A Westerner’s travels among the persecuted and displaced Christian remnant in Iraq and Syria teach him much about faith under fire.
Gold Medal Winner, 2018 IPPY Book of the Year Award
Silver Medal Winner, 2018 Benjamin Franklin Award
Finalist, 2018 ECPA Christian Book Award
Inside Syria and Iraq, and even along the refugee trail, they’re a religious minority persecuted for their Christian faith. Outside the Middle East, they’re suspect because of their nationality. A small remnant of Christians is on the run from the Islamic State. If they are wiped out, or scattered to the corners of the earth, the language that Jesus spoke may be lost forever – along with the witness of a church that has modeled Jesus’ way of nonviolence and enemy-love for two millennia.
The kidnapping, enslavement, torture, and murder of Christians by the Islamic State, or ISIS, have been detailed by journalists, as have the jihadists' deliberate efforts to destroy the cultural heritage of a region that is the cradle of Christianity. But some stories run deep, and without a better understanding of the religious and historical roots of the present conflict, history will keep repeating itself century after century.
Andreas Knapp, a priest who works with refugees in Germany, travelled to camps for displaced people in the Kurdish region of northern Iraq to collect stories of survivors – and to seek answers to troubling questions about the link between religion and violence. He found Christians who today still speak Syriac, a dialect of Aramaic, the language of Jesus. The uprooted remnant of ancient churches, they doggedly continue to practice their faith despite the odds. Their devastating eyewitness reports make it clear why millions are fleeing the Middle East. Yet, remarkably, though these last Christians hold little hope of ever returning to their homes, they also harbor no thirst for revenge. Could it be that they – along with the Christians of the West, whose interest will determine their fate – hold the key to breaking the cycle of violence in the region?
Includes sixteen pages of color photographs.
About the Author
A poet, priest, and popular author in Germany, Andreas Knapp left a secure position as head of Freiburg Seminary to live and work among the poor as a member of the Little Brothers of the Gospel, a religious order inspired by Charles de Foucauld. Today he shares an apartment with three brothers in Leipzig’s largest housing project, and ministers to prisoners and refugees. His latest book, The Last Christians, recounts the stories of refugees in his neighborhood and of displaced people in camps in Kurdistan, northern Iraq.
Read an Excerpt
Looking Death in the Eye
The high barbed-wire fences glint in the yellowish floodlight. The security measures at the Erbil airport set my nerves on edge, reminding me how explosive the situation is here. Fortunately, things are currently calm in the Kurdish autonomous region, but it could be the calm before the storm.
I check my phone: it's three in the morning on Saturday, November 7, 2015. After numerous security gates, I have finally emerged from the airport building. I rub my eyes, not just because I've been up all night, but because I never would have dreamed three days ago that I'd be traveling to northern Iraq. And yet here I am, looking out into a dark landscape punctuated with barbed wire and rows of lights. What in heaven's name made me come here?
Lightning flashes in the distance. The low rumble of thunder sounds like gunfire. The front between the autonomous region of Iraqi Kurdistan and the Islamic State (IS) fighters isn't far from here. Since the fall, the Kurdish pesh-merga have been advancing in order to seize back the city of Sinjar from the IS militia. Peshmerga means "those who look death in the eye."
That's not quite what I have in mind, even if I am here to attend a funeral. Beside me is my friend Yousif, whose father died three days ago. Yousif runs his right hand through his close-cropped black hair and I hear it crackle.
"Where the hell has my brother got to? Those damn checkpoints," he mutters impatiently, while I shift from one foot to the other. It's not cold, but I'm feeling pretty nervous. There's a strange cawing sound overhead. I look up but can't make out anything in the milky blend of night sky and artificial lighting. Yousif follows my gaze. "Birds," he explains. What kind of birds fly here at night? And what made me fly here, for that matter – to a country that carries a State Department travel warning, and for which you can't get a tourist visa? It all seems so unreal to me at this too-early hour of the morning.
Abu Yousif's funeral is due to take place today. What Yousif would have given to see his father again while he was still alive! Two years ago, Yousif was forced to abandon his seriously ill parent – confined to a wheelchair by bone cancer – in Mosul, in order to bring his own wife and their two children to safety. "I want to see my father one more time before he dies," he kept saying. Once he even asked casually, "Will you come with me to Iraq?" And I replied, equally casually, "Why not? Sure I'll come." But now it's no longer just small talk – it's for real. And it happened so quickly.
