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Will Iraqi Christians or Monasteries in Iraq Survive in the Aftermath of Islamic State Terrorist Group?

Christians have been unfortunate in their neighbours, suffering attacks and massacres at the hands of Persians, Muslims and even, long ago, Kurds

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The 4th century monastery of St. Matthew. ISIS fighters were four kilometers from Iraq’s oldest monastery, which houses the tomb of a saint revered by Syriac Christianity, Alfaf, Iraq, Nov. 2, 2016. (J. Dettmer/VOA)

“Daesh were in the road, they reached the road between the two villages just down there, then they retreated, maybe two or three of their pick-ups reached there and then they went back to Bashiqa city,” says head monk Yousif Ibrahim, one of the Assyrian Orthodox priests and a guardian of the tomb of St. Matthew, or Mor Mattai, a 4th century monk revered as a saint in Syriac Christian churches.

“It was the will of our God to protect the monastery” from the Islamic State terror group, says the 42-year-old monk, who was born in Mosul, 20 kilometers away and which can be seen from the monastery, the oldest in Iraq, from its perch on the side of the rugged Mount Alfaf.

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Columns of black and white smoke are pluming from the city, especially from two of its eastern neighborhoods, which Iraqi elite forces this week managed to overrun after fierce fighting.

The monastery was founded in 363 by the hermit Mor Mattai after he fled persecution in Amid, now modern Diyarbakır, under the Roman Emperor Julian the Apostate. Pilgrims have traditionally come to the monastery in search of divine help. Some sleep in the room housing the tomb or near by, hoping the saint will cure an illness or bless them with a longed-for child.

The 4th century monastery of St. Matthew, Iraq, Nov. 2, 2016. (J. Dettmer/VOA)
The 4th century monastery of St. Matthew, Iraq, Nov. 2, 2016. (J. Dettmer/VOA)

For two years — from August 2014 when IS militants seized Mosul and swept across Iraq’s Nineveh plains — the seven monks of St. Matthew’s monastery refused to leave and were protected by a small detachment of Kurdish peshmerga fighters.

Four kilometers of windy road separated Daesh from the sandy-colored walls of the monastery, which houses not only the tomb of the Mor Mattai but also a library of ancient Christian manuscripts. Many precious relics, including the saint’s bones, were transported for safe-keeping to the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, Irbil, an hour’s drive away.

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Even so, IS would have had a field day, no doubt, in wrecking the monastery, making it yet another victim of the relentless destruction of heritage and religious sites the terrorist group considers heretical. In Mosul, the militants reduced to rubble last year the 1,400-year-old St Elijah monastery, where the Greek letters chi and rho, representing the first two letters of Christ’s name, were carved at the entrance.

“We have been waiting for two years for the Nineveh plains to be liberated,” says Yousif. But even when the plains have been cleared of IS militants, the head monk fears what will happen next.

Like most Christians VOA has interviewed in the last week, Yousif remains pessimistic about the future of Christianity in Iraq. “Our people are looking for a guarantee for the tragedy not to be repeated — you have to understand that our problems predate Daesh,” says Yousif.

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“When visiting Mosul even before Daesh I wouldn’t wear my religious clothes,” says the bearded monk, who, when he isn’t talking about dark things, has an infectious laugh. He points to the killing of Christians in 2006 in Mosul in a wave of sectarian violence that took also the life of his older brother. Much of the fury powering that episode of Sunni Muslim violence was in reaction to Pope Benedict XVI’s public reflections on Islam during a tour in Germany — when he quoted a 14th-century Byzantine emperor as calling Islam “evil and inhuman.”

Among other Christian victims, a Syriac Orthodox Church priest was beheaded. Yousif reflects sadly on what he sees as a long war by Muslim militants to empty Iraq and Syria of Christians. “Every period we have a different name — Taliban, al-Qaida, ISIS. Now they are talking about a new group emerging, and every generation they become crueler. Everyone knows what is happening but there is no will by the international community to defend Christianity,” he argues.

