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World of Worship: Ancient monastery in Iraq survives centuries of upheaval, but ISIS threat is still felt

Ancient monastery in Iraq survives upheaval
Ancient Christian monastery in Iraq survives centuries of upheaval 04:17

For our series World of Worship, we sent correspondents around the globe to show us how different people celebrate their faith and honor religious traditions. In our first report, we head to the Middle East.

In recent years, Iraq has suffered terrible violence, often inflamed by religious differences. But in a country where worship can come at a heavy cost, CBS News correspondent Charlie D'Agata discovered an unlikely oasis hidden in the mountains: an ancient Christian monastery.

The Rabban Hormizd Monastery, one of the oldest of its kind in the world, was founded almost 1,400 years ago. Carved into and out of the very rock on which it rests, the temple overlooks the vast plains of northern Iraq.

Its namesake, Rabban Hormizd, traveled from Persia. He lived as a hermit for almost 30 years, living an austere life of isolation in the network of caves that push deep into the mountainside. Over time, more monks made the pilgrimage, settling in its labyrinth.

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"Christians are an important part of the community here in Iraqi Kurdistan," said 21-year-old Miriam Salih, who traveled to the monastery with other Iraqi history students. "They've been here for thousands of years."
Over the centuries, the monastery has been more than a house of worship. It's been a sanctuary, a safe place in a region that has had more than its fair share of upheaval. The Mongols, the Kurds, the Ottomans and the Turks all overran the territory at one point or another, yet it somehow survived.

But the biggest threat came in modern times. When ISIS rampaged throughout the region in 2014, the Islamic extremists targeted anything to do with Christianity. Churches that stood for centuries were ruined in a matter of seconds. 
When ISIS overran nearby Mosul, tens of thousands of terrified Christians fled, escaping to other Christian towns in the region. At one point, the terrorist group was just a 10-minute drive away from the Christian town of Alqosh that sits at the base of the mountain. They never made it any closer, but the threat is still felt today.

At the monastery, an armed bodyguard follows the priest everywhere. The head monk, Father Denha Toma, knows they have to plan for the worst. He was in Mosul when ISIS invaded five years ago.  
"What do you think ISIS would have done if they had reached this place?" D'Agata asked Toma.

"Wherever they saw a cross they smashed it," he said. "They erased any traces of Christianity. Even the Virgin Mary — there used to be a statue of her. They chopped the head off and left the rest of the statue standing there. If they had reached here, they would have certainly destroyed this monastery."

Before the U.S.-led invasion, the insurgency and ISIS, there were around 1.5 million Christians in Iraq. There are now barely 250,000. In fact there are now more Chaldean Catholics, the most followed denomination among Iraqi Christians, in the United States than in Iraq.

The regional Archbishop recently described Christianity in Iraq as being "perilously close to extinction," which means one of the oldest continuous Christian communities in existence now remains on a cliff-edge.

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