Peter Jesserer Smith is a staff reporter for the National Catholic Register. He covered Pope Francis’s historic visit to the United States in 2015, and to Jerusalem and the Holy Land in 2014. He has reported on the Syrian and Iraqi refugee crisis, including from Jordan and Lebanon on an Egan Fellowship from Catholic Relief Services. Before coming on board the Register in 2013, he was a freelance writer, reporting for Catholic media outlets as the Register and Our Sunday Visitor. He is a graduate of the National Journalism Center and earned a B.A. in Philosophy at Christendom College, where he co-founded the student newspaper, The Rambler, and served as its editor. He comes originally from the Finger Lakes region of New York State.
WASHINGTON — “Grave, but not without hope.” Those words summarize the situation of the future of Christianity in Iraq, and the future of Iraq itself, according to Sister Diana Momeka, a Dominican Sister of St. Catherine of Siena from Mosul, Iraq. She appeared on Wednesday before the House Foreign Affairs Committee on Wednesday to testify about the persecution her people have endured at the hands of the Islamic State (ISIS) terrorist group that forced more than 120,000 Christians to flee northern Iraq for the safety of the Kurdistan region last summer.
Sister Diana is a refugee in her own country while ISIS occupies the birthplace of Christianity in Iraq: Mosul and the Nineveh Plain. She appeared before Congress, on a visit sponsored by the sponsored by the Institute for Global Engagement and 21st Century Wilberforce Initiative, to appeal the U.S. government for help ensuring their safety and survival.
In her testimony she warned them to understand what few Westerners seem able to grasp: Christianity is the bridge between the Eastern and Western worlds. ISIS wants to destroy that bridge, which is why they are engaged on “cultural and human genocide” of Iraq’s Christians. Destroying Christians, who are the actual descendants of ancient Assyria and Mesopotamia, will not only wipe out these living witnesses of the Old and New Testaments, but also destroy any hope for peace in the region.
Sister Diana Momeka’s testimony, which the Register obtained courtesy of the In Defense of Christians advocacy group, follows below. I have added sub-heads in bold to assist with reading Sister Diana’s testimony.
Thank you Chairman Royce and distinguished Members of the Committee, for inviting me today to share my views on Ancient Communities Under Attack: ISIS's War on Religious Minorities. I am Sister Diana Momeka of the Dominican Sisters of St. Catherine of Siena, Mosul, Iraq. I'd like to request that my complete testimony be entered in to the Record.
In November 2009, a bomb was detonated at our convent in Mosul. Five sisters were in the building at the time and they were lucky to have escaped unharmed. Our Prioress, Sister Maria Hanna, asked for protection from local civilian authorities but the pleas went unanswered. As such, she had no choice but to move us to Qaraqosh.
Then on June 10, 2014, the so-called Islamic State in Iraq and Syria or ISIS, invaded the Nineveh Plain, which is where Qaraqosh is located. Starting with the city of Mosul, ISIS overran one city and town after another, giving the Christians of the region three choices: 1.) convert to Islam, 2.) pay a tribute (Al-Jizya) to ISIS or 3.) leave their cities (like Mosul) with nothing more than the clothes on their back.
As this horror spread throughout the Nineveh Plain, by August 6, 2014, Nineveh was emptied of Christians, and sadly, for the first time since the seventh century AD, no church bells rang for Mass in the Plain of Nineveh.
Iraq’s Christians: Stripped of Humanity and Dignity
From June 2014 forward, more than a hundred and twenty thousand (120,000+) people found themselves displaced and homeless in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, leaving behind their heritage and all they had worked for over the centuries. This uprooting, this theft of everything that the Christians owned, displaced them body and soul, stripping away their humanity and dignity.
To add insult to injury, the initiatives and actions of both the Iraqi and Kurdish governments were at best modest and slow. Apart from allowing Christians to enter their region, the Kurdish government did not offer any aid either financial or material. I understand the great strain that these events have placed on Baghdad and Erbil however, it has been almost a year and Christian Iraqi citizens are still in dire need of help. Many people spent days and weeks in the streets before they found shelter in tents, schools and halls. Thankfully, the Church in the Kurdistan region stepped forward and cared for the displaced Christians, doing her very best to handle the disaster. Church buildings were opened to accommodate the people; food and non-food items were provided to meet the immediate needs of the people; and medical health services were also provided. Moreover, the Church put out a call and many humanitarian organizations answered with aid for the thousands of people in need.
Presently, we are grateful for what has been done, with most people now sheltered in small prefabricated containers or some homes. Though better than living on the street or in an abandoned building, these small units are few in number and are crowded with three families, each with multiple people, often accommodated in one unit. This of course increases tensions and conflict, even within the same family.
We Are ‘the First People of the Land’
There are many who say “Why don’t the Christians just leave Iraq and move to another country and be done with it?” To this question we would respond, “Why should we leave our country – what have we done?”
The Christians of Iraq are the first people of the land. You read about us in the Old Testament of the Bible. Christianity came to Iraq from the very earliest days through the preaching and witness of Saint Thomas, and others of the Apostles and Church Elders.
While our ancestors experienced all kinds of persecution, they stayed in their land, building a culture that has served humanity for the ages. We, as Christians, do not want, or deserve to leave or be forced out of our country any more than you would want to leave or be forced out of yours.
ISIS Plans to Destroy Christians: the Bridge for Peace
But the current persecution that our community is facing is the most brutal in our history. Not only have we been robbed of our homes, property and land, but our heritage is being destroyed as well. ISIS has been and continues to demolish and bomb our churches, cultural artifacts and sacred places like Mar Behnam and Sara, a fourth century monastery and St. Georges Monastery in Mosul.
Uprooted and forcefully displaced, we have realized that ISIS' plan is to evacuate the land of Christians and wipe the earth clean of any evidence that we ever existed. This is cultural and human genocide. The only Christians that remain in the Plain of Nineveh are those who are held as hostages.
The loss of the Christian Community from the Plain of Nineveh has placed the whole region on the edge of a terrible catastrophe. Christians have for centuries been the bridge that connects Eastern and Western cultures. Destroying this bridge will leave an isolated, inculturated conflict zone emptied of cultural and religious diversity. Through our presence as Christians, we're called to be a force for good, for peace, for connection between cultures.
Steps for Action Needed
To restore, repair and rebuild the Christian community in Iraq, the following needs are urgent:
- Liberating our homes from ISIS and helping us return.
- Coordinating an effort to rebuild what was destroyed – roads, water and electrical supplies, and buildings, including our churches and monasteries.
- Encouraging enterprises that contribute to the rebuilding of Iraq and inter-religious dialogue. This could be through schools, academics and pedagogical projects.
I am but one, small person – a victim myself of ISIS and all of its brutality. Coming here has been difficult for me – as a religious sister I am not comfortable with the media and so much attention. But I am here, and I am here to ask you, to implore you for the sake of our common humanity, to help us. Stand with us as we, as Christians, have stood with all the people of the world and help us. We want nothing more than to go back to our lives; we want nothing more than to go home.
Thank you and God bless you.
In place of comments, I suggest that readers respond to the appeal Sister Diana made after her testimony: “I call on all Americans to raise your voices on our behalf so that diplomacy and not genocide, social well-being and not weapons, and the desire for justice, not selfish interests determine the future for Iraq and all of her children.”