Meanwhile, Iraqi Girls hide under their beds while ISIS terrorists rest in same room
By Michael Ireland, Senior Correspondent, ASSIST News Service (www.assistnews.net)
MOSUL, IRAQ (ANS, Oct. 25, 2016) — As prayers were offered in Syriac in front of the altar of the trashed church of Mart Shmoni in the recently freed town of Bartella, more homes where Christians used to live in Iraq’s north-eastern Nineveh Plain were being claimed back from the Islamic State (IS), according to World Watch Monitor (www.worldwatchmonitor.org)
Qaraqosh, Iraq’s largest Christian town, has been regained by Iraqi forces, sources close to the area, have told World Watch Monitor. Also known by its Syriac name, Baghdeda was home to 50,000-60,000 people (95 percent Christian) before IS invaded it in 2014.
The troops now control the city center and St. Mary’s Al-Tahira Syriac Catholic Church, the biggest church in the town, and Karamles, another town of significant Christian presence halfway between Bartella and Baghdeda, east of Mosul, may soon be fully in Iraqi hands.
Iraqis in the area have been warned IS possibly put mines in their homes.
Meanwhile, Bashiqa, another Nineveh town whose name testifies to its Assyrian roots, remains under siege, while Kurdish Peshmerga forces have regained more of the surrounding area, World Watch Monitor said.
The agency also reports that fighting continues for other towns where Christians were once a majority, including Telkeif, as anti-IS forces continue their push for Iraq’s second-largest city of Mosul, 10km away.
Telkeif was almost entirely a Christian town before it was Arabized and the majority of its ancient Chaldeans migrated to the Detroit area, in the US – a situation replicated in varying degrees across areas and towns in Iraq and the wider Middle East.
World Watch Monitor stated: “But despite images of liberating Iraqi militias ringing bells or cleaning statues of the Virgin on behalf of Nineveh’s displaced Christians, the Plain’s natives are not making a comeback just yet.”
The agency explained that long before the hot summer of 2014, when IS strove to wipe out every remaining Christian vestige from those ancient lands, Iraqi Christians have seen the country they called home turning increasingly more hostile towards them.
The agency says Iraq’s Christian presence has been rapidly declining in recent decades. In the early 1990s, one and a half million Christians reportedly lived in the country. Today, at most 250,000 are thought to still be living there, half of them internally displaced.
A report presented in October by Christian charity Open Doors UK says radical groups have been working for the religious cleansing of Iraq, with the aim of making the country “purely Islamic.”
World Watch Monitor went on to say that Iraq’s Parliament, while apparently thrilled that the Nineveh Plain is being “liberated” from the “extremist” IS, has recently voted for a blanket ban on the sale, import and production of alcohol. In a country that at least officially recognizes among its citizens indigenous groups like Christians, Yazidis, Shabaks and others, the availability of alcohol was found to be unconstitutional, as it is “un-Islamic.”
The World Watch Monitor report says now that the displaced may be considering their first moves back to their lost properties, Henriette Kats, analyst at the World Watch Research unit of Open Doors International, cautions against false optimism.
“Of course it is to be hoped that the citizens of Mosul and of the neighboring towns will be able to return to their homes when the IS militants are defeated,” she said. “[But], although many Christians are looking forward to returning, many others are distrustful and say that they do not believe they can ever live in Iraq in safety again.”
NGOs fear that this military offensive will lead to new streams of refugees, which in itself could cause demographic changes – further alienating the Christians from their ancestral lands.
Meanwhile, Iraqi Syriac-Catholic priest Ammar told World Watch Monitor: “It’s a miracle. A true miracle. We prayed a lot and God answered.”
These were his words in the wake of last weekend’s remarkable story of seven Christian female students in Kirkuk, who hid under their beds for seven hours while soldiers from the self-proclaimed Islamic State (IS) occupied their house. It vividly illustrates how volatile the situation in Iraq is currently.
World Watch Monitor said that last weekend IS launched a surprise attack on the northern Iraqi city, supposedly to divert the Iraqi military from the battle for Mosul. While the battle to expel IS from Iraq has begun, Christians still fear IS attacks, even in cities and villages deemed safe.
The news agency explained that since Kirkuk has been under the protection of Kurdish forces for over two years, Iraqi churches deemed it safe enough to send displaced Christian students there to study at Kirkuk University.
Father Ammar told World Watch Monitor contacts how 50 female students and eight nuns lived there in church-rented houses. Last weekend, completely unexpectedly, an IS militia bombed and stormed that part of the city.
“Suddenly their street was filled with IS warriors, shouting ‘Allahu akbar’ [Allah is the greatest]. Most students were able to leave their houses in time, but seven girls couldn’t,” Father Ammar said. “They texted me in the evening; they were terrified: ‘We are in danger. Please come for us.’ At least four IS soldiers had entered their house. The girls had gone to their bedroom, and were hiding under their beds, covered in blankets.”
IS is known to rape and enslave non-Muslim women, to kill them brutally or to use them as human shields. All those thoughts must have gone through the heads of the seven while they waited in the dark for hours, trying to lay still and not make any sound.
After the girls notified their church leader in Erbil, he set the wheels in motion to save them. People started praying, and the church reached out to the Iraqi and Kurdish forces, asking them to save the girls. While the rescue was being planned, Fr. Ammar stayed in touch with them through texts.
“All this time they were hiding under their beds, undiscovered by IS. At some moment the IS warriors even entered the bedroom, to pray and to care for one of their soldiers who’d got hurt. Luckily the electricity was cut off, so it was dark. Nevertheless it was a miracle the girls weren’t discovered,” he said.
World Watch Monitor said that after three or four hours, Iraqi soldiers liberated the house and the girls were taken to safety. Arriving in Erbil a few hours later, they were greeted with cheers. “In the end, none of the students or nuns were injured. Praise God for that,” said Fr. Ammar.
However, shortly after the IS soldiers left the house, one blew himself up.
The news agency stated that now that IS is being hunted and cornered by Iraqi, Kurdish and international forces, Christians and others in Iraq can be vulnerable even in apparently secure areas: they fear IS sleeper cells may pop up elsewhere in Iraq, in an effort to destabilize the country.
Please pray for the safety of Christians in the region as the military campaign to recapture lost territory progresses.
Photo captions: 1) The heavily damaged and burned Tahira (Immaculate) Syriac Catholic Church in Baghdeda. (World Watch Monitor). 2) The graffiti reads, ‘No god but Allah [The Islamic proclamation of faith] is above [greater than] than the cross’, though, ironically, it can also be read as ‘He who’s on the cross is God and no other’. (World Watch Monitor). 3) Archbishop Boutros Moshi (left) and Archbishop Nicodemus Sharaf (second from left) greet one of the students saved from IS. (World Watch Monitor). 4) Michael Ireland
About the Writer: Michael Ireland is a volunteer internet journalist serving as Senior Correspondent for the ASSIST News Service, as well as an Ordained Minister who has served with ASSIST Ministries and written for ASSIST News Service since its beginning in 1989. He has reported for ANS from Jamaica, Mexico, Nicaragua, Israel, Jordan, China, and Russia. Please consider helping Michael cover his expenses in bringing news of the Persecuted Church, by logging-on to: https://actintl.givingfuel.com/ireland-michael
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