Keeping faith: 9 Christians trapped inside ancient monastery in ISIS-occupied Iraq

The monastery of St. Matthew, also known as Mar Mattai, sits on a mountainside in Erbil, Iraq. A group of students and monks is taking refuge in the site surrounded by ISIS militants.(Wikipedia)

Three monks and six students are trapped inside a fourth-century monastery in Erbil, northern Iraq, surrounded by Islamic State militants and protected by just a handful of Kurdish fighters guarding the ancient site.

The nine Christians have opted to stay in the Monastery of Saint Matthew, saying they are entrusting their lives to God, Erbil's Chaldean Archbishop Bashar Warda told the Catholic News Agency.

"There is a kind of feeling that they cannot express, but they at least feel relaxed in a way that even if, God forbid, something would happen, they are in safe hands," said Warda, who was the main speaker during a recent press briefing in Rome on the ISIS campaign of terror in Iraq and Syria.

Even though ISIS is now in control of much of the region after it seized the territory last summer, the nine occupants of the monastery are determined to stay in their refuge confident of the protection of the Kurdish military.

"We can see the battles and the air strikes from here in front of us, especially at night," said Yousif Ibrahim, one of the monks. "The sky lights up at night, but we of course are not scared. God protects us."

One of the students said he is not fearful despite the threat of invasion by the Islamic extremists. The Syrian Orthodox Church-led monastery, being on the edge of the conflict, faces the ever-constant threat of being the latest Christian landmark to be ruined by the group.

"I don't even want to think or speak about the destruction the Islamic State would cause if they took our monastery, said student Sahar Karaikos.

However, Archbishop Warda said he is more concerned with the destruction of people's faith.

"They've destroyed walls and historical sites, but they were unable to destroy the faith of the community. And that's the good news, that our people are strong enough to leave everything behind and just stay Christians."

As many Christians have already been killed since the ISIS' reign of terror began, martyrdom for the group remains a possibility.

Asked if he's ready to face death, Warda replied: "It's better not to think about it."

"When it comes, my wish is just to be ready. All I wish is to be ready and to have the courageous response like my people have given. Christ is the only wish that we love."

Established in 363 by the hermit St. Matthew, the monastery known also as Mar Mattai is one of the oldest Christian monasteries in Iraq.