Plans to replace a Catholic school with a mall appalls Iraqis

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Adnan Abu Zeed
Facebook/Al-Aqeeda High School for GirlsA group of young girls sit at their desks in a classroom at the Catholic al-Aqeeda High School for Girls, Baghdad, 1970.
Baghdad’s small Christian community is up in arms about plans to raze a Catholic school for girls, Al-Aqeeda, which means “faith,” and in its place build a shopping mall.

“This is [becoming] a trend, the targeting of Iraq’s architectural heritage, not simply [its] Christian [heritage],” Joseph Slewa, a Christian former member of parliament, warned in an Aug. 6 Rudaw interview.

The rumor that the school, built in 1921, will be demolished and replaced by a mall or some other commercial center has emerged as a hot topic on social media, with concerned citizens accusing the government and local authorities of failing to do their part in protecting Iraq’s architectural heritage.

According to Baghdad municipality officials, the demolition request came not from public officials, but from the Christian association that owns the land on which the school, which has a chapel, sits.

Hakim Abdul Zahra, the municipality’s deputy media director, confirmed that there has indeed been a proposal presented to demolish the school and that it was submitted by a Christian group, whose name he declined to provide.

“[The petition] said that the Christian community has no more use for this obsolete chapel and school, as most Christians have left the area, and thus, there is no reason for maintaining them,” Abdul Zahra said. He underscored, however, that the municipality has not granted permission to demolish the structure, as would be the case in regard to “any historical or ancient sites in Baghdad.”

The Baghdad-based Rahebat al-Taqdumma Association, which owns the building, confirmed to Al-Monitor that it had been the party requesting permission for tearing down the structure. Association officials said that they had leased the school to the Ministry of Education, but have not received rent for it since 2013. “The school has become a hefty liability,” said a spokesman for the association’s management.

Shamkhi Jaber, a media figure and writer for the Iraqi Media Network, launched a media campaign on Facebook opposing demolition of the school, which counts Zaha Hadid, the internationally renowned architect, among its impressive alumni.

Jaber told Al-Monitor that despite conflicting reports about who had requested the church’s destruction, “the fact remains that there are investment offers [for the site].” He claimed that in light of the swift public opposition, those wanting to tear down the school are now trying to hide or evade responsibility.

Jaber sees the Al-Aqeeda episode as exposing the many and major violations against Baghdad’s cultural and historical landscape. He asserted, “The disregard for this school’s heritage began during the previous regime, when the school’s historical name was changed to another one – Al-Aqeeda High School for Girls.” The school was formerly the Madrisat al-Rahibat (School of Nuns).

Jaber remarked that the best policy would be for the state to buy the site so the school could be maintained and protected. He also expressed his pleasant surprise at the public response for preserving the school, given that in the past little had been done to protect historical buildings and sites.

In regard to the latter, he pointed to the Qashla area and Bab al-Moatham’s Wezarat al-Defa area, which have buildings and bazaars from the Ottoman era now mostly occupied by local tradesmen and small shop owners who do little to preserve the buildings. They hang signs damaging the building’s architectural features and do little or nothing in terms of upkeep.

Further Jaber noted, “Ancient buildings were razed in al-Rashid Street, and modern malls were constructed in their place, while ancient houses in the Bataween area, in Baghdad, have been turned into commercial warehouses and stores.”

The civil engineer Qahtan Khyal al-Sultani told Al-Monitor that given the high cost of renovating historical buildings, some argue for the easier and more profitable approach of tearing them down and replacing them with modern structures, including malls, particularly if they are already in commercial areas.

“We’ve seen [this] in the Hayderkhana and Midan areas, both of which date from the Ottoman period, and in Adhamiya and Kadhimiya, which are even older, from the Abbasid era,” Sultani remarked. “All of those areas have a rich history.”

Article 28 of the Iraqi Antiquities and Heritage Law prohibits the desecration of ancient buildings and neighborhoods, but this did not prevent the Baghdad municipality in 2016 from demolishing a house more than 100 years old that had belonged to Sassoon Eskell, who set up Iraq’s financial system and was the country’s first finance minister.

Such actions are not limited to Baghdad. In June, hundreds of people in the historical city of Kufa gathered to protest a project to construct a large building that would block the view of the Great Mosque, built more than 1,400 years ago, ?and alter access at the main entrance.

In the wake of street and online protests in Baghdad and Kufa, Maysoun al-Damlouji, a member of the Iraqi parliament’s Cultural Committee, issued a warning against the “greediness of [investors] undermining Iraqi cities’ cultural identity.”

“They just want to demolish ancient landmarks and replace them with commercial projects for personal gain,” she told Al-Monitor.

Omran al-Ebidi, deputy media director and spokesperson for the Ministry of Culture, noted that once a building is designated a historical site by the ministry, the building cannot be altered or demolished.

“Any procedure of this nature would be under the supervision of the Ministry of Culture, Tourism and Antiquities,” Ebidi said. “There is a joint committee of the ministry and the municipality of Baghdad that is charged with preserving the identity of these buildings and cities.”

He further explained, “It is the Ministry of Culture’s responsibility to provide technical oversight as to how to maintain these buildings. Those buildings are not necessarily owned by the ministry, as some are owned by the municipality of Baghdad while others are the property of third parties. The law holds anyone who renovates, demolishes, or removes those buildings accountable — if they are designated as historical — without the knowledge of the ministry.”

Amid the unfortunate examples of cultural destruction like those cited above, there are some promising projects that aim to preserve Baghdad’s heritage, such as the Ministry of Oil’s sponsorship and financing a project in Baghdad’s al-Mutanabbi Street.

“The ministry is keen about taking on the project of developing the historical landmark of Bab al-Wastani in Baghdad to turn it into a tourist site,” Asim Jehad, a spokesperson for the ministry told Al-Monitor. The Bab al-Wastani is the only gateway in Baghdad’s old city wall. “Even if this is not part of its domain, the ministry sees this effort as a step toward preserving heritage.”


Adnan Abu Zeed is an Iraqi author and journalist. He holds a degree in engineering technology from Iraq and a degree in media techniques from the Netherlands.