Alqosh is a small village in Iraq, with a majority Christian population. It is also the last inhabited village before the front-lines of the territory seized by the Islamic State, which invaded the surrounding areas during its advance in the summer of 2014. Our organization Un ponte per... has been working here for some time, helping the displaced Iraqis gathered by Father Jibra'il and working to preserve the town's cultural heritage.
Un Ponte Per's (A Bridge To) Giacamo Cuscuna and Eleonora Gatto report from Alqosh:
Perched atop a hill, the city of Alqosh has a history that spans over three millennia. Its stone houses the color of ochre wind gradually up the ridge. A twelve-meter high cross shines in the night, illuminating the horizon.
Iwan, a 22 year old peshmerga, carefully climbs the path uphill, and gestures towards Bakufa, where ISIS militants have been entrenched for a year and a half, directly across from Iwan's comrades-in-arms. A strip of orange dots indicates the position of the Kurdish forces and the beginning of the caliphate: Alqosh is the last inhabited Christian village before the front lines.
One of the houses in the city center is hosting one-year old Kinan's birthday celebrations. The living room, adorned with lights and balloons, is filled with people. Christmas lights are strung up on the walls in glowing designs that complete the scene, which is part kitsch and part baroque.
As Kinan blows out his candle with the help of his mother and father, ISIS is only 15 kilometers away. The peshmerga forces holding them off are a bit further south of Teleskor, a ghost town where only stray dogs dare venture. When ISIS arrived at the city gates in August of 2004, Kinan was still at his mother's knee. At that time, the populations of all the villages in the area were fleeing: the advance of al-Baghdadi's militants caught everyone by surprise and entire areas fell under their control within a few hours.
"They never made it to Alqosh," recalls Father Jibra'il Kurkis Tuma, a Chaldean monk and prior of the Nostra Signora monastery. "We escaped at night, unexpectedly, fearing that the monastery and all of the books and objects that are part of our identity as Iraqi Christians would be destroyed," he continues, sipping tea in the monastery cloister under the shade of a 150-year old olive tree.
"It was only the following morning that I was able to return and save the ancient manuscripts that we keep in the library by hiding them in a secure spot." When Kinan came into the world on February 19th, 2015, the whole community of the Nineveh plains was gripped by a humanitarian crisis, and feared the possibility of an advance by the Islamic State: entire villages fled in search of refuge and armed men without pity were preparing to invade the whole region. Also ready to flee were the dozen or so children and adolescents living in the orphanage of Padre Jibra'il's monastery.
One year later, they too find themselves dancing in the living room decorated in Kinan's honor; an evening of celebration to break the monotony, despite the continuing conflict raging around the corner. Khalida also lives in Alqosh: in the living room a rosary and photo of her five-year old niece hang above a dark-colored couch. She exits the kitchen haltingly, with a laptop in her hands: on the screen connected via Skype are some relatives who are currently living in Baghdad.
"I go visit them sometimes, but the car trip is very long and expensive," she explains. For decades, Iraq has been an inhospitable place for certain religious communities. "If I had enough money, I would flee too" Khalida confesses, recalling her numerous family members who now live in Germany, Australia and other countries, far away from the terror.
While Khalida is telling her story, we hear the sound of Multi-National Force bombers that are passing over Alqosh to strike ISIS. The sound of explosions carries over the wind, occasionally breaking the silence.
"We are like a tree," Father Jibrail reflects aloud, shortly before celebrating the Stations of the Cross in the monastery church, "Daesh [ISIS] wants to kill us by cutting off our branches. At the same time, if all of us Iraqi Christian were to flee, we would lose our identity, we would be a tree transplanted to a land that is not our own, and it would wither us. "
"We are a pack of sheep, abandoned to their fate in the midst of the wolves," he concludes sorrowfully. But he will not surrender or be defeated, this priest who continues his personal fight for survival each day. The conflict, which has plunged Iraq into chaos since 2014 after the arrival of the Islamic State militants and the conquest of parts of the Yazidis areas of the country, has exhausted the already tired population.
The communities that are the main targets of the extremists (Christian and Yazidi communities are only a couple of examples) have suffered horrible violence, as has been reported by international agencies and organizations.
The idea that Islam is a cancer that needs to be eradicated because it is a bastion of hate and war is not uncommon in Alqosh. The conviction that the Islamic religion itself is the cause of the conflict is slowly taking root in certain sectors of the population, but people such as Father Jibra'il are working to break down those prejudices and rekindle relationships between the communities.
Many times, religions are dominated by leaders who spread hate for purely terrestrial motives. They betray their faith, which they use as a shield and then warp into something monstrous by striking out at and condemning everything, including minorities who are seen as inferior and thus meant to be exterminated. People who belong to this same faith become wrongly associated with them, for the simple reason that they practice the same religion.
Exhaustion and fear cloud the lens through which the world is viewing the conflict. The Middle East is the birthplace of some of the most ancient religions, and boasts centuries of their history. Take, as an example, the ruins of a synagogue dating from 800 B.C can be seen from Alqosh, located a few meters from the Coptic cathedral. "The Jewish community that had always lived alongside us here in the village abandoned Iraq in the 1950s, after a rough campaign which left it gravely wounded," recalls Father Ghazqan, the city's vicar.
"But even today, this place is still a pilgrimage destination for the faithful who want to visit the tomb of the prophet Nahum, which is guarded here," he continues. Despite the fact that the walls of the synagogue are partially collapsed and that there is barbed wire around the perimeter, inside, by the light of the candles, it is possible to understand how this is still a sacred and respected place.
This post first appeared on HuffPost Italy. It has been translated into English and edited for clarity.