Last Monday, Yousif applied to the immigration office in Leipzig for a passport to visit his dying father in Iraq. He had planned to fly out just after New Year's. Then, last Wednesday afternoon, I felt my phone vibrate in my pocket and took it out to read, "My father has just died."
Yousif lives just one block down from us in our prefab housing project on the outskirts of Leipzig. I go to see him right away. His twelve-year-old son Amanuel opens the door. Beside him is his sister Shaba, two years younger.
"I'm so sorry to hear about your granddad dying."
They both look at me aghast.
Yousif appears in the hallway. He has heard my words, and raises his bushy eyebrows.
"I haven't told the kids yet."
"Oh, no!" I exclaim, clapping my hands to my face. "I'm sorry ..."
"It's OK," Yousif continues, putting his arms around both children and reiterating, "Granddad's dead."
At this point Tara, Yousif's stunningly beautiful wife, comes out of the kitchen and everybody cries. My eyes, too, fill with tears, partly out of shame at my own clumsiness.
We sit down in the living room. Yousif starts reproaching himself – "Why didn't I fly out earlier ..."
I reassure him. "You did everything you could. You only applied for your passport last Monday – no one could have guessed your father would die so soon."
Yousif looks up: "Now my father is in heaven."
Then, pulling himself together, he gets to his feet.
"I'll try and get a flight next Tuesday. I have an important appointment at the job center on Monday, about my first employment contract in Germany."
I make a split-second decision: "OK, Tuesday it is ... and if it's doable, I'll come with you."
Back home, I sit up late browsing through the website of the Iraqi embassy and consulate. It turns out I can't get a tourist visa, only a business visa, which has to be approved by the Ministry of Interior in Baghdad. I go to bed half disappointed, half relieved. My trip to Iraq is off.
The next morning, I phone the embassy just in case. No chance of a visa. Without getting my hopes up, but just to make sure I've left no stone unturned, I call the consulate in Iraq too. This yields some surprising information: if I only want to travel to the "autonomous region of Kurdistan," there's a special phone number I can try. Game on again! Yousif answers the phone when I call. Coincidentally, his job appointment has been postponed, and now he wants to move the flight up to Saturday. That way he can attend his father's funeral on Sunday. He has already been to the immigration office and can collect his passport tomorrow. With any luck, it should work out.
On Friday morning, Yousif calls me from the immigration office. He has just been handed his passport.
I have to leave urgently for my regular Friday session at the prison where I do chaplaincy work, but we still need to buy our airline tickets. That would take no time at all online, but neither Yousif nor I have a credit card. I call Stefan Wiesner, the director of a Christian book publisher. We had recently spoken about doing a book on the subject of refugees, and I had mentioned my idea of accompanying Yousif to Iraq next year. "I want to fly to Kurdistan tomorrow," I say. "Can you help me?"
Mr. Wiesner and his assistant take care of everything. It works like a dream.
I spend all day at the prison. In the evening, I attend a discussion group at a local university's Catholic student society. There, I manage to get online and try to print the tickets, but fail. Luckily a student helps me out, and we're back in business.
At nine o'clock I return home. I get on the phone to cancel a couple of appointments. I also have some counseling sessions booked at the prison, but they can wait. I ask my Protestant colleague to notify the prisoners of the new dates. I'm sure it will be fine.
At ten o'clock I pack my small knapsack and slip in a book about Christians in Iraq I've been meaning to read for ages. Then I call Yousif, and we agree to meet tomorrow morning just before six at the train station. As long as the trains aren't on strike, everything should be fine. The last three days seem so unreal to me. It's almost as if I organized this trip in my sleep – or rather, it organized itself. And now here I am, on Kurdish soil. I plant my foot firmly on the ground: no, I'm not dreaming.
By now it's four in the morning, and I am still pacing up and down in front of the airport building in Erbil with my Iraqi friend. Yousif lights a cigarette and sighs. I try to read his broad features, wondering what might be going through his mind. Two years ago he fled Iraq to escape death; today he is returning to pay his last respects to a dead father.
We stand waiting, staring into the distance, where the occasional flash of headlights can be seen. A taxi screeches to a halt beside us and picks up two men who were on the same plane as us. Now Yousif and I are the only ones left outside the sleepy provincial airport. The large parking lot opposite is gapingly empty.
