“What we have witnessed is a message for us, so we may reconsider what the objectives of being Christian should be, what it means to live as a Christian to the fullest, not through empty words, and not as something that can be carried away by the wind,” Fr. Karam Shamasha told CNA.
Fr. Shamasha is from Telskuf, a town on the Nineveh plain 10 miles south of Alqosh. At one time there were more than 120,000 Christians there, he said: “In my village everybody was Christian. There was no other religion.”
As a parish priest in the Chaldean Diocese of Alqosh, Fr. Shamasha served some 1,500 Christian families before the Iraq War started.
But since 2003 the community has experienced continuous hardship, and even persecution, he said. The Islamic State burned down many of their churches and killed many priests, and many laity as well.
But in 2014, when Islamic State took over the city of Mosul, the situation on the plain of Nineveh became even worse: “It all started when the extremists came out into the open. Up till then they had existed as an extreme mentality but it was never out in the open, always clandestine,” Fr. Shamasha explained.
When the Islamic State consolidated control of Mosul between June and August 2014, he continued, they gave the Christians three options: convert to Islam; pay the jizya tax which would grant them life but not the possibility to practice their faith; or be killed.
“You must imagine that we didn’t have months to ponder our decision,” Fr. Shamasha said. “It was a matter of hours. We had to choose: stick to our faith, or renounce it so we could keep our property and our belongings.”
“All of us, may God be praised, all of us, 120,000 Christians decided to stick to our faith and leave everything else behind. This was for us a test of our faith.”
Many of the Christians fled for Erbil or Duhok, but at a checkpoint in Mosul they ran into armed men who forced them to renounce the faith or give up all the material goods they had, such as money, cars, and jewelry. Some families even had their documents taken away, he said.
“That was for us a strong message. ISIS wanted to show that they had not come to play some sort of game,” Fr. Shamasha recounted.
“They had come to destroy us, wipe us out in that specific area where we continue to speak the language that Jesus spoke, Aramaic. The very same area that Saint Thomas evangelized from AD 42 to 49. One of the most ancient parts of our Church.”