He recognizes the cross immediately; he used it at confirmation ceremonies of so many boys and girls here at St. George Church. He no longer knows where some of them are. Or, if they are still alive.
This was a sanctuary once, a place of peace and love in the northern Iraqi town of Bartella, just 13 miles east of Mosul. Now everything is in disarray — defaced and damaged, covered in soot and remnants of war. In the adjoining cemetery, a rocket launcher points east toward the front lines, and bullet-ridden gravestones stand as silent witnesses to the desecration.
A crushing sadness descends on Lalo.
He tightens his grip on the small cross as his face fills with resolve. He will build again with new bricks and mortar, replace pillaged pews and find a chandelier more beautiful than the one he had installed a few years ago.
With few resources, rebuilding is sure to be a challenge. But Lalo knows that’s the easy part. How will he be able to restore faith in this fractured land?
The Bible tells followers not to judge others. “Forgive, and you will be forgiven,” it says. Those words, Lalo believes, are at the very core of Christianity.
But after everything that has happened in Iraq, Lalo sees hatred in the hearts of the people. It will be almost impossible to forgive the militant men of the self-proclaimed Islamic State who shattered thousands of lives. Or live again in these ancient lands where Christianity came early but is now edging dangerously close to extinction.
‘Life can never be the same’
On October 17, Iraq launched a major military campaign to defeat ISIS in Mosul
and surrounding Nineveh province. Lalo followed each battle closely, as did all the others in Ankawa, a Christian enclave in Irbil where Lalo and thousands of other displaced people have been living since 2014.
The following evening, as Iraqi forces fought militants in the Christian towns of the Nineveh Plains, impromptu celebrations erupted on the streets of Ankawa.
Lalo felt hope rising in his heart. Perhaps he would be able to go home soon.
A few days later, on his 49th birthday, news of Bartella’s liberation reached Lalo.
The violent booms of war went quiet, and for the first time in more than two years, church bells pealed, the sounds echoing like a dirge through the ravaged and empty town.
It was the greatest gift in Lalo’s lifetime, but bittersweet.
Life in Bartella, as he knew it, stopped suddenly and brutally in the summer of 2014. ISIS blitzkrieged its way into northern Iraq, taking control of Mosul
, Iraq’s second-largest and once its most diverse city.
ISIS marked Christian houses with the Arabic equivalent of the letter “N” for the derogatory term Nazarene. The militants blared ultimatums from the loudspeakers of Mosul mosques: Leave by July 19 to avoid death or forced conversion to Islam.
The terror-driven exodus emptied the city of Christians, Yazidis
and other religious minorities. A decade ago, 35,000 Christians lived in Mosul. Now maybe 20 or 30 remain.
Three weeks later, ISIS repeated its scourge in the towns and villages in surrounding Nineveh province,
the historical homeland of Iraqi Christians. Many had sought refuge here from persecution in other parts of the country, especially after the 2003 US-led invasion gave rise to sectarian strife.
Lalo was not at home when ISIS fighters overran Bartella on August 8, 2014. He’d gone to Baghdad on church business and was in the Kurdish capital of Irbil on his way home when he began to hear about families fleeing Bartella and other Christian towns such as Qaraqosh, Baghdida and Tal Kayf.
The people who escaped ISIS told Lalo they had no money or possessions, that they had walked for days through harsh desert terrain to reach the Kurdish border. They recounted stories of forced conversions, captivity, beatings, rape and murder. They’d left everything at home to run for their lives and were willing to risk settling in unknown lands to save themselves.
By some estimates, 100,000 Christians fled Nineveh and streamed into the relatively safe semiautonomous Kurdish region. They found refuge in empty houses and unfinished buildings in Irbil and Dohuk. Soon, humanitarian organizations and churches set up camps for the displaced.
In the biblical lands of Nineveh, Christians — by virtue of their beliefs — found themselves living as refugees.
In Ankawa, as many as 6,000 of them live in converted shipping containers that make up Ashti camp. They cherish the little they have left in life. Some have wallpapered their small abodes. Others have decorated with posters of flowers.
Almost all have put up crosses on their roofs or the outer walls, as if to signal their distress to the world. And their resolve in their faith.
One of them is 26-year-old Maha Sabah. ISIS entered Bartella on her wedding night, turning celebration into horror. At least, she says, she was able to wear her wedding dress. At least she now has a roof to shelter her from the weather.
“So many girls in Bartella will never be able to have a wedding,” she says. “How can they? Life can never be the same anymore.”
Nearby, Taqla Giggi sits on a folding chair and holds her head in her hands. She is 77 and survived years of conflict in Iraq but now cannot stop crying. “It is all gone,” she says. “We are finished. No one wants us.”
Month after month, Lalo ministered to the displaced as they struggled to survive. Like Lalo, they were consumed with news about their besieged homes.
ISIS severed territory it held from the outside world, but word got out about the militant group’s brutality and its nihilistic campaign to destroy historic sites and monuments
. One was the monastery of St. Elijah outside Mosul, which stood for 1,400 years and was the oldest Christian monastery in Iraq
It quickly became clear to Lalo that ISIS intended to eradicate Iraq’s indigenous Christian community and all evidence of its 2,000-year civilization. He heard the word “genocide” being used to describe his people
just as it had been for the Yazidis.
At one time, nearly 5 million Assyrian Christians lived in Iraq as a healthy minority, but their numbers have dwindled through the decades. They fled to faraway places such as the United States, Europe and Australia, and many more who have been displaced by ISIS are hoping to do the same.
Before ISIS, roughly 300,000 Christians remained in Iraq. But no one knows how many survived or how many will return home to restart their lives. Many of them, understandably, have lost hope.
They say Christianity is dead in Iraq. And the way of life they knew for generations has vanished.
Lalo lived with these fears gripping his heart. And when ISIS was finally driven out of Bartella on a late October day, he grew exceedingly anxious to return.
Maybe things could never be the same again, he thought. But why should Christians be driven from their ancestral lands? He told himself he would try everything in his power to bring back Bartella.
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