Erbil, Iraq — Editor's Note: This week Cardinal Timothy Dolan, Archbishop of New York and Chair of Catholic Near East Welfare Association (CNEWA), is traveling to Iraqi Kurdistan on a pastoral visit to that region's displaced Christian families. NCR has been invited to be a part of this small delegation.
The following account of the Dominican Sisters of St. Catherine of Siena-Iraq flight from ISIS is the result of multiple interviews of Dominican Srs. Maria Hanna, Superior, and Huda Chito, Principal, of the Al Bishara School (Annunciation School) for internally displaced Christians. The grade school is located in Ankawa, a suburb of Erbil, Iraqi Kurdistan. A CNEWA interpreter translated the interview of Sister Maria from Arabic.
For almost 150 years the Dominican Sisters of St. Catherine of Siena-Iraq (Dominican Sisters) have served the Iraqi Christian community. They also strived to serve all Iraqis, including Muslims, as equals. The order's charism is education, but by necessity their service to the community is broader, as they also care for the poor and the sick. The sisters are mostly located in northern Iraq, especially in Mosul and Qaraqosh, the largest Christian city in Iraq. The Dominican Sisters have a long and rich history of service and presence in Iraq, as further described on their website. NCR's sister publication, Global Sisters Report, has published several articles about them, one of which can be found here.
Early experiences of ISIS
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In 2003, a mortar shell struck the convent in Qaraqosh. The explosion did not kill any of the sisters in the house, but it knocked them out of their beds. One unexploded ordinance remained inside the convent until an expert came and took it away. The sisters continued to experience intermittent shelling over the next few years from ISIS.
Ten years later the sisters began to sense a change was taking place. They consistently had good relations with their Muslim neighbors. Qaraqosh was the center of Christian presence in Iraq and the sisters taught in schools. Many of the students and teachers were from neighboring Muslim villages. The sisters considered them friends because the sisters knew these people.
Parents of the children say, "Merry Christmas," to the sisters on the holiday. Relations with Muslims were extremely good in the neighborhood. It was not a closed community, as if living in a ghetto. The sisters would open up to their neighbors, but when ISIS came to Mosul, they felt tension in relations with their neighbors. They didn't know why. They didn't understand what happened exactly but they started becoming afraid that maybe the Muslim neighbors were becoming fanatics and could pose a danger to them.
The sisters began to plan for a potential problem with ISIS or those Muslims neighbors that might support ISIS.
At the motherhouse in Mosul -- located in a difficult area of the city -- the sisters maintained a cemetery behind the convent where the remains of 25 sisters were buried. It was not an officially approved cemetery, but one they had for many years. As concern about ISIS began to grow, the sisters decided to move the remains to their convent in Qaraqosh. However, they did not want to create any problems with the Muslim authorities in Mosul. They devised a plan they thought might work.
In the early hours of the 2013 Ramadan feast day celebrating the end of 30 days of fasting when devout Muslims visit families and enjoy a large meal, including sweets, the sisters dug up the 25 graves and wrapped the remains -- some consisted of just a few bones, while others were full skeletons -- and placed them in a single pick-up truck covered with camouflage.
Without being noticed, the sisters left at 6 a.m. and drove the remains to Qaraqosh to their new motherhouse where 50 sisters live. They held a Mass of re-internment and buried the sisters in a new grave at an official, public cemetery with their names listed on a single cross.
In early June 2014, ISIS attacked the city of Mosul, Iraq, which triggered a massive exodus from that city, and later from towns like Qaraqosh, the largest Christian city in Iraq, and nearby villages like Bashiqa. Some 500,000 internally displaced people (IDPs) raced for safety and shelter in the Kurdish region of Iraq. Over 250,000 IDPs, some of whom are Christian minorities, arrived in Erbil, Iraqi Kurdistan.
ISIS kidnapped Chaldean sisters and three orphans. All the Dominican Sisters remaining in Mosul felt there was something terribly wrong, that there is real danger here.
All Christians, including the sisters, had three choices: To pay a Christian tax, convert to Islam or leave to save their lives.
Some Muslim families who remained close to the sisters told them, "Don't stay. You are in danger. And don't listen to those who are assuring you that you're are okay. There is risk to your lives and for all Christians, so it's best to leave."
On June 8, 2014, the sisters left Mosul.
They didn't have means of transportation and they couldn't just get a taxi so they went to the Chaldean church in Mosul, along with 30 other people, some of whom were lay people and some priests. There was only one bus available for 14 people, but they had to squeeze in 30 people in order to evacuate.
They couldn't get to Qaraqosh because the road was too dangerous so the only place they could go to was a village called Bashiqa, 20 minutes away from Mosul to the northeast. They left at 10:30 p.m., but because there was so many people traveling and checkpoints set up by ISIS that they had to avoid, they finally got to Bashiqa at 5 a.m. extremely tired and afraid.
The Christian community in Qaraqosh and in the surrounding Christian villages were assured by the Peshmerga -- the Kurdish fighters -- that the Christian villages would be protected and that there was no way that ISIS would come and occupy the villages. The Kurds would be there to protect them.
Peshmerga's promise of protection was publicly-announced on radios and TVs. It was also conveyed in conversations with the bishops and the representative of the Kurds in that area. As a result, Christians considered themselves safe in Qaraqosh and in 14 different villages around Qaraqosh.
