Iraqi Christian leader: The shepherd cannot leave his sheep
Iraq, June 08, 2015: Only four miles (six km) from the frontlines of Islamic State (IS) fighters, three monks and six students have determined to remain in St Matthew’s ancient monastery in Iraq’s Nineveh province until there are no Christians left in the country. “We can see the battles and the airstrikes from here in front of us,” says Yousif Ibrahim, one of three remaining monks living in the monastery. “The sky lights up at night, but we of course are not scared. God protects us.”
With only the Kurdish Peshmerga military left to protect a monastery that has withstood the conquests of the Ottoman and Persian empires, the nine Christians who have chosen to stay are only too aware that IS could reach St Matthew’s at any moment. “We are not scared, because our teachers give us a feeling of peace here,” says student Sahar Karaikos, “but we know we are on the frontlines… I don’t even want to think or speak about the destruction the Islamic State would cause if they took our monastery.”
Most of the Christians in the town and the other monks fled in August last year when IS militants advanced across territory close to Mt. Al-Faf, where St Matthew’s monastery has sat since 363 AD. Even though these monks and students remain, many of the irreplaceable books and relics have been taken to safer areas. “If a people don’t have the history of their past,” says Sahar Karaikos, “then they will not have a future because they won’t know what their origins are, where they came from.”
Set at the very heart of Iraq’s ancient Christian heartland, the Nineveh plains, St Matthew’s monastery is emblematic of Iraq’s historical Christian presence which dates back almost 2,000 years: prayer worship at St Matthew’s is conducted in Aramaic, the language of Jesus. But now the country’s Christian presence is under serious threat. Those who remain, a distinct light in the darkness, are likely to be forced out of Iraq eventually, says Yousif Ibrahim. Until then, however, he has decided to stay, explaining, “the shepherd cannot leave his sheep”.
When IS took over Mosul in June last year, they drove the Christians out of the city and looted their homes. Archbishop Nicodemus Daoud Sharaf, Archbishop of Mosul, fled with only five minutes to spare when the IS fighters were just 300 metres from his house. “They take everything from us,” he said, “but they cannot take the God from our hearts, they cannot.”