For Iraqi Christians After Islamic State, Hope Amid the Ruins — “There is no room for the cross in the land of Islam​.”

Christian towns in Iraq’s Kurdistan region show both heartbreaking damage and signs of resilience

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Batnaya, a Christian town in Iraq’s Kurdistan region, was badly damaged by fighting between Islamic State and Kurdish Peshmerga forces. Lauren Ashburn reflects on her recent visit. Photo: EWTN News Nightly

April 14, 2017 1:57 p.m. ET

THE CRUCIFIX over the church’s door had been spray-painted with a large X. Inside, another cross had been pockmarked by bullet holes.

The further I ventured into the modest church in the small northern Iraqi town of Batnaya on April 9—Palm Sunday—the more overwhelming the destruction appeared. A statue of the Virgin Mary had been decapitated, and other statues had been smashed to bits. The face of Jesus had been ripped from a painting. Every Christian symbol I could see had been defaced or obliterated. I couldn’t hold back my tears.

In a nearby graveyard, headstones had been uprooted or desecrated. Even a final resting place hadn’t been safe from the fury of Islamic State.

Burned candles as seen as Iraqis attend the first Palm Sunday procession in the burnt out main church of the Christian city of Qaraqosh since Iraqi forces retook it from Islamic States militants, Iraq April 9, 2017. REUTERS/Suhaib Salem
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Iraq has been home to several hundred thousand Christians, known as Chaldeans, Syriacs or Assyrians, for centuries. This Christian community has long endured periods of persecution, most recently in the chaotic aftermath of the U.S.-led invasion in 2003. But when Islamic State jihadists took over swaths of Iraq in 2014—including nearby Mosul, the country’s second-largest city, and the adjacent Nineveh Plain—between 100,000 and 120,000 Christians fled, according to the archdiocese of Erbil, the capital of Iraq’s Kurdistan region.

The Catholic Church in Iraq, which estimates that 1.5 million Christians lived in the country in 2003, says that fewer than 300,000 remain today. The CIA says that Iraq’s Christian population may have dropped by as much as 50% since Saddam Hussein’s fall, and the ravages of war and despair could shrink that number further. In October 2016, Iraqi and allied forces launched an offensive to retake Mosul.

Ruin and Resilience

Glimpses of normal life for Iraqi Christians after years of terror

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Bullet holes from Islamic State fighters mar a cross hanging above the main altar inside the Church of St. Cyriacus, Batnaya, Iraq, April 9.
Bullet holes from Islamic State fighters mar a cross hanging above the main altar inside the Church of St. Cyriacus, Batnaya, Iraq, April 9. LAUREN ASHBURN
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A graveyard destroyed by Islamic State, Batnaya, Iraq, April 9.
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The author (left) with Kurdish fighters on the Peshmerga front line against Islamic State, some 15 miles from Mosul, Iraq, April 9.
The author (left) with Kurdish fighters on the Peshmerga front line against Islamic State, some 15 miles from Mosul, Iraq, April 9. TOM HALLER, EWTN
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Palms placed in a cross at the Church of St. Cyriacus, Batnaya, Iraq, April 9.
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A nun stands in front of a cross defaced by Islamic State graffiti, now adorned with palms, outside the Church of St. Cyriacus, Batnaya, Iraq, April 9.
A nun stands in front of a cross defaced by Islamic State graffiti, now adorned with palms, outside the Church of St. Cyriacus, Batnaya, Iraq, April 9. LAUREN ASHBURN
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During a reporting trip to the Kurdistan region last week, I saw both heartbreaking damage and signs of hope. Islamic State had controlled Batnaya for two years before being pushed out in November 2016 by Kurdish Peshmerga fighters with U.S. military backing. As I toured the devastated town, I could hear explosions from the fighting in Mosul, some 15 miles away. A Kurdish general told me that he has been fighting nonstop since 2014 to protect his homeland.

Perhaps 90% of Batnaya had been flattened by war. But the church building itself had been spared because Islamic State forces, which had used it as a command center, were planning to turn it into a mosque, local officials told me.

I spoke with a Christian grandmother and her daughter, who had fled the jihadists’ onslaught with their family. They sobbed while looking at the damage to their home. Their whole life was here, and they want desperately to return, but they have no money to rebuild. Still, the daughter’s husband climbed to the roof and tied a makeshift cross to a metal rod sticking out of it.

On Palm Sunday, Iraqi Christians placed palms (left) on a painting of Jesus defaced by Islamic State at the Church of St. Cyriacus in Batnaya, Iraq, April 9. Extremists also defaced a cross on the church’s side door, including graffiti reading, “There is no room for the cross in the land of Islam.” PHOTOS: LAUREN ASHBURN
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Five miles north of Batnaya, in the town of Teleskof, which Peshmerga leaders told me had been occupied by Islamic State for only a few weeks, the devastation was much less extensive. Some 400 Christian families have moved back in the past month, according to the archdiocese of Erbil.

On Palm Sunday, Iraqi Christians placed palms (left) on a painting of Jesus defaced by Islamic State at the Church of St. Cyriacus in Batnaya, Iraq, April 9. Extremists also defaced a cross on the church’s side door, including graffiti reading, “There is no room for the cross in the land of Islam.” PHOTOS: LAUREN ASHBURN
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In Teleskof, shops were beginning to reopen. A baker making baklava, happy to once again sell his wares, invited me in for a piece. A hardware-store owner was sorting screws and nails with three of his four children, all under 5. Such moments offered glimpses of a more normal life.

Similar scenes can be seen in other Christian towns around Mosul, including Qaraqosh, which was freed from Islamic State in October 2016 but suffered appalling damage. Many Christians in northern Iraq feel abandoned in the aftermath of the U.S.-led war that toppled Saddam Hussein. During my visit, headlines in the U.S. were preoccupied with the gas attack in neighboring Syria and two horrifying church bombings in Egypt, which killed at least 47 people and were claimed by Islamic State. But events in Iraq seldom get as much attention. The American public seems to have moved on.

In Batnaya on Palm Sunday, a crowd of people formed a procession through the town, talking, laughing and singing. They were guarded by Kurdish Peshmerga, many of them Christian but some Muslim.

At the church, a priest, aided by volunteers, had spent weeks cleaning up. As the priest conducted the service in Aramaic, the altar behind him was still covered by rubble, but other debris had been removed so that the parishioners could stand. They had erected a huge metal cross where the altar used to be, decorated with burning votive candles, and they had placed palm branches on the crosses defaced by Islamic State—a small symbol of hope over hate.

The author (left) interviews a hardware-store owner who is getting ready to reopen and sorting through his wares with three of his children, Teleskof, Iraq, April 9.

The author (left) interviews a hardware-store owner who is getting ready to reopen and sorting through his wares with three of his children, Teleskof, Iraq, April 9. PHOTO: TOM HALLER
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One Response to “For Iraqi Christians After Islamic State, Hope Amid the Ruins — “There is no room for the cross in the land of Islam​.””

  1. daveyone1 Says:

    Reblogged this on World Peace Forum.

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