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white tents in a refugee camp

“Please Help Us!”

Andreas Knapp

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In this sample chapter from his book The Last ChristiansAndreas Knapp describes the encounter that opened his eyes to the plight of displaced and persecuted Christians in the Middle East.
Refugee child from near Aleppo, Syria

Charles de Foucauld was born in 1858, the son of a wealthy aristocratic family in Strasbourg, France. Having lost his Christian faith as a teenager, he made a career for himself in the army and became famous for his geographical explorations of Morocco. Through his encounters with Islam, he came to rethink his attitude toward God and rediscovered his Christian faith. He sought to imitate the life of Jesus in Nazareth, living by his own labor in simple surroundings. He joined a Trappist monastery in Syria, and later went to live as a hermit in the middle of the Sahara, where he befriended the nomadic tribes of Bedouin Muslims known as the Tuaregs. He shared in their lives, valued their culture, and strove for a dialogue with Islam.

Charles de Foucauld was shot on December 1, 1916, amid the turmoil of the First World War.

When I first see the little boy – he looks about eleven – he catches my attention immediately. There is a hint of sadness in his big dark eyes. Though glimpsed only briefly, his image stays with me as I set about arranging jugs of water and apple juice on the table. Nearly forty people have responded to the invitation by our community to today’s commemoration of Charles de Foucauld.

My community, the Little Brothers of Jesus, traces its origins back to this adventurer turned desert monk. Four of us have shared a house in a prefab housing project on the outskirts of Leipzig for the past ten years, and every year we invite friends and members of our parish to our ceremony on the first Sunday of Advent. When we were searching for a theme for our 2014 event, my fellow brother, Gianluca, had a brilliant idea: “Charles de Foucauld spent six years living as a monk in Syria. I have a Syrian colleague who’s lived in Leipzig for years and is a Christian. He could tell us about the situation of Christians in Syria.” We liked the idea and Gabriel and his family were duly invited.

As our little gathering gets under way, we are astonished to see more new faces in the room. Gabriel has interpreted our invitation very freely and brought a number of refugees from Syria and Iraq along with him. Most of them are clearly recent arrivals to our district, where there are still empty apartments in the prefabs from the old communist days. And now, sitting here at our tables, are women and men with jet-black hair and dark eyes, speaking a language I don’t understand. The little boy belongs to this group too; he seems to have come with his father.

After the welcoming address, Gabriel steps up and begins to speak about his home city of Aleppo. We listen intently to his descriptions – delivered with characteristic Middle Eastern flourishes – of the ancient city with its famous citadel, a UNESCO World Heritage site. Leipzig is proud to be celebrating its thousandth anniversary in 2015. But what are a thousand years compared with the age-old cities of the Middle East, the cradle of civilization? Aleppo can look back over seven thousand years of history! And yet the war between cultures and nations is older still. Such a war is raging even now in Aleppo, Gabriel tells us. In the fight against opposition militias, helicopters sent by Syria’s Assad regime are dropping barrel bombs and ripping out whole blocks of houses. Nearly two thousand of these iron barrels packed with explosive and bits of metal have been dropped on Aleppo. And Islamic State terrorists are shelling the Christian district bisected by the front between the deadly enemies.

“We are completely at the mercy of the terrorists.”

“We Christians – as so often in my country’s history – are caught in the crossfire. We are completely at the mercy of the terrorists. My brother-in-law was killed when IS militias bombarded our street again a few months ago. My sister is still living in Aleppo with four small children. She and her husband didn’t want to leave their home, but now that she’s a widow she doesn’t have much choice. Only how can she get to Europe with four children?”

We are shocked to hear about the scale of the destruction and the cruelty inflicted. Our yearly commemoration is taking on a very somber tone. We’ve all been following the news about the war in Syria. But it’s quite another thing to come face to face with Syrians who have fled the terror and seen their own family members killed. We are no longer talking anonymous statistics but faces: prematurely aged faces with immense suffering written in them. Faces still haunted by fear.

The dark brown eyes of that little boy. As the guests are dispersing and we start to wash the dishes, a thickset man of about forty comes up to me. He only speaks a few words of German. Beside him is the boy with the jet-black hair. Yousif – as the broad-shouldered stranger turns out to be called – addresses me. I don’t understand, but the boy already speaks excellent German and translates for him, “We are from Iraq, from Mosul. Please help us!”

I suddenly feel giddy as the multitude of tasks awaiting me flashes before my eyes: my duties at the prison and in the parish always pile up in the weeks before Christmas. The student Catholic society is offering a four-week course entitled “Spiritual Exercises in Everyday Life,” and I have promised to run eight counseling sessions each week. All this and much more weighs on my mind. I feel like saying, “Sorry, …I’d love to…but I haven’t got time.”

My life hasn’t been the same since.

But I can’t do it. The young boy’s look melts my heart. I can’t say no. I ask, “Don’t you have anyone to support you?” The boy translates my question for his father, who shakes his head. “Can you give me your phone number?” Amanuel, as the boy is called, writes down a cell phone number on a paper napkin. The next day, I call to arrange a visit. My life hasn’t been the same since.

