Fadi Youkhana: Remember Nineveh, and the forced exodus of its Christians

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by Hawaii Catholic Herald
Bishops attend Christmas Mass at St. Paul Cathedral in Mosul, Iraq, Dec. 24. (CNS photo/Amar Salih, EPA)
In June 2014, Daesh (Islamic State) fighters swiftly defeated the fleeing Iraqi Army to capture Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city and the capital of Nineveh province. Mass exodus and genocide against the non-Sunni population ensued. The once largest city in the world, for the first time in 2,000 years, lost its Christians.

My family and I are from Mosul. Some of my fondest memories from childhood were of passing the ancient Assyrian ruins on car rides to my parish church of St. Paul, and listening to the homilies of Archbishop Paulos Rahho, the Chaldean Catholic Archbishop of Mosul. I remember the beautiful St. Paul mosaic that stood tall above the altar and the fascinating stained-glass windows and paintings that filled the church.

Iraq recaptured Mozul last July and on December 24, a Christmas Mass was celebrated in St. Paul Church for the first time since Daesh’s brutal occupation. The mosaic, much like most of the church, was destroyed. In other places around the city, monasteries, churches and other Christian institutions were demolished, bulldozed or converted to mosques. The historic Chaldean Catholic St. Georges Monastery was blown up. Daesh went as far as to destroy graves behind the monastery. What threat did the bones of the dead pose?

When Daesh took over the city, they painted the Arabic letter “n” on Christian homes to indicate “Nasrani,” a slur used to label a follower of Jesus of Nazareth. This mark, the modern day yellow Star of David, indicated the three options that were given to Christians: convert to Islam, remain and pay a tax, or face the sword. While the tax option was propagandized by the extremists as a fair alternate, all Christians knew it was synonymous to slavery. Thus, thousands of families chose to flee rather than to convert. Individuals were stripped of their belongings and were forced to flee on foot and abandon their possessions as well as livelihoods.

Nineveh has been home to millions of devout Christians throughout the years. Our native language, Aramaic, is the language that Jesus spoke. It was on our land that Jonah defied God twice and where the people of Nineveh repented and accepted God’s forgiveness. The province is home to monasteries that date back to the fourth century. In the late 1980s to 2003, there were 1.4-2 million Christians in Iraq according to a census. Estimates in 2016 reported fewer than 250,000 Christians remain.

Even though Daesh has been defeated in Iraq, the threat against Christians and Christianity is far from over. Just last month, a Christian doctor, his wife and mother were stabbed to death in Baghdad. In Syria, Christians are targeted by extremist groups. In Egypt, widespread attacks on Coptic churches and bombings of Masses are common. Daesh is but one vehicle of the ideology trying to exterminate our faith. Christians remain prosecuted and are unlikely to return to their homes.

Christians of the Middle East are known for their resilience and unwavering faith. No stronger evidence comes to mind than that of Archbishop Rahho. After finishing a Stations of the Cross service in Mosul 10 years ago, the archbishop was kidnapped. He reportedly was able to call church officials while being held in the trunk of a car and asked them not to pay his ransom because he believed the money would be used for evil. His body was later recovered and his murder internationally condemned.

We are often inspired by the stories of our saints and martyrs in the early years of our faith. But let us not forget our brothers and sisters who today are being prosecuted, murdered, raped and exiled from their native land. Let us remember the lives that have been destroyed. Let us draw strength from those who refused to denounce Christ in the face of adversity. Let us do so not only by prayer, but by taking advantage of our freedom. Let us remember Nineveh and its Christians.

Fadi Youkhana is a doctoral student in the field of epidemiology at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. He was born in Mosul, Iraq, and has been attending the Newman Center at the UH since fleeing the country in 2004.

Fadi Youkhana: Remember Nineveh, and the forced exodus of its Christians