The history pages of Iraq's Christian community
lie in charred fragments on the floor of a fourth-century monastery
near Mosul which Islamic State militants ransacked during a two-year
occupation that ended over the weekend.
jihadists at the Mar Behnam monastery burned a collection of books
about Christian theology, scraped off inscriptions written in Syriac -
the language used by Jesus - and demolished sculptures of the Virgin
Mary and the monastery's patron saint.
removed the site's crosses and tried to erase any mention of Behnam,
the son of an Assyrian king who, according to popular legend, built the
monastery as penance for killing both his children after they converted
fundamental goal was to destroy Christian history and civilization in
the Nineveh plains," Duraid Elias, commander of the Babylon Brigades, a
Christian militia that helped retake the site, told Reuters during a
visit on Monday.
Nineveh plains, a sprawling region north and east of Mosul, are a mosaic
of ethnic and religious communities with roots dating back to ancient
Muslim hardliners of Islamic State have targeted the adherents and
religious sites of those minority groups across the area, which it
seized in 2014 during a blitz across Iraq and neighboring Syria.
At the time,
the group issued an ultimatum to Christians: pay a tax, convert to
Islam, or die by the sword. Most fled toward the autonomous Kurdish
region, including a few dozen monks who left Mar Behnam with only the
clothes on their backs.
a 100,000-strong alliance of Iraqi forces now attempts to oust Islamic
State from the city of Mosul, the scale of destruction in nearby
Christian areas is gradually being documented.
jihadists had converted Mar Behnam, Iraq's largest monastery, into a
headquarters for the Hisba -- morality police, which enforced strict
rules against such things as smoking, men shaving their beards and women
baring their faces in public, according to Elias.
sitting room had been turned into a medical clinic, and the monks'
bedrooms were used to hold transgressors. A remote corner of the complex
was filled with dozens of satellite dishes the commander said had been
confiscated from residents nearby.
State graffiti covers the monastery's walls, including the group's
motto: "Remaining and expanding". Another scrawl includes the date Dec.
24, 2014 - one of two Christmases the jihadists spent in control of the
Five weeks into
Iraq's long-awaited offensive to retake Mosul, which itself once had a
sizeable Christian population, the city is nearly surrounded, but
government forces have established only a small foothold in a few
EYE FOR AN EYE
Babylon Brigades are the type of force that Iraq's Western allies have
pushed to participate in the Mosul campaign in an attempt to secure
local support for the expected rollback of Islamic State.
Christian fighters at Mar Behnam monastery on Monday wore an assortment
of military uniforms, carried large wooden crosses in their pickup
trucks and flew banners including, incongruously, flags used by Iraq's
powerful Shi'ite Muslim militias.
of the gunmen sported black headbands declaring devotion to Jesus or
the Virgin Mary, and one had affixed a religious icon to his bulletproof
vest, next to a hand grenade and two single bullets.
Elias, the commander, said his unit
had fought alongside the Iraqi army to retake the monastery and the
village of Khidir Ilyas where it is located. But the regular troops had
since departed, leaving his men in apparent control of the area.
showing Reuters around the site as gunfire rang out in the distance, he
welcomed six new volunteers into the Babylon Brigades, issuing them
with uniforms and weapons in exchange for a simple vow to protect the
His men, part of a
dwindling population of Arab Christians across the Middle East, are
driven by a desire to keep their community alive after Islamic State
threatened to destroy it for good.
"We are proving to the world that Christians are not weak. We are stronger than they imagined," said Elias.
He told Reuters his forces had so far demolished three or four homes thought to belong to Islamic State fighters in Khidir Ilyas to keep them from ever returning.
are others. We are going one by one: for every Christian house they
blew up, we blow up a house next to it," he said from atop the
monastery, pointing out one such pair of buildings.
"This is war. An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth."
(Reporting by Stephen Kalin; editing by Giles Elgood)