Since the second century and the origins of Christianity in the Nineveh plains of northern Iraq, Christians have been unfortunate in their neighbors, suffering attacks and massacres at the hands of Persians, Muslims and even, long ago, Kurds. And if geography is destiny, then it is surprising Christians are still here, but for how much longer they aren’t sure.

Iraqi battlefield success against the Islamic State terror group doesn’t mean the sectarianism of the past will be exorcised. Many people here argue an even messier war could succeed this one, with Shiites, Sunnis, Kurds and Christians battling each other in a series of micro-conflicts.

In the once down-at-heel and now wrecked Christian town of Bartilla, part of the monastery’s diocese, the population halved in the years after Saddam Hussein’s ouster and before Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi announced his caliphate of fear.

Iraqi Christians on the outskirts of the town of Bartilla watch Iraqi military vehicles advancing. Most Christians have been blocked from visiting their homes with Iraqi military officials saying the area remains unsafe, Bartilla, Iraq, Oct. 31, 2016. (J. Dettmer/VOA)
Iraqi Christians on the outskirts of the town of Bartilla watch Iraqi military vehicles advancing. Most Christians have been blocked from visiting their homes with Iraqi military officials saying the area remains unsafe, Bartilla, Iraq, Oct. 31, 2016. (J. Dettmer/VOA)

Since the 1990s, hostility from the government of Saddam Hussein—and, since his fall, sectarian killings and bombings and an increasingly aggressive Islamist political culture—have forced more than two-thirds of Iraq’s Christian to flee overseas, to other countries in the region or Europe and the United States, slashing the population from 1.2 million to not much more than 200,000.

The Nineveh plains, the original Assyrian heartland, where many Christians speak Assyrian as their first language and Arabic their second, was experiencing an exodus despite Christian leaders earmarking the strip of land sandwiched between Mosul and Iraqi Kurdistan as a possible place of refuge when sectarian attacks in Basra and Baghdad mounted after the American-led invasion of Iraq.

Now they fear that a deal between the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) and the central Iraqi authorities in Baghdad, an agreement they claim the U.S. has brokered, won’t ease their plight — even though that is exactly what it is meant to do. The deal would see Christian majority territory being split between the KRG and Iraq. Many of the big towns, including Bartilla, would remain Iraqi under the plan and it would divide the diocese Yousif and his fellow monks oversee.

Christians fear that the Christian towns and villages that remain part of Iraq will be re-populated by Sunni Muslims — possibly imperiling those Christians who remain. Click To Tweet

All week, Christians have been crowding a checkpoint on the Mosul-Irbil highway trying to get permission to visit their homes in Bartilla and other Christian towns, including Qaraqosh. Iraqi soldiers are not allowing most through, saying the towns are not safe yet. But noticeably some Kurdish Shiites have been allowed to pass.

“They let others go through,” fumes 58-year-old Sami. He arrived in northern Iraq from the southern Iraqi city of Basra last month. A wine-seller, he fled after a friend, another wine-seller and hotelier, was killed. He has a family home in Qaraqosh.

Like nearly all the Christians at the checkpoint, he says none of his family will settle back in the plains unless it forms part of a protectorate guaranteed by international powers or if it becomes part of the KRG.

Abdul, aged 70, agrees, nodding vigorously. “No Christian has any life in Iraq,” he laments. He left Baghdad and headed to family properties in the plains five years ago after he paid a ransom to kidnappers to free his son. An engineer, he built two houses and a shop in Qaraqosh. He knows they have been razed but wants to salvage personal possessions left.

Asked about the future, he responds bleakly, “What can I do?”. He adds: “If there is any way for me to leave Iraq, I will. It is just impossible here.”

On the other side of the checkpoint a lot of destruction awaits these Christians when they are eventually allowed to enter.

