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'Always, we're sad': Moorhead family loses uncle to Iraq violence

Nazar Butras listens to his wife, Nedaa Kia, talk about their uncle, Butras Kia Ako, during an interview in their Moorhead home. Photo by Nick Wagner / The Forum1 / 2
Butras Kia Ako, a Christian, refused to convert to Islam so he was apparently executed in northern Iraq by militants with the Islamic State, according to a local Catholic deacon. Photo special to The Forum2 / 2

MOORHEAD - Butras Kia Ako spent his life in Tel Skuf, a Christian town in northern Iraq where villagers converse in Aramaic, the same language Jesus spoke.

Ako worked for an oil company and lived in a small house. He loved one woman, but her mother would not allow the marriage. His love was so strong, he couldn’t move on. “If I don’t marry her, I never marry,” his family remembered him saying.

And so, he was a lifelong bachelor. In his old age, he lived alone, but a relative would regularly stop by to care for him, said his niece, Nedaa Kia, who lives in south Moorhead.

Earlier this month, when militants with the Islamic State, a jihadist group battling government forces in Iraq, swept through Tel Skuf, villagers were forced to leave or risk becoming martyrs.

The relative looking after 74-year-old Ako had multiple children and no car. So, when he and his family dashed from the village on foot, Ako, who needed a cane to walk, was left behind.

“They don’t have time to take him,” said Kia’s husband, Nazar Butras. The Islamic State “is coming right away.”

This band of militants, widely seen as more hardline than al-Qaida, has been storming Iraqi villages armed with machine guns. They’ve given the country’s Christian minority three options: convert to Islam, pay a religious tax or face the sword.

In the days after residents fled Tel Skuf, a Muslim friend of the family went to check on Ako and found his decomposing body. The news of Ako’s death reached Kia and Butras in Moorhead on Aug. 10.

“He do everything for everybody,” Butras said of Ako. “He don’t have a problem with anybody.”

It’s unclear whether Ako died at the hands of militants or some other way. But his family says that he was a devout Catholic and if ordered to convert to Islam, he would have chosen death.

Ako was a blood uncle to both Kia, 40, and Butras, 52, because they are cousins who married, which is customary in Iraq. The couple left their war-weary homeland with their children in 2004, and the family lived in Syria until 2008 when they came to the U.S. as refugees. After 1½ years in San Diego, they moved to Moorhead and joined a community of about 15 Iraqi Catholic families.

Kia and Butras, who have four children, ages 9 to 20, belong to St. Anthony of Padua Parish in Fargo. There, a Mass was recently held for their uncle, and a priest asked all the Iraqi Catholics to stand in the pews to be recognized. “I was very, very proud of them, and I was very sad for them,” deacon Stuart Longtin said.

Longtin said he’s known Kia, Butras and their family for about two years. They, along with other Iraqi families, use the church’s social hall for Christmas celebrations, punctuated by Middle Eastern food and dancing.

Longtin said that after learning of Ako’s death, he asked the family if there was anything he could do.

“Their reply is, ‘Pray for him,’ ” he said. “My reply is, ‘I will do that, and I will pray for you, too.’ ”

Kia hosted a funeral for Ako at her house, with women gathered on the first floor and men congregated in the basement. Grieving is not new for the family, which has lost other relatives to the upheaval in Iraq, including Butras’ brother who was kidnapped two years ago and remains unaccounted for.

“Always, we’re sad,” Kia said. “This is not life.”

As the fighting continues, the future for their surviving relatives in Iraq is uncertain.

“There is no government,” Butras said. “There is nothing to do something.”

Reuters contributed to this report.