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Christian Communities in the Middle East: Behind the doors marked with ‘N’

11 February 2022

Janine di Giovanni made a tour of the shrinking Christian communities of the Middle East. In this extract from her new book, she charts the arrival of the Islamic State in Iraq in 2014


War damage in the centre of Mosul, in a photograph taken last week

War damage in the centre of Mosul, in a photograph taken last week

ON 10 JUNE 2014, when ISIS took Mosul, I was in a hotel room in Baghdad lying on a dirty coverlet. I was listening to the BBC. The hotel was owned by Christians — my driver had taken me there believing I would be safer from kidnapping in that hotel than in any of the others in the city.

It was steaming hot outside. There was a pool, and even though it was dirty, I swam in it once in an attempt to calm my nerves after a long day of working. I waited until after dark because, even in a conservative one-piece bathing suit with a T-shirt over it, and even in a Christian hotel, I felt too exposed in the daytime. Still, men gathered to watch me do my laps.

I crept out of the pool and donned a long robe and covered my head. The men snickered and stared. So I didn’t go swimming in the pool again. But I wondered: If it was this bad in Baghdad, the most cosmopolitan and educated city of Iraq, how bad could it get with ISIS, whose members scorned women and wanted to push them back to the seventh century?

Earlier that same day, before I heard the BBC report about ISIS, the driver had rushed into my room in terror. He was hearing reports that ISIS was advancing on the capital. Everyone was stunned at how quickly the group had moved south, and my friends were talking about leaving the city.

I couldn’t help but think of the people still in Mosul. I was especially worried for the Christian and Yazidi families there who were now under ISIS control. For days we had no news, and then the reports began to trickle in. Christians were told to leave or die.

“In addition to forcing mass exodus from thousand-year-old villages,” wrote Sajad Jiyad, a respected analyst from the Baghdad-based think tank Integrity and the Century Foundation, “ISIS militants destroyed churches, libraries, and monuments to wipe out any trace of these being Christian areas.”

Shocked and worried for those inhabitants of Mosul, I drove across town to visit William Warda in his Baghdad home. Warda was the leader of political and military affairs for a party called the Assyrian Democratic Movement. Deeply rooted in his country, he was born in Mosul and had grown up in the city, graduating from the university there.

When I found him in his office, Warda was distraught. The news from Mosul was unreliable; no one quite knew what was going on. Warda was trying to reach relatives, but the phone lines were down. He kept picking up his cellphone, putting it down, and picking it up again, as if some kind of magic would restore the network.

“It’s a cleansing of all Christians from the region,” he said. We sat silently drinking coffee in a dark room, and Warda shifted the small cup between his hands. His aides came in and out, speaking urgently to him in Arabic. Confused people — parishioners, friends — kept knocking at the door for advice.

Should they stay in Iraq and risk extermination (the word they used in Arabic), or flee to relatives outside the country and risk living in permanent exile? Warda spoke softly to them and then returned to me. “How can I tell them not to go?” he asked, his voice thick with emotion. “I know they have no future here. But if they go, we as Christians have no future here.”


BY THE grace of God or sheer luck, Warda would survive ISIS’s reign of terror in Iraq, though he would be irrevocably changed: How do you ever trust in life again if your world falls apart?

On a warm autumn day, a few months after the final liberation of Mosul from ISIS in 2017, the photojournalist Nicole Tung and I were invited to lunch with some Christians. A group of neighbours and friends were gathering at Mar Mattai, or the Monastery of St Matthew, one of the oldest Christian monasteries in the world.

It had been founded in the fourth century by Matthew the Hermit, a noted healer and converter who practiced asceticism on the site, Mount Alfaf. The monastery seems to grow from the mountain’s terrain.

In the ninth century, more than 7000 monks worshipped and communed amid the monastery’s arched courtyards and corridors, which overlook stunning views of the surrounding countryside. By 2015, as ISIS came to the region, only five monks remained.

Lining the mountain’s edge, the monastery is the same sandy colour as the stone cliffs that jut out above and below. We arrived in the morning as the heat rose. I had walked up the hill to the monastery in the late morning light, and the priest and the gathering congregation greeted me with a kind of resigned wariness.

