Belfast Telegraph

Home News World

Oldest Christian monastery in Iraq destroyed by Islamic State

Satellite photos have confirmed fears that the oldest Christian monastery in Iraq has been destroyed by Islamic State.

St Elijah's Monastery stood as a place of worship for 1,400 years, including most recently for US troops.

Earlier this month, satellite imagery firm DigitalGlobe used a high resolution camera to take photos of the site, and then compared them with earlier images of the same spot.

Before it was razed, the partially restored stone and mortar building stood fortress-like on a hill above Mosul. Although the roof was largely missing, it had 26 distinctive rooms including a sanctuary and chapel.

One month later, photos show "that the stone walls have been literally pulverised", said imagery analyst Stephen Wood, CEO of Allsource Analysis, who pinpointed the destruction between August and September 2014.

"Bulldozers, heavy equipment, sledgehammers, possibly explosives turned those stone walls into this field of grey-white dust. They destroyed it completely," he said.

Catholic priest Rev Paul Thabit Habib, 39, stared in disbelief at the before and after images at his office in exile, in Irbil, Iraq.

"Our Christian history in Mosul is being barbarically levelled," he said. "We see it as an attempt to expel us from Iraq, eliminating and finishing our existence in this land."

The Islamic State group, which now controls large parts of Iraq and Syria, has killed thousands of civilians in the past two years. Along the way, its fighters have destroyed whatever they consider contrary to their interpretation of Islam.

St Elijah's joins a growing list of 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 and artworks crushed.

Built in 590, tragedy struck at St Elijah's in 1743 when as many as 150 monks who refused to convert to Islam were massacred by a Persian general. In 2003 St Elijah's shuddered again - this time a wall was smashed by a tank turret blown off in battle.

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."

At the Vatican, spokesman 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.

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

Daily News Headlines Newsletter

Today's news headlines, directly to your inbox.


From Belfast Telegraph