Bartilla, a town that dates back more than 1,000 years, is full of collapsed buildings, wrecked storefronts, charred cars. Glass and spent and live cartridges litter streets, there’s unexploded ordnance too in the ruins. And in some areas groups of red flags planted by bomb-disposal teams to indicate mines and explosive devices. (VOA)

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Syrian Militia: End Is Near for Islamic State in Raqqa

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Smoke rises near the stadium where the Islamic State militants are holed up after an airstrike by coalition forces at the frontline, in Raqqa, Syria. voa

Islamic State is on the verge of defeat in Syria’s Raqqa and the city may finally be cleared of the jihadists Saturday or Sunday, the Syrian Kurdish YPG militia told Reuters Saturday.

The U.S.-led coalition against Islamic State said around 100 of the jihadist group’s fighters had surrendered in Raqqa in the last 24 hours and had been “removed from the city,” but it still expected difficult fighting “in the days ahead.”

It did not say how the fighters had been removed or where the fighters had been taken.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said remaining Islamic State fighters were being transported out of Raqqa by bus under a deal between Islamic State, the U.S.-led coalition and the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which is dominated by the YPG. There was no immediate comment on that report from the coalition or the SDF.

Fighting since June

Civilians who escaped from Islamic State
Civilians who escaped from Islamic State militants rest at a mosque in Raqqa, Syria. voa

The SDF, backed by coalition airstrikes and special forces, has been battling since June to oust Islamic State from Raqqa city, formerly its de facto capital in Syria and a base of operations where it planned attacks against the West.

The final defeat of Islamic State at Raqqa will be a major milestone in efforts to roll back the group’s self-declared caliphate in Syria and Iraq, where earlier this year the group was driven from the city of Mosul.

“The battles are continuing in Raqqa city. Daesh (Islamic State) is on the verge of being finished. Today or tomorrow the city may be liberated,” YPG spokesman Nouri Mahmoud told Reuters by telephone.

In emailed comments to Reuters, coalition spokesman Ryan Dillon said about 100 Islamic State fighters had surrendered in Raqqa in the last 24 hours and were “removed from the city,” without giving further details.

“We still expect difficult fighting in the days ahead and will not set a time for when we think (Islamic State) will be completely defeated in Raqqa,” he said, adding that around 85 percent of Raqqa had been liberated as of Oct. 13.

Some civilians escape

Around 1,500 civilians had been able to safely make it to SDF lines within the last week, he added.

Omar Alloush, a member of a civilian council set up to run Raqqa, told Reuters late Friday that efforts were under way to secure the release of civilians and “a possible way to expel terrorist elements from Raqqa province,” without giving further details.

An activist group that reports on Raqqa, Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently, said on its Facebook page Saturday that dozens of buses had entered Raqqa city overnight, having traveled from the northern Raqqa countryside.

The Observatory said Syrian Islamic State fighters and their families had left the city, and buses had arrived to evacuate remaining foreign fighters and their families. It did not say where they would be taken.

During the more than six-year Syrian war, the arrival of buses in a conflict zone has often signaled an evacuation of combatants and civilians.

The campaign against Islamic State in Syria is now focused on its last major foothold in the country, the eastern province of Deir el-Zour, which neighbors Iraq.
Islamic State is facing separate offensives in Deir el-Zour by the SDF on one hand, and Syrian government forces supported by Iranian-backed militia and Russian airstrikes on the other. (VOA)

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Will the Latest Message From Islamic State Leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi Provoke New Attacks in the West?

IS remains a potent organization, despite its continued losses in United States and Europe

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This image taken from a militant website July 5, 2014, purports to show the leader of the Islamic State group, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. (VOA)

Washington, September 30, 2017 : U.S. intelligence officials examining the latest audio statement claiming to be from Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi say, so far, they have no reason to doubt its authenticity.

However, there are questions as to whether the message from the leader of the collapsing, self-declared caliphate will cause IS operatives to spring into action. Some analysts see Baghdadi’s continued call to arms as almost a shot in the dark, aimed at rekindling interest despite the terror group’s fading fortunes in Syria and Iraq.

