Saddamís hermits in the cliff-side monastery

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By Paul Eedle

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Father Adda Khidr Ablahad Al-Qiss in Monastery of Saint Matthew, an hourís drive north of Mosul. There were once 7,000 monks here.

Father Adda Khidr Ablahad Al-Qiss is a small, jovial man with twinkling eyes and an extremely public appreciation of the generosity of President Saddam Hussein to his cliff-hanging monastery.

A Saint Matthew came here as a hermit and founded the monastery in 363 A.D. It flourished and had 7,000 monks at its height. But after the 9th century it suffered from repeated attacks as different military rulers swept through the area and today the large complex houses only two monks and a bishop.

But it's famous throughout Iraq. Father Adda said Saddam Hussein's late cousin, Adnan Khairallah, who was for many years defence minister, came here in 1979 and asked for his wife to bear a child. The family are Sunni Muslims, but it's quite common for people in the Middle East to visit shrines of different religions. Khairallah's wish was granted, he told Saddam about the monastery, and the President came on two visits in 1980 and 1981.

"He gave a large donation to the monastery and we are still benefiting from it. We have used it to rebuild and repair the monastery. He offered to put everything right inside the monastery and out - except for the most ancient parts, which he ordered should stay as they were so people could see how old they were," Father Adda said.

"The monastery is open to all sects and religions. We pray that God will always keep President Saddam Hussein and preserve him."

Of course, he couldnít very well say anything else even if he wanted to. Everyone knows the price of public criticism in Iraq. But there are reasons to think that Iraqís Christian minority have some genuine sort of accomodation with the regime of Saddam Hussein.

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