“It’s a miracle. A true miracle. We prayed a lot and God answered.”
The words of Iraqi Syriac-Catholic priest Ammar in the wake of last weekend’s remarkable story of seven Christian female students in Kirkuk, who hid under their beds for seven hours while soldiers from the self-proclaimed Islamic State (IS) occupied their house. It vividly illustrates how volatile the situation in Iraq is currently.
Last weekend IS launched a surprise attack on the northern Iraqi city, supposedly to divert the Iraqi military from the battle for Mosul. While the battle to expel IS from Iraq has begun, Christians still fear IS attacks, even in cities and villages deemed safe.
Since Kirkuk has been under the protection of Kurdish forces for over two years, Iraqi churches deemed it safe enough to send displaced Christian students there to study at Kirkuk University. Father Ammar told World Watch Monitor contacts how 50 female students and eight nuns lived there in church-rented houses. Last weekend, completely unexpectedly, an IS militia bombed and stormed that part of the city.
“Suddenly their street was filled with IS warriors, shouting ‘Allahu akbar’ [Allah is the greatest]. Most students were able to leave their houses in time, but seven girls couldn’t,” Father Ammar said. “They texted me in the evening; they were terrified: ‘We are in danger. Please come for us’. At least four IS soldiers had entered their house. The girls had gone to their bedroom, and were hiding under their beds, covered in blankets.”
Suddenly their street was filled with IS warriors, shouting ‘Allahu akbar’. Most students were able to leave their houses in time, but seven girls couldn’t. They texted me in the evening; they were terrified: ‘We are in danger. Please come for us’.
IS is known to rape and enslave non-Muslim women, to kill them brutally or to use them as human shields. All those thoughts must have gone through the heads of the seven while they waited in the dark for hours, trying to lay still and not make any sound.
After the girls notified their church leader in Erbil, he set the wheels in motion to save them. People started praying, and the church reached out to the Iraqi and Kurdish forces, asking them to save the girls. While the rescue was being planned, Fr. Ammar stayed in touch with them through texts.
“All this time they were hiding under their beds, undiscovered by IS. At some moment the IS warriors even entered the bedroom, to pray and to care for one of their soldiers who’d got hurt. Luckily the electricity was cut off, so it was dark. Nevertheless it was a miracle the girls weren’t discovered,” he said.
After three or four hours, Iraqi soldiers liberated the house and the girls were taken to safety. Arriving in Erbil a few hours later, they were greeted with cheers. “In the end none of the students or nuns were injured. Praise God for that,” said Fr. Ammar.
However, shortly after the IS soldiers left the house, one blew himself up.
Now that IS is being hunted and cornered by Iraqi, Kurdish and international forces, Christians and others in Iraq can be vulnerable even in apparently secure areas: they fear IS sleeper cells may pop up elsewhere in Iraq, in an effort to destabilise the country.