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The Demolition of Christian Memory


Dale Gavlak, Catholic News Service

As a result of ISIS’ campaign of religious cleansing, an ancient Christian monastery has been destroyed

1,400-year-old St. Elijah Monastery before it was destroyed

The 1,400-year-old St. Elijah Monastery is seen in a 2009 photo, before being razed by Islamic State militants in late 2014. (CNS photo/courtesy Father Jeffrey Whorton)

Catholic clergy lamented the destruction of Iraq’s oldest Christian monastery, St. Elijah, and urged the international community to do more to stop such assaults.

“I had the same emotional and perhaps spiritual experience as I did when I was standing over the bodies of fallen soldiers,” Father Jeffrey Whorton told Catholic News Service after seeing satellite images of the monastery’s destruction.

Father Whorton, who served as a Catholic chaplain for the U.S. military in Iraq and holds the rank of major, was instrumental along with others in seeing a preservation initiative mounted on the 1,400-year-old structure. Father Whorton said he believed he was the last priest to “offer Mass on that altar before it was destroyed.”

The Associated Press confirmed the news that the ancient monastery on the outskirts of Mosul had been turned into a field of rubble, with exclusive satellite images published early Jan. 20, 2016. Islamic State militants claimed responsibility.

Father Whorton, who now works at Fort Bragg, N.C., had the chance to both worship and give informal tours of the monastery during his tour of duty in Iraq.

“In the forefront of my mind was the reality that in the 1700s, 150 or so (monks) had been martyred there,” the American priest said. “So I knew I was in a sacred place offering the holy sacrifice of the Mass. I felt extremely unworthy standing at the venerable altar. That, along with celebrating with the Holy Father, was the highlight of my entire priesthood.”

Father Whorton recalled a piece of wood shaped like a yoke that stood above the entrance to the nave of the monastery.

“For me, there was a kind of putting on the yoke of Christ and to bend low into that space where my fallen brothers and sisters had died (centuries ago). It was extremely emotional and a spiritually palpable event for me,” he said.

Many had voiced concern about the fate of the monastery after Islamic State militants swept into the area in June 2014 and had cut off most communication there. Hundreds of thousands of Christians were forced to flee rather than convert to Islam, pay a submission tax or be killed.

Father Whorton said the finality of ancient monastery’s fate has weighed heavy on him.

“I did not realize 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,” he said.

Assyrian Father Emanuel Youkhana, who heads the Christian Aid Program Northern Iraq, CAPNI, denounced the attack as yet another assault on Christians and their heritage in their ancient homeland.

“Dozens and dozens of scientific, philosophic, historical and other books were written or translated in such monasteries. This is a memory of Iraq which has been cut off,” he told CNS.

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

He cited the Islamic State’s bulldozing of the ancient Assyrian city of Nimrod, where the Tower of Babel is believed to have existed. The United Nations called its destruction cultural cleansing and a war crime.

Father Youkhana also drew attention to the destruction of archaeological sites in Nineveh along with the forced displacement of Christians and other religious minorities long present in Iraq from their historic area. And he renewed a call for the international community to do more to preserve the Christian presence in their ancient homeland.

“What will be the future of Christianity [in the Middle East] if we don’t protect or give future chances for Christians to survive and to build a future,” he said. “We have to keep this mosaic and diversity, not give up.”

DALE GAVLAK is an American freelance journalist based in Amman, Jordan.