When ISIS fighters burst into Father Afran Sony’s monastery in northern Iraq in June 2014 wielding machine guns and knives, he and his brothers rushed to protect their most precious possessions.
They weren’t gold, relics or even their own lives, but some of the oldest surviving manuscripts in the Christian world.
For nearly two months, the terrorists held the handful of monks prisoner and openly discussed whether or not to kill them because they refused to renounce their faith. But Father Afran was more focused on saving the ancient Christian texts than himself.
At one point, he and a few brothers managed to escape to a nearby village under the cover of darkness, carrying away the most precious of the ancient scrolls under their cloaks. But ISIS caught them at a checkpoint and took them back to the monastery. That’s when they came up with a daring plan.
“We built a fake wall in a small windowless closet right under their noses and sealed the books in barrels inside,” he said. “Some of them date from the 4th century. In all, we saved 750 ancient books and scrolls.”
ISIS released the monks on July 20, 2014, and stayed another two years in the monastery without ever finding the manuscripts. But every other Christian relic they found, every cross and every grave, they smashed or defaced, including the tomb of Saints Behnam and Sarah, martyrs who lived more than 1,600 years ago.
Most Americans have had enough of our 15-year effort to bring peace, stability and, yes, some modicum of representative government to Iraq. President Trump repeatedly blasted President George W. Bush for going to war in 2003, calling it “the single worst decision ever made.”
And yet, the United States does have lasting interests in Iraq beyond eradicating weapons of mass destruction. Prime among them is one that until now we have neglected: ensuring the survival of Iraq’s Christian minority and, more generally, the Christians of the East.
Why should we care? America is fundamentally a Judeo-Christian nation. More than 70 percent of Americans self-identify as Christians, and if that statistic has any meaning, then we must take seriously the passage of St. Paul in I Corinthians 12:26, when he describes the body of Christ. “If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it.”
There can be no doubt: The Body of Christ in northern Iraq is suffering. It has been suffering for the past 15 years in ways never before imaginable. And until recently, Americans and the US government have done little to help.
These are our people. This is our duty.
Through 1,400 years of Muslim domination, these communities have remained faithful, their monasteries and ancient churches largely intact. Until ISIS. Today, 150,000 Christians at most remain in Iraq, a scant 10 percent of the community that once thrived before 2003. And every day brings them closer to extinction.
Merved is a 32-year old Christian woman from Bartella, east of Mosul, who was driven out of her home by the ISIS invasion in 2014. She lost four family members to ISIS barbarity and today lives with her four young children in a refugee camp sponsored by the Assyrian Aid Society. Asked if she was ready to return home, she shook her head violently. “I am afraid!”
While ISIS lost its occupying power after a brutal, year-long battle with Iraqi, Kurdish and US-led coalition forces in 2017, members of the terrorist group have gone underground and are forming new cells just outside of Mosul, many of them led by women. “In recent months, we have arrested 40 women just in our sector,” said the national police chief for East Mosul, Gen. Aref al-Zebari. “They told our interrogators that they were protected and aided by the Turkish government,” he added.
In October this year, I returned from a 10-day fact-finding mission to Mosul and the surrounding Christian villages of the Nineveh Plain, which was evangelized by St. Thomas in the 1st century AD. Many of the churches here still conduct Mass in Aramaic, the language of Jesus. But ISIS’s presence lingered throughout.
“Look at this grave,” local councilman Luis Markos Ayoub told me, as we walked through the cemetery of Saint Georges church in Karamlesh, a Christian village just east of Mosul.
“It is fresh — not because the person just died, but because the family came back here to rebury their loved one. ISIS had dug up the dead body and decapitated it, because it was Christian.”
Recently the Archbishop of Canterbury called the “daily threats of murder” Christians face today “the worst situation since the Mongol invasions of the 13th century.”
“Many have left,” wrote the Most Reverend Justin Welby in the UK’s Sunday Telegraph. “Hundreds of thousands have been forced from their homes. Many have been killed, enslaved and persecuted or forcibly converted. Even those who remain ask the question, ‘Why stay?’ Christian communities that were the foundation of the universal Church now face the threat of imminent extinction.”
You don’t have to be a Christian to believe it’s in our national interest to ensure the survival of Iraqi Christians. Congress has determined that the three-year ISIS effort to eradicate the Christian and Yazidi populations under their control amounted to “genocide.”
Max Primorac, the top USAID official in Iraq, said genocide is a very specific crime that calls for a specific response. “We’ve made 27 grants in three months, probably the fastest ever,” Primorac said. “We didn’t just get the memo, we are reading it.”
The “memo” came from Vice President Mike Pence. Just over one year ago, Pence pledged that the Trump administration would change the way the US distributed aid, to ensure it directly reached Christian and Yazidi communities.
The first concrete step was to withdraw $55 million pledged to the United Nations, which has a track record of playing favorites with Muslims and wasting money on insider contractors. USAID is starting to spend that money directly on local projects administered by local organizations.
“The money is supporting reconstruction efforts, local schools and services such as trash collection,” Primorac said. “This is a White House priority.”
Other countries are also making an effort. With funds from a French aid organization, 28-year old architect Guillaume de Beaurepaire is working to rebuild the tomb of Benham and Sarah alongside Father Afran, who has since returned to his monastery.
“ISIS needed three attempts to blow up the tomb,” de Beaurepaire told me. “Most of the mausoleum was on the ground when we first got here. But ISIS missed things. The main underground niche was intact, and we found many of the carved tablets in the rubble and re-cemented them into the walls.”
In addition to aid, these communities need top-level political and diplomatic support from Washington. And they are starting to get it.
Just as I was leaving Iraq, I got a note from Primorac that a three-month negotiation, led by US ambassador to Iraq Douglas Silliman, had succeeded in convincing the Kurdish Regional Government to lift roadblocks that have isolated Christian towns on the Nineveh Plain and stifled economic development for years.
‘We need local government, local police, in Christian cantons.’
This is a great first step and shows on a practical level what aiding Iraqi Christians means: concrete actions, not speeches and empty promises.
The next steps are even more important: ensuring that Christians who return to Mosul and the Nineveh Plain have political and security guarantees so they can never again be victimized by Muslims or Kurds.
“We need to be able to govern ourselves,” said Yohanna Yosif Toma, legal advisor to the Hammurabi Human Rights Organization, an Iraqi group that provides both aid and political support to embattled Christians.
“We don’t need another province that is majority Muslims. We need local government, local police, in Christian cantons.”
The US has supported the notion of self-government for Iraq’s Christian community for years but has never put the full weight of our government behind it.
Now is the time, before these endangered communities disappear forever.
EDITORS NOTE: This column with images originally appeared in the New York Post. It is republished with permission.