Another irreplaceable loss for Christianity: ISIS destroys ancient Iraqi monastery

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By Nina Shea Published January 20, 2016
ISIS destroys Iraq’s oldest Christian monastery
Mosul’s massive, stone-walled monastery of St. Elijah, dating from the sixth century and distinguished by an entryway etched by Christian monks with Chi Rho, the first Greek letters of the word Kristos, “Christ,” has been obliterated. From satellite photos of the isolated hill where it had stood, it was confirmed today that the monastery was pulverized into a field of grey dust by ISIS fanatics, evidently using some determined application of sledgehammers, bulldozers and explosives.

Built before Christianity’s sectarian divisions and having gathered Christian worshipers for one and a half millennia, this ancient sacred edifice, now reduced to rubble, represents yet another irreparable loss to Christian patrimony at the hands of these Islamist extremists. But, even more importantly, its destruction also symbolizes the genocide of Iraq’s Christian people and their civilization. It gives shocking reminder that Nineveh has been inalterably changed. Its pluralistic cultural mosaic since antiquity has been shattered and putting it back together may prove impossible in this generation.

But why did ISIS do it? The militants had already consolidated control over all of the Nineveh Plain by late summer 2014 and had killed, enslaved, forcibly converted or driven out all Christians when it went to the considerable effort of destroy St. Elijah–along with a long roster of other historic Christian churches, tombs, sculptures, and manuscripts.

Surely, it was not driven to do so because the monastery posed a threat or was a seat of power — these minorities had no military forces or real political power.

ISIS set about eradicating every trace of the Christians, even the silent stones of their now forlorn monasteries, due to its sacramentalized hatred of “infidels.” In a report this week, the UN’s Assistance Mission in Iraq confirms that ISIS is indoctrinating and training Mosul children in jihadist ideology.

This ideological hatred encompasses all of Nineveh’s Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant Christians, as well as its Yazidi community. And, alarmingly, it is being indoctrinated into the next generation with school textbooks that direct children to hate and kill the Nazarenes, that is, the Christians, and the Yazidis, condemned as “polytheists” and “devil worshippers,” respectively.

Thirty Muslim teachers have been reportedly arrested recently and are to be tried in Mosul’s sharia courts for heroically refusing to teach from these texts. According to Canon Andrew White, the Anglican “Vicar of Baghdad,” mainstream education in Nineveh is now “jihadi doctrine.” “Basically, what is being taught is death to anyone who is not a follower of Mohammed,” he reported learning from his Muslim contacts there.

Less than 300,000 Christians remain in Iraq, down from 1.4 million in 2003 when Iraq’s Christian community was one of only four robust Christian communities remaining in the Middle East. The great portion of Iraq’s remnant Christians are now in Kurdistan, many displaced from Nineveh and rapidly losing all hope and desire of ever returning home.

So far, President Obama has refused to recognize that the Nineveh Christians and Yazidis in Kurdistan are targeted for religious genocide by ISIS.

For purposes of U.S. policy, the destruction of St. Elijah monastery will be counted for just another “senseless” act of destruction.

There is no legal recourse for these minorities to be designated “refugees” since they technically remain within their home country, though, in Kurdistan, they have no legal right to work and maintain residency.

For another winter, Nineveh’s Christians and Yazidis will struggle to survive in their tents and shipping containers, subsisting on hand-outs, wondering what is to become of their children and praying for rescue.

Nina Shea has worked as a lawyer specifically focusing on religious freedom in American foreign policy, for thirty years. Joining the Hudson Institute as a Senior Fellow in 2006, she has led the Center for Religious Freedom, which she founded in 1986, in its effort to defend religious freedom internationally. Ms. Shea served as a Commissioner on the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, an independent federal agency, for thirteen years until 2012, and has been appointed to represent the United States on U.N. human rights bodies by both Republican and Democratic administrations. She has co-authored two books on religious persecution (“Persecuted: The Global Assault on Christians” (Thomas Nelson 2013) and “Silenced,” Oxford University Press, 2011), and authored four studies on violent teachings in official Saudi education materials, making her an authority on the subject. She currently is a leader of a campaign for Christians threatened with genocide by ISIS.