Mosul and Erbil, Iraq
Our missions in Mosul and Erbil, Iraq always bring to mind the ancient lands referred to in the Bible as Babylonia, Assyria, Chaldea or Nineveh. Secular historians tell us that some of the actual apostles of Our Lord Jesus Christ brought the Christian Faith to this area, and so it is often called the cradle of Christianity. Indeed, the Christians of Iraq today all proudly declare that they received the Christian religion through studying the preaching and martyrdom of St. Jude Thaddeus.
We Dominican friars and sisters came to Iraq in the year 1300. Until 2014, the city of Mosul, the second largest city after Bagdad and once the ancient Biblical city of Nineveh, was a great center of Christian Faith and, along with the Christian villages of the Nineveh Plain, it was the center of our Dominican ministry in Iraq. Mosul is one of the last places in the world where the ancient language that Jesus spoke, Aramaic, is still spoken. And for roughly 2,000 years of unbroken tradition there, the Eucharist has been celebrated in the Aramaic language. Indeed, until 2014, our Iraqi Dominican priests were saying the consecration of the Mass in the exact words that Jesus spoke as He left us his Body and Blood, his life and love, in the Eucharist. And for decades our Dominican sisters operated schools and hospitals and clinics in that region, serving both Christians and Muslims alike.
It was in 2014, however, that great tragedy struck. Suddenly, without warning, hordes of ISIS terrorists came sweeping across the Nineveh Plain, conquering village after village. The Christians in Mosul and all nearby villages had three choices: pay a huge, impossible tax for being Christian; renounce the Christian Faith and accept the ISIS form of the Islamic religion; or be immediately executed. There was complete chaos in the streets with everyone trying to escape across the deserts and mountains to get to Kurdistan. Countless families were forced to leave behind daughters as young as ten years old to be used as slaves. Babies and young children were snatched from their mothers’ arms, never to be seen again. Elderly or disabled Christians as well as anybody considered to be useless were beheaded, crucified, or burned alive.
Thousands and thousands were somehow able to flee Mosul, with absolutely nothing but the clothes that they were wearing. Many Iraqi Dominican friars and Dominican Sisters of St. Catherine of Siena were among those and, from the first day that they arrived in Erbil, Kurdistan, they began ministering to over 70,000 other Christian refugees, camped out in shipping crates or make-shift tents, enduring inescapable cold or heat, hunger, exhaustion, constant fear, despair, and tremendous grief for those family members left behind to experience untold ends. Our friars and sisters, refugees themselves, provided prayer, counseling, and comfort. Our Mission Office began raising funds for the immediate survival needs of the displaced Christians and others relegated to the unspeakable living conditions in Erbil, and as soon as the aid began to arrive, the friars and sisters were able to facilitate distribution of food, clothing, blankets, and medical supplies as much as conditions and contributions allowed. Over the next few years, they were gradually able to open makeshift medical clinics, schools, and chapels. Our sisters provided healing and teaching; the priests celebrated Mass, Baptisms, and First Communions.
In October 2017, after three years of fighting in Mosul resulting in countless deaths and complete destruction of the Christians’ homes and churches, places of business and community facilities, the Iraqi army took back control. The world held little hope that the refugees would ever return, however. Even the infrastructure had been decimated or densely implanted with hidden bombs.
But while many have remained in Erbil and made it their permanent home, very slowly others returned to their ancestors’ ancient homeland intent rebuilding their homes, schools, hospitals, and community, a slow, costly, emotionally difficult process to endure, one that will necessarily continue for decades. Most of our Iraqi Dominican friars and sisters chose to move back to Mosul, though they could easily have left the country. They are determined to relight the Christian fires in this holy land, reaching out to those with nothing with the same love and compassion Jesus had when He roamed those now-sacred grounds. One tragic irony is that these descendants of the first Christians, going back 2,000 years to the time of St. Jude, seem now to be all but forgotten by the world. We must not forget them. We hope and pray that our support continues to help alleviate the suffering and the constant fear imposed upon those returning home as well as those who remain displaced. We must continue to help them rebuild their lives, reestablish trust and hope in the future, and rebolster their strength and faith so that they stand firm against further evil.