Returning to England after a few days in Iraq, it is the sound of
broken glass and rubble, crunching underfoot in one of the many
destroyed churches, that lingers in my mind. Just a few weeks ago, on my
fourth visit to that beleaguered Christian community since the genocide
began in the summer of 2014, I was taken, along with Catholic
journalist Edward Pentin, to visit the Christian towns on the Nineveh
Plains, liberated from ISIS.
It is easy to use the phrase “ghost towns”, yet in the case of
Karemlash it is not a phrase but a reality. Before ISIS swept into the
area, in August 2014, Karemlash had been a mainly Chaldean Christian
town of nearly 10,000 residents.
The monastery of St Barbara, formerly a place of pilgrimage for many
Iraqi Christians, is at the entrance to the town. We were accompanied by
Fr Thabet, the parish priest. He showed us the ruined home of his
parents and grandparents, bombed by coalition forces because it was used
as an ISIS outpost. Sitting in what had been the family garden was a
The rectory, like many of the empty houses, had ISIS graffiti sprayed
on the outside wall – for the priest’s house it said “the Cross will be
broken”. Luckily for Fr Thabet, his house was still standing and,
unlike many of the houses, had not been burned out. ISIS fighters had
left him a little gift on their departure: a booby trap by his office
Many of the houses in the town are booby-trapped, burned out or
destroyed, and there is no water or electricity. As we walked around the
empty streets some birds were singing, but the only other sound was the
distant thump of bombing in Mosul, nine miles away.
As we entered the Church of St Addai, the full hatred for the
“followers of the Cross” was revealed. The Islamists had attempted to
burn the church. A smashed statue of Our Lady was on the ground. The
altar had bullet holes in it. Everywhere – in that church and the others
we visited – the Cross was defaced, destroyed or in some way
Even if a wooden door had a Cross on it, at least one arm would be
broken. Fr Thabet’s large rosary lay on the floor, with the central beam
of the Cross removed. It was as though a black cloud of hatred for the
Cross and all it symbolises had swept through the town.
All across the Nineveh Plains, the home of Christians for almost
2,000 years, the same thing has happened: Islamists cannot bear the
imagery of the Cross.
Suddenly, Steve Rasche, an American who works for the Archdiocese of
Erbil and was coordinating our visit, knelt in the rubble and picked up a
Cross. Brushing off the rubble and dirt, he saw it was unbroken – the
corpus had been removed, but the Cross was intact. Then Rasche, whom I
later christened “the Crossfinder”, told us the story of the miraculous
Cross of Baqofah – which ended up on display during the weeks of Lent
in, of all places, Westminster Cathedral.
Just a few months before, doing exactly what we had been doing in
Karemlash, Steve and Fr Salar, the vicar-general of the Diocese of
Alqosh, had been wandering through the newly liberated town of Baqofah.
Outside the Church of St George, ISIS had blown up the church shop,
which made, among other things, crosses for the faithful to buy.
Everywhere, as in Karemlash, the Cross was broken and vandalised. Yet
in the rubble Steve found a completely intact Cross, with the body of
Christ still attached. Only when you have seen that central image of
Christianity so desecrated can you understand how miraculous this
discovery was – and what it meant to the Christians of Iraq.
As a symbol of hope, the Baqofah Cross was sent from Iraq to be part
of a recent exhibition called Building Bridges with Wood, organised by
the curator Lucien de Guise, in St Joseph’s Chapel in Westminster
The Cross will return to Baqofah after being blessed by Cardinal
Vincent Nichols, to be, as Rasche says, “a sign of hope for the rebirth
and renewal of the Church in Iraq”.
With the most important days in the life of the Church upon us, when
the symbolism of the Cross is so central – both as the supreme sign of
God’s love for humanity and the true cost of sin, this simple story of
the Cross of Iraq can serve as a powerful reminder of the truth of our
faith. Even when it is hated and defaced, attacked and broken, the Cross
will rise, like Christ, unbroken.
Fr Benedict Kiely is the founder of Nasarean.org, which helps the persecuted Christians of the Middle East