Christians whose roots go back many centuries in Iraq are risking
everything today, braving snipers and mortar fire, to bring their dead
back from asylum abroad and bury them in villages previously abandoned
to the jihadis of the so-called Islamic State.
of those making these hasty pilgrimages fear that otherwise the age of
Christians in Mesopotamia is coming to an end. Their dead, they say, may
be their only lasting legacy.
On the morning of June 26, a white
pickup speeds out of a church in the Kurdish-controlled Assyrian
Catholic town of Alqush. Its cargo is a simple wooden coffin holding the
body of Tawetha Batrus Ngara. She was in her 70s, and had moved to
Lebanon with her adult son four months ago. But today she is to be
buried in her birthplace: the Iraqi Christian ghost town of Telaskof, 25
miles north of the ISIS stronghold Mosul.
ISIS overran Telaskof on August 6, 2014. It was retaken by Kurdish Peshmerga
shortly after, but its 7,000 or so residents have yet to return for
fear of future attacks. ISIS assaults on the town are still frequent. As
craters in its streets can attest, Telaskof is still within rocket and
mortar range of militant positions on the Nineveh Plain to the south.
at the entrance to Telaskof’s cemetery, Ngara’s coffin is welcomed by a
group of 70 mostly elderly and middle-aged mourners. Iraq’s young
Christians have been leaving in droves since the fall of Saddam Hussein, and according to local church officials, half of Telaskof’s population has left Iraq altogether.
as a church ask the people not to leave this land. Don’t immigrate.
This is our heritage, this is our country,” says Father Rani Hana, the
55-year-old parish priest of Telaskof’s Catholic St. George Church,
speaking to The Daily Beast on the morning of the Ngara funeral. The
stout, round-faced Hana has been a priest in the area since the 1980s.
Despite the scorching Iraqi summer heat, he has donned full black
vestments for the upcoming ceremony.
Ngara’s funeral begins with
her coffin being lowered on ropes into a small shallow grave on the
cemetery’s periphery. Hana and 29-year-old Steven Azabo, another priest,
lead prayers and chants in the ancient Aramaic tongue—the spoken
language of Jesus that some of Telaskof’s Christians still speak. Amid
hallelujahs and amens, the assembled make the sign of the cross and
women cry and ululate, their high-pitched trills filling the air.
the final prayers are offered, young men rush to throw dirt on the
casket. A blanket is placed over the burial mound and weighed down with
rocks and pieces of nearby tombstones already destroyed by ISIS mortars.
The villagers are wary of such bombardments, and the funeral service is
rushed by design. ISIS has spotters in the next-door village three
miles away, and has targeted large Telaskof gatherings in the past.
silver-painted metal crucifix is placed over Ngara and the service
concludes. From beginning to end it takes less than 15 minutes.
is a foreign, strange place,” mutters 48-year-old Telaskof villager
Kamal Jibral as the final mourners depart. “Anyone who dies must be
brought back to Iraq.”
The younger of the priests at the funeral,
Azabo, tells The Daily Beast that since the summer of last year he has
conducted close to 70 such repatriations in Telaskof and neighboring
villages. The process, he says, has become fairly routine. All of the
bodies have so far come from Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan, or from other
areas of Iraq.
“The Iraqi passport isn’t very good,” he says, chuckling. “There aren’t a lot of other places we can go.”
The bodies from abroad typically arrive by air. From there they’re
usually driven to the monastery town of Alqush and given a short wake
before being delivered via pickup to their final earthly destinations.
problem in continuing the repatriations, Azabo says, has been the grave
digging. It’s become impossible to erect the large shrine-like
headstones traditionally used in Iraqi Christian graveyards because of
the time and resources involved. Such projects are also easy pickings
for ISIS snipers. This has meant returnees like Ngara can only be placed
in shallow, quickly dug three-foot trenches with simple markers.
Meanwhile, ISIS has taken to firing mortar rounds into the cemetery at
random, destroying existing tombs and family plots.
“Once the grave is destroyed they can’t make new ones,” Azabo says. “It’s a big, big problem.”
don’t have anything else,” he adds. “In Telaskof we have maybe 1,400
families, now maybe only 700 of them have stayed in Iraq. All of the
In Ngara’s case, her immediate family couldn’t even
attend the funeral. According to Jibral, her husband and siblings had
all already died, and none of Ngara’s children were still in Iraq. That
left what remained of her former Telaskof neighbors in nearby safe zones
to give her a sendoff.
“Everyone in the village is a like a big family,” Jibral says, lighting a cigarette. “Everyone is a cousin.”
But how much longer that big family can survive is in question.
the rebellious streak of their Kurdish and Shia neighbors, Christians
were relatively well treated under the Saddam Hussein regime. Top Saddam
deputy and minister Tariq Aziz—who died in Iraqi custody in early
June—was himself Christian, born with the name Mikhail Yuhanna. And in
the power vacuum that followed Hussein’s toppling, Iraqi Christians
increasingly became the target of religious extremists.
“The first two car bombs in Telaskof were in 2007,” says Azabo.
Driving along the road between Telaskof and Alqush he points to a destroyed tractor in an adjacent field.
see this machine? This area, one child died because ISIS put mines in
the earth. A child, just 13 years old! He died,” Azabo exclaims. “He was
working the earth, and landmine!”
“Look around,” he continues. “Did Bush make this place better?”
majority of Iraq’s Christians are ethnic Assyrians, largely of the
Chaldean Catholic sect, but also including Orthodox and other groups. In
ancient times the pagan Assyrians built an empire that stretched as far
as Egypt. With its capital at Nineveh, near modern Mosul, Assyria’s
armies became the terror of the Near East and frequent enemies of the
Old Testament’s Israelites. But at the dawn of the Christian era, the
Assyrians were quick to adopt the new faith, making them among the
oldest Christian communities in the world.
That history and steadfastness to the faith has not been able to overcome the latest conflicts.
The U.S. State Department’s 2005 Report on International Religious Freedom
showed Iraq’s Christians had dropped from 1.4 million in 1987 to only
around a million at the beginning of the U.S.-led invasion. In its 2013
report, that number dropped under 500,000, and that was before Mosul
fell to ISIS in 2014. Today, some estimates place the total number of
remaining Iraqi Christians as low as 200,000.
“All my family is leaving Iraq. My brother and sister have now
arrived in Australia. My other sister is now waiting in Lebanon to go to
Australia. My father and mother this week arrived in Australia,” Azabo
says. “I am the only one still here.”
When asked why he didn’t
follow his family Down Under, Azabo said he had a duty to his flock to
remain. “Leave now? No. I’ll stay,” he says. “Why? I’m a priest.”
now inside the relative safety of his high-walled church in Alqush,
following the Ngara funeral, says he still returns to Telaskof regularly
for cleaning and church maintenance. ISIS vandalized the house of
worship, smashing its porcelain Virgin Mary statues and toppling the
crosses on its steeples. They also left improvised explosive devices
(IEDs) in many of the town’s homes and shops, making some neighborhoods
no-go areas to this day.
Hana’s efforts have restored St. George’s
steeple crosses, and workers have gingerly re-erected its statues. Hana
says the building is ready for the day the living also decide to return
to Telaskof, although he concedes this may be wishful thinking.
“Right now no one is considering moving back to Iraq,” he laments. “But this is our village and we love it.”
“Now we have lost everything,” Azabo adds. “But in the end, we still have our faith, and hope.”