Returning to England after a few days in Iraq, it is the sound of broken glass and rubble, crunching underfoot in one of the many destroyed churches, that lingers in my mind. Just a few weeks ago, on my fourth visit to that beleaguered Christian community since the genocide began in the summer of 2014, I was taken, along with Catholic journalist Edward Pentin, to visit the Christian towns on the Nineveh Plains, liberated from ISIS.
It is easy to use the phrase “ghost towns”, yet in the case of Karemlash it is not a phrase but a reality. Before ISIS swept into the area, in August 2014, Karemlash had been a mainly Chaldean Christian town of nearly 10,000 residents.
The monastery of St Barbara, formerly a place of pilgrimage for many Iraqi Christians, is at the entrance to the town. We were accompanied by Fr Thabet, the parish priest. He showed us the ruined home of his parents and grandparents, bombed by coalition forces because it was used as an ISIS outpost. Sitting in what had been the family garden was a large bomb.
The rectory, like many of the empty houses, had ISIS graffiti sprayed on the outside wall – for the priest’s house it said “the Cross will be broken”. Luckily for Fr Thabet, his house was still standing and, unlike many of the houses, had not been burned out. ISIS fighters had left him a little gift on their departure: a booby trap by his office door.
Many of the houses in the town are booby-trapped, burned out or destroyed, and there is no water or electricity. As we walked around the empty streets some birds were singing, but the only other sound was the distant thump of bombing in Mosul, nine miles away.
As we entered the Church of St Addai, the full hatred for the “followers of the Cross” was revealed. The Islamists had attempted to burn the church. A smashed statue of Our Lady was on the ground. The altar had bullet holes in it. Everywhere – in that church and the others we visited – the Cross was defaced, destroyed or in some way vandalised.
Even if a wooden door had a Cross on it, at least one arm would be broken. Fr Thabet’s large rosary lay on the floor, with the central beam of the Cross removed. It was as though a black cloud of hatred for the Cross and all it symbolises had swept through the town.
All across the Nineveh Plains, the home of Christians for almost 2,000 years, the same thing has happened: Islamists cannot bear the imagery of the Cross.
Suddenly, Steve Rasche, an American who works for the Archdiocese of Erbil and was coordinating our visit, knelt in the rubble and picked up a Cross. Brushing off the rubble and dirt, he saw it was unbroken – the corpus had been removed, but the Cross was intact. Then Rasche, whom I later christened “the Crossfinder”, told us the story of the miraculous Cross of Baqofah – which ended up on display during the weeks of Lent in, of all places, Westminster Cathedral.
Just a few months before, doing exactly what we had been doing in Karemlash, Steve and Fr Salar, the vicar-general of the Diocese of Alqosh, had been wandering through the newly liberated town of Baqofah. Outside the Church of St George, ISIS had blown up the church shop, which made, among other things, crosses for the faithful to buy.
Everywhere, as in Karemlash, the Cross was broken and vandalised. Yet in the rubble Steve found a completely intact Cross, with the body of Christ still attached. Only when you have seen that central image of Christianity so desecrated can you understand how miraculous this discovery was – and what it meant to the Christians of Iraq.
As a symbol of hope, the Baqofah Cross was sent from Iraq to be part of a recent exhibition called Building Bridges with Wood, organised by the curator Lucien de Guise, in St Joseph’s Chapel in Westminster Cathedral.
The Cross will return to Baqofah after being blessed by Cardinal Vincent Nichols, to be, as Rasche says, “a sign of hope for the rebirth and renewal of the Church in Iraq”.
With the most important days in the life of the Church upon us, when the symbolism of the Cross is so central – both as the supreme sign of God’s love for humanity and the true cost of sin, this simple story of the Cross of Iraq can serve as a powerful reminder of the truth of our faith. Even when it is hated and defaced, attacked and broken, the Cross will rise, like Christ, unbroken.
Fr Benedict Kiely is the founder of Nasarean.org, which helps the persecuted Christians of the Middle East
This article first appeared in the April 14 2017 issue of the Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go here