“Baghdad ha perduto la sua bellezza e non ne è rimasto che il nome.
Rispetto a ciò che essa era un tempo, prima che gli eventi la colpissero e gli occhi delle calamità si rivolgessero a lei, essa non è più che una traccia annullata, o una sembianza di emergente fantasma”
Il 24 aprile è “la data simbolica” che segnerà l’inizio dei lavori di
“ricostruzione” di case e chiese dei villaggi e delle cittadine della
piana di Ninive, devastate in questi anni dai miliziani dello Stato
islamico (SI). È quanto racconta ad AsiaNewsdon Paolo Thabit Mekko,
41enne sacerdote caldeo di Mosul, secondo cui è “importante” iniziare i
lavori e realizzarli “rapidamente” per impedire la fuga di altre
famiglie cristiane dalla regione.
Secondo una prima valutazione confermata dal sacerdote, per sistemare
“oltre 12mila case” distrutte o danneggiate in modo più o meno grave;
serviranno “almeno 200 milioni di dollari”, aggiunge, anche se la cifra
potrebbe aumentare in futuro.
“Abbiamo i documenti - spiega don Paolo - che attestano i danni e i
fabbisogni per la ricostruzione. Sono dati riferiti alle devastazioni
occorse in ciascun villaggio”. In ogni località, prosegue, “vi è un
ufficio per la ricostruzione e ogni villaggio riceve dei fondi. Il
denaro ricevuto viene distribuito in percentuale secondo il fabbisogno”.
Don Paolo è responsabile del campo profughi “Occhi di Erbil”, alla
periferia della capitale del Kurdistan irakeno, dove nel tempo hanno
trovato rifugio centinaia di migliaia di cristiani (insieme a musulmani e
yazidi) in seguito all’ascesa dello SI. La struttura ospita ancora oggi
140 famiglie, circa 700 persone in tutto, con 46 mini-appartamenti e
un’area per la raccolta e la distribuzione di aiuti. A questo si sono
aggiunti un asilo nido per i più piccoli, oltre che una scuola materna e
una secondaria. Molti di questi profughi arrivano proprio da Karamles,
dove la domenica delle Palme si è celebrata la prima messa nella chiesa devastata dai jihadisti di Daesh [acronimo arabo per lo SI].
Ancora oggi a Erbil e nel Kurdistan irakeno vivino migliaia di
famiglie di sfollati, fino a 14mila (pari a 90mila persone) secondo
alcune fonti. La gran parte di queste famiglie, circa 4/5 dipendono
dagli aiuti per la sopravvivenza quotidiana, per questo diventa ancora
più urgente il lavoro di ricostruzione e il rientro degli sfollati.
In occasione della Settimana Santa lo stesso don Paolo aveva lanciato
un appello alle parrocchie e ai fedeli sparsi nel mondo, perché
ciascuna comunità cristiana “adotti”
la sistemazione o la ricostruzione di un’abitazione della piana di
Ninive. “Per maggio abbiamo in programma la pubblicazione della stima
dei lavori - afferma il sacerdote caldeo - con i fondi attualmente a
Il 24 aprile, il giorno seguente la festa di san Giorgio, viene
presentato come “data simbolica di inizio dei lavori di ricostruzione”.
In quell’occasione, racconta don Paolo, “celebreremo una messa proprio
nella chiesa di san Giorgio a Karamles. In questo momento, grazie al
contributo di alcuni volontari, stiamo ultimando i lavori di pulizia del
luogo di culto, come fatto in precedenza per la chiesa di Mar Addai,
per poter celebrare la funzione eucaristica insieme alla comunità”.
La ricostruzione riguarderà alcuni fra i più importanti centri
cristiani della piana: Qaraqosh, Bartella, Karamles, a lungo nelle mani
delle milizie jihadiste che all’intero hanno compiuto orrori e
devastazioni. “Abbiamo chiesto aiuto anche agli stessi sfollati -
prosegue il sacerdote - rivolgendoci a muratori, idraulici, geometri,
elettricisti. L’opera di ciascuno sarà essenziale per la rinascita di
questa terra”. Inoltre, partecipando ai lavori “gli stessi sfollati
potranno beneficiare di uno stipendio per poter sostenere i bisogni
delle rispettive famiglie”.
Ad oggi il patriarcato caldeo ha messo a disposizione un fondo, cui
si aggiungeranno [questa la speranza di don Paolo] donazioni e
contributi di fondazioni, enti e associazioni che partecipano ai lavori.
