January 21, 2016

Oldest Christian Monastery in Iraq Razed by ISIS

St. Elijah's monastery

The Vatican condemned the Islamic State group [ISIS] Wednesday for razing Iraq's oldest Christian monastery. The 1400-year-old structure had survived assaults by nature and man for centuries before it was deliberately destroyed by the Islamic extremists.

St. Elijah's monastery was located on the outskirts of Mosul. In earlier centuries, generations of monks tucked candles in the niches and prayed in the chapel. The Greek letters chi and rho, representing the first two letters of Christ's name, were carved near the entrance.

The monastery, called Dair Mar Elia, is named for the Assyrian Christian monk Saint Elijah — who built it between 582 and 590 A.C. It was a holy site for Iraqi Christians, part of the Mideast's Chaldean Catholic community.

Vatican spokesman Fr. Federico Lombardi observed that since the monastery dates back to the time Christians were united, the place would be a special one for many. He said: "Unfortunately, there is this systemic destruction of precious sites, not only cultural, but also religious and spiritual. It's very sad and dramatic."

Imagery analyst Stephen Wood, CEO of Allsource Analysis, reviewed the pictures and identified the date of destruction between Aug. 27 and Sept. 28, 2014. Before it was razed, images show a partially restored, 27,000-square-foot religious building. Although the roof was largely missing, it had 26 distinctive rooms including a sanctuary and chapel. One month later, "the stone walls have been literally pulverized," said Wood.

"Bulldozers, heavy equipment, sledgehammers, possibly explosives turned those stone walls into this field of gray-white dust," he said. "There's nothing to rebuild."

American journalist, and devout Catholic, James Foley, six years before he was beheaded by Islamic State militants. wrote an article for Smithsonian Magazine, "In Iraq, a Monastery Rediscovered". To read the piece now, in light of Mr. Foley's brutal death and the monastery's wanton destruction, is truly heartbreaking.

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