No group of people on the face of the earth have suffered as terribly from the wrath of ISIS--the Sunni-Salafist supremacist colonial terror group hell bent on resurrecting an Islamic Caliphate--as religious minorities in Iraq.
The syncretic sect of the Yazidis have seen their women enslaved and gang-raped by sexually-repressed religious militants; the Kurds have seen their brave peshmerga fighters executed with bullets to the head at point-blank range; the Shiites have seen their boys disfigured following religious rulings by IS clerics calling for limb-amputations; and Iraqi Christians, 1st century Assyrians, a marginalized and forgotten people tilling the same plot of earth for centuries, if not millennia, have seen their ancient churches turned into rubble by fanatic holy warriors keen on erasing all traces of pre-Islamic history.
However, after two years of hell on earth, hope sprung anew for the abandoned residents of ISIS-held territories near Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city.
Celebrated as liberators, the Iraqi army’s elite Golden Division spent the last week fighting jihadist insurgents for control of Bartella, one of the oldest Christian villages on earth. On Saturday, the lionhearted unit freed the area in a poignant moment that called to mind the liberation of Auschwitz.
The church of St Miriam in Bartella Iraq, liberated from IS and one of oldest Christian settlements in the world. pic.twitter.com/0O10VEpQOF— Jonathan Rugman (@jrug) October 23, 2016
Fearlessly embedded with the men of the Golden Division, The Telegraph’s Josie Ensor shared a first-hand account of her experience as she entered the war-ravaged town:
Hymn books lay scattered on the ground, the pews upturned. Graffiti scrawled on the walls.
Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isil) may have spared Mart Shmony Syriac Orthodox Church, but exiled residents of the ancient Christian town of Bartella will find what they did to it hard to forgive...
The road west into Bartella, just nine miles from Mosul’s outskirts, was littered with the remnants of the battle: bullet casings, deactivated improvised explosive devices, and shrapnel from car bombs.
Each house along the way had a spray-painted sign at its entrance: marked either “property of the Islamic State”, “Sunni Muslim”, or “Nasrani”, a derogatory Arabic word for Christians.
We reached the centre of the town in a column of humvees. Black-clad troops stood victoriously on top, clutching guns, knives and meat cleavers.
“We are the heroes of Golden Division, we will not stop until we reach Mosul,” they chanted.
"We are the heroes of Golden Division. We won't stop till we reach Mosul," the soldiers chanted, holding meat cleavers & knives in Bartella pic.twitter.com/bvkwoELds3— Josie Ensor (@Josiensor) October 22, 2016
One soldier, Ahmed, grabbed me by the hand and led me to see the church. We had to run quickly in between the houses as he said there was still an Isil sniper that they had not yet managed to capture…
A calendar from 2014 bearing a picture of Mary and the infant Jesus lay strewn on the floor, along with hymn books and Bibles caked with dust.
The Islamic State’s campaign to purge the Middle East of pre-Islamic history is well-documented.
As The Daily Wire reported in January, ISIS “destroyed St. Elijah’s monastery, or Dar Mar Elia, Iraq’s most ancient Christian site…The monastery stood for nearly 1,400 years before the Islamic State’s religious warriors leveled the entire structure...The site had no strategic or tactical value from a military standpoint. This was simply an act of Islamist religious piety. Yes, ISIS is first and foremost a religious army that follows Salafist-based Islamic jurisprudence and adheres to Qur'anic literalism and fundamentalist teaching.”
The Guardian explains further:
Destroying some of the world’s greatest archaeological and cultural treasures is something that flows from a fanatically purist interpretation of Sunni Islam as first laid down in 7th-century Arabia and revived more than a millennium later...Early Islam defined itself against the age of jahiliyyah (ignorance) that preceded the prophet Mohammad, who smashed idols in the name of monotheism…
ISIS has terrorized Christian communities under their control with appalling zealotry. After issuing a medieval declaration of religious supremacy, ISIS leaders squawked that religious minorities “must convert to Islam, pay a fine, or face ‘death by the sword.’” One-by-one, ISIS militants painted Christian homes and businesses in Eastern Iraq an ominous red. Each door was marked with the symbol ن, pronounced “noon,” the 14th letter of the Arabic alphabet. In an inversion of the biblical story from Exodus in which the Hebrews paint their doors with red blood so that the angel of death passes over their homes, ISIS tried to write its own macabre tale, marking Christian houses for persecution.
While the Christians of Bartella can never salvage all that has been lost, there was reason to celebrate this weekend:
Christian priest John Tarachee returns to his home town in Iraq and finds his house ransacked: pic.twitter.com/PCDeY8xks6— Jonathan Rugman (@jrug) October 23, 2016
For the first time in nearly two years, the soothing sound of church bells echoed across the town, marking an end to the horrors of ISIS rule:
The liberation of Bartella, at least for a brief moment, served as a reminder of what once was, as well as a vision of what could be, if religious harmony triumphed over bloody sectarianism.