Ancient Iraqi Christian community uneasy about future this Easter

Jane Arraf | The Christian Science Monitor
In the small church of St. Addaie the Messenger, the crucifixion and resurrection, retold in the village for the past 2,000 years, was re-enacted in elaborate Easter celebrations by a community holding fast to its ancient traditions but uneasy about its future.

The village is fewer than 20 miles from Mosul, one of Iraq’s most violent cities, but inside the green line that separates the Kurdish-controlled north from central-government controlled Iraq.

Hundreds of its 1,500 residents were driven from Mosul by the killings and kidnappings of Christians that have recently begun to wane. Rising political tensionsbetween the Kurdish government and Baghdad over oil and land have raised fears about the fate of towns and villages claimed by both governments.

“Our problem now is that this area neither belongs to the Iraqi government nor to the government of Kurdistan – it is somewhere in between,” says Monsignor Yousif Shamon Qahwachi, who has served the village’s Chaldean Catholic community for four decades. “We don’t know where we will end up.”

Reflecting better security, Easter commemorations seemingly involving the entire village, were the most elaborate in years. A giant painted Easter egg marked a main road into town. Across from the church, cut-outs of Roman soldiers and a canvas rock guarded a mock cave where a representation of Jesus’ body lay. On Saturday afternoon, as parishioners recited prayers at St. Addaie, a white-robed procession led by a young priest walked through the narrow winding streets to bring back the communion chalice to mark Christ’s resurrection.

In a highlight of the ceremony, a large crucifix suspended by wires from the ceiling floated up from the floor followed by a clash of cymbals signifying the battle for light over darkness. Women, most with their hair covered with lace mantillas, ululated in celebration.

Ancient history

The village is built on the remains of a 3,000-year-old settlement between the Assyrian capitals of Ninevah and Nimrud. Relics attributed to Saint Barbara,believed by the faithful to be an early martyr put to death by her pagan father for converting to Christianity, are enshrined in a chapel on the hill.

Four years ago, its proximity to Mosul and car-bombings of other less protected towns led residents to build a trench around the entire village. At night theentrances to the village are blocked by parked cars and townspeople carrying rifles question strangers.

In the church is the tomb of a young priest shot dead by Al Qaeda in Mosul in 2007.

“They told us we have to leave and they threatened us,” says Gorgia Sumlan, the mother of Ragheed Aziz Ganni, the murdered priest. “They left us a note at home saying you have to pay $50,000 or we will kill you. If you report us we will come and cut your heads off.”

Father Ragheed sent his parents to Karamles and the following June he was shot dead.


Like other Christian communities in the disputed areas, a steady stream of families have departed either legally or illegally to Europe and the United States. Despite its own violent upheaval, Syria still serves as a way station for Iraqi refugees hoping for a better life in the West.

The community has been neglected by both the Kurdish and Iraqi governments, says Monsignor Yousif. Water is sometimes cut off for days. There are almost no jobs.

Over the years, some townspeople have made their homes within the crumbling stone walls of the remains of centuries-old homes.

In one of them, Ramzi Slewa and his wife Samira Rafwa have raised three children on the tiny income from selling candy and soft drinks from a cart. Their son recently made his way to Germany. Their daughter Vera is studying at technical college in Mosul. It’s safe enough now to go back and forth every day.

“We came here because it’s safe but we want to remain a part of Mosul,” she says. “How can we join Kurdistan – we don’t speak the same language.”Monsignor Yousif longs for the multi-religious, multi-ethnic society Iraq was in the past. The community is split but in his view Iraq’s increasingly small numbers of Christians would be better off joining a small independent Kurdish region rather than being lost in an Arab Muslim sea.

For years we’ve been asking for many things to revive the area but no one is listening to us,” says the monsignor. ‘We do not officially belong to Kurdistan or the federal government in Baghdad. We’ve been lost.”