MALABARWAN, IRAQ // The congregation sat
crammed on the narrow wooden benches of the
small church, waiting for their special
guest to make an entry. A convoy of armoured
SUVs already stood parked on the unpaved
road next to the church, and soon enough a
diminutive man led a group of robed priests
into the building. Mar Louis Raphael Sako,
the patriarch of Chaldean Christians in
Iraq, had come to the village of Malabarwan
to perform the rites on Maundy Thursday.
Wearing a red cassock and mitre, the
patriarch headed to the altar to begin
proceedings. A little later, the choir
launched into a full throated Hallelujah,
sung in Aramaic, the language spoken by the
first Christians more than 2,000 years ago.
The Easter ritual keeps alive an age old
Christian culture in Iraq. Malabarwan is a
nondescript village on the edge of the
fertile Nineveh plains in the country’s
north, where Christian settlements have
stood since the religion came to the area in
the first century AD.
Since the rise of Islamist terrorism
after the US invasion in 2003, Christian
communities in major cities are disappearing
fast, and the remote villages and towns that
lie in Kurdish-controlled territory are
among the few sanctuaries left to the
religious minority. Their rising importance
to the community explains why Patriach Sako
has come to celebrate mass at Malabarwan.
Before the second Gulf War, there were
only a few old-timers in the all-but
deserted village, living among the abandoned
houses of their neighbours, who had moved to
the city of Mosul about 30 kilometres away.
But the invasion and subsequent
occupation unleashed a wave of extremist
terror, directed at the western conquerors
but also against other Muslims and Iraqis of
other faiths. A spate of bombings and
assassinations targeting Christians caused
many to leave the country. Precise numbers
are hard to come by, but some estimates say
Iraq’s Christian population has dwindled
from 1.5 million in 2003 to around 500,000
In seeking safety, Christians in Baghdad
or Basra had no option but to leave the
country or move to the autonomous Kurdish
region, which was largely spared the
insurgency. For Mosul’s Christians, the
ancient Assyrian settlements that straddle
the city to the north offered a more
A return to their ancestral homes
provided a refuge to the former inhabitants
of Malabarwan, and by 2007 — the height of
an Al Qaeda-led insurgency that was
eventually quashed by the US military —
around half of the families had moved back,
according to Father Efraim, who came to the
village as part of the patriach’s entourage.
"Because they suffered persecution, many
left the city and came here," he says.
Father Efraim fled Mosul in 2007 after the
city’s bishop was murdered and a string of
priests had been killed in the city, and now
lives in the Christian district of Erbil,
the Kurdish capital.
The priest estimates that approximately
30,000 Christians lived in Mosul before the
post-war terror. When ISIL stormed Mosul in
2014, the remaining Christians took flight,
and Malabarwan filled up with the families
that had left for the city a generation or
two earlier, completing a remarkable process
of reverse urbanisation.
"We used to come back here for vacations.
Only three or four houses were occupied,
with one or two old people living there,"
says Wael, a 33 year-old IT engineer.
Wael came to the village in 2006 with his
parents, sick of a city that had become
dysfunctional through extremist violence and
a heavy-handed response by the security
forces. He remembers the endless hours lost
commuting as countless checkpoints inhibited
the flow of traffic even as terrorist
attacks against religious minorities
"I will never, ever return to Mosul," he
Around 100 families live in Malabarwan
now, says Wael. All have roots in the
village. About 60 of them arrived in 2014,
Patriarch Sako believes they have a
future in the rural backwater.
"In Mosul it will be difficult, but
villages like this one are totally
Christian, and they can live here," says the
patriarch after finishing his Easter sermon.
As the head of the Chaldean church, the most
widely followed Christian denomination in
Iraq, he is hopeful that the ancient
community will survive.
But in the remote villages, jobs are
difficult to come by, especially at a time
when a slump in the oil price and the war
against ISIL has sent the economy into
"We have electricity and it is safe here,
but most people don’t have jobs," says Wael,
who was fortunate enough to find work in the
nearby town of Akre.
After years as victims of extremism, most
Christians in Iraq have lost faith in a
peaceful coexistence. Many of the recent
arrivals at Malabarwan may soon be on their
way again, seeking safety and opportunities
in Europe or the US.
"The situation is not stable here. If you
stay, you are always at risk," says Wael.
"The Christians have no future here, we
always fear that something will happen."