Iraqi Christians find refuge in ancient monastery

Fleeing Christians find shelter in St. Matthew's Monastery in northern Iraq, a place of refuge since the fourth century
June 17, 2014
by Jane Arraf @janearraf  america.aljazeera.com
Mar Mattai monastery, Mosul. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons--kyselak

Perched on the side of a mountain surrounded by caves, St. Matthew’s Monastery has been a place of refuge since the fourth century. Some of the earliest Christians sought safety here. With the fall of the city of Mosul, just 20 miles away, the monastery’s thick stone walls have again become a sanctuary.

Along the courtyards in rooms normally used by religious pilgrims and monks, dozens of Christian families fleeing Mosul have settled in – laying out mattresses and the few belongings they carried with them. Released from school, children climb dizzying heights to play on the rocks nearby – their home city visible in the distance. Inside, their worried parents drink tea and watch news of a region that has again become a battlefront.

The current crisis in Iraq has been cast as a battle between Sunnis and Shias, but Iraqis of all faiths are caught in the middle – none more so than the ancient religious minorities along the Ninevah Plains between Mosul and the Kurdish territories. To Al-Qaeda and the group it inspired, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), anyone not adhering to its hardline version of Sunni Islam is a heretic to be converted or killed.

Once the largest of Iraq’s religious minorities, the Christian community has shrunk to one-third of the size it was before Saddam Hussein was toppled. The less than 500,000 Christians left are clinging tightly to their faith. One of the largest sects is the Syriac Orthodox church, which considers itself the oldest established church -- so old that some of its founders would have known Jesus Christ.
On Sunday, church bells rang out across the plains heralding the arrival of the world’s new Syriac Orthodox patriarch, who is to Orthodox Christians what the Pope is to Catholics.

As Patriarch Ignatius Aphrem II swept in, protected by Kurdish soldiers and surrounded by bishops and priests in black and purple robes, the faithful rushed towards him to try to kiss his golden jewel-encrusted cross for a blessing.

The patriarch, leader of the world’s 3 million Syriac Christians, led prayers in a dialect of Aramaic, the language of Jesus. The song he led though was modern – the nationalist anthem ‘My Nation’. Speaking to the families from Mosul, he told them Christians could not abandon the Middle East.

“We have been in this area of the world from the beginning of Christianity even before,” the patriarch, formally known as the Patriarch of Antioch and All The East, later told America Tonight. “I would like to see Christians remaining here in their homeland of their ancestors. The blood of our martyrs has been mixed with the soil of this land for many centuries.”

And Christians are still shedding blood on this land. Since 2010, dozens of priests and nuns have been killed by Al-Qaeda in Mosul, Baghdad and other cities in attacks aimed at persuading Christians to leave.
Nadia, a hospital worker whose husband was shot in the head four years ago in Mosul, wiped away tears as she described her son coming back from a shop to find his father dead on the sidewalk. He took the body to the morgue in a taxi.

“Everyone ran away,” she said. “They were too afraid to move his body.”

The attacks haven’t deterred Martin Banni, who’s studying for the priesthood and will be sent to Mosul next year. In the city of Tel Keef, just 10 miles from Mosul, he said the real fear is not the ISIL, which so far hasn’t attacked civilians in Mosul, but the possibility of airstrikes.

"I have seen everything in Mosul, it’s OK,” he said, just an hour after returning from the city. “But the future we don't know what will happen…. If the Iraqi army is going to do air strikes that will be very difficult."

At the monastery, Nadia, along with other women from Mosul, helps in the kitchen, and waits. Some here say it’s like waiting for the war to start in 2003, only worse. Then, there was the possibility that life would get better; this time, many Iraqis are just thinking of all the things they’ve lost.

