War in the Garden of Eden

While the battle for West Mosul rages from house to house, tens of thousands of people displaced by the fighting are filling camps around the city. Most arrive with just the clothes on their backs. Some are barefoot. Many have suffered years of unimaginable misery. Yet they are the lucky ones. They have survived.

Sitting with them in Iraq last week, it was harrowing to listen to their stories and witness their suffering. But at the same time, I was amazed by the resilience of the children, who have seen so much cruelty and death, but are able to rekindle the essence of childhood.

In the camps, I was moved to tears watching them playing, painting and singing in World Vision’s Child Friendly Spaces. We take play so much for granted, but being able to play a game, to rediscover colour, to feel safe, is where their lives begin to repair.

I knew Mosul as the city of Jonah, old Nineveh, where the prophet known in the Bible as Jonah, and in the Koran as Yunus, is said to have preached after being vomited out of the whale. The feast of Jonah for Christians is still a three day celebration there and on the Nineveh plains where there are so many Christian villages.

In July 2014, not long after sweeping across northern Iraq and taking Mosul, ISIS destroyed the Nebi Yunus shrine, built at the gates of the ancient Assyrian city of Nineveh, reputed burial site of the prophet, a place of pilgrimage for both Christians and Muslims for centuries.

It is some consolation that in recent weeks, as Iraqi troops have pushed into Mosul, archaeologists documenting the destruction have discovered that ISIS dug tunnels deep under the demolished shrine and into a previously undiscovered 2700-year old palace built by the Assyrian king Sennacherib and then by his son Esarhaddon in the seventh century BC.

But Mosul was also a sophisticated and urbane city, a university town. For those who have fled, the shock of living cheek by jowl in frayed tents with thousands of families sharing the same public outhouses is as shocking as it would be for the people of Sydney or Melbourne.

Among the most fearful of returning to their homes, and the most fearful of the future, are Christians and Yazidis, a Kurdish-speaking people who practice a syncretic religion influenced by pre-Islamic Assyrian traditions, Sufi and Shiite Islam, Nestorian Christianity, and Zoroastrianism. Thousands of Yazidis were massacred and thousands more women and children enslaved when ISIS took northern Iraq three years ago.

The Yazidis believe that God placed the world under the care of seven archangels, chief among them Melek Taus, or the Peacock Angel, who breathed life into Adam, but fell from God’s grace and was exiled to Hell where he cried for 7000 years, until his tears extinguished the fires of Hell and God forgave him.

At Lalish, the Yazidi temple in the northern Kurdish mountains, I was given a glimpse into the mysteries of this ancient religion. The Yazidis believe that this was the centre of the Garden of Eden, the place where life and knowledge of good and evil began.

For their beliefs, they are among the most persecuted people on earth, suffering 72 attempted genocides, even before ISIS arrived in their villages demanding they renounce their faith and adhere to their Caliphate.

Similarly, Iraq's Christian population has shrunk from 1.5 million in 2003, to 400,000, or fewer. These Christians belong to the oldest churches in the world that still speak Aramaic, the language of Jesus, as their mother-tongue.

Among them is Archbishop Bashar Warda, of the Chaldean Catholic church in Erbil who cares for the displaced, appeals for international aid to rebuild homes, and imagines schools and a university and a place for Christians in Iraq. “We are an ancient people on the verge of extinction because of our commitment to our faith,” he says.

I was fortunate in Iraq to observe his Friday Lenten service in a packed Cathedral where he preached a message of non-violence, Hope and Love as the way of Jesus.

More than 40,000 people have fled from Mosul in the past week. More than 200,000 have fled since the start of the offensive last October. They arrive in already overcrowded aid camps, pleading for help. In one of these camps, I stood watching one of our bravest aid workers, a Yazidi woman, as she comforted a Sunni child, as she would any child, and I thought of the 7000 years of tears wept by Melek Taus as he waited for God to forgive him.

Tim Costello is chief advocate at World Vision Australia

Published in Huffington Post as "Looking at the Big Picture in Mosul", 7/3/17  

Photograph: Boy with kite, northern Iraq, Daryl Crowden

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