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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

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.

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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)

Next Story

English-speaking ISIS Supporters Exploit Messaging App

English-speaking Islamic State supporters are refusing to give up

English, ISIS, Supporters, Messaging
The Telegram logo is seen on a screen of a smartphone in this illustration, April 13, 2018. VOA

English-speaking Islamic State supporters are refusing to give up on the terror group’s ability to remain a force in Syria and Iraq, according to a new study that examined their behavior on the Telegram instant messaging service.

The report, “Encrypted Extremism: Inside the English-Speaking Islamic State Ecosystem on Telegram,” released Thursday by George Washington University’s Program on Extremism, looked at 636 pro-Islamic State channels and groups in the 16 months from June 2017 through October 2018.

It found that even as the terror group was losing ground in Syria and Iraq to U.S.-backed forces, and even as IS leadership was encouraging followers to start looking to progress in IS provinces elsewhere, English-speaking supporters turned to Telegram to reinforce their faith in the caliphate.

“These are supporters that like to fight uphill battles,” report co-author Bennet Clifford told VOA. “What supporters are trying to do when they’re engaging with this conversation is attempt to shift the narrative away from loss and provide justifications for it.”

English, ISIS, Supporters, Messaging
FILE – An Islamic State flag is seen in this photo illustration. VOA

At the same time, these English-speaking supporters sought to amplify their beliefs, supplementing official IS propaganda with user-generated content while also increasing the distribution of instructional material on how to carry out attacks.

“I think it’s part of an attempt in some cases to spin the narrative their way,” Clifford added.

Attraction of Telegram

IS supporters first started flocking to Telegram, an instant messaging service that promises speed and encryption for private communications, in 2015 as social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook began a crackdown aimed at Islamic State’s often violent and gory propaganda.

Since then, IS has been hooked by Telegram’s promise that it will not disclose user data to government officials and by the service’s ability to let supporters organize and share large files, including video.

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“No other platforms appear to have developed the same balance of features, user-friendliness, and basic security that could warrant a new switch,” the report said.

That ease of use has long worried counterterrorism officials, who have watched as IS has used the online ecosystem to help plan and carry out the November 2015 attacks in Paris, attacks on a Christmas market in Berlin in December 2016 and the attack on the Reina nightclub in Istanbul just weeks later.

English-speaking facilitators

In those cases, the attackers appear to have been given instructions from IS officials in Syria and Iraq. But Telegram has given rise to several key English-speaking facilitators who have been operating on the periphery.

English, ISIS, Supporters, Messaging
FILE – Karen Aizha Hamidon, who allegedly worked to encourage several Indian militants last year to join the Islamic State group in the Middle East, is surrounded by reporters after attending a hearing at the Department of Justice in Manila, Philippines, Nov. 3, 2017. VOA

One of them, according to Clifford and co-author Helen Powell, was 36-year-old Karen Aizha Hamidon, who helped mobilize sympathizers from the United States to Singapore to join the terror group or its affiliates.

Hamidon, who was arrested by Philippine authorities in October 2017, has also been linked to efforts to establish an IS province in India.

Another key player, 34-year-old Ashraf al-Safoo, took a different approach before being arrested last October by the FBI in Chicago.

According to the U.S. Justice Department, al-Safoo was a key member of the Khattab Media Foundation, which used hacked social media accounts on platforms like Twitter to disseminate IS propaganda.

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“Much of the propaganda created and distributed by Khattab promotes violent jihad on behalf of ISIS and ISIS’s media office,” the Justice Department said in a statement using a different acronym for the militant group.

While both Hamidon and al-Safoo are now in custody, showing the ability of law enforcement to penetrate their Telegram operations, others are likely to replace them because of the ongoing need of Islamic State’s English-speaking supporters to communicate and find larger audiences.

“While there are a number of disadvantages for Islamic State supporters in the use of Telegram from a security perspective they’ll continue to do it because their balance of outreach and operational security,” Clifford said. “There’s not another alternative at this point in time.” (VOA)