The cross of a church being replaced with an ISIS' flagISIS destruction of churches and monasteries continues a pattern that has been on-going since 1996, following the sectarian violence that erupted with the bombing of the al-Askeri mosque in Samarra by Sunni extremists. To date, a total of 72 churches and ecclesiastical institutions throughout various cities in Iraq have been targeted. Many attacks were perpetrated by Al Qaeda, who bequeathed their terrorism to ISIS. However, it might be said that ISIS have refined this agenda to a previously unprecedented degree, equally targeting all denominations: Armenian Orthodox, Syrian Orthodox, Armenian Catholic, Syrian Catholic, Assyrian Church of the East, Chaldaean Catholic.
ISIS has damaged or destroyed all 45 Christian religious institutions in Mosul, many of which are centuries old. The St. George monastery, located north of Mosul, was founded by the Church of the East (Nestorian) in the 10th century, but was rebuilt in the mid 19th century by the Chaldaean Catholic Church. In December 2014, militants removed the iron crosses on the roof of the monastery and hoisted the black flag of ISIS. Three months later the church was attacked once again; men using sledgehammers destroyed its pictorial tile façade depicting biblical scenes. The church bells were thrown to the ground. Such was the orgy of violence that even the dead in the adjacent cemetery did not escape. Crosses were wrenched from graves, many of which commemorated war dead. According to reports however, the monastery is still standing, albeit stripped of its Christian symbols, since ISIS is currently using it as a detention centre.
St. George’s monastery serves the current needs of ISIS; not so the Church of St. Ahoadamah in Tikrit. Otherwise known as the ‘Green Church’ it was built in 700 by the Syrian Orthodox Maphrian, Denha II and was considered to be one of the most famous churches not only in the city, but in all of Iraq. Excavations by the Iraqi Archaeological service during the 1990’s made notable discoveries, including several coffins, one of which was of bishop, who was still wearing his silver seal-ring. The recent destruction by ISIS is not the first in the long history of the Green Church. In 1089, the Muslim governor ordered the church to be destroyed, but it was later restored and returned to usage in 1112. Although it was no longer a working institution, the Green Church was an important reminder of the rich Christian history of Tekrit which was for many centuries a metropolitanate of the Syrian Orthodox Church.
Another ancient institution to fall victim of ISIS is Mar Behnam Monastery south of Nimrud. Fighters stormed the monastery in July 2014 and expelled its monks who were not allowed to take any of the monastery’s ancient relics, nor their Bibles. They literally left just with the clothes that they were wearing –and their faith. The monks were forced to leave behind the precious manuscript archives and holy books, although fortunately these had been digitized in a programme initiated by the Hill Museum and Manuscript Library (Minnesota, USA). Father Behnam Sony also had compiled a catalogue of the monastery’s holdings. There are no authenticated reports as to whether the manuscripts have been destroyed, but the chances that they have survived are slim. It is possible that these items may emerge on the international ‘art market’. Such trading usually accompanies the anarchy in which groups like ISIS flourish and abets the desecration of cultural heritage.
Worse was to follow the expulsion of the monks and the ransacking of the monastery’s library. In March 2015, militants allegedly blew up parts of the ancient monastery of Mar Behnam that was built on the site of the martyrdom in the 4th century of the Sassanid prince Behnam and his sister, Sarah1 who were Zoroastrian but were converted by St. Matthew, the eponymous founder of the Mar Matti monastery which is still standing and on the very frontier between the KRG controlled territories and ISIS occupied lands. Behnam and Sara had refused to renounce their newly acquired faith and were martyred on the orders of their father, the king, who converted to Christianity on his deathbed. As well as providing a real connection with the earliest strata of Christianity in the Sassanid Empire, Mar Behnam monastery was part to the global emergence of monasticism in the 4th century, following the initiatives and rules laid down by St. Anthony and Pachomias in the Nitrian desert, Egypt where ancient institutions still are functioning. Along with these venerable institutions, Mar Behnam monastery stood as testimony to an important development that is still is a major characteristic of Christianity to this day.
ISIS’ destruction of Mar Behnam monastery is not the first that it has experienced in its long history. In the 13th century, it suffered under the Mongol incursions, but its rebuilding under the Il-Khanate marks it out as one of only a handful of buildings to survive from this period in all of Iraq. Whilst the monastery was refurbished in the 1980’s; a modern gatehouse and façade taking pride of place, the interior parts of the monastery still featured ornately carved marble doorways with Estrangela Syriac inscriptions and interiors with domed ceilings and exquisite muqarnas. The monastery also hosted a unique 13th century Syriac-Uighur inscription that was a legacy of the Mongols; some of their troops were Christian Uighurs. This inscription was the most western example of the spread of Uighur (Old Turkic) and was singular, not just for Christianity or for Iraq, but for world heritage.
ISIS will undoubtedly continue to desecrate and destroy churches and monasteries, with the collective result being the eradication of a unique strand of Iraq’s religious, architectural and cultural heritage. This deeply disturbing aspect was summed up recently by Nicholas al-Jeloo, a young Assyrian scholar:
“IS is destroying the rich cultural fabric of the area, the multilayered, multilingual, multi-ethnic aspects of society. It’s not just our heritage, it’s the heritage of the world. It is part of our history and now its gone”.2
The architectural purging that is being carried out by ISIS to destroy the symbols of the common bonds that cemented society for centuries which surpassed religious and ethnic partisanship, is an outright assault on Iraq’s cultural heritage. In their indulgence for ethnic cleansing –to expunge all traces of ‘undesirable, unethical’ strands in the history of Iraq– either through mass expulsions and the destruction of holy places, ISIS are imposing a Puritanism that truly displays their ignorance of the great and rich Christian heritage and the mutual relationships between communities which contributed so much to the fabric of the country under ‘rightly-guided’ Islamic rule.
1Gianluca Messofiore, “Isis ‘blows up famed 4th-century Mar Behnam Catholic monastery’ in Iraq”, International Business Times.