In Kurdish Iraq, fading fear and new beginnings for exiled sisters and priests
"Our sisters were just able to consume the Blessed Sacrament before they fled. They did not want it to fall into the hands of the jihadists. However, they unfortunately had to leave the tabernacle itself behind. There wasn't enough room in the car."
By Oliver Maksan
In 2014, more than 120,000 Christians, among them dozens of priests and religious, had to flee from ISIS in Iraq. Many have found refuge in the autonomous Kurdish regions of Iraq after having lost everything – just like Sister Sanaa Hana. The nun is mother superior of a community of Sacred Heart Sisters.
“ISIS blew up our convent in Mosul on Nov. 24. They first tried to blow up the four crosses on the roof. Then they destroyed the entire building. We don’t know why exactly,” she reported. “This made us very sad. It was a critical moment for our community. After all, it had been our spiritual home for many years. I joined our community there in 1985. We had an active pastoral care program in Mosul. Among other things, we maintained a home for old people there.”
However, the sisters’ suffering began months before the explosion that destroyed the convent. At the time, Sister Sanaa was not in the city. Returning from a journey, she wanted to get back to her fellow sisters at all costs. However, all access routes had been blocked since early June. “Days before the city completely fell into the hands of ISIS, fierce battles raged between the army and the jihadists. Our convent lay right in between. There was constant heavy fire. The sisters were very scared and thus left the convent and went to another house in Mosul. They were able to flee just before ISIS took over the city. It was truly at the very last minute,” she reported.
“Our sisters were just able to consume the Blessed Sacrament before they fled. They did not want it to fall into the hands of the jihadists. However, they unfortunately had to leave the tabernacle itself behind. There wasn’t enough room in the car.”
The community of nuns then fled to Tilkef, a partially Christian city near Mosul. The sisters ran a printing company for liturgical books there. However, they soon had to flee once more. ISIS had also conquered Tilkef.
Sister Sanaa nevertheless plucked up the courage three more times after the fall of Mosul to return to the city now in the hands of the terrorist militia. “After all, we had been forced to leave our entire archive behind. As mother superior of the convent, I considered it my duty to save it. After all, it contains important documents representing a century of our community’s memory.”
Volunteers joined her on this extremely dangerous journey. “I did not want to make anyone go with me. It was very dangerous, after all. Other nuns have been kidnapped by ISIS.” She managed to pass through checkpoints guarded by bearded ISIS fighters, who were flanked by the black flag of the caliphate, three times. The archive was saved.
Today, the sister lives in Ankawa, a Christian suburb of the Kurdish regional capital of Erbil. Along with 20 other sisters, she has made a fresh start, thanks to support from Catholic agencies from abroad, including Aid to the Church in Need (ACN). In addition, a temporary school is being set up for the children of Christian refugees. The sisters will teach there, thus earning a salary from the state. This will help them secure their future. A machine for the production of altar breads contributes further to their livelihood. The sisters also sew cassocks and liturgical vestments. These supply members of the clergy who, just like them, had to leave everything behind as they fled from ISIS.
One of them is Father Janan. The Syrian-Catholic monk currently lives with his fellow brothers in a settlement near Erbil. The church has rented numerous flats there with the help of relief funding. “We fled from Bakhdida on Aug. 6. We even left our identity cards behind because everything had to go so quickly. We thought that the Kurdish fighters would protect us. However, when they suddenly pulled out, we dropped everything and fled.”
Liturgical instruments, books and robes: they were not able to take anything with them. “Our fellow monks have given us liturgical vestments and books so that we can celebrate the liturgy. We are trying to continue our monastic life here as best as we can,” he said, showing a visitor the temporary chapel that they have set up on the ground floor of the terraced house. “The Liturgy of the Hours morning, noon and night provides structure to our day. And of course we celebrate Holy Mass.”
Mass is held in a tent that serves as a church for the refugees. Plastic chairs are set up under a white canvas. Dozens of women have gathered to pray the rosary. The only adornments are an icon of the Redeemer and the Mother of God. “We celebrate Holy Mass here. We have also baptised children here already. It is important that this refugee settlement has a spiritual heart. We may have lost our homes, but God is with us everywhere.”
ACN photo: Sister Sanaa and some her new charges