Three years ago, I visited the 13th century church of Mar Yacob in Telskuf on the Nineveh plain.
The dwellings in the city then stood deserted and empty, and its inhabitants had fled. Hundreds of heavily armed Kurdish Peshmerga soldiers guarded the area to prevent Islamic State attackers from reentering.
The IS front was only a few kilometers outside the city boundary. Through the sandbags that protected the guarding soldiers, I could see the IS flag waving in the fields, that had become a no man''s land.
My visit to the church, Mar Yacoub, was undoubtedly, the most emotionally loaded moment while I visited on the Nineveh Plain at that time. Inside the church, the IS soldiers had smashed Jesus himself. It was a painted statue of Jesus, where the face had been crushed just above the root of the nose and now lay on a dusty table behind the altar in the front of the church. Next to it stood a small cross and some Jesus paintings carelessly leaning one against the other. One of them depicted Jesus as the good shepherd, although, at the moment, it was mostly the feeling of evil that remained in the room. The then EU parliamentarian, Lars Adaktusson (KD), whom I followed, stood silent and solemn in the church and looked, noticeably affected by the devastation.
Adaktusson said. “In this we see a symbol of the evil that exists when the Islamic State attacks that which is the holiest for us humans. It is a way of humiliating people of the Christian faith.” The picture of the broken face of Jesus has since been published countless times in the newspaper Dagen as an example of the persecution of Christians in the Middle East”
Ten days later, after returning to Sweden, there was a full war in Telskuf and in a single day there were, at least, 150 dead soldiers, among them many IS suicide bombers. Early in the morning the IS terrorists came in fast cars loaded with explosives, from different directions on the Nineveh Plain, Their explosions resulted in dead bodies. During the day, battles with snipers went on inside the houses. Later in the evening, the attacks were stopped by US bombing. An additional number of young men were killed.
I went home and under the May sun cut the grass in my garden when I received reports from the streets on the Nineveh Plain, that I had walked on a few weeks earlier. The war and evil did not physically strike me through shrapnel or bullets, but it still hit hard inside. Masses of young men lost their lives, on both sides. So pointless. On Facebook, I could follow the devastation almost as if it were a live broadcast. I communicated via social media with one of the Kurdish Peshmergas that I had met in Telskuf. He knew a little Swedish since he had a brother living in the Jönköping area. Shot in the shoulder during the battle he otherwise managed to survive.
Now, almost three years later, I had to return to visit the small town and the church again. Of course I was curious about how it now looked. Armed guards were standing at the entrance of Telskuf and at first I had problems entering. This was arranged with the help of a vicar from the neighboring town as well as photographs on my mobile phone from my previous visit to the church.
In Telskuf, I searched for several house doors seen on my earlier visit, that had been painted with the letter N, as in Nazarene, used by the IS to identify a Christian home. But now, I can’t find them. The wild and knee-high grass, that had increasingly taken over the streets and the deserted lots three years ago, has been now cleared away. Small stores and vegetable stands have opened. Cars are parked next to them . From all the previous 9,000 inhabitants only a few have returned, but inside many houses there is, once again, life and movement. The children go to school in the morning; Kalid Yilda Zora a householder, washes his car outside his stone house when the reporter from Dagen drives by. A moment later the reporter says, “let’s back up and meet his wife Linda Nagib Nisan and their two boys ages twelve and nine years-old.” As usual, when visitors drop in, we are served strong Iraqi coffee in small cups. The house has seven rooms. Up on the flat stone roof, laundry hangs to dry.
The family fled with their car from the house on August 3, 2014, together with all the other residents. The IS terrorists were on the way and the government urged them to leave. Three days later, quite rightly, the Islamic State took over the city, but could only keep it for ten days. For three years, Telskuf was a ghost town with only soldiers from Kurdish Peshmerga and local Christians forces that protected the area. Kalid Yilda Zora''s family returned in June 2017 after living as refugees about ten miles away, in a house where the owners moved to Europe.
“How did it feel to move back to Telskuf?”
“We were very happy and very sad at the same time. Happy to meet friends, sorry for all that
had been stolen by the IS. Many houses were empty,” said Kalidd Yilda Zoras.
He himself had been self-employed installing water systems for bathrooms and kitchens, but has now problem with the back and cannot work.
“Today, most of the men in the city lack jobs,” he told us. “Most of the families still lack their nearby relatives. Before the IS, there were nine families in our family. Now, all the others have moved abroad, to Europe, Australia, USA, Canada and so on.”
His own family also wants to leave as soon as there is an opportunity.
“The furniture and the TV that are gone we can do without. But not being able to eat with cousins and brothers is worse,” said Kalid Yilda Zoras.
Telskuf is, nevertheless, one of the positive examples of how part of the Christian minority in the Nineve plain has been able to return home. It has been made possible thanks to extra support from the Hungarian government. “But other aid organizations and the church have also helped,” they told us.
Elsewhere in the Nineveh region, it looks much darker. “The family manages financially with the help of relatives around the world who send money,” Kalid Yilda Zoras said
The main church in Telskuf, Mar Gewargis, is already fully renovated and repainted. Family celebration and fairs are again celebrated here. During the weekdays the church is open morning and afternoon for the opportunity to pray, but has also become a gathering place where residents gather to talk.
Again in Telskuf, I return to the slightly smaller neighborhood Chaldean-Catholic church Mar Yacoub, that I visited three years earlier. There has long been a lack of money to restore the medieval church building after the IS terrorists vandalized it. But now the restoration and renovations are underway. The covered small cupola dome on the roof has been opened and two construction workers are now restoring the tower. From the wooden ladder leaning against the church one can see a magnificent view of the wheat fields that surround city. Inside the church, the benches have been removed. It empty hall echoes as you walk inside. There is scaffolding standing in place in front under the tower.
I''m looking for the broken Jesus face and the chalkboard with the good shepherd. But everything is gone. Now instead, the sun reflects on the stone walls of the church. Here too, the intention is that it it will soon serve a place for worship again.
Hope is awakening for the Christian minority and the indigenous people of Iraq, though progress is slow. The fact remains that there is a risk that the Christian faith will disappear completely on this Biblical land unless the future security can be guaranteed for Christians on the Nineveh plain.
Artikelserie: Efter IS
Humanitarian needs in Iraq:
- 6.7 million Iraqis are considered in need of humanitarian aid (18% of the population).
- 2 million are still internally displaced, of which over half have been homeless for over three years.
- The support necessities are: Health, water, sanitation and hygiene, education, food, other material needs. Support to establish livelihoods and more.
So many need support for:
- Health - 5.5 million.
- Water, sanitation and hygiene - 2.3 million.
- Education -Of which there are 2.6 million children who need schooling.
- Food - 2.4 million.
- Other material needs - 2.3 million.
- 60 percent of the families have an income that is below the Survival Minimum Expenditure Basket, SMEB.
- Source: Iraq Humanitarian Country Team, Nov. 2018.
Christians in Iraq
Assyrians, Syrians and Chaldeans in the Christian indigenous people have their settlement in the Nineveh plain in Northern Iraq.
After the IS terrorists attack in the summer of 2014, many departed the country. Today, the Christian minority is, perhaps, down to 250,000 people, in a country with about 38 million inhabitants.