MAR MATTAI MONASTERY, Iraq ― Standing atop the fourth-century monastery he calls home, the Rev. Thomas peers out at a sand-hued horizon. The morning is still and silent, except for birds singing in the nearby bell tower.
Then, a thunderous boom breaks the calm, sending the birds into flight. It’s the sound of U.S.-led airstrikes on Islamic State militants mere miles from here.
When ISIS took over large swaths of Iraq in the summer of 2014, including nearby Bashiqa ― the once religiously and ethnically mixed city wedged up against this mountainside Christian enclave ― he decided to stay, whatever the cost.
“In the beginning, we were afraid, but Saint Matthew was protecting us,” said the stoic monk, referring to a Syriac Christian saint who sought refuge in northern Iraq and founded the monastery, now one of the oldest in the world.
As Thomas spoke, war planes flew overhead and another strike shook the monastery.
At least 70 families sought refuge here, by Thomas’ count, just as their ancestors did in centuries past, fleeing persecution to this mountainside sanctuary.
“If ISIS had reached here,” he said, “they would have driven us out.”
Thomas would have been just one of a long line of monks killed or expelled by invaders and rulers throughout the monastery’s 1600-plus years of history.
But luck ― or faith, as he says ― was on his side. ISIS never made it to Mar Mattai. The extremist fighters stopped just short. And now, over two years later, the militant group’s power seems to be waning. A U.S.-backed offensive launched on Oct. 17 could push ISIS out of its last main stronghold here and end its reign as a land-holding force in Iraq. But the effort could take months and come at great human cost ― as the death toll is already steadily rising.
The push gives Thomas hope. And he’s not the only one.
In recent days, Iraqi and Kurdish forces have retaken numerous predominantly Christian areas from ISIS. Though some towns and buildings have been damaged and booby-trapped by the hardliners, their churches looted and homes leveled in airstrikes, the fact that ISIS is on the run is cause for celebration for the Iraqi religious minority they have so terrorized.
When Nadia Younan heard the war planes and air strikes over Bashiqa, she was overcome with feeling ― and it wasn’t the fear that has consumed her since ISIS rose to power.
“I’m so happy!” she said, giddily. “The bombing means they’re taking out ISIS.”
The 57-year-old lived in Mosul all her life before ISIS forced her out over two years ago. She was given a choice: convert to their violent, skewed version of Islam or die.
Younan chose life. She left Mosul with her family on July 19, 2014, at seven in the morning. That moment is burned in her memory. It was a Saturday, she recalls, when she left her home for the last time with a few meager belongings ― mostly cash and medicine for her ailing mother.
“Are you Nasara?” asked an ISIS fighter manning a checkpoint on the edge of the city. He was using a term to mean the followers of Christ, from Nazareth. ISIS militants have routinely painted Christian homes with the Arabic letter nun, or “N.”
When the fighter realized the family was indeed Christian, he pocketed what little they had left, ordering them to leave. Younan didn’t have a cent to pay the driver who had risked his life to shuttle them to safety, but he bid them farewell without protest.
“He was a good Muslim,” she said, thinking back fondly.
With no money and nowhere to go, Younan and her family made their way up the winding mountain path to Mar Mattai.
“God directed us here,” she said, looking around at the cream colored stone courtyard. “We are safe.”
She’s lived here ever since, relying on the good grace of the monks for basic necessities.
Younan was heartbroken when her neighbors of three decades joined ISIS. Though she may never return to Mosul, she said, if the militants lose power, it could open a new chapter for Christians here.
“We want to come back to life,” she said, her lip quivering as she held back tears.
While the monastery is quiet and near-empty now, it was bustling in 2014 when ISIS advanced on a handful of Christian towns and cities in the area.
The mountain’s name ― Alfaf, from the root Arabic word meaning “thousand” ― pays homage to the thousands of monks who at one time lived and worshipped here.
Most displaced families who initially fled to Mar Mattai have since moved on, fearful that ISIS could possibly break through the Kurdish Peshmerga fighter lines guarding them and storm Mar Mattai, as they have done at other monasteries and religious sites.
They feared they would suffer the same fate as the Yazidis, murdered en masse, their bodies dumped in shallow graves not far from their own ancestral homeland in northern Iraq. ISIS forced thousands more into sexual enslavement and child soldier training camps.
“ISIS hates all people,” said Bashar Behnam, a local school bus driver, who is Christian. “They hate Sunnis, Shias, Kurds, Christians and Yazidis.”
Before ISIS dug in their heels and gained local support ― mainly due to Sunni Arab grievances towards then Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki and his Shiite-led government they slammed as sectarian and authoritarian ― Behnam never had any problems with his Muslim neighbors, he said.
“They have no religion!” a woman standing nearby yelled out, referring to the form of Islam ISIS claims to follow.
Though the militant group is being pushed out of the area surrounding Mar Mattai, locals still worry about ISIS mortars hitting their homes.
Just last month, several mortars targeted a religious celebration near the monastery, locals say. Some men took up arms when ISIS encroached in order to defend their homes, churches and monastery against the heavily armed militant group.
While some local Christians have yet to come back, families are slowly returning to the tiny villages below Mount Alfaf.
Behnam said he had considered smuggling his family to Europe, following the footsteps of his son, who left in 2015 after the local economy tanked due to ISIS ruling next door. The trip cost $11,000. Behnam’s son now works at a pizza shop in Sweden.
“We are so tired,” the 46-year-old said wearily. “It’s always war, war, war.”
But Behnam says he’s since changed his mind. He’s not going anywhere. And the offensive to retake Mosul from ISIS was a big deciding factor.
Around him, the rumble of war echoed across the sandy plains. But with it came another sound, like a breath of life: children playing in the street and the clanging of workers building a family house.
“I have more faith now than ever,” he said, smiling softly beneath a canopy of citrus trees.
Kamiran Sadoun contributed reporting.