At an Iraqi shrine, its walls still scarred by the bullet holes of Islamic State (ISIS) militants, a group of Lebanese nuns have found an unlikely sanctuary, dedicating their time to spiritual meditation and guiding lost local youths towards a path of faith.
Dressed in brown habits tied with rope, the four sisters hurrying to Mass at the town’s main church have become a familiar sight in the town of Karamlesh, near Mosul in northern Iraq.
Once desecrated by ISIS, St Adday’s Church, where they now worship, has been pristinely rebuilt. Some of the militants’ atrocities are now museum pieces. A glass-fronted wall niche is filled with charred and broken Christian artefacts, preserved as exhibits to ensure this terrible chapter is never forgotten, according to Karamlesh’s Chaldean lead priest Father Adday Babaca. Across the aisle stands a statue of the Virgin Mary, her decapitated head now reattached but her severed hands left loosely hanging from her wrists. His Holiness Pope Francis prayed before this statue during his historic visit to Iraq in 2021.
On the outskirts of the town, opposite its military checkpoint, stands the shrine of Saint Barbara, long-popular with Christians from across the country. This is where the Lebanese nuns – from the order of the Sisters of Jesus Crucified – have made their home, taking Santa Barbara (as it is known locally) back to its historic monastic roots.
“When we first came to Karamlesh, we didn’t have a convent, so we used to stay with people – especially elderly widows and those who were unwell – in their homes, living with them and helping them,” Sister Katerina told the Catholic Herald. But, once Father Babaca had completed the necessary paperwork to formalise their stay, the shuttered monastic buildings nestled behind the shrine were repurposed for the nuns’ accommodation. Working together, Father Babaca and the nuns have brought the shrine – containing some of the martyr’s fourth-century relics, which were transferred to Karamlesh in the seventh century – truly back to life.
Their presence has also brought renewed faith to this beleaguered community. “Because of the presence of these sisters, many people in Karamlesh have became more comfortable here and, God willing, the sisters will stay,” said Father Babaca.
“I need them to stay, because the minds of some people here – especially young people – have become confused and they think of things far from faith,” he explained. “These sisters help me indirectly and, by living alongside us here, they help these lost youths to find purpose and get more in touch with the spiritual side of life.”
The nuns, who number between two and six at any time, are not confined to Santa Barbara, having free run of the sleepy rural town. “We read and meditate a great deal but also visit people in their homes, especially the elderly, and those who don’t come to church and are far from Jesus,” explained Sister Katerina. “When we face this challenge of those who don’t want to come to church, we encourage them just by spending time with them. We try to set an example, not by telling them what to do, but through our actions. And what we have seen is that, step by step, independently they start to return to church.”
The community has suffered deeply over the last two decades, persecuted for their Christian faith by a rise of radical interpretations of Islam that followed the overthrow of former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein. In 2014, Karamlesh became a ghost town, after ISIS seized control of this and other Christian lands lying in the Nineveh Plains surrounding Mosul. The town’s entire population of some 800 families was uprooted and forced to flee, initially becoming internally displaced people, with many later seeking asylum abroad.
When former residents did start returning from mid-2017, they faced huge challenges. The town, liberated by Iraqi forces in late 2016 but still on the fringes of an active conflict zone, was in ruins. Residential buildings had been set ablaze, targeted with explosives or their walls knocked through to make a secret network for militants to use, and the town’s infrastructure was destroyed. Churches were desecrated and headstones smashed in a graveyard left littered with explosive remnants of war.
Six years later, less than half of the town’s former inhabitants have returned. Around a third of the community moved abroad and others have so far preferred to stay in the Ankawa suburb of Erbil, in Iraqi Kurdistan, to where most Christians from the Nineveh Plains fled in 2014.
Although the tough reality of life after ISIS has proved too much for some former residents, it has been no impediment to the Lebanese nuns, with Sister Josephine earnestly leaning forward to say: “We didn’t choose to come here, God sent us.”
Sister Taqla said the strength of faith in Karamlesh outshone any they could find in their home country, adding: “We’ll stay here permanently if God is willing because we now feel like Iraq is our home, and Father Adday our family.”
The simple rooms adjacent to Santa Barbara, once used by ISIS as a military base, also offer an ideal setting for an order which eschews modern lifestyles.
“People are sometimes surprised because we don’t use any money and live a very simple life without electricity, sleeping on bare wooden boards, washing our clothes by hand and doing everything for ourselves,” said Sister Josephine. “We don’t touch money because we have Christ and grace, and we enrich our lives with spirituality and meditation upon Christ.”
Although the sisters have visited Christian communities in other parts of Iraq, they say Karamlesh is unique.
“Some of us have also worked in [Iraq’s southernmost city of] Basra, but it’s different there. The Christian community has been greatly affected by Islam – even the Christian ladies wear the hijab – and not everyone there fully understands the Christian faith,” said Sister Katerina. “We prefer it here in Karamlesh, where we can live a monastic and apostolic life.”
Saint Barbara was tortured and then beheaded by her own father for converting to Christianity. Her martyrdom for unswerving faith in the face of adversity resonates with this long-suffering community, and Father Babaca says she holds special significance in the town, with most households including a Barbara named after the saint.
Establishing this community of foreign nuns is just one aspect of Father Babaca’s dynamic efforts not to allow this small town – once thrust into the dubious limelight of ISIS atrocities – either slip back into obscurity or become a beaten-down apology for Christianity, particularly when its community is one of centuries’ standing.
The footbridge that links the town to the shrine of Santa Barbara, under which Pope Francis’ cavalcade passed two years ago, is now illuminated by a single word, written in large neon lettering: Karamlesh.
“It’s a small word with a big message,” explained Father Babaca, pausing on the bridge. “It is a big message to everyone passing here that this area is Christian and will remain Christian, and it is written in Aramaic, the language of Christ.”
Tom Westcott is a British journalist reporting mainly from the Middle East.