The best response Christians can give to the threat of Islamic State is to live genuinely Christian lives, and to not be afraid, says the last head of the archdiocese of Mosul in Iraq.
When Islamic State forces seized control of Mosul in 2014, Archbishop Amel Shamon Nona was forced into exile and has been living in Sydney since 2015, when Pope Francis appointed him Bishop of the Chaldean Catholic Diocese of St Thomas the Apostle of Australia and New Zealand.
For someone who has witnessed so much tragedy and persecution in war-torn Mosul – one of the most dangerous places on earth for a Christian – Archbishop Nona has a remarkable calmness and serenity about him. His demeanour speaks of a quiet strength born of a deep and abiding faith.
Of his time as shepherd of a small and frightened Christian flock, he says, “It was the best time of my life”.
Born in Alqosh, a Christian village in the north of Iraq, famous for its practise of Chaldean Catholic tradition, Archbishop Nona grew up in an atmosphere of church and liturgy: “I don’t remember exactly when I started going to the church, but I was in the church every day,” he says.
He felt drawn to the priesthood because of his love for liturgy and the example of a young priest in his village. “He was a very good man and I wanted to be like him – to serve other people, to make other people happy.”
After studying at the seminary in Baghdad for six years he was ordained a priest in 1991 and returned to Alqosh as assistant priest and eventually parish priest. (He also obtained a PhD in anthropology from the Pontifical Lateran University in Rome.)
When he was elected Archbishop of Mosul in 2010 by the Synod of the Chaldean Church, the announcement sent chills up the spines of family and friends. The previous Archbishop of Mosul, Paulos Faraj Rahho, had been kidnapped and murdered in 2008.
“It was very weird because my family and my friends, when I was elected archbishop, they didn’t say ‘congratulations’,” Archbishop Nona says with a chuckle. Instead they asked him how he could possibly think of going there.
Even today, Archbishop Nona proudly wears the pectoral cross of his predecessor, Archbishop Rahho, around his neck.
As Archbishop of Mosul, he found much satisfaction in ministering to the small Christian community there:
“Until 2014, I think it was the best time in my life. There was a small group of Christians and they were very afraid. They didn’t do anything except go from work to their house. Nothing else. We started doing some activities in the church and I started to visit them. I felt very happy and it was a nice time in my life.”
The day before ISIS seized control of Mosul in June 2014, Archbishop Nona had travelled to a parish outside the city to meet with a group of young people. While there he received a phone call informing him that he could not return to the city. The following day he tried to re-enter Mosul but was prevented. “I did not see the city of Mosul again,” he said.
All through that night the Christians were fleeing Mosul. Most fled to the Nineveh Plains, an area to the north and east of Mosul. “It was a very dramatic situation,” Archbishop Nona says.
He was particularly concerned about 17 girls in one parish who were orphans: “I was very afraid for them and over the telephone all the night we tried to make them safe. They arrived around 5am. It was a terrible thing.”
The Archbishop phoned several families who were at home sleeping to tell them they needed to leave the city immediately.
In the following days and weeks the Christians fleeing Mosul desperately sought places of shelter.
“Many Christians went towards the north of Iraq and Kurdistan. In the first weeks it was a terrible situation. A lot of people were living in churches, everywhere in churches, without anything,” Archbishop Nona said.
“We tried to do everything for them and I think we succeeded because after four weeks everyone had a container or something to live in. The Church did very good work at that time and is still working there.”
Christians have inhabited the city of Mosul and the surrounding area since the first century after Christ, Archbishop Nona explained. Two of the Twelve Apostles – Thomas and Thaddeus – journeyed from the south of current Turkey to the north of Iraq.
“They came to this community at the end of the first century and they converted all to Christianity,” he said.
At the time of the Iraq War in 2003 there were 35,000 Christians in Mosul. The instability caused by the removal of Saddam Hussein’s tyrannical regime led to increasing persecution of the city’s Christian population, which rapidly declined over the following years. ISIS was present in Mosul from 2003 onwards. At the time ISIS took control of the city in 2014 there were only about 3000 Christians left in the city of Mosul. Today there are next to none.
Despite the fact that the Nineveh Plains and the east part of the city of Mosul were liberated by the Iraqi army in October 2016, Archbishop Nona is doubtful that Christians will ever return to the city.
“Maybe a few families can go back but the existence of Christianity in the city of Mosul – I think it’s finished.”
Islamic State depend upon in-stilling fear in others in order to continue their reign of terror and it is therefore imperative, according to Archbishop Nona, that Christians live authentic Christian lives and are not paralysed by fear: “I think we have to be stronger, to not be afraid of them.”
“They know very well that Western people are afraid for their democracy, so they do an attack here, an attack there, to make people feel always afraid. So I think we have to be always strong and not be afraid of them. They can do nothing if we are living as Christians, strong, and defending our way of life.”
Even when he was in Mosul, Archbishop Nona advised the Christians there to not be afraid: “If we as Christians live our faith exactly, they can’t do anything. I lived with them (Islamic State) for four years and really I was not afraid of anything. I said to the Christian people in the city of Mosul, ‘If they kill us tomorrow, or even in one hour, we have to live this moment full of joy and full of the love of Jesus Christ’.”
What does Archbishop Nona think Christians in the West can do to help their fellow Christians in the Middle East?
“Christians in the West should really be Christian,” he said. “That is very helpful for the Christians in the Middle East. If we live as Christians here we can help other people, not with weapons and other bad things but with our values. That’s very important.”
The motto of Archbishop Nona’s episcopate is ‘During a time of crisis and persecution, we must remain full of hope.’ Despite what he has witnessed and endured in Mosul, Archbishop Nona still has hope for the future.
“Always we have to have this hope. Christian hope doesn’t belong to a place, it belongs to the people. Where there are Christians, there will be hope. If we can live our faith in the city of Mosul, we can live it in Sydney. If we can live it in Sydney, we can live it in New York or Rome. Our land is very important but our faith is more important.