“Saranno i profughi stessi a mettersi in gioco per la ricostruzione -
aggiunge - e questo è elemento di doppia soddisfazione. La piana sta
cambiando volto dopo l’Isis, ci vorrà del tempo per ricostruire ma
bisogna fare in fretta. Molto dipenderà dai soldi che arriveranno, ma il
tempo stringe; l’inizio dei lavori è un messaggio importante per i
profughi della piana, è un invito a rimanere per ricostruire, quando
ancora oggi molti pensano alla fuga, all’esodo, all’estero”. “È
importante restare qui - conclude don Paolo - come cristiani e come
comunità irakena. Siamo il popolo che parla ancora la lingua di Gesù, se
andiamo via tutto sarà cancellato. La zona ormai è quasi del tutto
messa in sicurezza, in alcuni terreni si nascondono ancora mine ma i
lavori procedono. Bisogna proseguire senza sosta e con un rinnovato
priests traveled the length and breadth of the historical region
of Cappadocia in Turkey during Holy Week in an effort to meet the 1,200
Iraqi Christians who have taken refuge there. Fr Jacques Mourad, a member of the Deir Mar Moussa community who is
based in Syria was responding to an invitation from the vicar apostolic
of Anatolia, Bishop Paolo Bizzeti. Fr Mourad is well known for having
escaped from an ISIS jail in October 2015 after four months of
captivity. In the five cities that they visited together, they were able to meet
many families who have been living in Turkey for more than two and a
half years after fleeing the ISIS advance in Iraq. All have submitted immigration requests to the UNHCR and they are now
waiting for the results. Yet would they consider staying in Turkey?
Youssef, who has been set up in Kirsehir does not think so. “We suffer too much discrimination on a daily basis,” he said.
“Finding work is very complicated both as an Iraqi and as a Christian.
Those who manage to do so are underpaid.” The Holy Week ceremonies were arranged according to the various needs
and the possibilities available. Several masses were even organized
overnight. Some local churches were unable to be used after being closed
down, transformed into cafes or even on the way to becoming museums. So the masses were sometimes celebrated in improbable party rooms
illuminated with mirror balls or even sometimes in family homes. At Nevsehir, 34 people originally from Bartella, Baghdad or Mosul
joined in for their first mass since Christmas, pressed together in a
narrow lounge room with curtains drawn. Their eagerness to welcome the two priests and to talk with them
revealed the solitude many had experienced in exile. The testimony of Fr
Mourad, who now lives in Iraqi Kurdistan, created a bond while his
strength and message of peace brought comfort. At each stage of their journey, the priests visited the sick. Lahib
came from Mosul where he was operated on nine months ago for brain
cancer. He cried and thanked God for being able to start walking again.
The two priests came to celebrate mass with him. “During the last Supper, Jesus expressed his desire to share the
Paschal feast with his disciples,” Fr Mourad told him. “Through
communion today and the opportunity to celebrate mass with you, it is
not my desire but Christ’s that is being realized. He wants to be with
you and to bring you hope. Lahib smiled and thanked him again. On Holy Thursday, Bishop Bizzeti addressed a gathering of 250 Christians meeting in an overdecorated marriage hall. “The genuine church is not built of cathedrals but of a community assembled in spite of everything,” he said. After mass, people had to leave rapidly because the hall had only
been rented for two hours. Outside it was raining and everyone quickly
dispersed. And so Youssef welcomed the two priests to his own home for the
evening. It was an opportunity to discuss the difficulties of the
community. Theological issues also emerged and, through them, the desire to be
able to justify their faith to the Muslim community, with the issue of
the Holy Trinity at the forefront of their concerns. Meanwhile, delicately but firmly, Bishop Bizzeti attempted to bring
the families around to a more realistic appreciation of their chances of
obtaining a visa. Privately, he also returned to the issue of exile. “I have great admiration for these men and women who have maintained their deep faith in such difficult times,” he explained. “However, they need to understand that only a minority will be able
to leave and that they need to find a means to establish themselves now
in this country,” he said. The only room that really serves as a church is at Kayseri is a
third-floor office in a building in the center of town. The local
Protestant community has arranged space there and obtained approval for
it from local authorities. It was here that the Easter services were celebrated on Saturday
afternoon in order to allow some people to come from the cities
previously visited – sometimes after a long bus trip. The Easter service took place without a cross or a procession. At the
end of each mass and even more so on Saturday, joy and gratitude were
visible on the faces of many. “These people are here because they are conscious of their right to
life and they have a solid faith,” concluded Fr Mourad as he prepared to
leave Turkey. “The celebration of the resurrection strengthens the hope
they have in their hearts.”
