Patriarch Aphrem II visits Syriac homeland. Mor Aphrem II has pleaded in the past for self-rule for Chaldeans-Syriacs-Assyrians in the Nineveh Plains

ANKAWA/ERBIL, Iraq — On May 5, Syriac Orthodox Patriarch Mor Ignatius Aphrem II landed in Erbil, Iraq, for an apostolic visit to his distressed flock recovering from years of terror and displacement. His Holiness was received by local bishops Nicodemus Daoud Sharaf (Mosul, Kerkeslokh, and the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, KRI) and Timotheos Moussa Shamani of the Mor Matay Monastery in the Nineveh Plain. Fares Jawhar, Chief of Staff at the KRG Ministry of Endowments, Omid Khosnaw, Governor of Erbil, Syriac Chaldean KRG Minister of Transport, Ano Jawhar Abdoka, and Rami Nuri Siyawesh, mayor of the newly formed Ankawa district, were also present at the airport to welcome the Patriarch.

Mor Aphrem II, who resides in Daramsuq (Damascus) is in Iraq for an apostolic visit to the Syriac Orthodox Mor Matay Monastery. His Holiness last visit to Iraq was in February of this year when he visited the Diocese of bishop Nicodemus Daoud Sharaf. The Patriarch yesterday arrived at the Mor Matay Monastery amid great interest from the faithful. He blessed the present faithful and held prayers. Mor Aphrem II also visited the hospitalized former bishop of Mosul and current patriarchal counselor, Gregorios Saliba Chamoun, in Ankawa.

Patriarch Mor Aphrem II blesses the faithful upon his arrival at the Mor Matay Monastery. Image: Facebook Syriac Orthodox Patriarchate.

The Mor Matay Monastery is located about 20 kilometers from Mosul and lies on top of Mount Alfaf. Founded in 363 AD by the Syriac hermit Mor Matay, who had fled Omid (Diyarbakir) following persecution under the Roman Emperor Julian, the monastery is widely regarded as one of the oldest surviving monasteries in the world.

The terrorist organization Islamic State in the plains of Nineveh

The Chaldean-Syriac-Assyrian people, one of the oldest in the world, were hit particularly hard by Islamic Sate. The terror of the radical Islamist displaced them from their historical living areas like Mosul and the Nineveh Plains and pushed them into internal and foreign displacement.

Bishop Nicodemus Daoud Sharaf, for example, has resided in Ankawa since he fled Mosul in 2014 after Islamic State advanced on the city. He is not expected to return to Mosul, as virtually no Chaldeans-Syriacs-Assyrians have returned to the metropolis in northern Iraq. Islamic State has succeeded in its malicious goal of cleansing the region of Christians – what the terrorist organization regards as second-class citizens.

The nearby regions of Shigur (Sinjar) and the Nineveh Plains also suffered tremendous massacre, kidnapping and displacement in 2015. Hundreds of thousands had to flee their homes overnight. Tens of thousands of Yezidis were killed or kidnapped, women made slaves for Islamic State fighters. Tens of thousands of Chaldeans-Syriacs-Assyrians fled Bartella, Baghdede, Tel Kepe, Alqosh. Only some 60% of the displaced have returned to the largest city of Baghdede. After the defeat of Islamic State, the Iran-linked Popular Mobilization Units took control of the southern part of the Nineveh Plain. The northern part is under control of the Barzani-family led Kurdistan Region in Iraq.

Mor Ignatius Aphrem II has argued in the past for a safe haven and some form of self-rule for the Chaldeans-Syriacs-Assyrians in the Nineveh Plains. Together with his confrere Syriac Catholic Patriarch Mor Ignatius Joseph II Younan, he attended the high-level European Parliament Conference entitled “A Future for Christians in Iraq” in Brussels in 2017. The result of this Conference was a position paper signed by representatives of Chaldean-Syriac-Assyrian political parties expressing their desire to achieve self-government and an autonomous administration as supported by the Federal Iraqi constitution.

Syriac Orthodox Patriarch Mor Ignatius Aphrem II and Syriac Catholic Patriarch Mor Ignatius Joseph II Younan at the 2017 Brussels Conference “A Future for Christians in Iraq”.

Observers consider Mor Aphrem II’s visit primarily as an address and motivation to Iraqi Christian Syriacs to stick to their country. Whether Mor Aphrem II’s encouragement will be heard and succeed is doubtful, as the country continues to face widespread corruption, and economic and political crises.

For decades and from all places in the country, more and more Chaldeans-Syriacs-Assyrians have been leaving Iraq, a country which has found no stability and peace since the American invasion in 2003. There were an estimated 1,5 million Chaldeans-Syriacs-Assyrians pre-2003, but their number has dwindled to an estimated 350 thousand today, with tens of thousands waiting in neighboring countries for a visa to the West. Most Chaldeans-Syriacs-Assyrians emigrate to Europe, Australia, and the United States.

Iraq, once the cradle of Christian civilization, is threatened with a total exodus of all its Christians.