The Assyrian monks at Saint Matthew’s Monastery in the Nineveh Plains told the world they will not leave, even though the Islamic State (ISIS/ISIL) creeps closer to their home. The monks regularly hear battles down the mountain.
“We can see the battles and the airstrikes from here in front of us, especially at night,” said head monk Yousif Ibrahim. “The sky lights up at night, but we of course are not scared. God protects us.”
The three remaining monks, along with students, live in Iraq’s oldest monastery, which sits on Mount Al-Faf. ISIS fights only four miles away.
“We are not scared, because our teachers give us a feeling of peace here, but we know we are on the frontlines, and in seconds the Islamic State could be here,” explained Sahar Karaikos, one of the students at the monastery. “I don’t even want to think or speak about the destruction the Islamic State would cause if they took our monastery.”
The Islamic State has a well-executed policy of destroying history and anything non-Islamic on its path to establish a Caliphate. Those at Saint Matthew’s have already removed historic and priceless items from the building, including “the tomb of the monastery’s namesake, St. Matthew.” Officials moved St. Matthew’s bones “north into relatively safe territory of the Kurdish Regional Government.”
The hermit Matthew founded the monastery in 361 after he fled into the mountains to escape persecution under the Roman Empire. One day, Prince Behnam met the hermit while hunting. Matthew impressed the prince, who persuaded his mother to take his ill sister to the man for healing. After Matthew cured Sarah, he baptized the siblings. The king ordered death sentences for his children, but received a life threatening illness right after they died. Behnam’s spirit told his mother to take the king to Matthew. She obeyed, and he cured the king, who then built the monks a stronger monastery to say thank you.
“(The Islamic State) does not understand what history means, they just understand the breaking of history,” continued Karaikos. “If a people don’t have the history of their past, then they will not have a future because they won’t know what their origins are, where they came from.”
Ibrahim knows more Christians will leave Iraq due to ISIS. The terrorist group expelled all the Christians from Mosul in June 2014. For the first time in over 2,000 years, no Christians live in the city. Ibrahim said he will only leave when the last Christian departs Iraq. Karaikos hopes the remaining Christians stay in Iraq “to preserve their history.”
“Saint Matthew ended up here because he was fleeing persecution, but persecution follows us,” said Karaikos. “We can’t run from it, we have to stand in front of our history.”