«Stavo riflettendo da tempo su una iniziativa simbolica per educare la gente alla pace e al dialogo,
così, d’accordo con i miei collaboratori e una donna tedesca di origini
greche che ha già esportato nel mondo progetti simili, ho pensato di
lanciare la Marcia Interreligiosa della Pace».Il
patriarca di Babilonia dei Caldei, Louis Raphaël I Sako, spiega così a Vatican Insider
la genesi della originale manifestazione
voluta dal suo patriarcato per dimostrare unità e desiderio di
convivenza al di là di guerre e divisioni etnico-religiose: un
cammino interconfessionale tra i villaggi della Piana di Ninive che
«unisse idealmente tutti i popoli della terra nell’attesa della
resurrezione dell’Iraq»La scorsa Domenica delle Palme, al termine della liturgia di apertura
della Settimana Santa, 40 pellegrini di varie nazionalità, religioni e
confessioni - divenuti un centinaio lungo i circa 150 chilometri di
percorso - sono partiti da Erbil alla volta di Alqosh, armati di rami di
ulivo, zaini e la speranza di trascorrere una Pasqua finalmente di
pace. Nel corso di tutta la
settimana santa, hanno attraversato a piedi la martoriata area del nord
dell’Iraq, fermandosi in varie tappe e arrivando a lambire Mosul,
l’antica Ninive, zona di presenza cristiana da millenni. Secondo la tradizione, infatti, da queste parti si è spinto San
Tommaso che con un ristretto gruppo di discepoli, fondò la prima
comunità in Assiria. Nell’antichissima chiesa omonima - Mar Toma - sono
conservate le sue reliquie. Dalla
caduta di Saddam Hussein, la storica, pacifica convivenza tra le
popolazioni locali che annoverano etnie diverse e seguaci di varie fedi –
curdi, arabi, islamici, yazidi, mandei – ha segnato una brusca
interruzione. Prima che i villaggi finissero definitivamente
nelle mani dello Stato Islamico, i cristiani e le minoranze dell’area
hanno subìto massacri, durissime repressioni, violenze di ogni genere
uniti a continue pressioni ad allontanarsi. «È stata un’occasione meravigliosa per diffondere un senso di pace e unità e ritrovare quello spirito di coabitazione che mancava da tempo
- dichiara soddisfatto mar Sako -. Penso che la Marcia sia stata un
simbolo e che avrà un impatto molto forte su tutto l’Iraq. Tanti
pellegrini hanno camminato per 150 chilometri insieme, tra essi molti
cristiani caldei, cristiani occidentali, siriaci, musulmani e yazidi.
Nel corso della marcia, hanno incontrato uomini e donne di ogni
confessione religiosa, in maggioranza islamici, e tutti sono stati
accolti come fratelli e sorelle il cui unico desiderio è la pace in Iraq». Nella giornata di giovedì 13 aprile, il
patriarca ha raggiunto i pellegrini
celebrato la messa in Coena Domini nel villaggio di Mella Baruan dove negli ultimi mesi hanno cominciato a far ritorno un centinaio di famiglie.
In questo luogo che sta ritrovando la forza di ricostruire e ripartire,
Sako ha lavato i piedi a dodici persone, tra cui islamici e yazidi, e
colto l’occasione per richiamare tutti all’incontro sincero:
«Nell’omelia ho detto che oltre a sminare i villaggi (la zona è disseminata di mine anti-uomo, ndr),
bisogna sminare il cuore e la mente. Bisogna uscire tutti
definitivamente dalla logica di Daesh, secondo cui il seguace di
un’altra religione o confessione è un infedele. Ecco, diciamo basta una
volta per tutte alla logica dell’infedele». L’ultima tappa della marcia si è svolta a Telleskof, nei pressi di
Alqosh, un villaggio preso dall'Isis e liberato due anni fa senza che
però vi si potesse fare ritorno a causa della prossimità delle truppe
jiahdiste. «Solo due mesi fa – spiega padre Thabet Yousif Mekko, parroco di Karemles,
una cittadina a poca distanza da Mosul – hanno potuto finalmente
tornare a Telleskof oltre 300 famiglie, un segno di grande speranza. Le case erano distrutte ma la Chiesa caldea ha provveduto alla ricostruzione.
L'esercito iracheno ora è presente nell’area ed è stato siglato un
accordo per iniziare la ricostruzione a partire dal 24 aprile anche in
città come Bashiqa o Bartella. Il 24, se almeno sarà stata allacciata la
corrente elettrica, spero di poter celebrare la prima messa da anni
nella chiesa di San Giorgio». «Noi cristiani – conclude il patriarca – abbiamo sofferto moltissimo negli ultimi anni, ma dobbiamo evitare di esagerare le dimensioni di questa sofferenza. Ci sono gruppi come gli yazidi che sono stati sterminati, le violenze sulle loro donne sono state terribili. A Mosul, poi, ci sono stati 4mila morti e 10mila case distrutte,
e i cristiani, a confronto di altri gruppi, hanno certamente subìto
meno danni. Se poi andiamo a valutare i 4 milioni di rifugiati nei campi
profughi, i cristiani sono pochissimi.
Non voglio certo fare una classifica della sofferenza, dico questo per
evitare strumentalizzazioni che non avrebbero altro risultato che
peggiorare la situazione già molto grave».
