International community urged to protect historic Christian sites from ISIS – priests speak out


Last week The Associated Press confirmed that exclusive satellite images published early on January 20 showed that the ancient monastery of St Elijah on the outskirts of Mosul had been totally destroyed.  ISIS militants had turned Iraq’s oldest Christian monastery into a pile of rubble when they invaded the region in 2014.

Among those who expressed outrage and  sense of loss after seeing pictures of the monastery’s destruction.was Fr Jeffrey Whorton who had served as a Catholic chaplain for the US military in Iraq. His reaction to the news “was that profound and surprisingly strong emotion because of my connection with the monastery….It was a kind of a grief that was like a loss of life almost.”

Fr Whorton said the chance give informal tours of the monastery and pray there during his tour of duty in Iraq “was probably the highlight of my entire priesthood.” He believed he was the last priest in 2009 to “offer Mass on that altar before it was destroyed.” He felt it was a sacred place where ancient Christians had worshipped for centuries:“In the forefront of my mind was the reality that in 1700s, 150 or so monks had been martyred there”. He remarked sadly “I did not realise until I saw the pictures of the destruction that I would be one of the ones to literally close the door on this ancient church,” adding “I hope that I closed it with all the necessary decorum that is due to such a venerable place.” The Easter Vigil in 2010 was the last recorded Church service to take place inside the monastery’s walls, and even that was held in the courtyard not the altar area.

Many people worldwide had expressed concern about the fate of St Elijah monastery after ISIS militants invaded the region in June 2014 and cut off most communication. Fr Whorton was among those who were responsible for a preservation initiative on the 1,400-year-old iconic Christian monument.

Assyrian Father Emanuel Youkhana, who heads the Christian Aid Program Northern Iraq, also denounced the destruction of St Elijah as yet another assault on Christians and their heritage in their ancient homeland. Recalling how many scientific, philosophic and historical books were written or translated in such monasteries, he felt its destruction was “a memory of Iraq which has been cut off”.

Fr Yourhana voiced his concern for the future of Christianity in the region if we did not take steps to protect diversity and give Christians the chance to survive and build a future there. He asks:

“When they damage my 2,000 years of Christianity and 5,000 years of Assyrian heritage as the indigenous people of this country, my question is this: If my history is being damaged, my present is being threatened, is there any future?”

He drew attention to other examples of deliberate destruction by ISIS including damage to archaeological sites in Nineveh and the bulldozing of the Assyrian city of Nimrod, where the Tower of Babel is believed to have existed –  an act which the United Nations described as  cultural cleansing and a war crime.

Fr Yourhana once again called upon the international community to do more to preserve the presence of Christians in their ancient homeland in Iraq.

ACN Malta