“THE Lord is my shepherd,” says the psalmist, but Nicodemus Daoud Sharaf is finding it devilishly hard to tend his flock. As archbishop of Mosul’s Syriac Orthodox church, he has been chased out of one of Christianity’s oldest dioceses. Most of his congregation fled when the city was conquered by the jihadists of Islamic State (IS); now he ministers to what is left of it in Erbil, the capital of Iraq’s Kurdish region.
Archbishop Nicodemus says he was the last senior churchman to leave Mosul in July 2014. Since then, he says, 32 churches in Mosul and in the surrounding plain of Nineveh have been burnt or put to other uses. His cathedral is now a mosque dedicated to jihad. “For the first time in the history of Christianity, there are no Christians praying in Mosul,” he adds, weeping. “Even under the Mongol hordes and Hulagu Khan [in the 13th century] it wasn’t so bad.”
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As the archbishop sees it, the IS takeover is the culmination of a lengthy campaign by assorted Muslims to squeeze Christianity out of the Middle East. During the first world war Sunni Turks and Kurds purged Anatolia of Greek, Armenian and Syriac Christians, partly in response to the earlier expulsions of Muslims from the Crimea and south-eastern Europe by Orthodox Christians. Since then, he says, Sunni Arabs have done most of the tormenting. When Iraq became independent in 1932, Christians made up 12% of its people. By the time Saddam Hussein was ousted in 2003, they had fallen to 6%. Since America’s invasion, two-thirds of Iraq’s remaining 1.5m Christians have left.
Though Sunni jihadists have been in the vanguard of efforts to kill or expel Christians, Iraq’s Shia-led establishment has hardly been friendly: the government adorns its flag with the Islamic salute, Allahu akbar (“God is greatest”), implicitly demoting non-Muslims. “Christian Syriacs were here first,” says the archbishop. “But our guests took us over”
Many of Iraq’s city centres, he adds, were once predominantly Christian—including Erbil, his Kurdish-run haven. The Kurds, he admits, have given sanctuary what is left of his flock. In Ankawa, a district of Erbil that has become the Christians’ Iraqi heartland, a statue of the Virgin Mary stands tall. On Sunday evenings Ankawa’s churches are full, mostly with people displaced by IS. A Catholic university opened last year. The Kurdish government’s religious-affairs ministry has departments for Christians, Yazidis and Jews. Its flag has no Muslim symbol.
Archbishop Nicodemus can do little more than vent his grievances on local television. Saddam’s rule was bad, he says. So is that of Syria’s leader, Bashar al-Assad. But the jihadists who have taken their place are worse. Iraq’s minorities were once the glue that straddled Iraq’s sectarian and ethnic lines and held the country together. No longer. In his father’s day, Christians would celebrate Easter by parading through Mosul’s streets, thumping their drums. It was the same in Damascus. Now the dwindling remnants stay indoors.