The Long Lent of Iraq’s Christians

  • Written by:

Signs of the unspeakable violence perpetrated on Iraqi Christians by the Islamic State: Above, bullet holes and a defaced cross mar the main altar of St. Addai’s Church in Karemlash. Below, Chaldean Father Thabet Yousif pokes through the rubble that was once his family home; a torn red curtain marks what is left of the sanctuary of St. Mary the Virgin Church in Karemlash; the tomb of martyred priest Father Ragheed Ganni; and Ghazala, an Iraqi Christian who resisted Islamic State militants when they overthrew her town. (Edward Pentin photos)
An eyewitness account of the devastation left behind by ISIS.
Edward Pentin

ERBIL, Iraq — Rosaries and broken crucifixes strewn across the floor, upturned furniture and littered belongings greeted us as we entered the former rectory in Karemlash, an Iraqi Christian town liberated from the Islamic State (ISIS) last October.

The two-story house, only completed in 2012, had all the hallmarks of a place possessed, as though a demon had been unleashed to run right through it.

The sight was emblematic of the whole town.

Karemlash was once home to up to 10,000 mostly Chaldean Catholic inhabitants, but ISIS invaded and began to plunder it in August 2014, as part of its offensive that year.

The town was part of a daylong visit by a group, including this correspondent, March 18 to liberated areas.

It was arranged through, a charity that aids persecuted Christians.(See related story.)

‘Demonic’ Destruction

Our first stop was Karemlash’s ancient St. George’s Cemetery, dating back to the sixth century. ISIS had desecrated it, leaving gaping holes where graves had been, broken tombstones, and a coffin sitting on the grass in the open air. One corpse, a Chaldean Church official told us, had even been exhumed and then beheaded.

The adjoining St. George’s Monastery was also ransacked, but relatively well-treated, although nothing but rubble was left of Dair Banat Maryam, a 13th-century convent connected to the monastery, which had once survived the Mongol invasion.

Karemlash itself was deserted, except for a few Christian militia guarding the town’s entry point and one or two locals returning to pick up whatever remains of their belongings.

The town’s now quiet and somewhat peaceful atmosphere was occasionally broken by the sound of military jets in the distance and the sporadic light thud of artillery, as the battle to liberate Mosul, just nine miles away, entered its final stages.

Everywhere, there was destruction and desecration. House after house was blackened by fire, if not altogether destroyed, and the owners’ possessions looted. Some properties, being filled with booby traps, had been flattened by the Iraqi army, making parts of the town resemble the aftermath of an earthquake.

All that remained of the family home of our guide, Chaldean Father Thabet Yousif, was wreckage and a conspicuous mortar lying among the bricks. Used as an ISIS base to launch attacks on nearby Peshmerga, Kurdish military forces, it had been bombed by the Iraqi air force. Father Yousif also showed us the home he had been born in, now with its front door removed and its contents probably looted. It pleased him to be able to ring the bells of one of the town’s eight churches.

All of the churches showed similar signs of anti-Christian destruction. ISIS forces appeared to have tried their best to burn down the town’s St. Addai Church, but failed. They had defaced the cross at the altar — one of many to be vandalized in the town — and fired shots at it, leaving bullet holes in the marble. A statue of Our Lady had been beheaded. 

The church contains the tomb of Father Ragheed Ganni, a much-loved priest known to many in Rome from his time as a seminarian there. Born in Karemlash, Father Ganni was martyred in Mosul on Trinity Sunday in 2007. His tombstone had been vandalized, but his resting place was untouched.

More severe was the damage to the 19th-century St. Mary the Virgin Church in the town, where fire had gutted the nave, leaving charred remains and blackened walls. A curtain in front of the sanctuary, once decorated with a cross, had been slashed.

“Everywhere, the cross is defaced, scratched out, shot at,” observed Father Benedict Kiely, founder of “We know who’s behind this. It’s demonic — let’s call it what it is. It’s Satanic … Satan has a hatred of the cross, and he has a hatred of the followers of the cross.”