Arriverà domani nella città irachena di Alqosh la marcia interreligiosa partita da Erbil
domenica scorsa. Oltre 140 chilometri percorsi a piedi attraverso la
martoriata Piana di Ninive per lanciare un messaggio di pace per il
Paese e tutto il Medio Oriente. Ieri ilpatriarca di Babilonia dei Caldei, Louis Raphaël I Sako, ha celebrato la Messa in Coena Domini presso il villaggio di Mella Baruan. Massimiliano Menichetti lo ha intervistato:
Mella Baruan è un villaggio dove si trovano 100 famiglie venute
da Mosul. Il loro villaggio era stato distrutto durante la guerra: ora
sono tornate, hanno restaurato le loro case e hanno anche ricostruito
una bella Chiesa. Lì ho celebrato la Messa e ho lavato i piedi a dodici
persone: alcuni del gruppo della marcia, tra cui un francese, uno yazida
e un musulmano e all’assistente del rappresentante del segretario
generale dell’Onu a Baghdad. In questo villaggio c’erano cristiani,
musulmani, yazidi, dei rifugiati, ma anche persone provenienti
dall’Occidente, e il rappresentante dell’Onu. E io ho detto: “Qui,
simbolicamente c’è quasi tutta l’umanità”. Ho ribadito che senza il
dialogo e senza la pace non c’è futuro. Tutti adesso dicono che bisogna sminare i villaggi, i campi, ma io ho detto che bisogna sminare anche la mente e il cuore.
Per quale motivo? C’è odio?
Sì, c’è questa ideologia fondamentalista che è come un cancro,
che è diffuso un po’ ovunque: in Iraq, in Siria, in Occidente… Questa
gente è cieca! Io penso che sono i musulmani a dover affrontare questo
problema, ma con l’aiuto di tutti. Prima di tutto bisogna combattere
questo sedicente Stato Islamico, questi gruppi, ma bisogna anche
cambiare tutto il sistema dell’educazione religiosa e nazionale;
presentare un messaggio religioso moderato, moderno, comprensibile, che
dia un senso alla vita. E bisogna poi accettare gli altri, che sono diversi da noi: l’altro, il diverso, non è un obiettivo, è un fratello. Ho detto anche questo.
La marcia in Iraq lancia un segnale forte, ma tutto intorno, e
non solo, ci sono guerre e tensioni: come far arrivare questo messaggio
di pace al mondo?
Questo messaggio deve essere compreso prima di tutto dai leader politici e religiosi. Le persone sono le vittime. La politica deve essere positiva: deve aiutare a realizzare la pace, la convivenza, il progresso, la prosperità:
rendere la gente felice, renderla fratelli e sorelle, tutti. Coloro che
creano le guerre cercano di perseguire solo interessi economici: questo
è un peccato mortale. Il mondo intero deve muoversi contro queste
guerre e questi attacchi.
Quale la testimonianza che viene dall’Iraq?
Noi abbiamo sperimentato la guerra, la morte, la distruzione, l’emigrazione. Aspettiamo la Risurrezione! La Risurrezione è possibile quando c’è una conversione della mente e del cuore verso il bene e verso l’altro che è un fratello.
Lei personalmente, per questa Pasqua, cosa vuole augurare?
La pace in Iraq, in Siria, in Libia… nel Medio Oriente. Per me è
cruciale. Dobbiamo tutti collaborare per realizzare questa pace che
sarà una vera redenzione di questo mondo orientale e di questa povera
gente: sono come Cristo, muoiono ogni giorno.
Returning to England after a few days in Iraq, it is the sound of
broken glass and rubble, crunching underfoot in one of the many
destroyed churches, that lingers in my mind. Just a few weeks ago, on my
fourth visit to that beleaguered Christian community since the genocide
began in the summer of 2014, I was taken, along with Catholic
journalist Edward Pentin, to visit the Christian towns on the Nineveh
Plains, liberated from ISIS.
It is easy to use the phrase “ghost towns”, yet in the case of
Karemlash it is not a phrase but a reality. Before ISIS swept into the
area, in August 2014, Karemlash had been a mainly Chaldean Christian
town of nearly 10,000 residents.
The monastery of St Barbara, formerly a place of pilgrimage for many
Iraqi Christians, is at the entrance to the town. We were accompanied by
Fr Thabet, the parish priest. He showed us the ruined home of his
parents and grandparents, bombed by coalition forces because it was used
as an ISIS outpost. Sitting in what had been the family garden was a
The rectory, like many of the empty houses, had ISIS graffiti sprayed
on the outside wall – for the priest’s house it said “the Cross will be
broken”. Luckily for Fr Thabet, his house was still standing and,
unlike many of the houses, had not been burned out. ISIS fighters had
left him a little gift on their departure: a booby trap by his office
Many of the houses in the town are booby-trapped, burned out or
destroyed, and there is no water or electricity. As we walked around the
empty streets some birds were singing, but the only other sound was the
distant thump of bombing in Mosul, nine miles away.
