The tears of Rachel’s children

by
13 April 2017

Simon Valentine returns from Iraq with a report on the plight of its rapidly declining Christian community

Taking up the cross: Peshmerga forces help to repair the church in Bashiqa

Taking up the cross: Peshmerga forces help to repair the church in Bashiqa

BASHIQA, a town about eight miles north-east of Mosul, in Iraq, is one of many Christian communities recently liberated from Da’esh, the Arabic acronym used by Kurds and Iraqis to describe Islamic State. After two years of occupation by mili­tant jihadis zealous in their hatred of all other faiths, part­icul­arly Christian and Yazidi, the once prosperous and vibrant town is now little more than an uninhabited ruin. Bashiqa stands as a stark re­­minder of the plight and suffering of Iraqi Christians.

I visited the town in March, invited by Major General Bahram Yassin, commander of the Pesh­merga 7th Brigade. I was ac­­­compan­ied by bodyguards who reassuringly flaunted their Kalashn­ikov rifles, and by an American Kurd as translator. I was taken to see the church of Mart Shmoni, and the Syriac Orthodox Christians who worship there.

As in many other places through­out Iraq, here Christians have been the defenceless victims of global forces beyond their control. When Da’esh captured the area in August 2014, most of the Christians, aware of the jihadists’ aim of oppressing or killing Christians (”breaking the cross”, as Da’esh described it in its online publication, Dabiq), left their homes and most of their belongings, and fled.

In November 2016, the town was liberated by Peshmerga forces — the army of the semi-autonomous region of Kurdistan. In an act re­­veal­ing the tolerance of Kurds towards other faith groups, Pesh­merga (mainly made up of Sunni Muslims) helped to erect a wooden cross on top of the church, as the original cross had been destroyed by Da’esh. “We rang the bells for the first time in two years; we sang, we danced for joy, and praised God for his mercy,” said one Christian whom I spoke to later.

 

FACING economic and political uncertainty, and lacking even the most basic infrastructure, few Chris­tians have returned to Bashiqa. As we drove through the town, it felt like a scene from a post-apocalyptic movie. Buildings had been reduced to rubble by Da’esh fighters, and there was no water or electricity, and little food. One of the officers escorting me warned of the un­­detected IEDs (improvised explosive devices) still among the debris. All was eerily still and quiet, except for the sound of artillery on the frontline, a few miles further down the road.

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Mart Shmoni’s main structure, although damaged, stands defiant and proud. Its walls, pock-marked with gunfire, are covered in graffiti insulting Christianity. Da’esh, re­­­gard­­ing Christians as “pagan” rather than respecting them as “People of the Book”, have de­­stroyed or re­­moved all liturgical equipment, vestments, and furn­iture. A painting of Jesus has been defaced, the eyes shot by bullets.

“The Church was not destroyed, though,” Shameer, a local Christian, said, “because Da’esh snipers used the tower. But, although our town is free now, and we praise God for that, we feel abandoned. No one has heard of Bashiqa in the West. No one hears our cry.”

As a Western Christian, sadly so often taking my religious and political rights for granted, I was both inspired and challenged by what I saw at Bashiqa, and was mindful of Tertullian’s words, “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church.” Certainly, the Iraqi Church stands as an example of steadfast faith and endurance.

 

LATER that week, I met the Chal­dean Archbishop of Erbil, the Rt Revd Bashar Warda, at his residence at Mar Yousif (St Joseph’s) Cathed­ral in Erbil, the capital of Kurdistan. Trained in Italy and Belgium, Arch­bishop Warda is known as an outspoken advocate for the Iraqi Church. Intelligent and affable, he was eager to talk — in fluent English — about the Church that he serves and loves.

