Returning to England after a few days in Iraq, it is the sound of broken glass and rubble, crunching underfoot in one of the many destroyed churches, that lingers in my mind. Just a few weeks ago, on my fourth visit to that beleaguered Christian community since the genocide began in the summer of 2014, I was taken, along with Catholic journalist Edward Pentin, to visit the Christian towns on the Nineveh Plains, liberated from ISIS.
It is easy to use the phrase “ghost towns”, yet in the case of Karemlash it is not a phrase but a reality. Before ISIS swept into the area, in August 2014, Karemlash had been a mainly Chaldean Christian town of nearly 10,000 residents.
The monastery of St Barbara, formerly a place of pilgrimage for many Iraqi Christians, is at the entrance to the town. We were accompanied by Fr Thabet, the parish priest. He showed us the ruined home of his parents and grandparents, bombed by coalition forces because it was used as an ISIS outpost. Sitting in what had been the family garden was a large bomb.
The rectory, like many of the empty houses, had ISIS graffiti sprayed on the outside wall – for the priest’s house it said “the Cross will be broken”. Luckily for Fr Thabet, his house was still standing and, unlike many of the houses, had not been burned out. ISIS fighters had left him a little gift on their departure: a booby trap by his office door.
Many of the houses in the town are booby-trapped, burned out or destroyed, and there is no water or electricity. As we walked around the empty streets some birds were singing, but the only other sound was the distant thump of bombing in Mosul, nine miles away.
As we entered the Church of St Addai, the full hatred for the “followers of the Cross” was revealed. The Islamists had attempted to burn the church. A smashed statue of Our Lady was on the ground. The altar had bullet holes in it. Everywhere – in that church and the others we visited – the Cross was defaced, destroyed or in some way vandalised. Even if a wooden door had a Cross on it, at least one arm would be broken. Fr Thabet’s large rosary lay on the floor, with the central beam of the Cross removed. It was as though a black cloud of hatred for the Cross and all it symbolises had swept through the town.
How to continue reading…
This article appears in the Catholic Herald magazine - to read it in full subscribe to our digital edition from just 30p a week
The Catholic Herald is your essential weekly guide to the Catholic world; latest news, incisive opinion, expert analysis and spiritual reflection