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.