Christians driven from the ruins of Nineveh

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Sacred Mysteries: the people who worship using the language Jesus spoke are trying hard to survive in Iraq
Christian refugee childen Erbil
Christian refugee children who live in an unfinished shopping mall in Erbil Photo: MATT CARDY/ GETTY IMAGES
Christopher Howse By Christopher Howse7:00AM BST 18 Apr 2015
The ruins of Nineveh, once the biggest city in the world, lie beside the river Tigris. On the other side of the river stands Mosul, a city of a million, the largest place still under the rule of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (Isil). A decade ago, 35,000 Christians lived in the city; last year there were 3,000; the day Isil took over all were either killed or fled.
I will not give a catalogue of the horrors in Iraq and Syria, but it is worth realising what is being lost with the death and exile of Christians there and the destruction of their churches and libraries.
When the prophet Jonah was sent to preach to the people of Nineveh, they repented and God did not visit on them the destruction that Jonah had announced. This “displeased Jonah exceedingly, and he was very angry”. Then slowly he learnt his lesson of forgiveness.
At his reputed tomb, a Christian church was built, later turned into a mosque. Pilgrims went there. One of Isil’s first acts was to destroy it. Given Isil’s beliefs, it is not surprising that they smash up tombs and images. God forgive them, it was not the worst thing they did.
The Christians of Iraq and Syria are no interlopers. They have been there from the beginning. They use Syriac in their worship, a language resembling the Aramaic that Jesus spoke.
They taught us. Before and after the Muslim conquest of their lands, Syriac-speaking Christians translated Greek works into their own language. When the West rediscovered Aristotle, it was largely thanks to Syriac scholars that copies of his works had been preserved. In the late eighth century, for example, when the Nestorian Patriarch Timothy wanted to study Aristotle, he borrowed manuscripts of the Organon and Topics from the Orthodox (Antiochian) monastery of Mar Mattai near Mosul, which was already over 400 years old. Mar Mattai monastery was taken by Isil last year and its monks expelled; some manuscripts are said to have been saved.
It’s the people that one feels sorry for. A generation ago, there were more than a million Christians living in Iraq, a country of 35 million. A year ago there were 400,000. About two thirds are Chaldean Catholic. Tens of thousands took refuge in the city of Erbil, which is under Kurdish protection.
Cardinal Vincent Nichols, the Archbishop of Westminster, has just visited Erbil. He found hundreds of families living in mobile containers. Archbishop Bashar Warda, the Chaldean Archbishop of Erbil, had turned over his cathedral and land to help them. Cardinal Nichols spoke of “hugely impressive” efforts among the refugees to find work and continue education. “It is mostly down to the efforts of the Catholic churches,” he reported, “both here and abroad.”
Speaking of the refugee centres he said: “To begin with, food was provided communally. Now each family cooks for itself. Now families are expected to pay towards their rent, if at all possible.” He saw this as a way of keeping families together, with a sense of self-worth and responsibility. He said: “These families want to go home. They want to go back to their houses and land.”
The Cardinal told the press on Tuesday that a Christian presence in Iraq is essential “not out of a nostalgic sense that this community is 2,000 years old, but as part of building a stable, balanced society in that region.”
People in Britain, I think, can feel helpless at distant suffering on television news. But there is a point in organising aid and showing the Government that the Christians of Syria and Iraq are not forgotten. At the Holy Name church in Manchester, for example, an all-night vigil begins this evening at eight.
Christians say in the Creed each week that they believe in the “Communion of saints”. The belief is that prayer and (if it comes to that) martyrdom benefit all members of the Church. So what happens in Syria and Iraq is of immediate consequence.