At last, another pair of lights comes speeding toward us. An ancient Opel Astra brakes sharply and stops at the curbside directly in front of us. A well-built, slightly stocky man with fuzzy hair gets out. It is Basman, Yousif's brother. Yousif runs toward him and folds him wordlessly in his muscular arms. Then they release each other, still without speaking. After all, what is there to say, when there's so much that can't be put into words: fear and impotence, escape and displacement, the loss of your father and your family home?
I throw my small knapsack in the trunk, and now Basman greets me too, with a firm handshake. We pass a checkpoint where some heavily armed young men in uniform are hanging around. They wave us through with a weary gesture. Two more checkpoints and we are in Ankawa, a suburb of Erbil inhabited mainly by Christians. Here in the Kurdish autonomous region, Christians live in relative security, for the time being at least. We turn into a dimly lit street leading to a housing development with rows of identical-looking houses.
The car stops in front of a wall bearing a large black placard. In the center is a luminous white cross, surrounded by curly Arabic writing, also in white. "My father's death notice," Yousif explains.
We clatter up a rusty iron staircase to the second floor, and there on the mezzanine, at half past four in the morning, stands Yousif's mother, Taghrid. She breaks into loud sobs, and they hold each other fast. What a reunion – their first glimpse of one another since Yousif's perilous escape into the unknown two years ago! Only this time, his father is absent. A reunion not in their home country, but in exile; not in familiar surroundings, but in a strange city; not in their spacious family home, but in a tiny rented apartment.
Yousif was raised in Mosul. His father, Abu Yousif, had done fairly well for himself, thanks to the family locksmith business. They owned a large house with a garden, where Abu Yousif, whose illness confined him to a wheelchair for many years, liked to sit. But then, a year and a half ago, Mosul was occupied by the Islamic State. Yousif and his relatives are Christians, and there is no place for Christians under IS's black banner.
They had no choice but to flee with just the bare necessities. Since then, the family has lived in this overcrowded lodging in Erbil.
The walls look bare and forlorn, apart from some rosary beads hung between two nails on one of them. We sit on sofas. On a small table is a black-edged photo of Yousif's father, a man with snow-white hair and eyes set deep in a thin face already marked by his illness. Next to the photos stands a shiny silver cross.
Taghrid wears widow's weeds, the uniform black relieved only by a few white wisps among her unkempt, shoulder-length hair. Her wrinkled face looks tired – very tired – despite having brightened a little at Yousif's arrival. Taghrid knocks on a thin wall; shortly afterward an uncle and aunt appear from next door with their two girls. Janet and Wasan have eyes like black pearls and look about fourteen and sixteen. They too are refugees from Mosul.
A nighttime reunion ensues, joy and pain mingling into one. We drink hot tea. Then the sofas are converted into beds; I am assigned a couch in the hall. Alone, I turn off the light and close my eyes. But I'm far too wound up to fall asleep. There's too much going around in my head. Finding myself here in northern Iraq for Abu Yousif's funeral still seems so unreal. Images float before my mind's eye. How did it all start? How did I get involved with Yousif and the other Iraqi and Syrian refugees in the first place?
Please Help Us!
When I first see the little boy – he looks about eleven – he catches my attention immediately. There is a hint of sadness in his big dark eyes. Through glimpsed only briefly, his image stays with me as I set about arranging jugs of water and apple juice on the table. Nearly forty people have responded to the invitation by our community to today's commemoration of Charles de Foucauld.
My community, the Little Brothers of Jesus, traces its origins back to this adventurer turned desert monk. The four of us have shared a house in a prefab housing project on the outskirts of Leipzig for the past ten years, and every year we invite friends and members of our parish to our ceremony on the first Sunday of Advent. When we were searching for a theme for our 2014 event, my fellow brother, Gianluca, had a brilliant idea: "Charles de Foucauld spent six years living as a monk in Syria. I have a Syrian colleague who's lived in Leipzig for years and is a Christian. He could tell us about the situation of Christians in Syria." We liked the idea and Gabriel and his family were duly invited.
As our little gathering gets under way, we are astonished to see more new faces in the room. Gabriel has interpreted our invitation very freely and brought a number of refugees from Syria and Iraq along with him. Most of them are clearly recent arrivals to our district, where there are still empty apartments in the prefabs from the old communist days. And now, sitting here at our tables are women and men with jet-black hair and dark eyes, speaking a language I don't understand. The little boy belongs to this group too; he seems to have come with his father.
