, our houses, our history. Our churches in Mosul are not new churches,” the Archbishop said. “The cathedral is from the 5th or 6th century of Christianity. This is our place; our land. When someone wants to take this land, this history, they take everything, even our dignity.”


1.4 million: Christians living in Iraq according to 1986 census.

1,000,000: Estimated number of Christians who made Iraq their home prior to 2003 and the invasion and toppling of Saddam Hussein.

450,000: Estimated number of Christians still living in parts of Iraq as of 2014.

130,000: Estimated Christian population in Mosul, home to one of the most ancient Christian communities in the region, prior to 2003.

2,000: Estimated number of Christians still in Mosul as of 2014.

300,000: Iraqi refugees from Ninawa province, of which Mosul is capital, now living in the Kurdistan region, according to the UNHCR.

1.2 million: Iraqi refugees displaced by fighting in 2014, according to the UNHCR.