“When we speak of the Church in Iraq, we speak of the Church of the martyrs. For centuries, Christians here have been caught up in so much violence, persecution, and op­­­pression. Under the Ottoman Em­­pire, Christians were regarded as spies for the European powers, especially France and Britain. This led to great suffering, as seen in the Seyfo massacres in 1915, and the murder of Assyrian Christians at Simele by Iraqi soldiers in 1933, when many precious lives were lost, and many villages and monasteries were destroyed.

“Attempts were made by the Turks to destroy the Assyrians’ cultural heritage by the destruction or desecration of churches, mon­­asteries, schools, libraries, and historical monuments,” he ex­­­plained. “The Assyrians were mas­sacred simply because they were Christians and of non-Turkish eth­­nicity. Such suffering continued under the brutal ‘Arabisation’ pro­­gramme of Saddam Hussein and the Ba’athist party.

“My father, in northern Iraq, in the days of Saddam Hussein, told me that we suffered the Iraqi violence in the daytime, but at night we welcomed the Peshmerga fighters, and prepared the way for them so that they could make an attack. But when there was an attack, the Iraqi army would come and brutally punish all the villages”.

 

THERE are several Eastern-rite Churches in Iraq — the Chaldean, the Assyrian Church of the East, the Syrian Orthodox, and others both Catholic and Orthodox — which date back to apostolic times. It is said that the Apostles Thomas and Thaddeus brought the gospel to the flood plains lying between the rivers Tigris and Euphrates. Peter, in his first epistle, makes an enigmatic reference to the Church in Babylon (1 Peter 5.13). Today, these churches use different forms of Aramaic, the language used by Jesus, in their liturgy and writing.

”The suffering has been terrible. Since August 2014, Da’esh has overrun many Christian towns and cities. Wherever it goes, Da’esh demands conversion to Islam, tax­­ation, or death. Consequently, under such threats, 125,000 Chris­­tians were displaced to Mosul or Erbil. With God’s help, we moved these refugees to 26 camps in Ankawa [the Christian quarter of Erbil].”

Archbishop Warda recognises the need for practical, positive action, as well as self-help. “There is a need for Jesus Christ, a need to show something of his love to these people,” he said. “To keep this hope alive, we need to do some practical issues. Our goal is to keep Christi­anity and Christians in Iraq, to live in dignity and with hope in the future.”

Following the blitzkrieg advance of IS across the Nineveh Plain in 2014, Archbishop Warda, working with other Iraqi church groups, be­­gan a programme of human­itarian aid, providing houses, med­ical care, education, food, and clothing for the Christian refugees who were fleeing the jihadists.

Grateful for any assistance given, Archbishop Warda praised the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) for its help in relieving the suffering of the Church. “The KRG, although not having financial means to help [a reference to the cur­­rent economic crisis in Kurd­­istan], greatly assisted the churches by providing border access to Kurdistan, and residence proced­ures, along with logistic support. And we thank so many churches in the UK and around the world which have contributed so much.”

 

I ASKED if many Christian families would return to their liberated villages once Da’esh was finally de­­feated. The Archbishop, well aware of the political and economic issues that face Iraq as the Kurds pursue their dream of independence, judic­iously replied: “It depends on the security. Can Christians be pro­tected? Will the basic services be pro­­vided? Will there be recon­struction?

”But, most importantly, there is a need for establishing genuine re­­conciliation to settle down the political and religious differences in Iraq that led to the rise of radical ideologies such as ISIS.”

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Iraqi Christians stand between a rock and a hard place. They can return to their former homes, de­­­stroyed and desecrated by IS, where they may never be safe, or they can seek residence in other countries which offer liberty, prosperity, and peace. Many are now saying that Iraqi Christians are facing genocide.

Another leading cleric in the Chaldean Catholic Church in Erbil, Bishop Salem Saka, told me: “We are threatened with extinction. This is a harsh word, but every day
we are being depleted. Our people are travelling, migrating — soon there will be no Church here in this region.”

Bishop Saka’s fears are real: the number of Christians in Iraq has fallen from about 1.5 million before the United States-led invasion in 2003, to an estimated 300,000.

