1,400-year-old Chris­tian monastery de­mol­ished by Is­lamic State

The Denver Post - - FRONT PAGE - By Martha Men­doza, Maya Alleruzzo and Bram Janssen

The 1,400-year-old St. Eli­jah’s has joined a grow­ing list of more than 100 de­mol­ished religious and his­toric sites, in­clud­ing mosques, tombs, shrines and churches in Syria and Iraq.

The old­est Chris­tian monastery in Iraq has been re­duced to a field of rub­ble, yet an­other vic­tim of the Is­lamic State ter­ror­ist group’s re­lent­less de­struc­tion of an­cient cul­tural sites. For 1,400 years, the com­pound sur­vived as­saults by na­ture and man, stand­ing as a place of wor­ship re­cently for U.S. troops. In ear­lier cen­turies, gen­er­a­tions of monks tucked can­dles in the niches and prayed in the cool chapel. The Greek let­ters chi and rho, rep­re­sent­ing the first two let­ters of Christ’s name, were carved near the en­trance.

Now satel­lite pho­tos ob­tained ex­clu­sively by The As­so­ci­ated Press con­firm the worst fears of church au­thor­i­ties and preser­va­tion­ists — St. Eli­jah’s Monastery of Mo­sul has been com­pletely wiped out.

In his of­fice in ex­ile in Irbil, Iraq, the Rev. Paul Thabit Habib, 39, stared qui­etly at be­fore- and af­ter-im­ages of the monastery that once perched on a hill­side above his home­town of Mo­sul. Shaken, he flipped back to his own pho­tos for com­par­i­son.

“I can’t de­scribe my sad­ness,” he said in Ara­bic. “Our Chris­tian his­tory in Mo­sul is be­ing bar­bar­i­cally lev­eled. We see it as an at­tempt to ex­pel us from Iraq, elim­i­nat­ing and fin­ish­ing our ex­is­tence in this land.”

The Is­lamic State group, which broke from al-Qaeda and now con­trols large parts of Iraq and Syria, has killed thou­sands of civil­ians and forced out hun­dreds of thou­sands of Chris­tians, threat­en­ing a re­li­gion that has en­dured in the re­gion for 2,000 years. Along the way, its fight­ers have de­stroyed build­ings and ru­ined his­tor­i­cal and cul­tur­ally sig­nif­i­cant struc­tures they con­sider con­trary to their in­ter­pre­ta­tion of Is­lam.

Those who knew the monastery won­dered about its fate af­ter the ter­ror­ists swept through in June 2014 and largely cut com­mu­ni­ca­tions to the area.

Now, St. Eli­jah’s has joined a grow­ing list of more than 100 de­mol­ished religious and his­toric sites, in­clud­ing mosques, tombs, shrines and churches in Syria and Iraq. The ter­ror­ists have de­faced or ru­ined an­cient mon­u­ments in Nin­eveh, Palmyra

and Ha­tra. Mu­se­ums and li­braries have been looted, books burned, art­work crushed — or traf­ficked.

“A big part of tan­gi­ble his­tory has been de­stroyed,” said the Rev. Manuel Yousif Boji. A Chaldean Catholic pas­tor in South­field, Mich., he re­mem­bers at­tend­ing Mass at St. Eli­jah’s al­most 60 years ago while a sem­i­nar­ian in Mo­sul.

“Th­ese per­se­cu­tions have hap­pened to our church more than once, but we be­lieve in the power of truth, the power of God,” said Boji. He 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.

At the Vat­i­can, spokesman the Rev. Fed­erico Lom­bardi, noted that since the monastery dates back to the time Chris­tians were united, be­fore the break with Ortho­dox and Catholics, the place would be a spe­cial one for many. He said it was the first news he had had of the de­struc­tion.

“Un­for­tu­nately, there is this sys­temic de­struc­tion of pre­cious sites, not only cul­tural, but also religious and spir­i­tual,” he said. “It’s very sad and dra­matic.”

The de­struc­tion of the monastery is a blow for U.S. troops and ad­vis­ers who served in Iraq and had tried to pro­tect and honor the site, a hope­ful en­deavor in a vi­o­lent place and time.

Suzanne Bott, who spent more than two years restor­ing St. Eli­jah’s Monastery as a U.S. State Depart­ment cul­tural ad­viser in Iraq, teared up when The AP showed her the im­ages.

“Oh, no way. It’s just razed com­pletely,” said Bott. “What we lose is a very tan­gi­ble re­minder of the roots of a re­li­gion.”

Army Re­serve Col. Mary Prophit re­mem­bered a sun­rise ser­vice at St. Eli­jah’s, where, as a Catholic lay min­is­ter, she served Holy Com­mu­nion.