After the welcoming address, Gabriel steps up and begins to speak about his home city of Aleppo. We listen intently to his descriptions – delivered with characteristic Middle Eastern flourishes – of the ancient city with it famous citadel, a UNESCO World Heritage site. Leipzig is proud to be celebrating its thousandth anniversary in 2015. But what are a thousand years compared with the age-old cities of the Middle East, the cradle of civilization? Aleppo can look back over seven thousand years of history! And yet the war between cultures and nations is older still. Such a war is raging even now in Aleppo, Gabriel tells us. In the fight against opposition militias, helicopters sent by Syria's Assad regime are dropping barrel bombs and ripping out whole blocks of houses. Nearly two thousand of these iron barrels packed with explosive and bits of metal have been dropped on Aleppo. And Islamic State terrorists are shelling the Christian district bisected by the front between the deadly enemies.
"We Christians – as so often in my country's history – are caught in the crossfire. We are completely at the mercy of the terrorists. My brother-in-law was killed when IS militias bombarded our street again a few months ago. My sister is still living in Aleppo with four small children. She and her husband didn't want to leave their home, but now that she's a widow she doesn't have much choice. Only how can she get to Europe with four children?"
We are shocked to hear about the scale of the destruction and the cruelty inflicted. Our yearly commemoration is taking on a very somber tone. We've all been following the news about the war in Syria. But it's quite another thing to come face to face with Syrians who have fled the terror and seen their own family members killed. We are no longer talking anonymous statistics but faces: prematurely aged faces with immense suffering written in them. Faces still haunted by fear.
The dark brown eyes of that little boy. As the guests are dispersing and we are starting to wash the dishes, a thickset man of about forty comes up to me. He only speaks a few words of German. Beside him is the boy with the jet-black hair. Yousif – as the broad-shouldered stranger turns out to be called – addresses me. I don't understand, but the boy already speaks excellent German and translates for him, "We are from Iraq, from Mosul. Please help us!"
I suddenly feel giddy as the multitude of tasks awaiting me flashes before my eyes: my duties at the prison and in the parish always pile up in the weeks before Christmas. The student Catholic society is offering a four-week course entitled "Spiritual Exercises in Everyday Life," and I have promised to run eight counseling sessions each week. All this and much more weighs on my mind. I feel like saying, "Sorry, ... I'd love to ... but I haven't got time," and turn away with a shrug and an apologetic expression.
But I can't do it. The young boy's look melts my heart. I can't say no. I ask, "Don't you have anyone to support you?" The boy translates my question for his father, who shakes his head. "Can you give me your phone number?" Amanuel, as the boy is called, writes down a cell phone number on a paper napkin. The next day, I call to arrange a visit. My life hasn't been the same since.
A few days later, I ring the doorbell of an eleven-story apartment block in the Miltitzer Allee. Yousif lives on the third floor with his wife, Tara, and their two children, Amanuel and Shaba. They invite me into their living room. The walls are adorned with religious images: a rather gaudy painting of the Last Supper and a portrait of Saint George alongside a calendar in Arabic with a photo of a bearded bishop.
Yousif's request for help, I learn, concerns his children. There are problems at school. Amanuel, a handsome, slightly built boy, confides to me that he is regularly bullied by his Muslim schoolmates because of the small cross he wears around his neck. Amanuel has always worn this cross, even when things got dangerous for Christians in Mosul. I promise to get in touch with the principal. Then I ask Yousif – with Amanuel's help – to tell me something of their story.
Excerpted from "The Last Christians"
Copyright © 2017 Plough Publishing House.
Excerpted by permission of Plough Publishing House.
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Table of Contents
Preface: Giving a Voice to the Voiceless ix
1 Looking Death in the Eye 1
2 Please Help Us! 8
3 A Graveside Reunion 18
4 Last Respects 25
5 A Waiting Game 41
6 When They Persecute You 52
7 A Life's Work in Ruins 58
8 A Bishop in Exile 71
9 Nothing New under the Crescent Moon 86
10 Within Sight of the Islamic State 98
11 The Decline of the Christian Middle East 107
12 A Rocket in the Roof 122
13 Garo's Odyssey 133
14 Remembrance Is the Secret of Redemption 145
15 The Death of a Language 158
16 Through a Child's Eyes 171
17 Blessed Are the Meek 181
18 Easter Comes Early 193
19 Giving of Our Best 207
Epilogue: The Gift of Home 220