As we entered the Church of St Addai, the full hatred for the
“followers of the Cross” was revealed. The Islamists had attempted to
burn the church. A smashed statue of Our Lady was on the ground. The
altar had bullet holes in it. Everywhere – in that church and the others
we visited – the Cross was defaced, destroyed or in some way
Even if a wooden door had a Cross on it, at least one arm would be
broken. Fr Thabet’s large rosary lay on the floor, with the central beam
of the Cross removed. It was as though a black cloud of hatred for the
Cross and all it symbolises had swept through the town.
All across the Nineveh Plains, the home of Christians for almost
2,000 years, the same thing has happened: Islamists cannot bear the
imagery of the Cross.
Suddenly, Steve Rasche, an American who works for the Archdiocese of
Erbil and was coordinating our visit, knelt in the rubble and picked up a
Cross. Brushing off the rubble and dirt, he saw it was unbroken – the
corpus had been removed, but the Cross was intact. Then Rasche, whom I
later christened “the Crossfinder”, told us the story of the miraculous
Cross of Baqofah – which ended up on display during the weeks of Lent
in, of all places, Westminster Cathedral.
Just a few months before, doing exactly what we had been doing in
Karemlash, Steve and Fr Salar, the vicar-general of the Diocese of
Alqosh, had been wandering through the newly liberated town of Baqofah.
Outside the Church of St George, ISIS had blown up the church shop,
which made, among other things, crosses for the faithful to buy.
Everywhere, as in Karemlash, the Cross was broken and vandalised. Yet
in the rubble Steve found a completely intact Cross, with the body of
Christ still attached. Only when you have seen that central image of
Christianity so desecrated can you understand how miraculous this
discovery was – and what it meant to the Christians of Iraq.
As a symbol of hope, the Baqofah Cross was sent from Iraq to be part
of a recent exhibition called Building Bridges with Wood, organised by
the curator Lucien de Guise, in St Joseph’s Chapel in Westminster
The Cross will return to Baqofah after being blessed by Cardinal
Vincent Nichols, to be, as Rasche says, “a sign of hope for the rebirth
and renewal of the Church in Iraq”.
With the most important days in the life of the Church upon us, when
the symbolism of the Cross is so central – both as the supreme sign of
God’s love for humanity and the true cost of sin, this simple story of
the Cross of Iraq can serve as a powerful reminder of the truth of our
faith. Even when it is hated and defaced, attacked and broken, the Cross
will rise, like Christ, unbroken.
“For everyone to know that we are the soldiers of the Caliphate, and we are coming – God willing,” says Ben Balata.
Our Kurdish fixer is translating graffiti sprayed in black on a wall in Batnaya, near to the Iraqi city of Mosul.
This town has been decimated by war. The streets are in ruin, there
are bombed buildings everywhere, and most homes have been reduced to
piles of concrete rubble.
Batnaya is a ghost town.
Across from the bullet-marked wall where ISIS
daubed its threat, sits the burned-out wreck of a car – rusting metal
that was likely used in a suicide attack. A door of a home behind the
grotesque vehicle is ajar.
It displays a white cross, signifying Batnaya’s Christian religious
denomination, and as we walk through the carnage our armed guides,
Kurdish fighters, talk about the battle to take back Batnaya from ISIS.
I was with three others in an American humvee when we attacked the
town. We were among the first in. Snipers started firing at us. I saw a
car driven towards us…and then it exploded,” says Captain Ayob of the Peshmerga (which means ‘those who face death’).
He suffered an eye injury in the suicide attack but remarkably all
four soldiers survived the explosion, allowing them to help comrades to
chase the Islamist terror group from Batnaya, who’d occupied the town
for more than one year.
After taking control of Mosul in 2014 – where ISIS is currently
battling Iraqi forces – the terror group swept across an area to the
north and east of the city called the Nineveh Plains, taking over dozens of rural towns and villages – Christian, Yazidi, Muslim and some of mixed religious denomination.
Tens of thousands of people fled terrified. The invasion chimed with ISIS’s massacre of
at least 5000 Yazidis in Sinjar, where they also raped and abducted
hundreds of Yazidi women. Most Christians fled to Iraqi Kurdistan, the
self-autonomous region of Iraq controlled by the Kurds.
The Yazidis were targeted because of their faith, as was Batnaya, a peaceful Christian town almost razed to the ground.
The destruction wreaked by ISIS is jaw dropping. Around 80 per cent
of the town has been wrecked and no-one has been able to return their
Much of the devastation happened during the day-long Battle of
Batnaya – between ISIS and the Peshmerga, backed by the Iraqis – but the
terror group enacted a policy of scorched earth before retreating to
Mosul, the self-proclaimed capital of its so-called Caliphate.
