October 17, Iraq launched a major military campaign to defeat ISIS in Mosul and surrounding Nineveh province. Lalo followed each battle closely, as did all the others in Ankawa, a Christian enclave in Irbil where Lalo and thousands of other displaced people have been living since 2014.
The following evening, as Iraqi forces fought militants in the Christian towns of the Nineveh Plains, impromptu celebrations erupted on the streets of Ankawa.
The violent booms of war went quiet, and for the first time in more than two years, church bells pealed, the sounds echoing like a dirge through the ravaged and empty town.
It was the greatest gift in Priest Lalo’s lifetime, but bittersweet.
Life in Bartella, as he knew it, stopped suddenly and brutally in the summer of 2014.
Before then, ISIS marked Christian houses with the Arabic equivalent of the letter “N” for the derogatory term Nazarene. The militants blared ultimatums from the loudspeakers of Mosul mosques: Leave by July 19 to avoid death or forced conversion to Islam.
The terror-driven exodus emptied the city of Christians, Yazidis and other religious minorities. A decade ago, 35,000 Christians lived in Mosul. Now maybe 20 or 30 remain.
Three weeks later, ISIS repeated its scourge in the towns and villages in surrounding Nineveh province, the historical homeland of Iraqi Christians. Many had sought refuge here from persecution in other parts of the country, especially after the 2003 US-led invasion gave rise to sectarian strife.
Lalo was not at home when ISIS fighters overran Bartella on August 8, 2014. He’d gone to Baghdad on church business and was in the Kurdish capital of Irbil on his way home when he began to hear about families fleeing Bartella and other Christian towns such as Qaraqosh, Baghdida and Tal Kayf.
The people who escaped ISIS had no money or possessions, that they had walked for days through harsh desert terrain to reach the Kurdish border. They recounted stories of forced conversions, captivity, beatings, rape and murder. They’d left everything at home to run for their lives and were willing to risk settling in unknown lands to save themselves.
By some estimates, 100,000 Christians fled Nineveh and streamed into the relatively safe semiautonomous Kurdish region. They found refuge in empty houses and unfinished buildings in Irbil and Dohuk. Soon, humanitarian organizations and churches set up camps for the displaced.
At St. George Church, Lalo steps out of the car and faces his beloved house of worship.
Inside the plundered and scorched sanctuary, he bows his head and begins singing a mezmur, an Aramaic hymn. I see tears collecting in his eyes as his voice travels through the church carcass and out into the cloudless day.
“Praise the Lord! Praise God in his sanctuary; praise him in his mighty heavens!”
There is hope for Christians in Iraq. Praise the Lord!