Archbishop Amel Shamon Nona. Photo by Emily Marsolek

I Remain in Mosul

"My sole concern was whether or not it would be possible to complete my role of service as the bishop." We publish an interview with Archbishop Amel Shamon Nona in light of the June 6 attacks on Mosul.
Luca Fiore

The worst moment was at the beginning of the attacks. On the night of June 6th there were around 4,000 families that fled, leaving everything behind them and setting out on foot for nearby villages. At 11 pm the army and the police abandoned the city leaving the way open for the armed group ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria) to take control.

Archbishop Amel Shamon Nona, the Chaldean archbishop of Mosul, was in Tal Kayf, three kilometers north, and saw them coming: women and children, Christians and Muslims, entire families. They were on foot, finding their way for five or six hours through the darkness, terrified.

Behind them one could see the lights from the bombs. They were running from something that they didn’t understand seeking refuge and not knowing what they would find.

The advance of the jihadist groups has moved up to the gates of Baghdad. Today, Mosul, Tikrit and Kirkuk are under the control of fundamentalists that are imposing Sharia, or Islamic law. Churches have been plundered and threatened that they must pay Jizya, the tax for infidels. Archbishop Nona arrived in Mosul in 2010. His predecessor, Archbishop Paulos Faraj Rahho, had been kidnapped and killed two years earlier. Born 47 years ago in Alqosh, a town that is 45 kilometers north of Mosul on the plain of Nineveh, Nona became a priest in 1991. He studied in Rome between 2000 and 2005, and then returned to his hometown to be a pastor. He recounts to us the plight of his people and speaks not only about the uncertainty for the future, but about the past four years of difficulty for his community in Mosul. The word that stands out is an unimaginable hope.

Archbishop Nona, have you been afraid?
Not for my own wellbeing, but for my people. I would never want something bad to happen to one of them. That is why I stayed by my phone that night, asking all the families remaining in Mosul to leave. Many had no idea what was happening. Christian families only leave their homes when they absolutely have to, and many hadn’t understood the gravity of what was going on.

Did you expect the situation to get this bad so quickly?
No. We all know that the city is very dangerous. Every day there are car bombings, but I never thought that the second largest city in the country would fall so easily. In Mosul, there were many soldiers and weapons. It is unclear why, all of a sudden, the army has withdrawn.

People are filled with fear. Are they also angry?
Right now it is our worry that dominates. It is unthinkable that the situation could stay as it is now. Everyone has left their homes and their jobs. How long will they remain refugees? Then, there is the fear that everything will deteriorate further. We do not know what awaits us.

You arrived in Mosul in 2010. Were you tempted to refuse the appointment, given what happened to Archbishop Rahho?
No, my first thought was about the needs of the faithful of this diocese. They had gone for two years without a shepherd. My sole concern was whether or not it would be possible to complete my role of service as the bishop.

What was your first impression?
I arrived on January 16, 2010. Beginning on January 17th there was a stretch of two weeks in which one or two Christians were killed every day. Many of the faithful fled the city. Yet, over time, many of them have returned.

What have these four years been like?
It was not possible to do many of things that would be normal in a diocese. Getting around the city is not easy. You have to act with great caution. Thanks be to God, all the churches of the city have remained open with the exception of three parishes that have closed due to a lack of numbers or because they were in the most dangerous areas.

What has the faith meant for you and your faithful living under these circumstances?
Many Christians could not afford to flee, mostly because of economic reasons and because of their work. I have always tried to give them hope, to help them understand that it’s possible to live, even here. I’ve always said that despite the risk of being killed in one hour or in one minute, it is possible to live every moment full of hope and joy.

How did you learn that this is possible?
I myself began to live this way, and then I started to communicate this in my homilies and in meetings. Over time, I noticed that the people changed too; the faithful were in need of this certainty. They needed to learn to live in a situation where you risk your life despite being threatened by a society that does not welcome Christians. Mosul is a city that does not accept the different way that Christians live. Still, in all of this, I saw that I was living with joy.

How have you noticed this change in the Christians?
From the way we live. They were the ones to tell me that they needed to be more attached to our faith. It was they who told me that they began to live again amidst the many difficulties. They told me in words and I, from their eyes, could see that it was true. I could tell by the way they said it. I have seen this change day by day. When I arrived, it was totally different. After six months, a year, the change in them was palpable.

What has made this possible?
A deeper understanding of the faith has made this possible. This is what gives us a clearer vision of life, regardless of whether this is a time of difficulty. During these years my effort has been to deepen the content of our faith, to communicate it in a simple way that could reach everyone even those who know nothing of theology. I’d like to think I’ve managed a little bit. I say that because, when I visit around the diocese, it is the faithful who ask me to keep returning to the contents of the faith. It is faith that gives us strength.

Of these “contents of the faith,” what is most precious?
Hope. That is the motto of my episcopate. This is not something that we wait for in the afterlife, but instead it is to know that what you look forward to in heaven is already taking place today, at this moment. This allows you to live each moment for what it is: unrepeatable. And, if we know that it is unique then we can live it to the fullest. We live the fullness of faith and joy, but also of anger if there is anger. Everything is different within a perspective of hope and it is that same hope that gives me the strength to communicate it to others.

What are you asking for in prayer these days?
I pray that the Lord gives serenity of heart to all of the people of Iraq. Without this serenity there will never be peace.