Iraq's Christians Remain Displaced This Easter

Mar 31, 2018
Originally published on April 4, 2018 9:58 am
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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Mosul, northern Iraq is home to some of the world's earliest Christian communities. It's a mosaic of Orthodox and Catholic. The city sits on the ruins of ancient Nineveh, the Assyrian city mentioned in the Bible. But as the Easter season approached this year, the city's Christians were still displaced in the wake of ISIS, which ran Mosul until last year. And most say they'll never return. NPR's Jane Arraf went to a nearby town where many now live and pray.

NICODEMOS DAOUD SHARAF: (Chanting in foreign language).

JANE ARRAF, BYLINE: Archbishop Nicodemus Daoud Sharaf chants prayers in an ancient language, a dialect of Aramaic - the language that Jesus spoke. Sharaf is the Syriac Orthodox Archbishop of Mosul, but he's not in Mosul. As Easter approaches, he's leading a service at a newly built church on the outskirts of Erbil, 50 miles away. That's because its St. Thomas Cathedral - dating back to the third century in the old city of Mosul - was damaged and desecrated by ISIS.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: We lost everything. We lost our history. We lost our churches, our monasteries, our houses, our dignity.

ARRAF: When ISIS took over Mosul four years ago, at first it told Christians it would protect them. Then it threatened to kill them. Sharaf was the last bishop to leave Mosul. He took out for safekeeping - the church's most precious relics, finger bones of St. Thomas, the apostle of Jesus. ISIS was driven out of Mosul last year, but Christians aren't returning.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: We cannot go back to Mosul without guarantees and international guarantees to be safe and to be some people to protect us.

ARRAF: Sharaf, a large man with a bushy red beard, lived in Australia for three years. He has sisters in California. He's fond of saying the West cares more about protecting animals than Christians in the Middle East. And his beloved St. Thomas Cathedral...

SHARAF: This cathedral - until today, the ISIS body whose die - is still there. And there is nobody to bring them from the church. And we call the government, and nobody hear us.

ARRAF: I went to the cathedral in Mosul with a guide. It was eight months after the fighting had ended.

There's a mortar lying here next to a destroyed altar. The marble columns are still standing, but a lot of the stone banisters are lying in rubble - looks like somebody took a sledgehammer to them.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED GUIDE: Watch your steps. (Foreign language spoken).

ARRAF: Land of the caliphate. And there on the ground underneath the marble arches is a pile of charred bones.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KARIM FAISAL: (Foreign language spoken).

ARRAF: Karim Faisal (ph), one of the fighters securing the area, says they're the remains of ISIS fighters. There were Chechen militants here. They've scrawled their names on the marble pillars and on almost every pillar a blue or red painted circle where they had planned to use explosives to bring the entire church down. But instead, Faisal says, they used it as a prison.

FAISAL: (Through interpreter) They locked the door and all the windows. There were a lot of prisoners, poor things. When the counter-terrorism forces came, they told me they rescued a lot of them from the church.

ARRAF: They included Yazidi women, the ancient religious minority ISIS kidnapped as sex slaves. ISIS held Mosul for almost three years before U.S.-backed Iraqi forces attacked them. For Christians in Iraq, this is one of the darkest chapters in their almost 2,000-year history. Christianity took root here in the first century after Christ, near the ruins of Nineveh, present-day Mosul.

(SOUNDBITE OF WORSHIPPERS SINGING)

ARRAF: Now in Erbil, Archbishop Sharaf says, of the almost 30,000 Christians who lived in Mosul before ISIS, fewer than a hundred have gone back. A lot of the worshippers here this evening are from Mosul. Anwar Hadee (ph) used to go to school near the St. Thomas Cathedral.

ANWAR HADEE: (Through interpreter) They took our house and our shop. Even if ISIS has gone, everyone there adopted the ISIS mentality.

(SOUNDBITE OF WORSHIPPERS SINGING)

ARRAF: The church is full. Most people are trying to rebuild their lives here in this Kurdish city. Some are emigrating to the West. Mosul and its ancient churches will remain a memory. Jane Arraf, NPR News, in Ankawa in northern Iraq. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.