We obtained permission to visit Batnaya from the Peshmerga, who’ve
controlled the town since defeating ISIS on the 20th October last year.
At the Peshmerga’s makeshift HQ in the town, we meet with the Kurdish
Colonel now in charge, Kareem Farho, who says his forces routed ISIS
from Batnaya in just one day.
“We could have advanced all the way to Mosul but our order was to stay here,” he adds.
Colonel Farho – who has 26 years service in the military – says that
ISIS took control of Batnaya on the 3rd August 2014. During that period
they invaded at least another 10 places in this locality. Before then,
around 5000 people lived in Batnaya but the whole population escaped
before ISIS arrived.
The battle to liberate Batnaya chimed with the offensive to rid Mosul
of ISIS last October, in collaboration with Iraqi forces. There were
more than 100 ISIS fighters in the town. Around 60 were killed by the
Peshmerga, who lost eight “martyrs” during the fight.
More than 50 other Peshmerga suffered injuries, many during the
battle but some in the weeks afterwards due to booby traps left behind.
Colonel Farho said his soldiers liberated another five villages.
The clear up operation has been on-going since. The first priority
was demine the town and clear it of booby traps and unexploded bombs.
This involved bringing in three specialised teams – Canadian, French and
American – who, along with the Peshmerga, have now cleared about 90 per
cent of the area.
Around 80 per cent of homes were destroyed. No reconstruction work
has started yet so no residents have returned – and Colonel Farho has no
idea how long it’ll be before the community can start rebuilding. It
could be years, and the cost will be astronomical at a time when war
continues to ruin the economy.
There remains the problem of tunnels which ISIS dug deep under
people’s houses. They built a fairly extensive network – up to 10 homes
had tunnels underneath – during the occupation.
Colonel Farho takes us to one house where the entrance to a tunnel
involves a 10 metre climb down a metal ladder – into a system involving a
main route and numerous branches, some of which extend hundreds of
“ISIS forced its prisoners to build the tunnel network before executing them – so they couldn’t tell anyone ,” Colonel Farho says.
Afterwards, we’re taken to the town’s main church which is surrounded
by destroyed family homes. From afar, the Catholic Church appears
undamaged, its red domed roof and spire intact.
A tower at the back also remains standing. It was a vantage point
used by ISIS snipers before the liberation, and where the Peshmerga
later raised the cross of Christ in triumph.
The church was made with local stone and although mostly intact, the
inside has suffered considerable damage, where the Islamists indulged in
a violent rampage of vandalism.
There are bullet marks everywhere and the altar has been desecrated, a
wine-red carpet leading down from where priests conducted services for
hundreds of years, now strewn with broken concrete, wood and smashed
A large iron cross removed from the top of the church, stands against
a grey marble pillar. Graffiti has been sprayed over the altar and
“That says ‘Allah’ and this says ‘Allahu Akbar’ which means God is
great,” explains our fixer, Balata, translating writing scrawled on a
Pointing to behind the altar, Balata says that the Arabic graffiti
sprayed there says: “No God, only one God – Allah”. Another sentence
says: “Jesus is our prophet as well.”
The Peshmerga say that another church in the town was destroyed
completely because ISIS used it as a weapons dump, which was blown up.
We walk outside to where the tower stands, passing a marble
courtyard, once beautiful but now littered with the debris of war. When
they liberated Batnaya, one of the Peshmerga’s first acts was to return
the bell to the church and raise a wooden cross on the tower – to
replace the sinister black flag of ISIS.
At the foot of the structure, we see blankets used by ISIS snipers
who manned the vantage point 24 hours a day. There are also spent
cartridge shells, a blackened Iraqi coin and the night lens from a high
From the top of the tower, the Peshmerga’s Major Jaffer points to a
cemetery about half a mile away, explaining it was desecrated. We
descend and make our way there on foot.
As we walk through ruins there are visible remnants of ISIS rule.
There’s black writing on an entrance to a home that, the Peshmerga say,
indicates the HQ of ISIS’s artillery during the battle.
Elsewhere, the Islamist terrorist group marked Christian houses with
the Arabic equivalent of the letter “N” to denote the derogatory term
‘Nazarene’ – akin to the Nazis targeting Jewish homes back in the 1930s.
At one point, the Peshmerga point to a vacuum cleaner at the side of the road which had been boobied trapped.
“They would detonate some of these using mobile phone signals, while
other booby traps were triggered using wires,” says Major Jaffer. “This
one had a wire across the road with explosives inside it but there were
also explosives stocked close-by to ensure a massive explosion – so big
that it probably destroyed this whole area.”
He points to craters in the road and circular areas of ground
blackened by fire. He says that ISIS would burn tyres, oil and diesel,
to send black smoke into the sky to provide cover from drones and
Further along, a family photo album lies in the dust, a couple on
their wedding day, pictured smiling at a camera during happier times.
