Alqosh: a frontier church, stronger than the threat of the Islamic State
by Dario Salvi
Fr. Joseph, superior general "pro tempore" of the monastery of Our Lady of Messi, chronicles the life of a “frontier” Christian community. The town has welcomed hundreds of refugees; every day it battles the "fear" of an attack of the Caliphate. In the Nativity Scene photos of Msgr. Rahho and Fr. Ganni, to remember their "martyrdom". But the will is to remain.

Alqosh (AsiaNews) - A "frontier church" not far from the wall that separates the territories controlled by Kurdish Peshmerga from the first bastions of the Islamic State; a frontier land, over which hangs the constant threat of the Caliphate, capable of conquering large swathes of Syria and Iraq; a town overwhelmingly composed of Christians, who every day have to "cope with the fear," although "the will is to stay here": This is how Fr. Jospeh Abdel Sater, Antonian Maronite Order, describes the daily reality of Alqosh, the plain of Nineveh town famous for the St. Hormisdas monastery, perched on the mountain overlooking the valley, where at the beginning of '500 Iraqi Christians matured reunification with Rome. "Our motto - he tells AsiaNews - is fear not for I have overcome the world. Here we must not be afraid, we must not fear what can kill the body."

The Lebanese Maronite was born in December of 1957, studied at the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas in Rome and today is apostolic delegate to the monastery of Our Lady of Messi Alqosh, belonging to the Anthonian Order of St. Hormisdas of the Chaldeans. He is the "pro tempore" Superior General, while awaiting the election of a new leader in the order's next chapter. "I started in 2012 and the appointment lasts five years," he says, during which he has responded to the calls of Msgr. Rabban al Qas, bishop of Duhok, and Msgr. Amel Nona, Archbishop of Mosul, "to participate in retreats for priests, meetings and conferences." However, he adds, "I try not to move around too much because there is much to do here at the monastery."

"Our Church is on the border with the Islamic state" continues Fr. Joseph, who was born and raised in a large family - six children, five boys and a girl - strong in the Catholic faith. The motto, he adds, is "do not be afraid of what can kill the body" because "our will is to stay here: if the monks flee, who will remain to take care of the faithful?".

Alqosh is a historic town in the governorate of Nineveh, in Iraqi Kurdistan; located about 50 km north of Mosul, a stronghold of the jihadists, it constitutes one of the main centers of the Assyrian-Chaldean Christian tradition. At about 3 km from the center, perched on the mountains overlooking the city, stands the ancient monastery of Rabban Hormisdas, home of the Nestorian patriarchs from 1551 to 1804. Over time, the original structure, exposed to attacks and assaults from the outside, as well as symbol of a troubled period of the local Church, has been replaced by the new monastery of Our Lady of Messi, just outside the city. Today it is inhabited by a group of monks, who have opened the doors to orphans and young refugees, left without their family because of the Islamist violence.

Alqosh, like many other towns and villages of Iraqi Kurdistan, welcomed a large number of refugees. "This is a Christian village, there are no Muslims. In our school we welcomed some families, others are scattered throughout the city, there are 13 families of refugees, hundreds of people around," says Fr. Joseph, as we open the doors of the church of the monastery. Inside is a "very original Nativity Scene - he says - made on a map of Iraq, with the colors black, red and white; the Christ comes from the east, is the light of the world, which enlightens and sanctifies the blood (the red flag of Iraq) paid by our martyrs".

In fact, a prominent area of the Nativity Scene is given to the photographs of two great martyrs of the recent history of Christianity in Iraq: Fr. Ragheed Ganni, killed by Islamic extremists in June 2007, and Msgr. Paul Faraj Rahho, who died during a kidnapping in March of the following year. "Here in Iraq the New Evangelization means being ready for martyrdom," he says, even if the primary goal is to "make Christians stay here, stop the wave of migration, the bleeding of our Church" that seems to have no end. To counter this, he adds, "we have to come up with a strategy" and "the Church can and must deal with this".

Before saying goodbye, Fr. Joseph indicates the large cross that Christians of the city erected on the slopes of the mountain; a symbol that speaks, once again, of the courage and determination of this community to face and overcome obstacles and threats. The Islamic State today just like the persecutions of the past. "We can choose between human logic and divine grace: according to the first, we should leave. But if we believe in grace - concludes the monk - then we must have faith in the word of God. Jesus loved us to the Cross, we are here for this, to keep alive the blood of the early Christian martyrs, that has watered this land".