On a mountainside in Iraq’s Kurdish region, at the end of a road that winds through sparse olive trees, stands the fourth-century Mar Mattai monastery. It is Iraq’s oldest monastery, named for the hermit monk who retired here at the dawn of Christianity. The forces of Islamic State (IS) are a little more than three kilometers away. When the weather is clear on the plain of Nineveh, you can see the IS front lines defending Mosul about 20 km in the distance.
The vast monastery perched high on Mount Alfaf is hewed from stone, its passages, stairways and terraces exposed to the sun and weather. In the courtyard on the ground level live two families who fled Mosul and the persecution of Christians there.
Four monks live at Mar Mattai. There should be several dozen to judge by the empty rooms along the esplanade. But only these four remain, clad in their black robes and caps embroidered with white crosses. In the Eastern Rite church on the upper level, the monks are standing in the crypt at the far end, their eyes closed, intoning one of the “chants of the Greek church” described by Chateaubriand in his 1811 “Record of a Journey From Paris to Jerusalem and Back.” He admired the Kyrie eleison (Lord, have mercy) with its notes “held by different voices, some bass, others treble, executing andante and mezza voce, the octave, fifth, and third.” Its beauty, he said, was enough to cure him of a fever.
I am with a documentary-film crew that records this moment, and am reminded of the “sadness and majesty” that Chateaubriand found in the “remnant of the ancient singing of the primitive church.”
When the monks finish, they indicate that they are ready to talk. In an adjacent room, we discuss the Syrian Orthodox rite, so distinctive and affecting.
Their prayer books, open on a repository, translated from Greek to Arabic and transcribed in Syriac characters.
Their friendly relations with the Jews who, like them, have felt at home in the region since the Babylonian exile.
And then we speak of IS and its mystifying savagery.
“Of course we had problems with the Persians, Mongols, Arabs and Ottomans,” says Raban Yousiff, a cheerful monk of about 40, acting as spokesman for the bishop, whom we recognize by his purple sash and who says nothing. “But never has this region seen such perversity as these men who, while claiming to be fighting in the name of God, are killing him.”
The monk tells us about the fall of Mosul in June 2014. About the “Nazarenes” who were given a few hours to choose between conversion and death by the sword. About the 300 families who flocked here in panic. Two months later, after the barbarians took Qaraqosh and everyone feared that the monastery would be destroyed by the jihadists – as they had wrecked Mar Behnam, south of Mosul – the families fled again.
“Do you think,” I asked the monk, “that these savages can win and that this land might become not only Judenfrei but also cleansed of the Christians who are the last in the world still speaking the language of Jesus?” He doesn’t hesitate: “Yes, barring a miracle, yes.
What sort of miracle? That your countries come in to reinforce the brave Kurdish fighters who are protecting us but who will not be able, by themselves, to liberate the plain of Nineveh.”
I ask him what he tells those of the faithful who have remained but are considering leaving. This time he pauses for a moment.
“I try to enlighten them. But I leave the choice to them. Didn’t our Lord Jesus Christ say that we would be persecuted to the end because of his name?” Then I ask him if, under the circumstances, he and his companions foresee joining the exodus. He answers before I finish the question.
“No, because we are shepherds. As long as there remains a single member of the flock lost in these villages where, as in the Bible, it is no longer possible to tell right from left, we will be there to guide.”
And if, God forbid, Islamic State breaks through the Kurdish lines and reaches the monastery? He had shown us only moments earlier a tunnel dug into the mountain rock. Would he take it? He smiles.
“I don’t know. Our lives and hearts are in the hands of God. For now we are here. And we, too, are his sentinels.”
As if to clarify the “we, too,” he gestures toward the armed escort who had followed us into the monastery. To my mind comes the philosopher’s phrase, “ultimi barbarorum” – along with a sickening apprehension that we might be in the company of a handful of the ultimi christianorum, whose dispersal after so many centuries would carry fateful portents for the region, for civilization, for the world.
Translated by Steven Kennedy