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At Iraq's Oldest Monastery, ISIS Could Arrive Any Day

Kid playing inside Iraq's Mar Mattai monastery
Kid playing inside Iraq's Mar Mattai monastery
Emilienne Malfatto

MOUNT ALFAF — Seven eagles are swirling in the blue sky above Mar Mattai, Iraq's oldest monastery. Can they see Mosul? The northern Iraqi city that has been occupied by ISIS since last year is only 20 kilometers away.

Perched alongside Mount Alfaf, this orthodox Syriac monastery founded in the 4th century by hermit Matthew has outlived the Persian and Ottoman empires, survived Mongol invasions and Kurdish conquests. The threat now comes from the Islamic radicals of ISIS. And yet, with just five monks and two families that fled Mosul, the site still manages to resist this latest enemy, however close it may be.

Birds are chirping, and pigeons are rustling in the bell tower. And in the distance, the noise from heavy machine guns can be heard. The frontline against ISIS is less than five kilometers (three miles) away, close enough for us to hear the bombings and smell the fires sparked by the international coalition's airstrikes. If the lines of Kurdish fighters should collapse, the jihadists could reach and raid the monastery in no more than 15 minutes.

In June 2014, several Christian families, a total of more than 300 people, found shelter at Mar Mattai. In a few days, the pilgrimage and tourism site, which Saddam Hussein used to visit when he needed rest, became a refuge for civilians fleeing ISIS. "Look, that used to be my bedroom, and next to it was my uncle and his children's," explains Salah, a sturdy young man with a shaved head who left the monastery almost a year ago but returns to visit whenever he can.

From the windows and the roof, we can see the hill of Bashiqa. The ISIS caliphate starts behind it. But despite the war being dangerously close, we feel safe in the monastery. And yet virtually all the refugees left on Aug. 6, 2014, when ISIS fighters swiftly breached the defensive lines in the Niniveh plains and took control of Bashiqa, Bartella and Qaraqosh, stopping only a few kilometers from Mar Mattai.

"Things started to feel strange from early morning that day," recalls Father Youssef, a sixty-something with a thick white beard and black cassock. "We could see a lot of civilian cars driving away, headed towards Iraqi Kurdistan." By the evening, the passing cars were no longer those of the civilians but that of peshmerga, the Kurdish fighters, who were also leaving as the jihadists took control of almost the entire Niniveh plains.

"That evening, at around 11 p.m., from the roof, we saw the lights of military cars going to Kurdistan," he recalls. "We understood that we too would have to flee."

In less than an hour, the monks and refugees had gathered a few things and left. Only one family stayed behind. "This is where we said goodbye," says Nadia, who nearly chokes up as she shows us the monastery's courtyard. Her fingers cling to Youssef's cassock as she hugs him. She calls him "Abuna," "our father" in Syriac.

Out of reach

"We thought that was the end of it, that ISIS was going to take the monastery and that we'd never see each other again," Yousseff says..

"Where were we supposed to go?" Nadia responds. "We were tired of always moving from one place to another. Our mother was too sick. She couldn't travel anymore. We left it up to God, come what may."

But the jihadists never reached the monastery. After spending two days alone in the deserted building, Nadia and her family saw two monks return, and three others came later. Down the mountain, the small village of Mergy and its olive trees came back to life.

Almost a year later, Nadia, her brother Farez, her sister Sabah and their mother are still at Mar Mattai. The "children," all in their fifties and single, take care of each other and of their mother Fadwa, who is curled up on a chair in her blue nightgown. They have nowhere else to go and no money. They had tried to stay in Mosul, before the city fell, holding on for a month without water or electricity, "eating what was left in the pantry." During the last days there, a bad smell would drift in whenever they opened the windows, Nadia remembers. It was the smell of bodies decomposing in the street.

On July 18, 2014, the mosque's speakers issued the jihadists' ultimatum to Mosul's Christians. They were to convert to Islam or pay a special tax by the next day, or they would be killed. The next day, the family packed their bags and left the city four hours before the ultimatum expired. A Muslim taxi driver agreed to take them for free to the monastery.

Just outside the city, at a jihadi checkpoint, a group of young fighters signalled the driver to stop. They were Iraqi, with thick beards. Only one of them was in a uniform, and the others wore dishdashas, the ankle-length tunic usually worn by men in the Arab world. "Are you Christians?" one of them asked. "At noon, we'll kill you."

The jihadists took everything — the money, their mother's wheelchair, their clothes. "The driver was so sorry, but there was nothing he could have done," Nadia explains. "Once we passed the checkpoint, he spat out the window and said, "I spit on these people. It's their fault if people hate Islam.""

They say they'll never go back to Mosul, with or without ISIS. "Anywhere but Mosul," the three siblings say in a single voice.

It's the same answer on the other side of the corridor, where the other family staying in the monastery lives. Nablus, Amer and their three children also came from Mosul. They arrived in Mar Mattai in October 2014, after trying to live in Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan. It was too difficult and too expensive, they say.

All prefer to stay here, although everything, both outdoors and indoors, reminds them how close the war is. During their spartan lunch, they talk about ISIS. As they come out of the cafeteria, they pass by a group of militiamen in battledress and bulletproof vests. They're members of Dwekh Nawsha, a Christian militia. Their name in Assyrian means "the one who fights until death."

There are about 200 troops in Dwekh Nawsha, who fight alongside the Kurdish peshmerga on Mosul's frontline. For these visitors, it is a courtesy call from neighbors, and also a bit of a pilgrimage. Almost half of them are foreigners, mostly Anglo-Saxon. There's an American truck driver, all muscles and tattoos, a former Scottish military man, and Jamie, a Canadian woman in her twenties with clear eyes and a blonde braid.

Anglo-Saxon faces

So many weapons!" one of the monks exclaims as he sees their ammunition belts. "And we've left our riffles in the car," one militiamen jokes.

It's a relaxed atmosphere, as some veterans tease a Scottish soldier, who arrived barely 10 days ago. "Until now, he's mostly been fighting against mosquitoes," says one, pointing at his red and swollen nose.

But the respite is short-lived. The same evening, the fighting intensifies. In the distance, the noise of Kalashnikovs, doshkas and mortars erupts again. The first stars light up the sky, as the sun sets with blazing colors. To the south, towards Bashiqa and Mosul, fires are glowing in the plains.

"Probably an airstrike," says a monk, leaning his elbows on the guardrails of the roof. The scenery is impressive. Like every night in Mar Mattai, those who live here watch as the fighting unfolds just off in the distance. Some complain of the lack of willingness from the international coalition, and especially from the United States, to stop ISIS. "The Americans were able to defeat Saddam Hussein's army in less than a month," says one.

"We're leaving it up to God," explains a monk named Potros. None, however, can forget what happened to the Syriac monastery of Mar Behnam, southeast of Mosul, which ISIS destroyed in March. But as a precautionary measure, its relics and manuscripts had been evacuated in the months before the attack.

Indeed, nobody here is deluding themselves regarding the future of Christians in Iraq. The Syriac community, which counted more than 10,000 families before 2003, has been cut four-fold in just one year.

"The peshmerga are there, they're holding their positions," says Yousseff. "But if ISIS decides to launch an offensive and the Kurds flee like last year," he says, stopping mid-sentence. Then, with a mischievous smile on his face, he moves bushes aside with his stick to reveal a hidden underground passage. There are various others that lead from the monastery inside the mountain. "If they come tonight, look, you only have to go out that way. They'll never catch you."

Behind him, the gleam from the fires reveals a goat track that rises and disappears up over the mountains. Above, the stars have taken over the sky, and the eagles have disappeared.

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