 

I WANTED to know if it was justified for Christians to take up weapons and fight IS. “Christians in Iraq have faced this suffering with patience,” Archbishop Warda said. “I personally am against using vio­­lence, but it is unfortunate that we have been attacked by such savage and criminal people. We have to use violence to defeat Da’esh. It is needed. They left us with no chance.”

Some Christians in the region, agreeing with the Archbishop’s view­­­­point and unwilling to go like lambs to the slaughter, have begun forming militias to defeat the jihad­ist menace. One such group is the Babylon Brigade, consisting of as many as one thousand Christian fighters, which was established after IS cap­tured Mosul in 2014.

The Babylon Brigade is not alone. Dwekh Nawsha (meaning in Syriac “one who sacrifices”) was formed a short time later to protect Iraq’s Christians from possible genocide. Last year, there was no shortage of Christians who wanted to see the end of IS, and the first all-Christian brigade, the “Tiger Guards”, com­­­prising both men and women, was formed as a unit in the Iraqi army.

 

EASTER in Iraq is a time of great hope. Indeed, I found the Iraqi Christians to be happy, resourceful people who embrace their faith with tenacious optimism and content­ment, despite facing constant ad­­vers­ity. This is particularly evid­ent at Easter. On the Sunday before Palm Sunday, in the rural areas of the Nineveh Plains, olive branches are given as gifts, and farmers often plant them on their land as a prayer for a good harvest.

Children, with their mothers, paint eggs in bright yellow and red: colours associated with hope and joy. On Easter Day, the custom is to give bread to the poor, and, after church, families enjoy a special meal, pacha, which consists mainly of meat, usually the head of a sheep or goat. People greet each other on the streets, in cafés, or at church with the words ”Brikha edukh” (”Happy Easter”).

It is a sign of hope that, in Kurdistan, Muslims and Christians often prepare for Easter collectively. During Holy Week, members of both faiths join to prepare food (usually very sweet pastries) for the feast of Alklejeh.

 

ARCHBISHOP WARDA’s message to Christians in Britain is sanguine. “As we approach Easter, and as we see Da’esh gradually defeated, we pray that evil, cowardice, and sin will not win. I would urge our broth­­ers and sisters in Britain to pray for us; to raise awareness about the difficulties and challenges that Christians face in the Middle East; to put pressure on politicians; and to keep donating to help maintain the programmes we undertake for the refugees. Everything we have received so far has made a real difference.”

Ordinary Christians in Iraq, although facing a very uncertain future, express similar hope and faith. Furat, a member of the Assyrian Church of the East, is a barber who lives and works in Ankawa. As he gave me a much needed haircut, he told me: “We are safe in Kurdistan. President Barzani has provided freedom for us to live as Christian people. But in Iraq, in Baghdad, Christians face death every day.

“Unlike many areas of the Middle East, the KRG respects other faiths: Yazidis, Shabaks, Christians, and other minority groups have the freedom to practise their faith.”

When I attended a service at the Chaldean Catholic Church, I did not understand its liturgy; but I felt a deep sense of holiness and the presence of God. At the end of the service, a choir member, Dima Kossa, a student in her early 20s, sang a lament.

The words, later translated for me, adumbrated the suffering faced by the Iraqi Christians: “Lord, have mercy on your people. There is great sadness on the faces of the children. There is great depression on the outlook of the men and women.”

Furat, while trimming my hair and beard, asked nonchalantly: “Do you remember the message of Jeremiah?” In the manner of a priest rather than a barber, he recited the prophet’s words: “A voice is heard in Ramah, mourning and great weeping, Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because they are no more.”

For a moment, he stopped clip­ping, and, looking at me in the large mirror, said solemnly: “We Iraqi Christians are Rachel’s children. We suffer. We soon may be no more. Please pray for us.”

 

Dr Simon Ross Valentine is a freelance writer currently living in Kurdistan.

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