“Stay on the path,” our companions remind us every few minutes as we pick our way along streets made nearly impassible by piles of rubble, tangled wire, chunks of metal and indeterminate mountains of debris, all of it swimming in the mud of intermittent downpours. “And don’t step through any doorways. And don’t go into any houses.”
It’s really not necessary to tell me that more than once. I am not anxious to encounter one of the mines or booby-traps maliciously left behind by ISIS when the Peshmerga reclaimed this little piece of Nineveh province. We are here to assess the likelihood that residents might be able to return to some of the towns they abandoned when ISIS came. For this town, Batnaya, the answer is obvious: it is permanently uninhabitable. Once a tidy little town with shops, schools, homes and farms, and with an ancient history – it was founded by the Medes in the sixth century AD – today every structure is smashed, broken and destroyed beyond the possibility of repair. One will need to clear everything, and start from scratch. Only one structure rises, tall and weirdly intact, from the middle of the wreckage: the church, to which we now are headed. No, it wasn’t some biblical miracle. Or perhaps, yes, it was, the dark miracle of the attackers’ hubris: ISIS kept the church whole because they intended to convert it into a mosque. In the interim, they used it as their base, and also as their bastion. Reaching the churchyard, we find stacks of homemade rocket launchers and on the wall, a targeting guide, three upward arrows to assist in calculating the degree of launch. There are other signs of this hateful occupancy as well: black charring on the vestry wall from some sort of bonfire, and graffiti, lots of it, denouncing the Christians, the Kurds and the Peshmerga. Our Peshmerga escorts translate: “Who is the best friend of the Jews? The Peshmerga. Who is the support of the Christians? The Peshmerga. Who serves America? The Peshmerga.”
Inside the church, all is desecration – smashed statues, burnt and torn bibles, children’s catechisms. And more graffiti. My eye comes to rest on two messages in German, my own mother tongue. “Oh slaves of the cross, you don’t belong in this Islamic land. Leave, or we will kill all of you.” “Oh you shit slaves of the cross, we will kill all of you. This land is Islamic, dirt like you does not belong here.” For a moment I am lost in semantics. Young German jihadists were among the occupiers, that much is clear. I look around – nothing in English, so the intention was not to leave behind some polyglot messages. In these inscriptions, the German is flawed, and the tone has a sort of hip, rap feeling to it; I can almost see them, young diaspora men from Berlin or Cologne, born there, raised in some underclass neighborhood, bored, angry. Maybe at home they spoke a bit of North African dialect Arabic, or Turkish or Urdu, but if they want to write they are obliged to express themselves in the bits of German their teachers managed to impart – never guessing to what use their teachings would one day be put. Now, presumably, the young men are in Mosul, readying themselves for the final big battle, whiling away the hours and ramping up their courage with further braggadocio smeared on walls.
As for the citizens of Batnaya, they too are waiting for the impending battle of Mosul to finally bring clarity. Meanwhile they have found refuge in Al Qosh, the nearest majority-Christian city and home to the diocese. Al Qosh is 33 miles from Mosul, and in this remaining stronghold of Mesopotamian Christianity, life goes on. On the main road, we are greeted by a “Welcome to Al Qosh” sign with a smiling Kurdish man and woman in national dress. Next we pass a playground with a huge ferris wheel, now unoccupied due to the rain that is once more sloshing down. The weather has also interrupted the erecting of Christmas decorations in the park across the street. The city is nestled up against a mountain; halfway up the slope, an electric silhouette of a Christmas tree and above that, a large cross blink in bright white neon through the fog. “When ISIS came, some said that maybe we should stop illuminating the cross,” Father A. explains. “But we decided not to do that.”
It’s not swagger, just determination. In the same calm tone, he informs me that he owns three guns and knows how to use them. OK, there’s satisfaction in his voice when he explains how he helped the Peshmerga clear mines by detonating them, using the church’s generator. Christianity in Kurdistan may be embattled, but it’s fighting back.