Monastery near Mosul offers refuge for Iraq’s Christians

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[A zig-zag path leads to Mar Matti, a 1600-year-old monastery on Mount Alfaf, near Mosul, Iraq. Seth Robson/Stars and Stripes]
By Seth Robson
Mar Matti Mosul
A sign on the road to Mosul, Iraq points to Mar Matti, a 1600-year-old monastery that is still sheltering families who fled the Islamic State.
Seth Robson/Stars and Stripes

The 1,600-year-old refuge, near the summit of Mount Alfaf, is only about 10 miles from Mosul, which fell to the militants last year. Villages controlled by the extremists are even closer.

Mar Matti dates to the fourth century, when its namesake, St. Matthew, fled persecution by the Roman Empire for the Nineveh plains. He established a hermitage on Mount Alfaf, also known as Mount Maqlub, where he is said to have cured disease and converted Assyrians to Christianity.

Mar Matti’s treasures likely wouldn’t survive capture by the Islamic State. The militants have destroyed churches, monasteries and Christian symbols, smashed museum artifacts, burned ancient texts and blown up historical sites, including the 3,000-year-old ruins of Nimrud, throughout Iraq and Syria.

Until recently, Mar Matti was home to a large library of Syriac Christian manuscripts and the site of an annual festival that drew Christians from all over Iraq. The Associated Press has reported that the manuscripts, including an 1,100-year-old copy of the letters of St. Paul, have been spirited to an apartment in Dohuk for safekeeping.

In the days after Mosul fell to the Islamic State, Mar Matti sheltered hundreds of displaced Christians, but by October only a few families remained.

“They’ve gone to Irbil and Dohuk,” said Faris Sabah, 51, a truck driver from Mosul, who was still living at the monastery with his family.

Sabah lost his truck and business when he fled the city. Now he’s doing odd jobs around the monastery and planning to move his family “to a place where there are other Christians.”

Sabah’s wife, Yonan, 52, said aid organizations such as the Red Cross have helped Christians sheltering at Mar Matti.

At night the family looks down from the mountain and sees the lights of Mosul shimmer in the distance. The lights have been dimmer since mainline power was cut to the city earlier this year, according to the Christians.

Each day Yonan Sabah looks down at the lands controlled by the Islamic State but, she said, she doesn’t feel fear.

“My God will protect me,” she said.

One of a few Syrian Orthodox seminary students still at Mar Matti, Basman Sofia, 28, said clergy there oversee congregations at 10 villages at the foot of the mountain. Christians living in them are only a few miles from Islamic State lines.

Sofia said there might not be any churches left in Iraq in the near future and he was also thinking of going overseas once he graduated from seminary school.

“Every day more people go,” he said of the Christians who had sheltered at the monastery.
Twitter: @SethRobson1