A beheaded statue of Mary, a painting of Christ thrown to the ground and crushed, sacred images used for target shooting as well as desecrated and ravaged cemeteries, graves and tombstones; shrines, monasteries, churches, homes and shops set ablaze. The terrorists of the Islamic State (Isis) left a collection of atrocities and horrors in their wake after having been driven out of the Nineveh Plains, the beating heart of Iraqi Christianity, represented by the villages of Bartella, Batnaya, Qaramles, Qaraqosh and Telleskoff.
A delegation of Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) – led by ACN director for Italy, Alessandro Monteduro, accompanied by the bishop of Carpi Monsignor Francesco Cavina, in his third solidarity visit to Kurdistan – visited the site a few days ago. After having occupied the neighbouring city of Mosul in June 2014, the militiamen of Caliph al Baghdadi invaded the villages on August 6, in the middle of the night. It was a pitch black night, the same colour of their banner. Two years and a half of occupation in this area of northern Iraq marked by persecutions against Christians: as many as 130 thousands have fled from Erbil, capital of Kurdistan, to save their own lives and their faith. In fact, their only other options were to pay the protection tax or convert to Islam. On October 17 2016 Baghad’s forces and the Kurdish Peshmerga fighters began the offensive to liberate the villages and head towards Mosul, the Iraqi capital of the Caliphate, where the battle to defeat the last Isis resistance militia is ongoing.
Today all the villages are liberated, but the communities that used to live there are yet to return. An ACN research conducted a month ago among 1500 evacuated families in Mosul shows that ISIS pillaged the homes of 56.96% of them, destroyed those belonging to 22.25%, while the homes of 19.42% were set ablaze; 1.38% claimed they don’t know what has happened to them.” Moreover, said Monsignor Bashar Matti Warda, Chaldean archbishop of Erbil, “90% of the places of worship in the Nineveh Plains have been destroyed and plundered by the Islamic State.”
Iraqi Calvary. Today the Nineveh Plains are hard to reach. There are a series of checkpoints on the road from Erbil, controlled by the Peshmerga fighters and further on by the Iraqi army. The roads are rough, occasionally interrupted by huge ditches and trenches that had been dug to ward off the deadly car bombs used as lethal weapons by al Baghdadi’s militiamen. No other military vehicles are to be seen on the way to Mosul except for those at the checkpoints. In fact the war front has moved forward, and the Iraqi army is now three kilometers away from the centre of Iraq’s second largest city. As the first villages of the Plain appear on the horizon we see empty roads, looted shops, severely damaged houses and destroyed churches. One of them is a Syriac Orthodox church devoted to Saint Shmoni in Bartella, whose adjacent cemetery was desecrated. Missiles can be detected inside the crushed graves and tombstones, alongside with human remains.
Hand grenades, Kalashnikov shells and bombs of various types lie all around the area. In the courtyard stands what remains of a statue of a Syriac Orthodox patriarch whose face was chiselled and hands were severed. The same scene is to be found in other churches of the Plains. In Qaramles the relief portrait of St. Rita of Cascia was removed with a hammer. That very iconoclastic fury was unleashed in the nearby St. George’s Catholic church, which was set on fire and virtually burned to the ground. The floor of the Syriac-Catholic church of the Immaculate Conception in Qaraqosh is covered with rubble, pieces of glass, and the remains of sacred ornaments. Before what remained of the tabernacle, covered by graffiti scrawled by ISIS, on an improvised altar Msgr. Cavina celebrated the Holy Mass, the first one by an Italian bishop in the Nineveh Plains.
A sign of concrete and spiritual closeness appreciated by local priests who led the ACN delegation in this journey to the Calvary of the Iraqi community. Msgr. Cavina’s emphatically said:
“The local Christian community is full of hope and it’s not resigned.”
Nor is resigned Rogationist Fr Jalal Yako, who despite the sadness in seeing “the church destroyed by such wickedness – he said – I decided to return because this is my city and my land.” It’s also the homeland of Gazel, 82, who perished in Erbil where she had fled when Daesh arrived. Her relatives brought her back to Qaramles, following her wishes. She was buried in the small cemetery of the desecrated village. Some of these people have returned to their villages for the first time since the liberation.
A land of martyrs. On this land the blood of the martyrs was shed already in the past, among them the archbishop of Mosul, Mar Paulos Faraj Rahho, kidnapped and found dead in the period February-March 2008, and Fr Ragheed Ganni, killed in Mosul the previous year together with three subdeacons. The ACN delegation gathered to pray on his tomb in the Chaldean church of Mar Addai in Karemlash, a few kilometers from Mosul. His grave was desecrated and destroyed by ISIS. It’s a continuing martyrdom.
A few sacred ornaments still remain in the nave, spared by Daesh’s fury. Fr Paulos (Thabet) Mekku, from Mosul, translates some of the graffiti scrawled by ISIS on the wall of the church. One says: “If God wills, soon we will invade Rome!” Another goes: “May Allah kill the Jews, the Christians and the Shiites.” “It’s useless propaganda”, said the Chaldean priest, dismissing the two murales with a bitter smile, entrusting the answer to the long chime of the bells, unheard for months in this deserted area. Daesh is combated also with the sound of the bells. We reach Batnaya, the most damaged village of them all, and finally Telleskof, where 170 people have returned to live over the past weeks. 600 more families are planning to return, but before then the houses, churches and local infrastructures need to be rebuilt. The local Church is in the frontline, while public authorities are absent. It’s the first Christian village to recover, as evidenced by the large cross erected at the end of February, accompanied by the cries: “Victory! Victory!”, blessed by the Chaldean patriarch of Baghdad, Mar Louis Sako. His words resound as a warning to all invaders:
“This Cross is saying to the world that this is our land. This is where we were born and this is where we are going to die.”