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In today’s service, the reading from the Book of Jonah and Rev. Matthew Senf’s sermon about the Old Testament prophet and the evils of Nineveh, immediately recalled recent research trips to Iraq. As part of my PhD in English at King’s College London, I’ve been working on a new book on ancient sites and contemporary culture in Iraq. I worked extensively with UNESCO in Mosul – the modern city built on the bones of ancient Nineveh - documenting the repair of historic sites after the occupation of ISIS and subsequent carpet bombing of the old city in the war of “liberation.”  These included the famous al-Nuri Mosque and the Church of the Clock- important monuments that, like their long-suffering populations – are still recovering from decades of war and occupation. Like the people of modern-day Nineveh, the church and the mosque were once friendly neighbours in one of the only former Ottoman cities that had no walls between the “Christian,” “Muslim,” and “Jewish” quarters.

The sermon made me reflect on the fate of Nabi Yunis – the shrine to Jonah in Mosul – where he is effectively the patron saint- that was blown up by ISIS. The fact that the site – like so many multi-layered holy sites in Iraq and elsewhere in the region – is sacred to Jews, Muslims, Sufis, Christians and even Yezidis- was a threat to Daesh’s extremist ideology. The sermon also reminded me of the Christians I interviewed who fled Mosul (and the historic villages they’d inhabited for millennia in the Nineveh Plain) to escape ethnic cleansing by Daesh – displaced people who are slowly returning even as they face new threats from Iranian-backed militias. As I wrote in my first book on Iraq, Dancing in the No-Fly Zone which chronicled pre- and post-invasion culture, before 2003, Iraq’s Christians numbered 2 million. Today there are less than 300,000.

One of my goals as a writer chronicling the Middle East for three decades has been to bridge the ever-increasing gulf between the West and the MENA, especially as rising regional tensions exacerbate the situation for Middle Eastern Christians. When I come to church, I hear biblical references to places that are very real to me: Babylon, Nineveh, Bethlehem, Jerusalem, and yes, the Cedars of Lebanon. As my Christian friends in Gaza, like Souhaila Tarazi, director of the Anglican Hospital that was bombed along with the ancient Church of St. Porphyrius, send me increasingly desperate messages, and so many of my young Iraqi Christian friends fleeing their troubled homeland seek asylum in the West, I wonder what we can do as Christians here to help our brethren in the Middle East. Many Christians in the Middle East feel abandoned by the West. When I asked the Chaldean patriarch of Iraq in 2000, if there was any difference between Muslims and Christians in Iraq, he replied with typical Iraqi dark humour, saying, “When the American bombs fall, they don’t distinguish between Muslim and Christian.” When I told the Chaldean Archbishop of Mosul, Najib Michaeel, in 2019 that my Christian great-grandfather who fled Ottoman purges in Syria arriving in Canada in 1906 shared his first name, he said, “Every 150 years, it’s the same story. First the Ottomans, then Daesh.”

Interested parishioners can read more about Christians in Iraq in my work for the Middle East Institute, listen to my 2006  CBC Radio documentary on Christians in the Holy Land and read about sacred heritage sites in Iraq in my articles for the Art Newspaper.


Image: Displaced Christian women from Mosul and the Nineveh Plain at the Oum al Nour Church in Erbil  December 2019 (Photo Credit by Hadani Ditmars)