When we arrive at the cemetery the Peshmerga advise us to tread
carefully – saying we must only step on large stones which they use as a
makeshift concrete path into the graveyard. “There could still be booby
traps here so be careful,” says Captain Ayob.
The cemetery is a mess. There’s been wanton violence with headstones
and tombs smashed. Captain Ayob explains that ISIS opened tombs to steal
gold from the dead.
We leave the cemetery and return to the Peshmerga’s headquarters in
the town, where we offer thanks to Colonel Farho and his soldiers for
their time. They’ve no idea how long they’ll remain in Batnaya – adding
that they’re preparing for what may come next after ISIS is cleared from
Batnaya is in disputed land, territory once under Iraqi rule but now
controlled by the Kurds, so there’s the potential for conflict with
Iraq’s Shia militias, among others. Once there’s no more unifying focus
on destroying ISIS, there’s the real chance that Iraq could erupt into
What next for Batnaya after the “soldiers of the Caliphate”?
Christian refugees fleeing persecution in the Middle East face
“discrimination” by the British government as only a small number are
accepted under the UK’s flagship resettlement scheme, a member of the
House of Lords says.
Carey of Clifton, a former Archbishop of Canterbury, said that although
Christians accounted for 10 percent of Syria’s population before the
civil war erupted in 2011, they made up less than 1 percent of Syrian
refugees who moved to the UK under the Vulnerable Persons Scheme in the
third quarter of last year.
He claims there are “politically correct” politicians who are “institutionally biased” towards Christian refugees.
the run-up to Easter, British taxpayers will be appalled by this
institutional bias against Christians by politically correct officials,” Carey said, according to the Telegraph.
peer also sought legal advice on the case from a barrister, who said
the underrepresentation of Syrian Christians among those resettled in
the UK means they are facing “indirect discrimination” under EU human rights law.
“In this the British government is not just breaking its
manifesto pledge to look after Christian refugees, it also appears to be
breaking the law,” Carey remarked.
One Iraqi Christian,
Sarmad Ozan, who was deacon of his church in Mosul before the city was
seized by Islamic State (IS, formerly ISIS/ISIL) in 2014, spoke to RT last year about his fight for asylum in the UK.
IS gave Christians in the northern Iraqi city an ultimatum: convert to Islam, pay the jizya religious tax on non-Muslims or die.
Ozan, whose family fled to the Kurdish-held city of Erbil, claims if the UK government returns him to Iraq it means it wants to “kill” him.
still appealing because it’s impossible to go back to a place with
nothing. Our house is taken by ISIS. Everything taken by ISIS,” he told RT.
“Even our neighbors are now supporting ISIS. So how can I go to a
place where they are all supporting ISIS? It’s like someone going back
“That means if they want to send me back, they want to kill me.
“The situation there is unsafe and unstable.
the Home Office admit that it is unstable inside Iraq and don’t advise
anyone to travel to Iraq, but they want us to go back.”
Iraqi Christian who fled ISIS ‘slow-motion genocide’ fights deportation
When Islamic State seized Mosul in summer 2014, the Iraqi city’s Syrian
Orthodox Christians were forced into exile. Two years on, one of their
number Sarmad Ozan faces deportation from Britain if his asylum bid
fails. Leggi tutto!
Chaldean immigrant Maureen Antwan wants two things for her children — for them to keep the faith and do well in school.
“To just be with the church, that’s the first thing,” she said. “The second thing, I hope they will study and get good grades.”
Although she has doubts about raising her children in the United
States, none matches the fears she had before leaving Iraq 13 years ago.
The family was “scared for everything, even (our) religion,” she said
of life in Iraq. “I don’t like for my kids to be born or live in a
country where they don’t have a safe place.”
Christians began fleeing Iraq in great numbers following the fall of
Saddam Hussein in 2003. War and persecution drove an estimated 1 million
from the country.
Maureen Antwan left Iraq in 2004 with her husband, Luay, and their
then-4-year-old son. They spent a few years in Jordan, where Maureen
gave birth to her second son, Anthony. In 2008, the family settled in
They live in the Phoenix area and are among an estimate
300,000-400,000 Chaldeans in the U.S. They attend Holy Family Mission of
the Mar Abraham Chaldean Catholic community.
Antwan said their Christian community in Iraq was small, simple and
somewhat confined. Fear of violence kept people close to home.
U.S. communities are larger and more diverse.
“Here everything is open. [The kids] have a lot of freedom,” the
mother told Catholic News Service, adding that she worries about outside
influences on her sons.
She’s heard others ask her children, “Why do you believe in God?” She
said she has to help them hold strong to their creed so others won’t
“take my kids to their way” of thinking.
“We are Catholic, we need to do everything like Jesus [has] given it to us.”
