Iraqi Christians Flee Violence In Ancient Homeland

The Nineveh Plain i i

The Nineveh Plain, as seen from Mar Mattai Monastery. The plain has been home to Christians for 1,600 years. Corey Flintoff/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Corey Flintoff/NPR
The Nineveh Plain

The Nineveh Plain, as seen from Mar Mattai Monastery. The plain has been home to Christians for 1,600 years.

Corey Flintoff/NPR
Mar Mattai Monastery i i

Mar Mattai Monastery clings to the side of Jebel Maqloub, "the mountain of acceptance." Parts of the building date to the 4th century, when Christianity first came to this region. Some 40 families have taken refuge here. Corey Flintoff/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Corey Flintoff/NPR
Mar Mattai Monastery

Mar Mattai Monastery clings to the side of Jebel Maqloub, "the mountain of acceptance." Parts of the building date to the 4th century, when Christianity first came to this region. Some 40 families have taken refuge here.

Corey Flintoff/NPR
St. George's i i

Displaced Christian families from Mosul are living in curtained-off sections of a building at St. George's Assyrian Catholic Church in the village of Bartillah. As many as 175 people are living within the church grounds. Corey Flintoff/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Corey Flintoff/NPR
St. George's

Displaced Christian families from Mosul are living in curtained-off sections of a building at St. George's Assyrian Catholic Church in the village of Bartillah. As many as 175 people are living within the church grounds.

Corey Flintoff/NPR

A campaign of violence has forced thousands of Iraqi Christians to flee their homes in the northern Iraqi city of Mosul.

Iraqi officials say gunmen have killed more than a dozen Christians in the past weeks and blown up several Christian homes after their occupants fled.

The displaced people are crowded into churches and homes in villages north of the city in the Nineveh Plain, the ancient center of Christianity in Iraq, and they're asking for help from the United States.

St. George's Syrian Catholic Church is normally a serene place, with gardens and a quiet grotto where worshippers light candles to the Virgin Mary.

Now the church, in the village of Bartillah, is crowded and chaotic, packed with about 45 families — more than 175 people — who left everything behind when they fled their homes in Mosul.

"These families came here with nothing but the clothes on their backs," says the head of St. George's cultural center. Like the displaced people he's caring for, he refused to give his name, fearful of retaliation. "Local people have been donating food and bedding, and some of the vital stuff they need to survive until more aid arrives."

The climate of fear is so pervasive that refugees insisted their faces not be shown in photographs, for fear that they might be identified by their persecutors in Mosul. "Mosul is a very dangerous city," says one young mother. "I can hardly describe the condition there."

The woman is staying in a small, curtained-off section of the cultural center with her husband and three children. She says the fear has infected her young son, who speaks often about Muslim fighters, the mujahedeen. "He is always afraid, even when he goes to school, he is very afraid."

She touches her throat, where she says she used to wear a gold necklace. "I sold this piece of gold and spent it on my children and family."

The Crisis Strikes The Christian Middle Class

The church official takes us to a conference room, where 28 people have been sleeping on mats on the floor. A photo of Pope John Paul looks down on the scene where platters and dirty dishes are piled high in one corner.

A woman who identifies herself only by her nickname, Um Reyan, says the danger of her situation didn't really sink in until gunmen murdered a pharmacist and a 15-year-old boy in her neighborhood, and strange cars began prowling the streets.

"Then my neighbor came to tell me that she noticed a gray sedan with three young men inside, and that one of them was pointing at my house" says Um Reyan. "We felt so scared after hearing this, and my neighbor said, 'Are you waiting for your turn to come? Do you want to stay here until they come and kill your husband and children?' "

Um Reyan is in her late 20s, with light brown hair and green eyes. Here in the safety of St. George's, she wears a gold cross around her neck, something she says she was afraid to do in Mosul.

"It's so hard for us — to be forced to leave our homes, our schools, the nice life we had in Mosul," she says. "Our lives have completely changed. We used to live in a nice house with five bedrooms. Now, we have to share one room with five other families."

One striking thing about Um Reyan is that despite the wear and tear of a week of living as a refugee, she's nicely dressed, in a respectable print skirt with a matching blouse and jacket. Like nearly all the people here, her remaining clothes reflect her status as a middle-class person, forced into a crisis that she couldn't have imagined just a few weeks ago.

In the afternoon, the refugees gather in St. George's Church, and the strain in their faces eases as they chant the familiar prayers.

Some Take Refuge In An Ancient Monastery

Across the plain, refugees share a different experience. A 44-year-old mathematics teacher named Abu Sara has come to a Christian settlement, where he and his family share a room in the house of some relatives. With them is his nephew, whose father was shot to death in the street near their home in Mosul just a few days before. Abu Sara pats the boy as he speaks.

"My brother came home from work around 3 in the afternoon," he says. "He was at a nearby shop, when suddenly gunmen turned up and asked for his ID. He said he didn't have it on him. Then they told all the other guys to stand aside. They shot him dead and left. The very next morning, we fled the city."

Abu Sara says all his relatives in Mosul — 15 families — fled the city. Some are with relatives, some sleep in the village school, and some are staying in a nearby monastery.

That monastery, called Mar Mattai, can be seen from the village, clinging to a craggy mountaintop at the end of a winding road high above the plain. It was established in the fourth century by one of the first monks who brought Christianity to this region.

The normally meditative silence is broken by the voices of about 40 families who've taken refuge here. Their laundry adds an incongruously bright note to the sandstone balconies under the onion dome with its cross.

A Monk Questions The Response From The West

Father Fadi Khaleel is one of six monks here, a quiet man with a brown beard and soft eyes. He studied two years in Italy, he says, and he says he saw how Westerners deal with what he calls "Eastern pain."

"The Westerners in general get affected by Eastern pain as if it were a story that he might feel sad about," he says, "but they don't make any move to cure this pain. Jesus taught us that we share the pain of others by making that sharing practical and effective, not just emotional."

Father Fadi sits in a vaulted stone room dominated by an icon-like painting of the monk who founded his monastery. "We don't want sympathy," he says. "We don't want demonstrations tomorrow in the United States for the Christians in Iraq. These demonstrations don't do us any good."

The mountain to which the monastery clings is called "Jebel Maqloub," the mountain of acceptance. Tradition says that this is a place where the prayers of every faith are accepted. Father Fadi says that Muslims come there often to pray. He says that he often goes to the crypt where the holy men of the monastery are buried.

"I pray and say, 'Oh Lord! Protect Iraq, and protect Iraqis from any danger, and surround the lives of the Christians, the Muslims, the Kurds and the Arabs with a fence of safety and peace."

No one here knows when that peace will come.

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