Their town now liberated, Iraqi Christians talk of life under ISIS

The historic heartland of Assyrian Christians in Iraq was seized by the militants in 2014, and nearly all fled in the face of demands to convert, pay a tax, or die.

Holly Pickett
Ismail Ibrahim Matti and his mother, Jandark Behnam Mansour Nasi, are Assyrian Christians who pretended to convert to Islam to escape execution by the so-called Islamic State, when their hometown of Bartalla, Iraq, was overtaken in 2014. They endured two years of beatings and captivity before finally escaping, under sniper fire, to the Iraqi Army in early November.

When Christians fled the small town of Bartalla in August 2014 as Islamic State militants swept toward them, then-14-year-old Ibrahim Matti and his elderly mother stayed behind. Without a car, they waited on a relative who promised to return for them after ferrying his own family to safety.

But by then, it was too late. Matti and his mother, Jandark Nasi, both Assyrian Christians, spent more than two years living under IS control in and around Mosul. They endured physical violence, constant threats and intimidation, and forced conversion before finally escaping as the Iraqi Army pushed into Mosul in recent weeks.

They are among just a handful of Christians who have so far emerged from territory controlled by the self-declared Islamic State amid the Iraqi offensive that has retaken parts of northern Iraq. The historic heartland of Assyrian Christians in Iraq was part of the territory seized by the militants in 2014, and nearly all fled in the face of IS requirements: convert, pay a tax, or die. The ordeal of Matti and Ms. Nasi offers a glimpse of what life was like for those unable to escape.

Father Ammar Siman, priest of the St. George Syriac Catholic church in Bartalla, around 14 miles east of Mosul, says around 100 Christians were missing from the Christian villages around Mosul after August 2014. The relatives of many of the missing fear they did not survive.

Fr. Siman fled to Erbil in 2014, and while he has been back to see the church, he says no one has moved back to the town yet.

“We are very happy to receive them alive,” he says of those who had recently managed to escape. “Of course they need too much help. They’ve suffered a lot.”

Stopped at a checkpoint

Three days after IS took Bartalla, Matti and his mother also tried to flee to Erbil, the capital of the semiautonomous Kurdish region where many Christians had taken refuge. But militants stopped them at a checkpoint and sent them to a detention center in Mosul, and then to one in Bartalla. The prison was full of other Christians and Shiites, all of whom were being beaten, he says. There, militants told the teenager he must convert to Islam, urging him to say the Islamic profession of faith.

“I said there is no God but Jesus,” he recalled recently.

The militants then went to the next cell, where they were holding Shiite Muslims, whom they consider heretics. Matti could hear as an IS member demanded a man convert to Islam. “He didn’t accept, so they shot him in the head. Then they took me to his cell, showed me his body, and told me if you don’t convert to Islam, you will have the same fate,” he says. “I was frightened. I was scared.”

When the militants again demanded that the two recite the Islamic profession of faith, they complied. “We said it. But it wasn’t coming from our hearts,” he says. “I have strong faith, but with everything that happened, we were under threats and pressure. When you say something that’s not from the bottom of your heart, it’s not to be believed.”

Yet even that did not end their torment. Over the next two years, as they were living on the outskirts of Mosul and in the village of Bazwiya, IS militants regularly visited the two to test their commitment to Islam.

“I didn’t memorize their prayers, so they were beating me,” says Matti. “They beat my mother with sticks because she didn’t know how to pray.”

Militants would torture them with needles if they answered questions incorrectly, he says, and told him that if he missed three consecutive Fridays at the mosque they would kill him. Whenever he didn’t go to the mosque, they found and beat him, he says. He was forced to wear the short trousers preferred by the militants, and to grow his beard.

At the mosque, Matti listened to the imam proclaim the rest of the world infidels and urge residents to pledge obedience to the leader of IS and participate in jihad. Over the two years, he says he often saw members of IS who were not Iraqi. He also saw public executions, including the stoning of a woman accused of adultery, when he visited a central Mosul marketplace to buy food. But the two say that some Mosul residents secretly helped them, risking the ire of IS members by giving them food and supplies.

“I was always praying in my heart to Mary and Jesus,” says Nasi. “I was praying in the bottom of my heart, and crying. For the sake of my son, my gift from God.”

When the Iraqi Army offensive reached the area they were living on the eastern outskirts of Mosul, IS members gathered all the residents and forced them to retreat into the city. From there, Matti and Nasi were able to flee to territory taken by Iraqi forces.

Asked how it felt to finally be free, Matti smiles for the first time in an hour and a half of talking. “I still don’t believe it,” he says.

Receiving only love

While Matti and Nasi lived in and near Mosul while under IS, two elderly Christian women stayed in the town of Qaraqosh. Zarifa Baqous Daddo didn’t leave as all her neighbors fled the IS onslaught in August 2014 because her sick husband wasn’t able. He died after 15 days, and Ms. Daddo went to stay with another elderly Christian couple who’d stayed behind.

But one day, the man went out and never returned, she says, leaving the two frail women to spend the remainder of the two years alone. Militants briefly took them to Mosul before returning them to Qaraqosh and forcing them to recite the Islamic profession of faith under threats of violence.

She said the militants didn’t beat them, possibly showing some deference to their age, and regularly brought food and water to the house where the two women remained. But they terrorized them, including with false reports of territorial conquest.

“They were always telling us, you have no relatives left, we have taken over Erbil, we have taken over everything,” she says. Amid it all, she said she clung to her faith. “We didn’t have anything but our prayers. This was the only thing we had to do.”

Security forces found the pair after they pushed IS from the village.

Daddo, Matti, and Nasi say no one has blamed them for doing what they had to do to stay alive.

“We were visited by two priests, they told us not to worry about that,” says Nasi. “They said ‘you don’t have to fear anything now, we are your people, we are your family.’ ”

Siman, the priest from Bartalla, said they would receive only love from God and the church. “I think they were obligated to accept something they didn’t believe,” he says.“Do we blame them? No.”

Matti, a quiet and slight teenager, and his mother now live in a small room in a church-run center for displaced people in Erbil. Rosaries hang on the wall above the two simple beds, and the floor is covered by carpet scraps. A bare light bulb hangs from the wall. After more than two years without television, they enjoy a Bollywood film on a donated television – the pair are partial to Indian and Egyptian films.

Now out from under the caliphate, Matti says he wants to obtain medical care for his mother and to continue his studies, which stopped at 8th grade. But both see a future that lies outside of Iraq and their hometown.

“We spent two years [under IS], two horrible years. We don’t want to go back,” says Nasi. “We want to leave Iraq, to leave this pain.”  

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