Maureen said her boys never go to sleep without praying. And the
family sings religious songs together in the language of the Chaldeans, a
form of Aramaic.
“Like every Chaldean living in America, we’re going to the church a lot,” she said.
Although he enjoys driving, video games and hanging out with friends,
17-year-old Kris also is involved at church — teaching first Communion
class and singing in the church choir with his mom.
He sees many possibilities here and wishes his mother would not worry so much about his future.
“My dream right now is to become a surgeon,” he said. “I have more opportunities here than I would have had in Iraq.”
He is quick to point out that he is steadfast in his beliefs and values.
“I tell my mom not to worry, because I know what to believe. I know what to do. I know what’s right and what’s wrong.”
Asked if she ever would consider taking her children back to Iraq, Antwan quickly responded, “No.”
She has watched from afar Iraqi Christians being persecuted and killed for their faith.
“Everyone suffers from what has happened there,” she said. “We can only pray for them.”
She said they have no family left in Iraq. All have remade their lives in other countries.
Although Western influence surrounds them, Antwan is committed to
raising her children with a strong Chaldean heritage and looks to the
example of her own mother.
“I hope to be like my mom,” she said. “She did everything to make us happy. … She gives us a lot of love.”
Until this March, Antwan had been separated from her parents for 13 years. After fleeing Iraq, they had resettled in Australia.
“The good thing is my mom now came to America to live with me,” Antwan said. “That was a very beautiful gift.” Leggi tutto!
The next few months will determine whether Iraqi Christians can return
to their homes in areas where Islamic State had been routed, according to Msgr.
John E. Kozar, international president of the Catholic Near East Welfare
Kozar, who was in Iraq March 31-April 5, cited several daunting challenges for
Iraqi Christians who return to their country: infrastructure woes, burned- and bombed-out
buildings, desecrated churches and security issues.
liberated villages outside of Dahuk (in northern Iraq) are being resettled as
we speak," Msgr. Kozar told Catholic News Service in an April 7 telephone
interview from CNEWA headquarters in New York.
reason people are very hesitant to go back there is the reason of security. They
hold very close to them the reign of terror ISIS had produced. They're looking
for some reassurance from the Iraqi government and the Kurdish Peshmerga government,"
the military force that has liberated areas previously under Islamic State
control, Msgr. Kozar said.
reason would be there's no infrastructure. There's no water, no electricity, no
sewage," he said. "Those would be the single most difficult challenges
that need to be overcome. The next two, three months will tell the tale."
town, Batnaya, was 85 percent destroyed by aerial bombing, according to Msgr.
Kozar. "That one, I don't know what the future might be for that. It
looked to me like something out of World War II," he said. Another town, Baqova,
he described as "more burned out --some aerial bombing but more internal
bombing -- but all burned out."
third, somewhat larger town of 25,000, Teleskov, was "only occupied for
nine days by ISIS. It was liberated after nine days, but it was then used by the
Peshmerga as a staging area until three or four weeks ago. They use the
distinction, 'It was liberated, but not free,'" Msgr. Kozar said. "People
accepted that to drive out ISIS from other towns and build up a fortification
line so it would not come back."
three towns had significant Chaldean Catholic populations. Chaldeans are one of the
Eastern churches, made up primarily of Iraqi Catholics.
Kozar also visited Qaraqosh, one of the cities in northern Iraq with a
significant percentage of Assyrian Catholics. He also visited with sisters who
had a convent in the city.
Qaraqosh "is heavily damaged but not destroyed," he said. "There are 4,000-5,000
homes burned out, but the structures -- thanks be to God -- are pretty fair,
but totally looted ... including seven Catholic churches and one Orthodox church,
burned internally, pillaged and defaced."
Kozar recalled the extent of destruction at Immaculate Conception Church in
Qaraqosh. The church courtyard, he said, was "all filled with soot, and
there's a heap of ashes in the center" as Islamic State had taken all of
the church's sacramentals, piled them up at the courtyard, and burned them. "ISIS
had used it for target practice," he added. "I even brought back
shell casings as a little memento of the tragedy there. There was so much
target practice there that they shot out two pillars in the courtyard.
defaced it in Arabic and German. ISIS had written really vile things about
Jesus and the church. The convent was burned and gutted. Everything was stolen.
Anything holy in their mind was burned," he said. "That town had
52,000 Catholics that fled. Almost no one has returned there yet, even though
technically it's under the control of the Iraqi military and, in some sense,
under the control of the Kurdish Peshmerga militia."
Most Iraqi Christian are not prepared to go back, he said.
they do? It's really a very difficult time. Even though, on the one hand, ISIS
has been routed within most instances, there's still pockets in Iraq where ISIS
other hand, staying in the refugee camps is not a good option. "Some
of the ISIS fighters have shaved their beards and are trying to sneak into the
(refugee) camps," Msgr. Kozar said. "This is part of that reign of terror."