In many of the houses, ISIS militants had built sophisticated tunnels to help escape death or capture and commandeered the town’s St. Barbara Monastery, rebuilt in 1798, as their base in Karemlash.


Ghazala’s Witness

The town suffered almost no atrocities because most people fled when ISIS invaded. But one person who didn’t escape right away was Ghazala, a doughty 83-year-old woman from Karemlash whom we met in Erbil. She had slept through the ISIS invasion and was too ill to leave, forcing her and another elderly woman to stay in the occupied town for 10 days.

She recounted how she resisted their attempts to force her to convert to Islam, telling the ISIS fighters her age and saying: “You want to make me a Muslim now? You can make me into a whore, bury me here, shoot me — I’ll never convert to Islam,” she said. “Would you want your mother to be forced to convert to Christianity?” she then riposted, to which one militant replied, “No.”

Asked why she thought they did not kill her for not converting, Ghazala replied: “I wasn’t afraid of them; I was never afraid of them. They had weapons, guns, everything, but I wasn’t afraid — because God is with me.”

The empty town, however, gave ISIS fighters the chance to wreak chaos and destruction on Karemlash, the extent of which even shocked local Muslims, according to Father Yousif. “It made some of them want to become Christian,” he told us, “but they can’t because they don’t have the freedom.”

Graffiti was splayed across the town with messages, including, “The Cross will be broken,” “ISIS will remain,” “ISIS will take Rome,” and, on a wall in St. Addai Church: “Jesus was a Servant of God, not the Son of God.”

But driving through the empty streets, it was possible to imagine how idyllic it must have once been. Beautiful ancient churches and monasteries, large open streets, attractive gated properties, and schools, shops and services — it appeared to have once had everything, including famous vineyards.

It will therefore be a considerable challenge to bring it back to its former glory, not least because many of the Christian families who used to live there have fled Iraq, probably never to return. It will also always have the scars of the ISIS occupation.


The Difficulty of Returning

Countless other towns share the same fate, including neighboring Qaraqosh, once the largest Christian town in Iraq. We hastily drove through the now-lawless place, governed by competing Christian militias and other groups, and witnessed the same extensive damage there. As in Karemlash, most houses had also been burned in an attempt by ISIS to deter its Christians from returning.

The prospect of liberation had given many Christian families hope, but the extent of the damage has led them to lose it. Sister Ban Saaed of the once Mosul-based Dominican Sisters of St. Catherine of Siena, told the Register in Erbil that families were already drifting away from Iraq.

“Parents are waiting for children to finish school, and then they plan to go to Jordan or Lebanon,” she said. “They have been thinking of leaving for good because of the damage they’ve seen to their houses and villages.” Christians, she said, “would love to stay, but they’re fed up with the uncertainty and not knowing what to do.” Primarily, they feel their children deserve a better future, she said.

The sisters, who run a school and clinic in Erbil, also reported frustration with the security services as well as the U.S. and coalition forces who have a large base nearby. “The houses are burned, but what are the allied troops doing?” asked Sister Nazek Khalid Matty. “They desire to leave the country stronger, but since September and the liberation, nothing has happened. They’re not involved in helping the country to be secure.”

Christians in this part of Iraq are “really suffering on a daily basis, and there’s also huge mental suffering,” said John Neill of the Chaldean Archdiocese of Erbil. “It’s genocide — 100%,” he said, pointing to the trauma he had witnessed of those “fleeing their homes, leaving everything behind, then ISIS desecrating them, burning them, and the uncertainty of the future.”


Need for Security

A constant refrain from everyone we met was the need for security, which continues to be lacking and, in turn, prevents reconstruction, job creation and services. “We feel alone; no one to protect us, our people. How can we go back to that situation? It’s stupidity,” said Syriac Orthodox Metropolitan Nicodemus Sharaf, the last bishop to leave Mosul in 2014. “I told my people: If you don’t see me there, I won’t accept anyone going back.”

Chaldean Catholic Archbishop Bashar Warda of Erbil pointed out that the government has been focused on fighting ISIS in Mosul, causing a delay in bringing about security and reconstruction and, with it, disappointment among those wishing to return to a normal life. He also recognized that the rule of law must return to these areas, which are now weakened by sectarian rivalries between various Christian and non-Christian militias — groups he believes will not help in building a country “that respects a law for all.”

