Christians flee gunmen for sanctuary of monastery

mosul_1210013c1.jpgHundreds of Christians have fled their homes in northern Iraq for the sanctuary of a monastery this Christmas after being targeted for their faith.

By Angus McDowall in Irbil
 The people of Mosul have also come under attack from al-Qaeda fighters. Photo: AP
In peaceful times, the cool mountain air and breathtaking views afforded by the ancient monastery of Mar Matti provided a congenial day trip for the local people. Clinging to the upper slopes of a steep escarpment, its ancient stone walls echoed to the hushed tones of Aramaic hymns and the Orthodox mass.

But the tranquil life of Mar Matti’s black-robed monks has been shattered by the arrival of hundreds of Christians fleeing a campaign of persecution in Mosul, just 20 miles away.

Their homes raided, their priests attacked and their relatives murdered, Assyrian and Chaldean Christians have become the latest victims of violence in the city, once the most cosmopolitan in Iraq.

“First they came against the Kurds, then against the Yazidis and now they have come for the Christians,” said Jalal Mansour, 43, a former marble worker who fled to Mar Matti with his family after they were threatened by gunmen. “My uncle, an old man, was killed just because of his faith.”

He sat with his wife under an icon of the Virgin Mary, proffering cups of sweet coffee and fizzy drinks while children scampered around the small, cold room.

For the opposing factions struggling for control over northern Iraq, Mosul is a major prize: the capital of Ninevah province holds sway over a large and fertile area peopled by Arabs, Kurds, Yazidis, Assyrians, Chaldeans and Turcomans.

The city lies on the faultline between territory controlled by the Kurdish authorities and the central government in Baghdad – and it is claimed by both.

Christians believe they attracted the ire of the vigilante groups that roam Mosul’s dangerous streets when they considered a plan to take up arms themselves. The people of the city have also come under attack from al-Qaeda fighters.

The scent of fear has now spread to Mar Matti, where guards armed with assault rifles lolled against a crude drawing of a dove on the concrete wall of a gatehouse.

Nearby a young woman in a bright orange tracksuit heaved a breezeblock onto the wall of a new hut: when the refugees arrived they slept on the monastery floor – now they are building small houses where they can live more comfortably.

Inside the 4th century complex, a family sat drinking Coca-Cola while their matriarch prayed at the tomb of Matti, the Aramaic name for St Matthew.

“Ten days ago my sister-in-law’s family was attacked: three of them were shot dead,” said one of them, a 25-year-old market stall holder from Mosul who would not give his name in case of reprisals. “Other relatives have been kidnapped and forced to pay the tax levelled by the Muslim empire on non-believers.”

With their home streets unsafe to walk, the family left the city. Now they are considering a move to Irbil, the capital of the autonomous Kurdish region 50 miles away where there have been no major terrorist attacks for nearly two years.

The city’s affluent Christian neighbourhood of Ainkawa was a world away from the tense atmosphere around Mosul. Happy groups of giggling teenagers sat together in the courtyard of the Chaldean church of St Joseph – the girls wearing the sort of short skirts and tight leggings that would be unthinkable in a Muslim district.

The church is made of pinkish stone and has a spire in the shape of a Babylonian ziggurat, capped with a neon cross and adorned on each side with a large iron bell. Despite the quiet, residential feel, there were road blocks close by and a sandbagged sentry post outside.

“It’s very bad for all Iraqis, but Christians suffered the most,” said the priest, Father Sabri al-Magdassy. “The lack of strong political parties or a tribal system like the other ethnic groups means we have nobody who can defend our rights. We only have the church.”

He said that 2,000 families had arrived in his parish over the past four years from Baghdad and Mosul seeking to rebuild their lives.

The melodious lilt of eastern songs, sung in Aramaic, the language of Christ, wafted in from the dark courtyard: the choir was practising for a diocese competition.

In the Bureau for Christian Affairs, a small committee of church members were allocating menial jobs, lodging and pensions to refugees from Mosul and Baghdad.

Many of them had been forced to leave all their belongings behind. A young man with an intense, haunted stare, said he had been kidnapped in Baghdad by the Mahdi Army and tortured for seven days.

“They told me I should become a Muslim like the other Shias in that area,” he said. “They held my hands in the fire and beat me with sticks and rifle butts calling me an infidel. Finally my family negotiated my release for £7,000 and they freed me. When the police came I was too scared to tell them who took me, so I left and came to Irbil.”