A few days later, I ring the doorbell of an eleven-story apartment block in the Miltitzer Allee. Yousif lives on the third floor with his wife, Tara, and their two children, Amanuel and Shaba. They invite me into their living room. The walls are adorned with religious images: a rather gaudy painting of the Last Supper and a portrait of Saint George, alongside a calendar in Arabic with a photo of a bearded bishop.

Yousif’s request for help, I learn, concerns his children. There are problems at school. Amanuel, a handsome, slightly built boy, confides to me that he is regularly bullied by his Muslim schoolmates because of the small cross he wears around his neck. Amanuel has always worn this cross, even when things got dangerous for Christians in Mosul. I promise to get in touch with the principal. Then I ask Yousif – with Amanuel’s help – to tell me something of their story.

Bombed church building with two crosses The destroyed dome of the Church of Saints Sergius and Bacchus in Ma'loula, Syria Photograph: Aid to the Church in Need

In Mosul,Tara and Yousif had been very involved in the Syrian Orthodox Church. But after 2003, everything changed.

The United States and Britain attacked Iraq on the premise that the country had developed weapons of mass destruction. Subsequent investigations revealed this to be merely a pretext. While, on the face of it, the war may have been about the removal of the dictator Saddam Hussein and the “import” of democracy, the subtext was undoubtedly the export of cheap oil. 

In response to the American-led invasion of Iraq, Muslim clerics called for a holy war. Large numbers of fundamentalist jihadists from all over the Islamic world came together to wage war on the “unbelievers.” Christians in Iraq became fair game for the Islamists.

But why were local Christians singled out as prime targets for their attacks? The fact that the Prophet Muhammad was both a religious and political leader means that religion and politics have always been closely interwoven in Islam: consequently, war can also take on a religious dimension. In the eyes of many Muslims, Western nations are “Christian” states. Therefore, in the event of attack by those states, Christians in the Middle East are suspected of being collaborators and allies of the invaders. The Christians’ precarious situation was worsened by a speech by President George W. Bush, in which he called his war a “crusade,” thereby stirring up deep-seated Muslim resentment against the West. The Iraqi Christians, who had never been involved in a crusade in their two-thousand-year history, were seen as guilty by association and subjected to a regime of terror. They became scapegoats on whom revenge could be exacted for the aggression of the “Christian occupiers.” 

For example, protection money was extorted from Christians by invoking the ancient Islamic practice of levying a special tax, referred to as jizya in the Koran, on non-­Muslims. Under Islamic (shari’a) law, Christians must pay jizya for the privilege of being allowed – albeit to a very limited extent – to practice their religion.

According to Yousif, the sums demanded increased year by year. You paid up because you knew what the alternative would be: destruction of your property, and murder. Even Christian churches became targets of the terror perpetrated in the name of Islam. Yet many Christians still wouldn’t contemplate leaving Mosul, cherishing the faint hope that the nightmare would come to an end one day. Among these were Yousif and Tara.

Instead, things got even worse. One day, an anonymous caller threatened to cut off Yousif’s left arm. He knew immediately what the caller was getting at, as he had a large cross tattooed on his brawny left forearm. “You just try!” Yousif retorted impulsively, and hung up.

It was plain to him that he was living dangerously now.

It was plain to him that he was living dangerously now. And that his young family was at risk too. A few days later, the phone rang again: “If you’re not gone in three days, you will go to hell!” Yousif knew he had to act fast, and left Mosul with his wife and their two children. They made for Erbil, the capital of the Kurdish autonomous region in northern Iraq. There he was safe, but unable to find work. After much agonizing, he made up his mind to flee to Europe, preferably to Germany or Sweden.

The Koran is the holy book of Islam and is believed by Muslims to contain the Word of God as revealed to the Prophet Muhammad through the angel Gabriel over the course of twenty-two years.

The early revelations (in Mecca) are characterized by openness and tolerance. They reflect the situation of the prophet who, despite his lack of political power, attempted to win over the people of Mecca, as well as Jews and Christians, to the new religion. The later revelations (in Medina) are quite different: by this time, Muhammad had achieved political and military power, and was both a religious leader and statesman.

The Koran consists of 114 suras (chapters) which are organized not chronologically but roughly in order of length. Where contradictions occur, the prevailing Islamic doctrine teaches that the newer (later) verses are to be seen as correcting or superseding the older ones.

Accordingly, many Koranic scholars argue that the newer verses calling for war on non-Muslims override all the other verses exhorting to peaceable conduct.

This journey had to be undertaken alone. Though it broke Yousif’s heart to leave them behind, such a venture was far too hazardous for his wife and children, the only route being via the dark machinations of a people-­smuggling gang. The price demanded was seventeen thousand US dollars. Yousif sold everything he possibly could and borrowed the rest from friends and relatives. Even now, he tells me, he still owes five thousand.

