04/16/2022, 13.17
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Ankawa, Easter among Christians who speak the language of Jesus

by Alessandra De Poli

In the monastery of Gabriel Danbo, a patrimony of Syriac manuscripts is being catalogued and digitised by five monks together with some young students. A sign of hope for a community where there is still much suffering. The bishop of Erbil, Bashar Warda, says: "We try not only to survive but also to have a voice in society". Today a hospital that bears the name of Mary. 


Erbil (AsiaNews) - It does not exist on Google Maps, it does not appear in any internet search results, and even once you get there it is not easy to guess what lies behind the high white walls marked by a blue and green coat of arms with a tau in a yellow field in the centre. But once through the main entrance, Gabriel Danbo's monastery appears majestic, placid, geometric: the square shapes of the main buildings dialogue with the circular fountain in front of the church.

This Easter - with its patient work of recovering the history of this very ancient Christian community, it is a small sign of the hope that amidst so many hardships is trying to be reborn in Ankawa, the Christian district of Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan that during the years of Isis became the refuge for thousands of Christians from Mosul and the Nineveh plain. 

The complex - inaugurated last year - is located on the outskirts of Ankawa and houses five brothers of the Antonian Order of Saint Ormisda of the Chaldeans. Their original monastery, that of Rabban Hormizd in al-Qosh, was abandoned decades ago. But now here the wealth of Syriac manuscripts they possessed (some also from the Syriac Orthodox monastery of Mar Mattai on Mount Maqlub, where in 2014 Isis was just 3km away in the valley below) is being catalogued and digitised by the fathers and a group of students.

"These guys speak sureth, modern Aramaic," the superior general of the order of St Ormisda, Fr Samer Yohanna, explains to AsiaNews. "It's like reading Latin: you understand something, but you have to study to master the language. That's what we do with these kids," adds the priest, a professor at the Syriac faculty of Erbil's Salahaddin University. 

The Aramaic spoken today by some Christian communities in the Middle East (an estimated 400,000 people in all) is a modern version of the language of Jesus. The liturgy, on the other hand, still uses classical Syriac and Arabic. But Christians in this region do not consider themselves Arabs, not even those who speak Arabic instead of Sureth, as in al-Qosh, a city disputed between the Kurdistan regional government and federal Iraq. "Are you Kurdish or Arab?". Christians are almost offended by this question: they frown, they flinch, the smile disappears from their faces: "No, I am a Christian".

In this potpourri of peoples, where many have already disappeared (the Jewish quarter of Erbil is uninhabited, while in Baghdad there are only six Jews left), the Christians from an ethnic point of view call themselves Assyrians, direct descendants of the Babylonians. In fact, in Ankawa there are murals depicting the famous blue door of Babylon surrounded by a pair of lamassu, the mythological divinities with the head of a man, body of a bull and powerful angel wings.

Although Iraq's Chaldean-rite Christians no longer feel as endangered as they did between 2014 and 2017 - the Isis years, when thousands of families had fled their home villages for refuge in Hawler (the Kurdish name for Erbil) - their numbers continue to shrink. "More or less there should be 8,000 Christian families here," says Bishop Bashar Warda. "In recent years at least 2,000 arrived from Mosul and the Nineveh plain. And almost all of them have stayed". But looking at the whole of Iraq, since 2003, one third of Christians have emigrated abroad. The challenge is to keep young people in the country, who, as in Lebanon or Syria, leave as soon as they have the chance, especially if they have studied.

 "We try to work in areas where we see that there is a chance to prosper, like in Erbil, where we have created more than 400 jobs," says Mgr Warda. "The government of Kurdistan has supported and encouraged us, but since 2010 we have been trying not only to maintain our presence here as Christians, but also to have a voice in society, and we do this mainly through education and health."

"But it is the government in Baghdad that must understand that it is necessary to implement laws and regulations to protect the minorities and indigenous peoples of this country,' he continues. If they disappeared, an important part of Iraq's history would be lost. In addition to the manuscripts, all the artefacts in the Syriac Heritage Museum are also being digitised thanks to a two-year grant from Usaid, a US cooperation agency. "But Fr Samer had this idea for a long time", continues Mgr Warda, "since before the arrival of Isis".

In Erbil there are now four Catholic schools and a hospital, the Maryamana, which the bishop wanted. "For me it is incredible to see that there is a hospital dedicated to Mary, with a Christian name, in my city", says Onell Nael, a Syriac student of Fr Yohanna's who has now partly abandoned his work as a cataloguer at the monastery to work as an interpreter for American soldiers stationed in Erbil. "Christians and Muslims hang out together and respect each other. During Ramadan, for example, I do not smoke or eat in front of my fasting colleagues," says the young man, who works with the museum in his spare time. "But if I asked for the hand of a Muslim girl, her family would kill me.

Sectarian divisions are harder to overcome in politics than in everyday life. The protests that erupted in October 2019 called for an end to Iraq's post-2003 political system, which assigns Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds a specific role in government. "The idea of the Iraqi citizen as such must return to the centre," Fr Samer argues. "Enough of these confessional divisions".

"Democracy is a process that takes decades,' Msgr Warda summarised. "There is still a lot of suspicion and mistrust among the various communities, and we have to wait for things to improve with time. But with the number of Christians decreasing year by year, I fear that patience will not work in our favour.

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