TELASKOF, Iraq — Christians whose roots go back many centuries in Iraq are risking everything today, braving snipers and mortar fire, to bring their dead back from asylum abroad and bury them in villages previously abandoned to the jihadis of the so-called Islamic State.
Many of those making these hasty pilgrimages fear that otherwise the age of Christians in Mesopotamia is coming to an end. Their dead, they say, may be their only lasting legacy.
On the morning of June 26, a white pickup speeds out of a church in the Kurdish-controlled Assyrian Catholic town of Alqush. Its cargo is a simple wooden coffin holding the body of Tawetha Batrus Ngara. She was in her 70s, and had moved to Lebanon with her adult son four months ago. But today she is to be buried in her birthplace: the Iraqi Christian ghost town of Telaskof, 25 miles north of the ISIS stronghold Mosul.
ISIS overran Telaskof on August 6, 2014. It was retaken by Kurdish Peshmerga shortly after, but its 7,000 or so residents have yet to return for fear of future attacks. ISIS assaults on the town are still frequent. As craters in its streets can attest, Telaskof is still within rocket and mortar range of militant positions on the Nineveh Plain to the south.
Arriving at the entrance to Telaskof’s cemetery, Ngara’s coffin is welcomed by a group of 70 mostly elderly and middle-aged mourners. Iraq’s young Christians have been leaving in droves since the fall of Saddam Hussein, and according to local church officials, half of Telaskof’s population has left Iraq altogether.
“We as a church ask the people not to leave this land. Don’t immigrate. This is our heritage, this is our country,” says Father Rani Hana, the 55-year-old parish priest of Telaskof’s Catholic St. George Church, speaking to The Daily Beast on the morning of the Ngara funeral. The stout, round-faced Hana has been a priest in the area since the 1980s. Despite the scorching Iraqi summer heat, he has donned full black vestments for the upcoming ceremony.
Ngara’s funeral begins with her coffin being lowered on ropes into a small shallow grave on the cemetery’s periphery. Hana and 29-year-old Steven Azabo, another priest, lead prayers and chants in the ancient Aramaic tongue—the spoken language of Jesus that some of Telaskof’s Christians still speak. Amid hallelujahs and amens, the assembled make the sign of the cross and women cry and ululate, their high-pitched trills filling the air.
After the final prayers are offered, young men rush to throw dirt on the casket. A blanket is placed over the burial mound and weighed down with rocks and pieces of nearby tombstones already destroyed by ISIS mortars. The villagers are wary of such bombardments, and the funeral service is rushed by design. ISIS has spotters in the next-door village three miles away, and has targeted large Telaskof gatherings in the past.
A silver-painted metal crucifix is placed over Ngara and the service concludes. From beginning to end it takes less than 15 minutes.
“Lebanon is a foreign, strange place,” mutters 48-year-old Telaskof villager Kamal Jibral as the final mourners depart. “Anyone who dies must be brought back to Iraq.”
The younger of the priests at the funeral, Azabo, tells The Daily Beast that since the summer of last year he has conducted close to 70 such repatriations in Telaskof and neighboring villages. The process, he says, has become fairly routine. All of the bodies have so far come from Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan, or from other areas of Iraq.
“The Iraqi passport isn’t very good,” he says, chuckling. “There aren’t a lot of other places we can go.”
The bodies from abroad typically arrive by air. From there they’re usually driven to the monastery town of Alqush and given a short wake before being delivered via pickup to their final earthly destinations.
One problem in continuing the repatriations, Azabo says, has been the grave digging. It’s become impossible to erect the large shrine-like headstones traditionally used in Iraqi Christian graveyards because of the time and resources involved. Such projects are also easy pickings for ISIS snipers. This has meant returnees like Ngara can only be placed in shallow, quickly dug three-foot trenches with simple markers. Meanwhile, ISIS has taken to firing mortar rounds into the cemetery at random, destroying existing tombs and family plots.
“Once the grave is destroyed they can’t make new ones,” Azabo says. “It’s a big, big problem.”
“We don’t have anything else,” he adds. “In Telaskof we have maybe 1,400 families, now maybe only 700 of them have stayed in Iraq. All of the others left.”
In Ngara’s case, her immediate family couldn’t even attend the funeral. According to Jibral, her husband and siblings had all already died, and none of Ngara’s children were still in Iraq. That left what remained of her former Telaskof neighbors in nearby safe zones to give her a sendoff.
“Everyone in the village is a like a big family,” Jibral says, lighting a cigarette. “Everyone is a cousin.”
But how much longer that big family can survive is in question.
Lacking the rebellious streak of their Kurdish and Shia neighbors, Christians were relatively well treated under the Saddam Hussein regime. Top Saddam deputy and minister Tariq Aziz—who died in Iraqi custody in early June—was himself Christian, born with the name Mikhail Yuhanna. And in the power vacuum that followed Hussein’s toppling, Iraqi Christians increasingly became the target of religious extremists.
“The first two car bombs in Telaskof were in 2007,” says Azabo.
Driving along the road between Telaskof and Alqush he points to a destroyed tractor in an adjacent field.
“You see this machine? This area, one child died because ISIS put mines in the earth. A child, just 13 years old! He died,” Azabo exclaims. “He was working the earth, and landmine!”
“Look around,” he continues. “Did Bush make this place better?”
The majority of Iraq’s Christians are ethnic Assyrians, largely of the Chaldean Catholic sect, but also including Orthodox and other groups. In ancient times the pagan Assyrians built an empire that stretched as far as Egypt. With its capital at Nineveh, near modern Mosul, Assyria’s armies became the terror of the Near East and frequent enemies of the Old Testament’s Israelites. But at the dawn of the Christian era, the Assyrians were quick to adopt the new faith, making them among the oldest Christian communities in the world.
That history and steadfastness to the faith has not been able to overcome the latest conflicts.
The U.S. State Department’s 2005 Report on International Religious Freedom showed Iraq’s Christians had dropped from 1.4 million in 1987 to only around a million at the beginning of the U.S.-led invasion. In its 2013 report, that number dropped under 500,000, and that was before Mosul fell to ISIS in 2014. Today, some estimates place the total number of remaining Iraqi Christians as low as 200,000.
“All my family is leaving Iraq. My brother and sister have now arrived in Australia. My other sister is now waiting in Lebanon to go to Australia. My father and mother this week arrived in Australia,” Azabo says. “I am the only one still here.”
When asked why he didn’t follow his family Down Under, Azabo said he had a duty to his flock to remain. “Leave now? No. I’ll stay,” he says. “Why? I’m a priest.”
Hana, now inside the relative safety of his high-walled church in Alqush, following the Ngara funeral, says he still returns to Telaskof regularly for cleaning and church maintenance. ISIS vandalized the house of worship, smashing its porcelain Virgin Mary statues and toppling the crosses on its steeples. They also left improvised explosive devices (IEDs) in many of the town’s homes and shops, making some neighborhoods no-go areas to this day.
Hana’s efforts have restored St. George’s steeple crosses, and workers have gingerly re-erected its statues. Hana says the building is ready for the day the living also decide to return to Telaskof, although he concedes this may be wishful thinking.
“Right now no one is considering moving back to Iraq,” he laments. “But this is our village and we love it.”
“Now we have lost everything,” Azabo adds. “But in the end, we still have our faith, and hope.”