AN ARCHBISHOP in the northern Iraqi city of Mosul has ordered staff at the UN’s de-mining agency and the British security firm G4S to stop clearing the churches in his diocese which were damaged during the city’s occupation by IS, after accusations that workers at one site were carrying out “horrific acts” without regard for its sanctity.
The Syriac Catholic archdiocese of Mosul said in a statement that a delegation from a local human-rights group, Hammurabi, had visited churches in west Mosul, and, at one, found “horrific acts committed by a group claiming that they were clearing debris from the church and de-mining it”. It continued: “Workers were carrying debris in an arbitrary manner with utter disregard for the holy and religious sanctity” of the site.
A statement from Hammurabi accused the security operatives of committing “crimes no less grievous and insolent than the crimes of Daesh” in clearing the site of explosives without the Church’s authorisation.
When Hammurabi informed the Syrian Catholic Archbishop Petrous Moshe of Mosul, he ordered that the work be stopped immediately and any damage photographed. An official complaint will be lodged with the governor of Nineveh and the organisations carrying out the clearance, the statement said.
The mayor of Mosul, Zuhair al-Araji, visited the Al-Tahira church site, and was reported in the Iraqi press as saying that the equipment that the UN Mine Action Service (UNMAS) had used was unsuitable, given the church’s fragile structure.
Although G4S and UNMAS were not named by the archdiocese and the charity, they responded with a joint statement saying that they “take these allegations seriously, welcome further investigation, and are continuing to support and work closely with the government of Iraq on this matter”.
The two organisations that are working with an Iraqi firm to clear explosives in Mosul said that they had invited Hammurabi and officials from the diocese, as well as other relevant Iraqi authorities, to meet “to carefully consider the facts relative to their statements and hope they will offer to correct the record when known”.
A Chaldean Catholic priest in Mosul who asked not to be named told the Church Times that Archbishop Moshe had told him that the people carrying out the digging disturbed graves and caused damage to the submerged ancient church on which Al-Tahira is built. The Archbishop also expressed concern to him that items such as crosses and manuscripts were reportedly missing from the older church.
During the three-year occupation of Mosul by IS, the four churches in the Al-Maidan district were used for detentions and trials. The area was badly damaged in the battle to wrest control of the area from IS.
UNMAS Iraq and G4S say that, to date, their teams have removed from the site 53 suicide belts, 74 munitions of various types, seven improvised explosive devices, and assorted ammunition and materials such as home-made explosives.
G4S provided the response: “Our teams have a strong focus on not causing unnecessary further damage to buildings. There are, however, occasions where obstructions have to be removed to allow access for the armoured machinery that is needed to safely clear the explosive remnants.
“Any valuables that were not taken by ISIL during their occupation are logged and documented. We then attempt to locate the owners and formally hand them back.
“We are keen to resume work as soon as possible.”
Any removal of ancient artefacts remains a sensitive issue in Iraq since the looting and destruction of many historic sites by IS, and the looting of the country’s National Museum during the chaos of the 2003 US-led invasion. Many Iraqis still hold US forces responsible for failing to safeguard the several thousand items that were stolen.