THE oldest Christian site in Iraq, the 1400-year-old St Elijah’s monastery, near Mosul, has been razed to the ground by Islamic State (IS), or Daesh.
The demolition is the latest act in the ongoing war against Christians and other religious minorities by the extremist group, which still controls large parts of northern Iraq, seized in 2014.
Satellite images released by the news agency AP reveal that IS has reduced the ancient monastery to little more than white dust. An Iraqi Christian cleric in exile, the Revd Paul Thabit Habib, told AP that their heritage was being “barbarically levelled” in Iraq.
“We see it as an attempt to expel us from Iraq, eliminating our existence in this land,” Mr Habib said.
In an effort to show Middle Eastern Christians that their plight is not being ignored, a group of bishops visited the region last week. The Bishop of Southwark, the Rt Revd Christopher Chessun, who was among the international group, said that the message they took to persecuted Christians in Palestine and Jordan was: “You are not forgotten”.
“It’s an attempt to show solidarity and to build relationships to continue ongoing support and encouragement,” Bishop Chessun said on Monday, after his return to the UK.
“More important even than that, we are there to listen, to learn from our brothers and sisters in the Middle East, and then in our own countries to do what we can to make sure they are not forgotten.”
The Vatican has sent a group of bishops each year to the Holy Land since the turn of the century, and last year invited Bishop Chessun to join them as an Anglican representative for the first time.
“It’s a tremendous privilege to go for a second year,” he said. After visiting Bethlehem, the bishops travelled to Gaza to meet people whose houses had been destroyed during the military action between Israel and Hamas in 2014.
While the trauma of the seven-week conflict was subsiding, the blockade of Gaza meant that rebuilding homes was extremely difficult. In one village, 2000 of the 4000 dwellings had been damaged in 2014, and only 200 had been rebuilt. “It’s a drop in the ocean,” Bishop Chessun said.
When the bishops tried to visit a small Christian community in the Cremisan Valley on the West Bank, they were stopped by Israeli soldiers, who are attempting to build the contentious “separation barrier” through the area, despite its not being on the historic Green Line demarcation between Israel and Palestine.
Instead, the bishops prayed publicly, before moving on to Amman, in Jordan, where they met refugees. They shared worship with Iraqi Christians who had fled their homes. “Their dignity was humbling,” Bishop Chessun recalled.
“They had left everything behind to escape Islamic State (IS, or Daesh), but they had not left their faith behind and did not feel abandoned by it. They were holding on to hope.” None the less, few believed they would return to Iraq, having been threatened with death.
The UN has said that the level of violence in Iraq remains “staggering”: at least 18,800 civilians were killed between January 2014 and October last year.
Attacks on Christians in Iraq continue. Satellite images released on Wednesday by the AP news agency show that St Elijah’s monastery outside Mosul, the oldest Christian site in Iraq, has been razed to rubble by IS.
The official statement from the delegation concluded: “With a promise of active solidarity, we make our own the prayer of Pope Francis in Laudato Sí’: ‘O God of the poor, help us to rescue the abandoned and forgotten of this earth.’”
Back home, Bishop Chessun said that he was urging all British Christians to show their support for persecuted Christians overseas. “We also have much to learn from their resilience and their strong hope.”