Satellite photos obtained by The Associated Press confirm what church leaders and Middle East preservationists had feared: The oldest Christian monastery in Iraq has been reduced to a field of rubble, yet another victim of the Islamic State group’s relentless destruction of heritage sites it considers heretical.
Stephen Wood, CEO of Allsource Analysis, pinpointed the destruction between August and September 2014.
“Bulldozers, heavy equipment, sledgehammers, possibly explosives turned those stone walls into this field of gray-white dust. They destroyed it completely.”
St. Elijah’s Monastery stood as a place of worship for 1,400 years, including most recently for U.S. troops. The Greek letters chi and rho, representing the first two letters of Christ’s name, were carved near the entrance.
The Fox News report, shared Catholic priest Rev. Paul Thabit Habib, 39, at his office in exile in Irbil, stared in disbelief at the images.
“Our Christian history in Mosul is being barbarically leveled,” he said in Arabic. “We see it as an attempt to expel us from Iraq, eliminating and finishing our existence in this land.”
Rev. Manuel Yousif Boji, a Chaldean Catholic pastor in Southfield, Michigan remembers attending Mass at St. Elijah’s almost 60 years ago while a seminarian in Mosul. He said,
“A big part of tangible history has been destroyed. These persecutions have happened to our church more than once, but we believe in the power of truth, the power of God.”
Boji is part of the Detroit area’s Chaldean community, which became the largest outside Iraq after the sectarian bloodshed that followed the U.S. invasion in 2003. Iraq’s Christian population has dropped from 1.3 million then to 300,000 now, church authorities say.
Included in the Fox report, St. Elijah’s along with more than 100 religious and historic sites looted and destroyed, including mosques, tombs, shrines and churches. Ancient monuments in the cities of Nineveh, Palmyra and Hatra are in ruins. Museums and libraries have been pillaged, books burned, artwork crushed — or trafficked.
U.S. troops and advisers had worked to protect and honor the monastery, a hopeful endeavor in a violent place and time.
U.S. Army reserve Col. Mary Prophit, remembered a sunrise service in St. Elijah where, as a Catholic lay minister, she served communion said,
“I let that moment sink in, the candlelight, the first rays of sunshine. We were worshipping in a place where people had been worshipping God for 1,400 years,” said Prophit, who was deployed there in 2004 and again in 2009.
“I would imagine that many people are feeling like, ‘What were the last 10 years for if these guys can go in and destroy everything?'”
St. Elijah’s was built in 590. In 1743 around 150 monks who refused to convert to Islam were massacred by a Persian general. In 2003 a wall was smashed during a battle. Iraqi troops used the cistern as a garbage dumping ground. The report also claims the U.S. Army’s 101st Airborne Division painted over ancient murals and their division’s “Screaming Eagle” on the walls. But a U.S. military chaplain recognized its significance and began a preservation initiative.
Roman Catholic Army chaplain Jeffrey Whorton, who celebrated Mass on the monastery’s altar, was grief-stricken at its loss.
“Why we treat each other like this is beyond me,” he said. “Elijah the prophet must be weeping.”
Upon hearing the news, a Vatican spokesman, Rev. Federico Lombardi told the AP,
“Unfortunately, there is this systemic destruction of precious sites, not only cultural, but also religious and spiritual. It’s very sad and dramatic.”