“I let that mo­ment sink in, the can­dle­light, the first rays of sun­shine. We were wor­ship­ing in a place where peo­ple had been wor­ship­ing 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?’” said Prophit, a li­brary man­ager in Glenoma, Wash.

This month, at the re­quest of The AP, satel­lite im­agery firm DigitalGlobe pulled a se­ries of im­ages of the same spot from their ar­chive of pic­tures taken glob­ally ev­ery day.

Im­agery an­a­lyst Stephen Wood, CEO of All­source Anal­y­sis, re­viewed the pic­tures for The AP and iden­ti­fied the date of de­struc­tion be­tween Aug. 27 and Sept. 28, 2014. Be­fore it was razed, im­ages show a par­tially re­stored, 27,000-square-foot religious build­ing. Al­though the roof was largely miss­ing, it had 26 dis­tinc­tive rooms, in­clud­ing a sanc­tu­ary and chapel. One month later, “the stone walls have been lit­er­ally pul­ver­ized,” said Wood.

“Bull­doz­ers, heavy equip­ment, sledge­ham­mers, pos­si­bly ex­plo­sives turned those stone walls into this field of gray-white dust. They de­stroyed it com­pletely,” he said. “There’s noth­ing to re­build.”

The monastery, called Dair Mar Elia, is named for St. Eli­jah, the Assyr­ian Chris­tian monk who built it be­tween the years 582 and 590. In 1743, tragedy struck when as many as 150 monks who re­fused to con­vert to Is­lam were mas­sa­cred un­der or­ders of a Per­sian gen­eral, and the monastery was dam­aged. For the next two cen­turies, it re­mained a place of pil­grim­age, even af­ter it was in­cor­po­rated into an Iraqi mil­i­tary train­ing base and later a U.S. base.

In 2003, St. Eli­jah’s was shud­dered again — this time a wall was smashed by a tank tur­ret blown off in bat­tle. Iraqi troops had al­ready moved in, dump­ing garbage in the an­cient cis­tern. The U.S. Army’s 101st Air­borne Divi­sion took con­trol, with troops paint­ing over an­cient mu­rals and scrawl­ing their divi­sion’s “Scream­ing Ea­gle,” along with “Chad wuz here” and “I love Deb­bie,” on the walls.

A U.S. mil­i­tary chap­lain, rec­og­niz­ing St. Eli­jah’s sig­nif­i­cance, kicked the troops out and the Army’s sub­se­quent preser­va­tion ini­tia­tive be­came a pet pro­ject for a se­ries of chap­lains who toured thou­sands of sol­diers through the ruin.

“It was a sa­cred place. We lit­er­ally bent down phys­i­cally to en­ter, an ac­qui­es­cence to the re­al­ity that there was some­thing greater go­ing on in­side,” re­mem­bered mil­i­tary chap­lain Jef­frey Whor­ton. A Catholic priest who now works at Fort Bragg, he had to col­lect him­self af­ter view­ing the dam­age. “I don’t know why this is af­fect­ing me so much,” he said.

The U.S. mil­i­tary’s ef­forts drew at­ten­tion from in­ter­na­tional me­dia out­lets in­clud­ing The AP in 2008. To­day those chron­i­cles, from YouTube videos cap­tured on the cell­phones of vis­it­ing sol­diers to The AP’s own high-res­o­lu­tion, de­tailed pho­to­graphs, take on new im­por­tance as ar­chives of what was lost.

One piece pub­lished in Smithsonian Mag­a­zine was writ­ten by Amer­i­can jour­nal­ist James Fo­ley, six years be­fore he was killed by Is­lamic State ter­ror­ists.

St. Eli­jah’s was be­ing saved, Fo­ley wrote in 2008, “for fu­ture gen­er­a­tions of Iraqis who will hope­fully soon have the se­cu­rity to ap­pre­ci­ate it.”

Maya Alleruzzo, The As­so­ci­ated Press

St. Eli­jah’s Monastery, pic­tured in 2008, served the Chris­tian com­mu­nity for cen­turies, at­tract­ing wor­shipers from through­out the re­gion.

Satel­lite im­ages show the site of the 1,400-year-old Chris­tian monastery known as St. Eli­jah’s, or Dair Mar Elia, on the out­skirts of Mo­sul, Iraq. Th­ese satel­lite pho­tos con­firm what church lead­ers and Middle East preser­va­tion­ists had feared: The monastery has been re­duced to a field of rub­ble, yet an­other vic­tim of the Is­lamic State’s re­lent­less de­struc­tion. DigitalGlobe, The As­so­ci­ated Press

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