Mountainside Monastery a Sanctuary From the Battle for Mosul

Families from the area have sought sanctuary at the Mar Mattai monastery.

They watched as ISIS took over Christian towns nearby, ransacking churches and driving thousands from their homes. As militants came within three miles, occupying the village of Bashiqa, they did what their predecessors have done for centuries and braced for the invaders.

“We think if they harm us, it’s a reward,” said Father Joseph Ibrahim, referring to martyrdom.

Long a destination for Iraqi and foreign pilgrims, Christian families from the area sought sanctuary at Mar Mattai, named for Saint Matthew. Most of have now moved on, either into Kurdistan or abroad. But one family remains: three adult siblings and their sick mother from Mosul.

“We are never going back, we cannot,” one sister said, describing neighbors and friends they knew for decades who became ISIS supporters when the fighters took over the city.

Father Joseph, clad in the monks' long black robes and embroidered hood, agrees that the religious and ethnic diversity Mosul was once known for is likely lost forever. His brother was murdered in Mosul in 2006 for being Christian.

“ISIS spent two years to wash the minds of the people there,” he said, “so they have a great hostility.”

“What we see is a bigger plan to empty the Middle East of Christians,” Father Joseph argued. But his own future here at the monastery, and in Iraq, is not in doubt.

“[I] may be the last one,” he laughed.