ISIS Jihadists Seize Fourth Century Christian Monastery, Expel Monks

The purge of Christians from northern Iraq continues under the hands of the Sunni jihadist group, the Islamic State--formerly the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS). ISIS militants seized the famous Mar Behnam or St. Behnam monastery this week, a fourth century Christian landmark, and forced monks to leave immediately.

According to the Agence France-Presse, the monastery, a famous landmark of early Christianity, is now fully in the hands of ISIS jihadists. A cleric and residents of the monastery reported on Monday that the monks inhabiting the monastery were told that they "had no place here anymore" and to "leave immediately" from the town of Qaraqosh, a short distance from the fully ISIS-controlled Mosul. Witnesses report that they were forced to leave everything behind, taking only the clothes they were wearing. The monastery was previously run by the Syriac Catholic church; up to nine people reportedly still lived there when ISIS terrorists arrived.

Though only a small number of monks remained at the monastery, the capture is extremely significant for its symbolism. The St. Behnam monastery was built by Assyrian King Sennacherib II and named after his son, whom he martyred after he and his sister, Sarah, converted to Christianity. He is one of the oldest martyrs in the Christian tradition.

The monastery itself is one of the oldest monuments in the history of Christianity, a symbol of the rich history the religion has within the borders of Iraq. ISIS has systematically attempted to uproot Christianity from the history of the land as part of its efforts to establish an extremist Islamic Caliphate in territories stretching from Spain (the historically Muslim al-Andaluz) to western China, where the Chinese Uyghur population is largely Muslim.

The expulsion followed a brutal campaign in Mosul, the second-largest city in Iraq, to clear it of Christians for the first time in the history of the religion. Christians in the city were told to convert and pay an unreasonably high tax, flee, or be killed. Almost all chose to leave, and it is believed that the city has been entirely emptied of its Christian population for the first time since the life of Jesus Himself.

Many of Mosul's Christians have sought refuge in another monastery, the Monastery of St. Matthew, where Al Jazeera reports that "dozens" of Christian families have laid down mattresses and begun to wait and pray for the situation to change. They also received a visit from Patriarch Ignatius Aphrem II, head of the Syriac Catholic Church, who led prayers in Aramaic, believed to be the language of Jesus.


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