COURTESY: america.aljazeera.com

Mosul Christians Out of the City for Good

By Judit Neurink

Patriarch of the Syrian Orthodox Church, Ignatius
Aphrem II, visiting the displaced Christians at
the Mar Mattai monastery. Photo: Judit Neurink Rudaw

BARDARASH, Kurdistan Region, Iraq– There is no place for them in an Islamic state, say Christians who fled Iraq’s second city of Mosul for safer areas controlled by the autonomous Kurdistan Region.
Eman and Sabah, two nurses who left the city for the Syrian Orthodox monastery of Mar Mattai, some 40 kilometers from Mosul, said they did so because they could no longer live there. “Their rules are different from ours and anyone who disobeys them will be killed,” one of them said.
Fear of the extremist Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), which captured Mosul last week together with bands of other rebels, has seen about a half-million people flee the city.
Amongst them were thousands of Christians, who sought refuge in areas under control of the Kurds. Many of them have fled violence in the city multiple times before.
“This time is decisive,” stresses Zaid, whose family shares a room in the monastery with another. “Any time there were elections, we left to return a couple of weeks later. This time is different. Now we really have to forget the option of returning back to our homes.”
Many of the Christians occupying the monastery’s 35 guest rooms think this way: More than 50 families have found refuge in the safety of the monastery.
Of the estimated 5,000 Christians who were remaining in Mosul, only hundreds have stayed behind. Most left for the villages of the Nineveh Valley, which is under Kurdish control, or to the Christian neighborhoods of the Kurdistan capital, Erbil.
Last week their patriarch came from Syria to wish them strength, visiting the Mar Mattai monastery as well, signaling the safety of the area where his flock has sought refuge.
The way the radical Muslims were welcomed by some in Mosul -- while thousands of other Muslims fled because of their presence – raised Christian fears of what might happen.
The nurses, Eman and Sabah, were ordered to report back to work, because the present authorities want to normalize the situation and get the hospitals up and running. But the pair is too afraid to obey the order.
Although they left with only the clothes they were wearing, leaving their homes unguarded, the fear of the radical Muslims in their city keeps them from returning. This fear is clear when they echo the words of other women in the monastery: “How can we keep our daughters safe there?”
In the room where the two families are gathered, the noisy air conditioning adds to the clamor; mattresses for the night are piled high; a little boy begs his father for change to buy ice cream.
Stories about the changes in Mosul volley across the room, about the Sharia laws that have been imposed and the new rules that have been published, including a punishment of 20 lashes for any man not at mosques at prayer times, and an order for women to cover up.
One of the families that returned was told that Christians have to adapt: They have to get rid of all Christian symbols, and women must wear the face cover, or niqaab. The family left the city again.
Zaid recounts finding a flyer in the street before he left that was delivered to some homes of Christians, too, calling on residents to adapt, or leave.
Christians in Iraq normally proudly display their faith, wearing crosses as jewelry and adorning their homes with Christian portraits. The women generally dress in a more Western manner than other Iraqi women, not wearing a headscarf and never a niqaab. To change this would mean to change their way of life.
The Christians wonder what will happen to their city. Most expect fighting between the different groups, with Saddam Hussein’s former military and different Islamic groups struggling for power.
“Those armed groups know no mercy,” someone says. “I am afraid of my own neighbors. Will they not sell me to some kidnapper?”
And they are worried about the future: What will happen to their properties? Will they be confiscated, in a repeat of what happened in parts of Baghdad some years ago after many Christians fled their homes?
One worry is about how they will live. Iraqi Kurdistan is expensive, and their jobs from Mosul cannot be transferred elsewhere. Some have families abroad that pressure them to emigrate.
“We are so few now, we have become very vulnerable,” someone says. The number of Christians in Iraq went from 1.5 million in 2003 to around 35,000 at present, mainly because of massive emigration after Saddam’s fall.



Our aim to sustain the Catholicity (Universality) of the Syriac Orthodox Church: Mor Ignatius Ephrem II

Damascus (Syria), 30 June 2014: His Holiness Ignatius Ephrem II, Patriarch of Antioch and all the East said his main aim is to sustain and improve the Catholicity (Universality) of the Syriac Orthodox Church of Antioch . His Holiness said that the enthronement service of the Syriac Orthodox Patriarch, The 'Order of Mor Cleemis' ( St Clement) was divided into 26 parts and it was read in 13 languages.

The Syriac Orthodox Episcopal Holy Synod under the under the auspices of the Patriarch of Antioch and all the East has concluded on 30 May 2014 at the Patriarchate.

Steps will be taken to improve the already existing strong relationship of the Patriarchate of Antioch and All The East with church in Malankara which is the integral part of the Syriac Orthodox Church of Antioch.

The Universal Syriac Orthodox Holy Synod will be convened every 4 years.

