Sister Maria Hanna, Prioress of the Dominican Sisters of St. Catherine of Siena in Iraq, has been posting about the harrowing situation there over the past several weeks. In an August 5th post, she describes the upheavel and exodus taking place in Mosul and Karakosh (Qaraqosh):
So far, 510 families have been displaced from Mosul. Some were fortunate to leave before the deadline ISIS set as they were able to take their belongings with them. However, 160 families of them left Mosul with only their clothes on; everything they had was taken away from them.
These families are in so much need of help and support. People in Christian towns that received these refugees opened their homes to provide shelters and food for them, as much as they could. People are strongly willing to help, but the fact that they did not have their salaries for two months (June- July) makes it extremely difficult for them to offer more. As the salaries of government employees in areas under ISIS control are being suspended. Additionally, because of the present situation in Mosul and the whole province (of Nineveh) the economy of the state is suffering, which naturally affects everyone. Since the tension started in Mosul, many people lost their jobs as 99% of jobs stopped, which means there is hardly any money to be used let alone loaning to those who are in need. This is not only in the province of Nineveh, but also in Erbil. Moreover, all Christians in the plain of Nineveh have not received their food supplement, which the government used to provide via the smart ration card. This is causing a crisis not only for the refugees, but also for the residents in the area. …
As you perhaps know, concerning the situation in Mosul, the Islamic State has a policy in governing the city. After displacing the Christians, they started their policy concerning the holy places that angered people. So far, the churches are under their control; crosses have been taken off. But we are not sure about the extent of the damaged done in them. In addition to that, few mosques have been affected, too. The ISIS destroyed two mosques with their shrines last week: the mosque of Prophet Sheeth (Seth) and the mosque of the Prophet Younis, or Jonah, said to be the burial place of Jonah. The militants claim that such mosques have become places for apostasy, not prayer. This was really too painful for all people as Jonah’s shrine was considered as a monument. Also, it was a historical place as it was built on an old church. Destroying such places is a destruction of our heritage and legacy.
She then penned this poignant plea: “We are surprised that some countries of the world are silent about what is happening. We hoped that there would be stronger international approach toward Iraq, and Christians in Iraq in general. As for us as community, our sisters in Batnaya and Telkaif had to leave the town with 99% of people who left because of violence outside the town.”
Just three days later, Sister Maria wrote again: “You might be surprised that we are writing this letter so soon since you received the last one. But events are happening so quickly here shocking everybody because of its brutality and cruelty.” She described the escalation of violence and attacks, and then wrote that the Sisters would have to leave Karakosh, Iraq’s largest Christian city:
On the seventh of August we gradually started to understand that the Peshmerga, who were supposed to protect Karakosh, were pulling out, leaving the town unprotected. Everybody was shocked because Kurdish government promised to defend Karakosh, and the other Christian towns. At the same time, ISIS started to get closer to Karakosh and the residents stared to leave the town. As a community, in no time we were to prepare to leave; we took the least with us unaware of what to take and unable to comprehend what was really happening. There were thirty sisters left Karakosh in three cars, and two families accompanied us, as they had no place to go. Three Franciscan sisters came with us, too. When we left the convent, we were surprised to see a big number of people leaving the town on foot. Moreover, it was strange to see only very few guards at the checkpoint when we were leaving the town. We were not alone on this, other towns shared the same horror. Christians from fifteen villages among them Karamles, Bartela, Bashiqa, Telkaif, Baqofa, Batnaya, Telusquf were forced to leave their homes because ISIS was advancing. Our sisters also left their convents in these towns. In Telkaif, while a young man (Lugin) with a young priest were trying to help a lady who was not able to leave on her own, he was shot and killed by the ISIS.
Our exodus started at 11:30 pm, and before that we decided to pray and have the Holy Communion so that if the ISIS entered the house, it will not be defiled. But on the last minute, we decided to leave one piece in the tabernacle praying it will protect the house and the town. …
We cannot what will happen or until when people will stay like this nor what the ISIS will do to our towns, nor if we will ever be able to get back home. Everything is so unclear. The situation is extremely difficult. For the time being people have some money to support themselves, but no one knows how long they will endure with the little they have.
As for the safety, Erbil is a Kurdish city and most refugees are staying in Ankawa that is a Christian suburb and protected by Peshmerga. It is hard for people to believe that even this city is safe that’s why they are thinking more and more to leave the whole country.
You may ask what the world can do for us. We would say, stop the blood, stop the oppression, and stop violence. We are human beings here; stop making us target for your weapon. The world needs to stand as one to protect minority against the evil and injustice. People want to live normal life in peace and dignity.
