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A group of four Syriac Catholic priests and a layman were behind a daring rescue of over 100 students trapped in a university in northern Iraq after the area was targeted by ISIS fighters, it has emerged.
In an account shared with the Register (see below), one of the four priests, Father Georges Jahola, explained how they decided to mount the evacuation after it became clear that the Syriac Catholic students in the city of Kirkuk were in grave danger.
The jihadists had attacked the city’s governorate on Oct. 21, the same area in which the students were living, as a diversion from the liberation of Mosul. They killed 114 Iraqis, most of them security forces, but failed to take the city.
Pro-Iraqi government forces launched a military offensive Oct. 17 to liberate Mosul and its surrounding villages in Nineveh province after they were captured by ISIS in the summer of 2014. The continuing operation, in an area famous for having one of the oldest Christian communities in the world, could take at least two months, according to Iraq’s military.
The evacuated students had originally been studying in Mosul but had to flee to Kirkuk after the ISIS invasion in 2014.
During the Oct. 21 ISIS attack, seven Syriac Catholic girls spent a harrowing eight hours hidden underneath beds while ISIS fighters used their room as a hideout during an assault on the city. They told CNA that they credited the Virgin Mary for keeping them safe. Their ordeal has also been written about here.
The four priests and layman helped rescue the 7 girls as well as more than 100 Syriac Catholic students and refugees.
Meanwhile, besides offering urgent help for Iraq’s Christians, the Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need has been drawing public attention to the plight of persecuted Christians by illuminating Milan’s famous Pirelli skyscraper with the words “Help Christians”. The initiative, which took place Oct. 26, comes after the charity flooded Rome’s Trevi Fountain in red earlier this year to bring attention to persecuted Christians worldwide.
On Nov. 23, ACN will light up London’s Westminster Abbey and Westminster Cathedral in red as part of “Red Wednesday” to honor “those who have suffered because of their religion” and to “stand in solidarity with millions of people, targeted for their beliefs and living in fear.”
Here below is Father Jahola’s full account of the evacuation:
My dear friends
I'd like to make a statement about the recent events in Kirkuk, and especially about the operation to free our students and rescue them after they were trapped in their dorms.
In the early morning of Oct. 21 a terrorist attack took place near the city's governorate where most of our college students dorms are located. The events developed rapidly: while those responsible for the dorm were assuring the students that things were OK, the attackers were slipping through into nearby buildings.
I was in contact with an inside source who had direct contact with those in the field who informed me around 10 o'clock that it was a high priority to evacuate all the students from the targeted area. I immediately contacted some people in charge, but they told me that the situation at the time was stable and there was no need to evacuate the residents for the time being.
But at around 1.30pm the same inside source contacted me again and informed me that the danger surrounding the students was increasing, and predicted that the situation was going to worsen.
We made direct contact with the students and discovered that the danger level was really rising, as the source said. So we decided to head directly to Kirkuk. Although we knew that a curfew was in force in Kirkuk, that the main check point was closed and no one was allowed to enter the city, we still decided to head there after contacting some people we know in the local security force to ease our entry to the city. Four of us left Ankawa [suburb of Erbil, 80 miles north of Kirkuk]: me, two priests, Father Emad and Father Putrus, and a brave fellow Bakhdidian. We left another priest, Father Roni, in Ankawa to be our link with the students there.
During the trip we were in contact with the students and the security forces in Kirkuk (I can not provide more details here). We entered Kirkuk and it was almost empty due to fear of the unknown as the terrorists had already flooded into multiple parts of the city. We were accompanied by the local security force and led to a coordination room. Once we came into direct contact with them, we were able to provide them with detailed information and coordinates about the students’ locations and situation (also I don't want to go into further details here). The resident student responsible for the dorm was also communicating and coordinating with the local security forces, and was accompanying them (and maybe even accompanying the intervention force) during the operation.
The evacuation took about 12 hours starting form 6 o'clock in the afternoon until about 6:30 the next morning. During this time we prepared multiple buses and transportation to collect the rescued students from their dorms and transport them safely to Ankawa.
With the aid of the Lord, we were able to deliver the students safely to their families. When they arrived, they were welcomed by [Syriac Catholic] Bishop Youhanna Putrus Moushi and Bishop Dawod Sharaf, along with a group of the students’ families and friends.
Praise the Lord for his gifts.
I am writing this to refute the rumors that are currently circulating in the social media that only one side followed this subject. Our team took care of this crisis, presenting all the interests and concerns of our Syriac community to our children and students whom we consider to be the future of our people and our Church.
Father Georges Jahola