I found a quiet spot by one of the walls and looked out at the dried-out landscape, imagining what it would have felt like to be there as ISIS was running wild. The monastery was 20 miles from Mosul, where more than 100,000 Christians had been displaced from their homes.

They had gone through so much, and a stranger, though welcomed, was another reminder of the trauma they had recently endured. One of the children led me to a wall at the edge of the monastery and pointed below to the brown dusty tracts of fields.

From high above, I saw how close the villages were, and how exposed the road to Mosul was. My hosts unloaded baskets of food and arranged themselves around a long table in the courtyard. A woman named Niser spread out a white tablecloth and laid out a plate of dolmas. “It’s a way of celebrating that we still exist,” she told me.

More people were arriving — babies, children, grandparents, cousins, aunts, distant relations — all members of one of the oldest continuous Christian communities in the world. Many had not seen each other for three years, since the beginning of the ISIS brutality.

Their conversations, as they unpacked their food, centred on rebuilding: how to fix their charred homes and shattered churches, now pockmarked with shells and bullet holes. They wanted to restore their dwindling families. They wanted to find people who had been lost.


I SAT quietly, talking to small groups of people and trying to record what had happened to them. I wanted details: How had they first received information that ISIS was closing in on Mosul? When did they decide to flee? What had they taken with them?

In three decades of working with refugees, these are the questions I have always asked. In the days of the Bosnian War, when there were no cellphones, people passed information from village to village. In Syria, during the worst days of fighting, people got messages on WhatsApp.

AlamyMosul residents take part in a tree-planting scheme on the Northern Technical University campus, in November last year, part of a programme to combat desertification

The Christians I spoke with at the monastery, who told their stories readily, reported that their families had been in close contact and made decisions together as to when they should flee, and when they went, they went en masse.

After the meal, when the heat became unbearable, people retreated to the cool shade of the small monk-like cells of the monastery. I went from room to room with my notebook, talking to each of them. The most anxious of the people I interviewed, it seemed, were the young. The older ones seemed resigned to a difficult life.

“We are minorities, we have endured a lot already,” one told me. But, when I spoke to Sara Bahodij, a 23-year old from Mosul, she recounted the early days of ISIS with a shaky voice. She told me how the militants had raised the black flag and given Christians an ultimatum: convert to Islam or pay the jizya.

“How did they ask you?” I inquired gently, trying to soothe her. “They came to our house,” she replied. “They went door to door looking for Christians.” At first, she said, it wasn’t too bad. Her family was able to remain in the city for a few months after the occupation because they paid.

“How much?” I asked. She said there had been no set fee, but instead a sliding scale depending on a family’s wealth. “It could be $10,000, it could be $1000, it was whatever they wanted to charge,” Bahodij added bitterly. She told me that her father sold their gold — her mother’s wedding gold, family gold — and in total paid the militants $800,000.

“It’s all gone, our history,” she said. Their land was confiscated. She described the feeling of having everything you had ever known suddenly slip away “between your fingers”.

Even after paying off ISIS, her family did not feel safe. Christian women were used to adopting a more Western style: jeans, Turkish-made T-shirts, and knock-off handbags. The younger women often had long, flowing hair that came down past the waist. They looked less like Iraqis and more like Parisian schoolgirls, albeit not as wealthy.

Now they had to cover up their hair and clothes with abayas and hijabs. Bahodij found shapeless garments, things she could use to cover her jeans. She felt ugly and angry.

The ISIS fighters had left, but then they came back. This time, they went from house to house, marking the doors with the letter N: an ancient reference to Nazaria, or Jesus of Nazareth. It was horribly reminiscent of the yellow stars that Jews were forced to wear during the Holocaust.

Daniel Williams, then an official with Human Rights Watch’s Emergencies Team, recalled that the cleansing of Christians from Mosul and the surrounding area was highly organised. “A systematic campaign was under way,” he wrote in 2016, describing how quickly the ethnic cleansing of Iraqi Christians had begun.

This is an extract from
The Vanishing: The Twilight of Christianity in the Middle East by Janine di Giovanni, published by Bloomsbury at £20 (Church Times Bookshop £18); 978-1-52662-583-0.

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