“I can’t describe my sadness,” said the Rev. Paul Thabit Habib after he was shown satellite images which confirmed the complete destruction of St. Elijah’s Monastery of Mosul, a Christian monastery in Iraq that dates back to the sixth century. “Our Christian history in Mosul is being barbarically levelled. We see it as an attempt to expel us from Iraq, eliminating and finishing our existence in this land.”
The images released on 20 January show that the stone monastery was completely destroyed after Islamic State (IS) militants captured Mosul and the Nineveh Plain in 2014. “Bulldozers, heavy equipment, sledgehammers, possibly explosives turned those stone walls into this field of gray-white dust,” said imagery analyst Stephen Wood, chief executive of Allsource Analysis, who located the time of destruction to some point between 27 August and 28 September 2014. Its ruin is “a disaster” said Iraq’s Patriarch Mar Louis Raphael I Sako.
Images predating its demolition show that the 27,000 square-foot monastery had 26 separate rooms, including a sanctuary and a chapel, and had been partially restored although much of the roof was missing.
St. Elijah’s (Dair Mar Elia) monastery was built on top of a hill between 582 and 590 A.D. by a Christian Assyrian monk, St. Elijah, and ever since, generations of Christians have worshipped there. The Greek letters chi and ro were carved near the monastery’s entrance and represent the first two letters of Christ’s name.
U.S. Army reserve Col. Mary Prophit served communion at St. Elijah’s when she was deployed there. “I let that moment sink in, the candlelight, the first rays of sunshine,” she remembers. “We were worshipping in a place where people had been worshipping God for 1,400 years.”
In 1743, the monastery was damaged and 150 monks were butchered when they refused to convert to Islam under the orders of a Persian general. In the summer of 2014, it was IS militants who drove hundreds of thousands of Iraqi Christians from their homes in Mosul and across the Nineveh Plain as they delivered an ultimatum to convert to Islam, pay the jizya poll tax, or be killed.
Since the time of the US-led Iraq invasion in 2003, the country’s Christian population has shrunk from 1.3 million to 300,000 today. The city of Mosul and the villages in the Nineveh Plain are now empty of their Christian population.
IS jihadists have destroyed numerous churches, Christian graveyards and ancient relics across both Iraq and Syria. Sharia law prohibits the construction of new churches, and destroying existing church buildings is a tactic adopted by the jihadists to “cleanse” the area of its non-Muslim population. Yet, the destruction of this ancient monastery has displayed the utter “ruthlessness” of the group in its “battle of savagery against decency”, said US Col. Steve Warren.
IS militants bulldozed the Mar Elian monastery outside the Syrian town of Qaryatain last August after the town fell to the jihadi group. The monastery dates back to the fifth century, but the group obliterated its memory after capturing around 250 Christians in the town.