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bearing witness

Syriac Orthodox monk Matta Abosh

Bearing Witness: 2014 — The Globe and Mail looks back on the cataclysmic news events of 2014 through the eyes of the people who were there – be they bystanders, participants or journalists. Their accounts shaped our perceptions, while their witnessing the events changed their lives.

Thirteen years ago, Matta Abosh, an Iraqi Christian, took his life in a new direction. Mr. Abosh, who had just finished his compulsory year-and-a-half with the Iraqi military after graduating from a technical college, began theological studies at Mor Mattai, a 1,700-year-old monastery perched near the top of a mountain about 20 kilometres outside Mosul. In 2011, Mr. Abosh became a monk at the monastery.

Like other Syriac Orthodox monks, Mr. Abosh donned the eskimo, a black and white patterned headpiece that covers the back of the head and neck – a symbol he had left the world behind.

The world, however, would not leave Mr. Abosh behind.

Geopolitics came banging on the doors of his monastery this summer after the rapid advance of ISIS, as the Islamic State was then called, through northern Iraq. In days, the monastery, home to the relics of the saint who founded it and a library of priceless manuscripts, was transformed into a refugee camp, and its fate – like that of religious minorities in ISIS-occupied Iraq – was thrown into question. Mr. Abosh would find himself facing the possibility of permanent exile in a distant country.

Now living in the Toronto area, Mr. Abosh is still learning English and speaks of the summer's events through an interpreter.

On June 10, ISIS reached Mosul, home to a sizable Christian minority. The monks began to anticipate a possible influx of refugees.

"Suddenly, people from Mosul and nearby villages started coming to the monastery, some of them walking up the mountain at two o'clock in the morning, three o'clock in the morning," Mr. Abosh said. "You woke up in the morning and you found that the monastery was full of people."

The speed with which ISIS took the area, and with which the Iraqi army collapsed, he said, shocked everyone, and everyone was aware of ISIS's history.

"They had rushed from their homes, they had brought nothing with them, they didn't know whether they were going to stay a day or two or five," he said. "They didn't know what to expect. All they knew was that these people had come from Syria and done bad things in Syria.

"They sat down crying, and the bishop of the monastery used to comfort them as much as possible."

The monastery is large, and it eventually played host to 50 to 60 families. People stayed until they were able to leave for the relative safety of Kurdish-controlled Iraq, further east.

Some, believing the ISIS occupation would be short-lived, remained in Mosul. By staying in touch with a number of these people, Mr. Abosh said, he and the other monks kept up with events in the city.

As the weeks passed, ISIS leaders increasingly imposed their understanding of Islamic law. This included executions of hairdressers and doctors, for example, who had treated people of the opposite sex.

"They killed them as punishment, and so others would learn," he said. "Everybody got the message."

In mid-July, ISIS leaders gave the Christians of Mosul an ultimatum to convert to Islam.

"Twelve noon on the nineteenth of July was the last time people could leave the city," he said. "If they stayed in the city, they would have to convert, pay the jizya, which is the tax [for non-Muslims], or be slaughtered."

Any remaining Christians fled eastward after the ultimatum was given, he said.

Mr. Abosh himself had been planning to eventually learn English in Canada, but the invasion by ISIS hastened his decision. He obtained a one-year leave from his monastery, and left Iraq by heading east through Kurdish-held territory. He is now ministering to at least one Syriac Orthodox church in the Toronto area. (Like other Syriac Orthodox monks, Mr. Abosh is also an ordained priest.) He knows he may not be able to return to Mor Mattai monastery, and he worries about the fate of those still left there – a few refugee families and half a dozen monks.

He also remains perplexed at how, in an age of supposed progress and a world made "smaller" by technology, Iraqi non-Muslims could be facing a time of persecution that rivals those of the past.

"Until ISIS came in we never expected it. We never thought that history would be repeated," he said.

"To have this happen was a total shock."

Tali Folkins is a freelance writer based in Toronto.