But things got remarkably worse.
Five Christian villages received heavy shelling. ISIS demanded to be paid the Christian tax or the shelling would continue.
In a nearby Chaldean Christian village, which had a large Muslim community, a priest was going to check on the needs of the people who were leaving and was shot in the head and killed by either an ISIS fighter or sympathizer from the community. The whole Christian community was really afraid.
During the third week of June 2014, the sisters hurriedly collected their archives, and Sister Huda spent the entire day making four 30-mile round trips from Qaraqosh to Ankawa, in order to transfer and protect them.
August 6, 2014 – Displacement day
After the shelling on the five or six Christina villages, people fled, and now Christians in Qaraqosh were leaving for Erbil and other areas.
Sr. Maria Hanna, the Dominican's superior, spoke by phone to Mosul's Syrian-Catholic Archbishop Yohanna Petros Mouche. He assured the sisters that the Kurds were going to protect them, not to be afraid, not to panic and that, "Whatever you hear, don't believe it." Mouche had been assured in meetings with the Kurdish leaders that the Peshmerga were going to protect them.
In the early hours of August 6, 2014, after morning Mass, Qaraqosh received three shellings that killed two children and one young woman. Within three hours of the killings, the whole community of Qaraqosh left town-- except the sisters
That evening they had dinner and evening prayer. Sister Maria then gathered them and said, "Well it looks like a dangerous situation and I will leave to your choice if you want to go to Ankawa, to Erbil. You can do it. Some of us will stay, but if you want to go, you may." None of the sisters left.
Around 9 p.m., they received a call from a brother of one of the sisters who used to work with the Peshmerga and he warned his sister, and all the sisters, that it was too dangerous to stay, that the Peshmerga have already have left and withdrawn their troops. "You should leave at this moment," her brother said.
Sister Maria immediately called Archbishop Mouche and told him that she had news from a trusted source about the urgency to leave and asked the archbishop what he thought. "I'm sitting here with my priests in the garden and everything is beautiful and there is nothing to fear," Mouche said. "I have information from political sources that there is nothing to fear."
Fifteen minutes later, the sisters received another call from the same brother. "Leave at this moment. You are in great danger," he said.
At 10:30 p.m. Sister Maria gathered all the sisters again, as Qaraqosh was in chaos. The phones were not working anymore, so they couldn't contact Archbishop Mouche. The sisters decided to leave.
Sister Maria started gathering the sisters, including some Franciscan sisters, who didn't have any means of transportation. Other Dominican sisters were on vacation or visiting families, some were in other villages.
By 11 p.m. the sisters went to their rooms to pack small bags of whatever they would need for two days because there was no place in the van for big suitcases. They thought they would be back after a few days' time.
Before midnight, they went to the church and prayed in front of the Eucharist. She left one Host at the church and she prayed, "Lord please protect this house and this village."
Thirty-five sisters, four families and two orphans squeezed themselves into two vans and two small cars and left Qaraqosh.
They came upon other Christians walking, some on donkeys and some on bicycles. "It was a river of people, thousands of people walking slowly out of Qaraqosh," said Sister Maria.
It was some 20 miles to the next Christian village. When they arrived at that village, the scene is the same: People walking in the desert. When they arrived on the major highway leading to Erbil, they saw their fellow sisters coming from another village.
Even though Erbil was only about thirty miles away from Qaraqosh, they didn't arrive until 10 a.m. the next day.
In the Erbil suburb of Ankawa, some 30 elderly sisters between the ages of 70 to 75 years of age were living in an old convent. For many months they were excited because a new convent was being built in Qaraqosh and these sisters would have a new home to live out their later years.
As the mass exodus of Christians descended on Ankawa on August 7, 2014, so did a bitter and traumatic reality. The elderly sisters were not going anywhere.
"When we finally met these sisters, they cried and we cried," said Sister Huda.
Ankawa became a chaotic environment, of thousands of Christians homeless, shelterless and hungry.
The sisters got organizing. They began taking a census of the displaced and identifying immediate needs. They continued to accompany their people.
Shortly after they arrived in Ankawa, the sisters were trying to organize an outdoor Mass. They could not find a suitable altar cloth. One sister removed the scapular (a Christian garment worn over the shoulders) she was wearing and laid it on the ground. It served as an altar cloth. They placed a cup and a chalice on it, and Mass began for some 200 people.
"It was both touching and sad," said Sister Huda. "But by the grace of God, we can do so many things," she said.
Afterwards the sisters went to the market, bought some cloth and sewed enough altar cloths for each of the altars at the camps for the internally displaced Iraqi Christians.
The stress of the mass exodus from Qaraqosh to Ankawa had a terrible impact on the elderly sisters living in Ankawa. They began to suffer heart attacks and heart failures. Over the past 18 months, 23 elderly Dominican sisters have died, sometimes up to three deaths a week. "They died of a broken heart," said Sister Huda.
It is the custom of the Dominican sisters that when a sister dies, her scapular is subsequently used by another sister as a way to remember the deceased.
Today, ISIS lives in the motherhouse in Qaraqosh.
[Tom Gallagher is a regular contributor to NCR on domestic and foreign affairs and is the lead writer for the newspaper's Mission Management column.]