The still-early U.S. intelligence assessment comes just a day after the Islamic State’s al-Furqan media wing issued the 46-minute audio recording featuring Baghdadi, in which he calls on followers to “fan the flames of war on your enemies, take it to them and besiege them in every corner.”

“Continue your jihad and your blessed operations and do not let the crusaders rest in their homes and enjoy life and stability while your brethren are being shelled and killed,” he says.

islamic state
A U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces fighter takes cover behind a wall on a street where they fight against Islamic State militants, on the front line on the western side of Raqqa, Syria (VOA)

Despite such threats, U.S. officials say the release of the latest audio message is not changing Washington’s approach.

“We are aware of the tape,” a National Security Council spokesman said Friday. “But whether it’s al-Baghdadi or any member of ISIS, the Trump administration’s policy is destroying ISIS in Iraq, Syria and around the globe.” ISIS is an acronym for Islamic State.

Still, intelligence and counterterror officials, both in the United States and in Europe, warn that IS remains a potent organization, despite its continued losses on the ground.

“We do not think battlefield losses alone will be sufficient to degrade its terrorism capabilities,” the head of the U.S. National Counterterrorism Center, Nick Rasmussen, warned in written testimony to U.S. lawmakers earlier this week, calling IS’s reach on social media “unprecedented.”

And while Western counterterror officials say the expected wave of returning IS foreign fighters has yet to materialize, the experience and skill sets of the operatives who have made it back home are ample reasons to worry.

But some caution the new Baghdadi audio message may have more to do with the terror group’s long-term strategy than its desire to carry out attacks in the near term.

“The broadcast boosts morale by contextualizing the hardships facing the group as their losses accumulate by reminding Islamic State militants and their supporters that day-to-day actions are part of a broader struggle, and metrics of progress shouldn’t be assessed in a vacuum,” according to Jade Parker, a senior research associate at the Terror Asymmetrics Project (TAPSTRI).

ALSO READ  intelligence officials , Islamic State, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, al-Furqan, war, enemies, threats, US officials, raqqa, National Security Council, isis, Iraq, Syria, U.S. National Counterterrorism Center, Nick Rasmussen, terrorism, Terror Asymmetrics Project ,

Parker also believes that while it is “extremely unlikely” the latest Baghdadi audio will spark or accelerate any IS plots, it might prevent fraying within the organization’s ranks.

“Baghdadi’s silence during the final days of IS’s battle for Mosul was a sore point for many IS fighters and supporters who felt confused and abandoned by their leader,” she added. “This statement was likely released in part to avoid that sentiment with respect to the fight to retain ground in Raqqa.” (VOA)

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Islamic State Flag saying “The Caliphate is coming”, Sighted in Pakistan

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Pakistani officials acknowledged that at least one IS flag was recently displayed on a billboard in Islamabad.(source: VOA)

Islamabad September 25: An Islamic State (IS), the flag was seen displayed near Islamabad which read “The Caliphate is coming,” slogan written on the flag, and was put up over a billboard Sunday on a major expressway in Islamabad.

Pakistan Interior Ministry authorities told that committee has been formed to investigate the incident. Pakistan authorities deny that IS may have established a foothold in the country.

Islamic State (ISIS) Militant Group to Soon have a Strong Hold in Southeast Asia: Report

“The group does not have an organized presence, resources or structure to be able to operate in the area,” Talal Choudhry, State Minister for Interior Affairs told VOA’s Urdu Service.

The IS terror group has taken roots in the mountain regions of Afghanistan and Pakistan since early 2015. It brands itself as the Islamic State of Khorasan (IS-K), a title that distinguishes the militant group in the region from its main branch in Iraq and Syria.

The Islamic State threat in Pakistan follows recent media reports and activities by local IS affiliates in various regions that indicate the group has been making inroads in the country.(VOA)