“Here, we need the support of the international community to remind Iraqi politicians of the importance of really building a state on law that respects everyone and protects the lives of every citizen,” he told the Register, adding that, at the moment, the signs are not positive that this can be achieved. Laws haven’t been respected since the Iraq War of 2003, many Christians say.

Built into the poor security situation is the almost total breakdown of trust between Christians and the government, as well as with their Muslim neighbors.

Iraqi and Kurdish government forces largely deserted them when ISIS invaded, despite outnumbering ISIS 200 to 1, and many of their fellow Muslims stole their property and possessions.

“The situation is as you see,” said Metropolitan Nicodemus. “It’s so bad, and we can’t accept or trust anyone around us.” He, too, is therefore calling on the international community and the United Nations to issue bone fide, written guarantees for a “safe zone” of Nineveh Plain villages, as well as a change in the system (though not necessarily the leadership) of government in Baghdad.


Aid for the Refugees

The predicament for the refugees is that now that the liberation is almost complete, the West largely sees the emergency situation facing Christians in the Nineveh Plain as over. But, more than ever, they say they need aid to pay rents in their temporary housing in Erbil, as well as medicines and other provisions (the Chaldean Church’s St. Joseph Clinic for refugees in Erbil, for example, will soon run out of funds). So far, it has been the Churches, rather than government or the U.N., that have provided almost all of the funding for the Christian refugees.

“At the moment, they’re living through the good works and charity of so many wonderful people in America and all over the world,” said Father Kiely. “But very few have jobs, and in order to have a vibrant future, they must have jobs; otherwise, they’ll leave.”

Everyone we spoke to saw the West — in particular the U.S. and its allies involved in the 2003 Iraq War — as responsible for the plight of the country’s Christians and marked that as the time when respect for the law began to collapse. They also all have high hopes for President Donald Trump, who they see as a strong leader with clear sympathies and whom they believe will help them.

“Personally speaking, I’m really encouraged to see someone is at least thinking about the Christians,” said Archbishop Warda, adding that he was pleased Trump is “attracting attention” for them. He would like to see the U.S. president taking a lead in building security, but through working with all parties in the region and not unilaterally.

Yohanna Towaya, a former farmer from Qaraqosh now living as a refugee in Erbil, said that before Trump was elected, all the Christians and Yazidis were praying for him to win.

“We have confidence in Trump,” he said, adding that Christians “hope he’ll be savior of these minorities by making these strong decisions.” The view of Obama, on the other hand, was “terrible,” according to Neill, who said they were “more than disappointed” in him because “he did nothing.”

In addition to hope from the U.S., those aware in Iraq of Hungary’s lead in helping persecuted Christians are also delighted by the Hungarian government’s decision to dedicate a ministry to help them. “I take great pride in this country,” said Metropolitan Nicodemus. “I hope and pray America will do the same because, for the first time, I feel like a respected Christian.”

The Christian leaders and lay faithful of Iraq also have no illusions about Islam. They consider ISIS to be the real Islam, and Archbishop Warda said that to rid the religion of violent extremism “is the homework of the Muslims, with the help of Christians.”

“We don’t have to say: ‘We were victims, and we have had enough.’ No, we have to say: ‘We were victims, but we have to continue to dialogue with them,’” he said.

Catholics in the West, meanwhile, have plenty to do to help, according to Father Kiely, and he believes the hierarchy in particular needs to be “much more supportive.” He observed that many Iraqi Christians feel the West has abandoned them and “cannot comprehend” why there’s not more active prayer for their plight, such as an intercession every Sunday for persecuted Christians.

Stressing that St. Paul talks about the Body of Christ, and that “when one suffers, all suffer,” he reminded the faithful that the Christians of Iraq and the Middle East “gave birth to the faith,” and therefore all Catholics have a responsibility to protect it.

“If we let that disappear,” Father Kiely said, “our judgment might be rather severe.”