Muslims wiping out Christian history.
IRBIL, Iraq (AP) — 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 extremists 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 Rev. Manuel Yousif Boji. A Chaldean Catholic pastor in Southfield, Michigan, 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 Rev. Federico Lombardi noted that since the monastery dates back to the time Christians were united, 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. It’s very sad and dramatic,” Lombardi said.
This month, at the request of 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 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,” he said. “There’s nothing to rebuild.”
The monastery, called Dair Mar Elia, is named for the Assyrian Christian monk — St. Elijah — who built it between 582 and 590 A.C. It was a holy site for Iraqi Christians for centuries, part of the Mideast’s Chaldean Catholic community.
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.
Then in 2003 St. Elijah’s 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 Ft. 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 cell phones of visiting soldiers to 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 militants.
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.”
Foley’s piece here.
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