The smugglers took him over the Turkish border. He wasn’t allowed to take any luggage with him, and had to surrender his passport. There were days of waiting around. Then he was taken in a car to another town and, with just the clothes on his back, crammed into a hidden compartment inside a semitrailer. It was a large truck transporting vegetables across the Bosporus, Greece, and the Balkans to Germany.

Inside the trailer, a double wall was fitted directly behind the tractor unit. The entrance was inside the trailer, via a trapdoor in the rear wall that was so well concealed as to be invisible. Yousif squeezed through this opening into a dark space so narrow he could only stand up by leaning sideways to accommodate his broad shoulders. On the floor was some corrugated foam rubber for sitting or lying on. A few plastic water bottles and packets of cookies were piled up in a corner; no other food was provided. There were two palm-sized air holes to prevent the occupant from suffocating and through which he could relieve himself, though only while the vehicle was in motion; whenever it stopped, absolute silence had to be maintained.

Yousif’s heart beat wildly as the trapdoor was screwed tight from the outside, leaving him incarcerated in his dark dungeon. The truck set off and later he could hear some men loading the trailer. Seven days and seven nights Yousif spent in this cramped, lightless space. Sometimes he would fall asleep from sheer exhaustion, but even in his sleep he was tortured by fear: what if he suffocated inside this cage? What if he was discovered during border checks? And could he trust the smugglers, who had made him hand over the full payment in advance? Might they release him from his cell on some lonely back road only to kill him? But worst of all was the bitter anguish he felt at the thought of the wife and children he had left behind.

There was one point where it all nearly went wrong.

There was one point where it all nearly went wrong. The truck had been stationary for some time and Yousif was fighting to stay awake. He knew that he snored, and that the noise could prove his downfall. Suddenly he started. Someone was tapping the outer wall with a metal object. Had his snoring betrayed him? Were they checking the truck for a hidden cavity? Yousif’s heart was in his mouth, and he hardly dared to breathe. Outside, loud voices were arguing in a foreign language. Then the engine started up. Breathing a sigh of relief, Yousif slumped to the floor and fell fast asleep.

Finally, after seven days of darkness, he heard the trailer being unloaded; then the truck rumbled off again. A couple of hours later, it stopped. The trapdoor was unscrewed and opened; Yousif crawled out and was helped down by the driver. His limbs were stiff and he could hardly walk. He rubbed his eyes, now unaccustomed to the light. He was in an empty parking lot, lit feebly by a couple of streetlamps. It was bitterly cold and there wasn’t a sound to be heard apart from the rumble of the engine.

The driver pointed in the direction of the local station. There Yousif was to wait for a man who would return his passport.

“How will I recognize him?” Yousif asked.

“He’ll recognize you – he has your passport photo.”

The driver climbed hurriedly back into his cab and stepped on the gas. Yousif stood uncertainly for a few moments in the deserted parking lot. Then, pulling himself together, he stumbled on his way, still feeling very stiff. Soon, he was hiking along the road in the indicated direction, speeding up a little with each step. Spotting a white license plate in unfamiliar lettering on a passing vehicle, he read: C – Chemnitz. He was in Germany.

For four hours Yousif waited outside Chemnitz station for the stranger who was supposed to return his passport. A red neon sign showed minus twenty degrees Celsius (minus four Fahrenheit). He was shaking all over with cold. Nobody came. By now, day was breaking and Yousif stopped a passerby: “Police?” At the police station, they wanted to see his papers. Yousif couldn’t make himself understood. One of the police officers saw the leaden fatigue in Yousif’s face and offered him a comfortable chair. He sat down and fell asleep on the spot. An hour later he was awoken and, with the aid of an interpreter, related his story. Afterwards, he was taken to a hostel for asylum seekers, where he was able to talk to his wife and parents on the phone for the first time in four weeks. At last, a sign of life after four weeks that felt like an eternity!

For another six months, Yousif lived in an agony of uncertainty: Would things remain calm in Ankawa? Was there a chance that Tara and the children might be able to come to Germany soon? Would his parents – left behind in Mosul – be put under pressure or even murdered by the jihadists? Such thoughts and fears tortured him night and day. And he felt so helpless in this new country, whose language he didn’t understand and whose bureaucracy was a mystery to him. Finally, his asylum application was accepted and he was able to bring Tara over with Amanuel and Shaba by legal means. What a reunion it was at the Berlin airport after those long, anxious months!

At the same time, his home city of Mosul was occupied by IS militias, forcing his parents, his brother, and all his relatives, along with the entire Christian community, to leave the city and flee to Ankawa.


From The Last Christians: Stories of Persecution, Flight, and Resilience in the Middle East

Tent of Christian Syrian refugees with cross painted on the roof Refugee camp on the grounds of Mar Elya Church, Ankawa, Iraq Photograph by Allen Kakony
Contributed By Andreas Knapp Andreas Knapp

A poet, priest, and popular author in Germany, Andreas Knapp left a secure position as head of Freiburg Seminary to live and work among the poor as a member of the Little Brothers of the Gospel.

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