The biggest tragedy for Christians in northern Iraq. Even in the plains of Nineveh, the majority will never return.

8 March 2021 By Paul Martin
SPECIAL FROM THE POPE’S TRIP TO IRAQ

Pope’s visit to Iraq: The village where jihadists scarred Christian symbols. ‘We expelled Isis, but many did not return’
In Karamles, in the community trying to be reborn, Pope Francis is expected to visit the region on his first trip after the start of the pandemic
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FROM LORENZO CREMONESI in KARAMLES (northern Iraq)

“There is no more Santa Barbara. Only the Islamic State exists here,” Isis activists wrote contemptuously with black paint in August seven years ago on the light marble that covers the walls of the village’s best-known basilica.

For over two years the massive structure of Santa Barbara was their fort. They dug a long tunnel into the hill just behind, and hid ammunition and heavy weapons there.

In order not to be noticed by American drones, they hid the sand and stones from the excavation inside the ancient halls of the basilica. They used hammers to smash the crosses and erase the writings in archaic Assyrian and Aramaic Chaldean along its walls.

Isis fighters broke the tombstones, damaged the relics, and devastated the heirlooms of the sixth century AD. After all, what did they know or care about the long tradition of Eastern churches? And what did they know or care about the centuries of theological diatribes between Nestorians and Latins on the relationship between Christ, his Father and the ‘essence of the Divine’?

“They came here as conquerors. They occupied these halls for two years. But in the end we drove them away. For his Christian inhabitants, Karamles is back,” proudly declares Father Paolo Mekko, a 45-year-old Chaldean-Catholic.

Father Mekko had been one of the last to flee during those tragic days of early August 2014, when Isis was like a river in flood. We met him in his parish, as we were observing worried Kurdish peshmerga fighters who did not seem able to resist the fanatics on their advance from Mosul.

Then, in October 2016 he was filmed on international television, planting a large cross on the hill behind Santa Barbara. It was intended to signal to all the villages of the Nineveh plain that his faithful had made it –they had resisted the barbarity of the jihadists.

Then, we encountered him again in the garden of the Chaldean patriarchy in Erbil, while he was working hard to distribute curtains, mattresses and water to his displaced and frightened people, devoid of everything.

Now, in March 2021, we retrace the alleys of the village. Many homes are closed, showing signs of having been set alight.

Here, however, young people are not returning. The elderly prevail.

The ancient part of the town dates back to the fourth century AD. But the foundations are prehistoric and all around archaeologists have discovered Assyrian-Babylonian sites.

He shows the broken crosses in the cemetery around the church dedicated to St. George. The local oratory is organising a gymnastic display by the students as the Pope’s makes a brief visit here on his way to Qaraqosh, only three kilometres further.

Then, next Sunday during a mass celebrated in the stadium of Erbil, the Pope will bless the restored wooden statue of Our Lady of Karamles, whose head and arms were severed by the jihadists.

Father Mekko tells us: “It’s not bad. Of the approximately 3,000 Christians from Karamles, about 1,200 have returned to their homes. Those who have been allowed to emigrate to the United States, as well as Canada, Australia and Europe, do not return.

“The Western world was thinking they’re helping us with its policy of easy visas. But that’s how it contributes to the exodus,” he explains. “Better help us in our own home.”