giovedì, maggio 28, 2015

 

Monks won't leave ancient monastery amid ISIL threat


Yousif Ibrahim paces down the 1,600-year-old chamber room of Saint Matthew's Monastery passing rows of empty polished-wood pews. Ornate crystal chandeliers hang from the arched ceiling above him. The room smells of dust and incense, and its silence is peaceful. Outside of the ancient walls, however, the battle for Iraq is raging.
"We can see the battles and the airstrikes from here in front of us, especially at night. The sky lights up at night, but we of course are not scared. God protects us," Ibrahim, one of three monks who resides in the monastery, says.
Situated on the side of Mount Al-Faf in North Iraq's Nineveh Plains, St. Matthew's Monastery is recognized as one of the oldest Christian monasteries in Iraq. Today, the beige stone structure looks down on the rolling hills of one of Iraq's most active frontlines against the Islamic State, less than four miles away.
The horizon is spotted with pluming towers of white and black smoke from U.S.-led coalition airstrikes and heavy artillery fire. From this frontline, Islamic State territory stretches back to Mosul, the group's largest Iraqi stronghold.
The proximity of the Islamic State to St. Matthew's means the monastery is constantly at risk. The extremist group is known for destroying churches, museums and other culturally and historically significant sites.
Last week, the militants seized the Syrian city of Palmyra and its ruins, described by the United Nations as "one of the most important cultural centers of the ancient world." The city's fall left the world holding its breath in anticipation of the UNESCO World Heritage site's destruction.
St. Matthew's is safely under Kurdish Peshmerga military control for now. But Sahar Karaikos, one of six students at the monastery, fears what could happen if the Islamic State advances closer.
"We are not scared, because our teachers give us a feeling of peace here, but we know we are on the frontlines, and in seconds the Islamic State could be here," Karaikos says. "I don't even want to think or speak about the destruction the Islamic State would cause if they took our monastery."
While monks at the monastery say they are confident God and the Peshmerga forces will protect the site, they have removed their most precious relics, including centuries-old Christian manuscripts. The tomb of the monastery's namesake, St. Matthew, lies empty -- the bones have been moved north into the relatively safe territory of the Kurdish Regional Government.
Most of the residents from the villages below the monastery, including Karaikos's family, also sought refuge in that region after fleeing in August, when the Islamic State advanced on the area. The three monks at the monastery and all six students, however, resolved to stay.
From the monastery's stone terraces, Karaikos can see his village, Bartalla, a Christian town that dates back more than 1,000 years. Today, as he points out his abandoned village from high on the mountainside, thick plumes of smoke billow up from Bartalla's skyline.
"(The Islamic State) does not understand what history means, they just understand the breaking of history," he says. "If a people don't have the history of their past, then they will not have a future because they won't know what their origins are, where they came from."
In its hey-day the monastery boasted 7,000 monks in its ranks. The area surrounding the complex was named Al-Faf, meaning "the thousands," in homage to the legion of monks who worshipped, taught and studied on its steep dry slopes. But just like the Christian population in Iraq, that number has dwindled dramatically over the years.
Extremist groups have systematically targeted Christians over the past century, and the Islamic State is only a continuation of that long history, Ibrahim says. Despite holding fort at the monastery, Ibrahim says St. Matthew's, and Christianity in Iraq, are on their last legs.
Iraq's Christians will eventually abandon the nation, Ibrahim says, leaving their history behind them. Only then will he consider fleeing the war-torn country himself. "The shepherd cannot leave his sheep," he says.
Karaikos, however, says it is critical that Iraq's Christians do not flee. Instead, he hopes they stand resilient to preserve their history.
"Saint Matthew ended up here because he was fleeing persecution, but persecution follows us," Karaikos says. "We can't run from it, we have to stand in front of our history."

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