A six (6) member Committee under the president ship of the Patriarch of Antioch and all the East was constituted to look into the possibility of convening an Universal Syriac Orthodox Holy Synod in India ( Malankara) in the year 2016. The other members are His Beatitude Catholicose and Aboon Mor Basilious Thomas I, Syriac Orthodox Church Synod Secretary and Mount Lebanon diocesan Metropolitan Mor Theophilose George Saliba , Regional (India) Syriac Orthodox Church Synod Secretary and Kochi diocesan metropolitan Mor Gregorios Joseph , Metropolitan of High Range Region and Perumbavoor Region of Angamaly diocese and United Kingdom Mor Aphrem Mathews and Syriac Orthodox Patriarchal secretary Metropolitan Mor Themotheous Matta Al Koury .

The next year is the 100th anniversary of genocide of the 100,000 Syriac Orthodox Christians of Turkey , which occurred in the year 1915. Programs related to this event will be organized in Europe , America, Middle East and India.

Press release  Arabic text

Holy Synod of the Syriac Orthodox Church calls on Syrian citizens to vote in elections

May 31, 2014

Maarat Saydnaya, (SANA) The Holy Synod of the Syrian Orthodox Church of Antioch held Friday a meeting in Maarat Saydnaya headed by Mor Ignatius Aphrem II, Patriarch of Antioch and All the East and Supreme Head of the Syriac Orthodox Church of Antioch.

Patriarch Aphrem II said, in statements after the meeting, that there are more than 60 archbishops of the Syriac Orthodox Church in the world, adding that the importance of the meeting lies in the gathering in Syria, highlighting that the meeting signals a message that "No matter how hard the circumstances are, we will live our normal lives."

On the presidential elections in Syria, Patriarch Aphrem II said that since his first visit, he has been urging citizens to participate in the elections, adding that elections is a step in constructing a democracy that suits the Syrian nature.

He stressed that voting is the right and duty of every Syrian citizen, noting that what has happened in the Syrian embassy in Lebanon proves that Syrians are avid to participate in this democratic process.

His Beatitude described decisions made by some countries to deprive Syrians in their lands to vote as inconsistent with the democratic situation in these countries and being an uncivilized act.

The participants expressed, in the meeting's concluding statement, gratitude for President Bashar al-Assad for his keenness on providing any help.

The statement stressed the importance of co-existence between Muslims and Christians, calling also for a Christian unity.

M. Nassr/ M. Ismael

The Syrian Arab News Agency (SANA)


Mar Ignatius Aphrem II assumed Supreme Head of Syriac Orthodox Church of Antioch

Damascus Countryside (SANA): Investiture ceremony of His Holiness Mar Ignatius Aphrem II Karim of Syriac Orthodox, Patriarch of Antioch and All East, as Supreme Head of the Syriac Orthodox Church of Antioch started Thursday (May 29, 2014) in presence of representative of President Bashar al-Assad, Minister of Presidential Affairs Mansour Azzam.

Patriarch Aphrem expressed his full willingness to cooperate with Islamic and Christian clergymen and scholars, as partners in this Homeland, to serve citizens, humanity and bringing up the good Man, guide people to the correct path and get them away from narrow vision and misunderstanding of religious contexts.

"President al-Assad has showed great competence in leading the country amid the big dilemma Syria is passing through, proving to the whole world that Homeland will not collapse in front of the most fierce powers," Aphrem said.

Ministers of State Nazira Sarkis, Joseph Sweid and Jamal Shahin, Syria's Grand Mufti Ahmad Badr Eddin Hassoun and Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Antioch and All East John X Yazigi also attended the ceremony that was held at Saint Peter's and Paul Cathedral in the Syriac Mar Ephrem Monastery in Saydnaya, Damascus Countryside.

Representatives of officials and patriarchs from Iraq, Egypt, Lebanon and a number of Christian denominations, Islamic scholars, economic and popular figures attended the ceremony.
Patriarch Karim was elected Patriarch last March at al-Atshaneh in Lebanon. He was born in al-Qamishli city in Hasaka province, Syria, in 1965, and served as archbishop of the Syriac Orthodox Church of Antioch for the Eastern United States of America.
R. Milhem / H. Said/ Mazen
The Syrian Arab News Agency (SANA)May 29, 2014