Bombs are falling and the sound of the explosion is sending shock and fear into the hearts of the people. Amid the sound of crying and frenzied activity, people pack up what belongings they can carry and make off into the night. In the midst of it all, on the night of Aug. 6, stands Martin Baani, a 24-year-old seminarian. It’s dawning on him that this is Karamlesh’s last stand.
For 1,800 years, Christianity has had a home in the hearts and minds of the people of this town so full of antiquity. Now that era is about to be brought to a calamitous end; Islamic State are advancing. Martin’s mobile phone rings: a friend stammers out the news that the nearby town of Telkaif has fallen to “Da’ash” — the Arabic name for Islamic State. Karamlesh would surely be next. Martin dashes out of his aunt’s house, where he is staying, and heads for the nearby St Addai’s Church. He takes the Blessed Sacrament, a bundle of official papers, and walks out of the church. Outside a car awaits — his parish priest, Father Thabet, and three other priests are inside. Martin gets in and the car speeds off. They leave Karamlesh and the last remnants of the village’s Christian presence go with them. Speaking to Martin in the calm of St. Peter’s Seminary, Ankawa — a suburb of the Kurdish regional capital of Erbil — it is difficult to imagine he is describing anything except a bad dream. But there is nothing dreamy in Martin’s expression. “Until the very last minute, the Peshmerga were telling us it was safe.” “But then we heard that they were setting up big guns on St Barbara’s Hill (on the edge of the village) and we knew then the situation had become very dangerous.” Taking stock of that terrible night, Martin’s confidence is bolstered by the presence of 27 other seminarians at St. Peter’s, many with their own stories of escape from the clutches of the Islamic militants. Martin and his fellow students for the priesthood know that the future is bleak as regards Christianity in Iraq. A community of 1.5 million Christians before 2003 has dwindled to less than 300,000. And of those who remain, more than a third are displaced. Many, if not most, want a new life in a new country. Martin, however, is not one of them. “I could easily go,” he explains calmly. “My family now live in California. I already have been given a visa to go to America and visit them.” “But I want to stay. I don’t want to run away from the problem.” Martin has already made the choice that marks out the priests who have decided to stay in Iraq: his vocation is to serve the people, come what may. “We must stand up for our rights; we must not be afraid,” he explains. Describing in detail the emergency relief work that has occupied so much of his time, it is plain to see that he feels his place is to be with the people. Martin is already a subdeacon. Now in his final year of theology, ordination to the priesthood is but a few months away. “Thank you for your prayers,” says Martin, as I take my leave of him. “We count on your support.”
John Pontifex is a senior journalist for Aid to the Church in Need, an international Catholic charity under the guidance of the Holy See, providing assistance to the suffering and persecuted Church in more than 140 countries.