In an August 17th post, Sister Maria detailed the desperate situation faced by refugees:
After eleven days, it feels like we are on the same day we left. Some people are still in the streets, others are still in the parks, and some take refuge in schools. People are desperate to find a place to stay; even construction sites, unfinished buildings, private event halls, and basements are inhabited. A lot of people are living in unfurnished apartments, and homes, with sinfully high prices. People in the houses are sleeping on the floor, because they cannot afford to buy furniture. Some were fortunate to find a place to stay with relatives, in houses overloaded with people. On top of everything, refugees are running out of money, as they cannot pull money from banks, neither can they find jobs to work.
The disaster is overwhelming, and we are unable to comprehend it all. Our church leaders assured us that the Kurdish army would protect us. But they pulled out suddenly, from several towns in the plain of Nineveh and we had to make a quick decision to leave. In no time, most people directed themselves to Erbil, the closest city in Kurdistan. The city is packed with people, more than 75,000 people fled to it. That is apart from people who went to other cities like Kirkuk, Zakho, Sulaimania and Akra.
There is enormous lack of supplements, food, water, clothes, medication, housing, and money. And Erbil cannot accommodate all these people.
“People”, she continued, “lost confidence in everything, in government, in Kurdish protection, in church, even in the international military forces. Therefore, 90% of people want to leave.” Meanwhile, she had learned that ISIS had taken over several of the Dominican convents and orphanages:
As for us, as a community, we left nineteen places of ours, which include convents, schools and orphanages. Moreover, we have learned that our convent and the orphanage we own in Bartila have been taken by the ISIS. Also, our convents in Mosul and in Tal Kaif were taken (including school an kindergarten).
Sisters are scattered everywhere and we need to gather, at least in two communities in Duhok and Ankawa. In Ankawa, we have a piece of land, and we are thinking of buying caravans. Things might improve, and we might be returning for a while, however, we do not think it will be safe in the future. That is why we would appreciate any kind of help you might be able to offer.
In her most recent report, posted this past Sunday, Sister Maria wrote:
We continue to share our daily struggle with you, hoping that our cry will reach the world. We are like the blind man of Jericho (Mark 10: 46-52), who had nothing to express himself, but his voice, asking Jesus for mercy. Although some people ignored his voice, others listened, and helped him. We count on people, who will listen! …
Our church leaders are doing their best to solve the issue. They have been meeting with political leaders, with the President of Iraq and Kurdistan, but initiatives and actions of these political leaders are really slow and modest. Actually, all political meetings have led to nothing. Until now, there has been no decision made about the current situation of the displaced minorities. For this reason, trust in the political leaders has diminished, if it exists, at all. People cannot tolerate it anymore. It is too heavy of a burden. Yesterday, a young man expressed that he would rather die than live, without dignity. People feel that their dignity has been stripped from them. We are being persecuted because of our religion. None of us ever thought we would live in refugee camps because of that.
It is hard to believe that this is happening in the 21st century. We wonder what is exactly happening. Is it another plan or agreement to subdivide Iraq? If this is true, by whom and why? Why are the events of dividing the Middle East, that happened in 1916, being repeated now? At that time it was a political issue and innocent people paid for it. It is apparent that there are sinfully, cunning people dividing Iraq, now. In 1916, we lost seven of our sisters, many Christians died, and more were scattered. Is it just circumstance we face this division again, or is it deliberate?
The stories are heart-wrenching:
There are some people who went to fetch the elderly and the unable to walk. One of our sisters went to bring her parents, and told her story. Another woman, said that she was separated from her husband and children, and she knows nothing about them; they are probably among the others who are on the other bank, or they might be among the hostages taken by the IS. Also, a tree-year old daughter was taken from her mother’s lap, and she also knows nothing about her. We do not know why the IS are sending people out of Karakosh, but we have been hearing from those who just arrived, that IS are bringing barrels into Karakosh and the contents are unknown.
In addition, we know of four Christian families who are stuck in Sinjar for over three weeks; they are probably running out of food and water. If they do not get help, they will die there. At the present, there is no contact with them, and there is no way to negotiate with the IS.
As for our community, we know that our convent in Tel Kaif is being used as an IS headquarter. Also, we know that they had entered our convent in Karakosh. Those that recently arrived have stated that all the holy pictures, icons, and statutes are being destroyed. Crosses have been taken off the top of churches and they have been replaced with the IS flags. That is not only in Karakosh and Tel Kaif. In Baqofa, one of our sisters heard the situation was calm, so she went back with few people, to get her medicine. She found the convent had been searched; everything was open and strewn across the rooms. The minute they entered the convent, three bombs hit the town. They left immediately.
Apart from what is happening to the Christians, yesterday, Friday the 22nd, a Shiite suicide bomber and gunmen attacked Sunni mosque of Abou Mussab in village under Iraqi government control in Diyala province leaving 68 dead. It is heartbreaking to hear about people get killed while praying. In terms of Media and news release, this massacre overshadowed what is happening to the Christians in Nineveh Plain. We are afraid that our struggle will become only our own affairs, and it will not have impact on the world anymore.
She concluded: “Please, keep us in your prayers.”
It’s the very least we can do.