For more than two years it lasted, just
minutes away from Islamic State-held territory. The Iraqi town of Alqosh
(50km north of Mosul) is the only Christian stronghold in the country
that survived IS.
Looking for signs of hope for the future of
Christianity in Iraq? This town, with its four churches, two monasteries
and 500 Christian families, is where it can be found.
For those who grew up reading the Bible,
Alqosh might ring a distant bell. It was the town where Old Testament
prophet Nahum, "the Elkoshite", lived. His grave, which also houses
ancient Hebrew texts, can be visited in the old centre of Alqosh. The
message of the New Testament also found its way to this community long
ago; since the early Middle Ages this town has been Christian. And it’s
determined to stay that way.
"All over Iraq, Alqoshians are known to be
strong, tough," Father Araam, one of the town’s Chaldean-Catholic
priests, says. Like many Christians here, he is determined to stay,
whatever happens. "I am one of God’s witnesses here. God is still here,
why should I leave? As long as I am able to give a glass of water to
someone who is thirsty, I am able to serve Jesus in Alqosh."
Visiting Alqosh is not easy. Before entering the town, all visitors are
stopped at a heavily guarded checkpoint. Only if one of the community
leaders will vouch for them are they allowed in.
The safety measures are not an unnecessary
exercise; for a long time IS was just a 10-minute drive away. In 2014,
IS tried to conquer Alqosh. The women and children all left the town,
but most of the men stayed to defend their community, backed by Kurdish
Peshmerga fighters. They succeeded; the Christians and Kurds fought off
IS, and most families returned.
But there is another reason the close-knit
Christian community of Alqosh is wary of outside visitors, Father Araam
says. "Our country is almost 90 years old now [Iraq became independent
in 1932]. Christians have really never been respected. There has been
nothing but war, persecution and pressure."
‘When needed, I will protect myself’
However, the Alqoshian Christian community
chose not to be pushed aside by the successive powers oppressing them.
The self-implemented rule – that only Christian Alqoshians are allowed
to own land or houses in the town – has kept the community safe from
other religions and tribes.
Over-cautious? Father Araam doesn’t think so.
"I’m sorry we have to work this way, but we
have had some really bad experiences very close by," he says. "There
used to be more Christian villages here on the Nineveh plain; we lost
But until today, the informal tribal law
system has granted the Alqoshians the opportunity to keep out strangers,
ensuring it remains a 100 per cent Christian-owned community.
This freedom comes with a price. The men in
the town are expected to play their role in protecting it. Father Araam
visits the frontline often in his role as priest, recognisable by his
white collar. He opens his phone and shows pictures of himself with
"Often soldiers ask me: ‘Priest, why are you
here?’ My answer is: ‘As Christians we pray for you, we pray you will
stay safe, that you will be able to return to your home,’" he says. "IS
is a killing machine – they don’t see soldiers as people.
"As a church we have a different story, a story of love. I’ll gladly
share that everywhere, even on the battle line. I am here to help as a
Christian, but, when needed, I will protect myself and my town."
In Alqosh the churches and the monastery play
their own role. On a hill overlooking the town, the compound of Our Lady
Monastery is a popular place for Alqoshians to spend the evening.
The prior, Father Gabriel, sees an important role for the town’s clergy.
"For me as a priest, I see it gives people
hope as long as I am here with them," he says. "Even when IS came in
2014, we didn’t perform miracles. Just the fact that we stayed here as
long as we could was a testimony, a living hope for the believers."
‘Their community is vanishing’
The prior says he feels called to do everything he can to keep the Christians from leaving the country.
"Christianity in Iraq is like a big tree,"
says Father Gabriel. "It has been here for 2,000 years, but today our
enemies are many and they want to cut down the tree. They want to get
rid of us."
When Iraqi Christians move to Europe or North
America, trying to "re-plant" themselves there, their faith is in
danger, he says.
"There already are a lot of Iraqi Christian
communities in America and Europe, but they are all melting, becoming
part of those cultures," he says. "The next generation will not be
recognisable. Their faith will disappear because the community they
belong to is vanishing."
Fr. Gabriel is doing his best to make the
place feel safe and hospitable. A small shop sells refreshments for
visitors. A young couple just got married and are celebrating outside
the monastery gates. A children’s birthday party is celebrated near a
farm maintained by the monastery.
Here it’s possible to forget about IS, the threats and the problems for a while.
"My whole family, except one sister, all of
them left the country," Father Gabriel says. "These people are my family
now, my brothers and sisters in Christ. I have committed my life to
this church, to these people. Once you give a gift like that, you don’t
take it back.
"When Jesus went to Jerusalem, the people were
planning to kill and crucify him. Peter tried to stop them, using
violence. But Jesus said to Peter: ‘Put your sword back in its place,
for all who draw the sword will die by the sword!’"
"Christianity in Alqosh is like gold," says
Fr. Araam. "It is tested in the fire. It hurts, but the result is that
the gold will be purer. I see people changing, not just in faith but
also in their behaviour. They have felt for themselves that, when
everything could be taken from them, God is all that remains. When the
government soldiers leave you, when IS comes, when you run out of
bullets, who do you cry out to?"
‘We need international support’
Both Fr. Araam and Fr. Gabriel call upon the
international community to support the Christians in Iraq. They say that
without political and even military protection of the Christian
minority, life will be very difficult for Christians, even if IS is
Fr. Gabriel compares the position of Christians to the state of Israel.
"All the Arab countries are Islamic countries;
they are all against Israel," he says. "And yet, Israel is strong,
stronger than the Arab world. Why? If the international community can
guarantee safety for Israel, why not do the same for the Christians in
He calls for a UN-protected safe zone for Christians.
"We need international support. Our enemies are many, we are just a small group," he says.
Father Araam agrees with him and says he is
grateful for the many humanitarian organisations already supporting
Christians in Alqosh.
"Many groups support our work here. There is
still love left in the world. That helps us in keeping the hope that we
will have a life and a future here," he says.