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Isil extremists destroy Iraq’s oldest Christian monastery

The destruction, which went unreported for 16 months, raises fears that other sites have been attacked

by Martin Bailey  |  20 January 2016
Isil extremists destroy Iraq’s oldest Christian monastery
Two satellite images provided by DigitalGlobe, taken on 31 March 2011 (top), and 28 September 2014 show the site of the 1,400-year-old Christian monastery Mar Elia, on the outskirts of Mosul, Iraq. Image: DigitalGlobe via AP
Iraq’s earliest Christian monastery has been destroyed by Isil extremists. Satellite imagery recorded by DigitalGlobe for the US-based Associated Press apparently shows the complete destruction of Mar Elia (St Elijah) monastery. This seems to have occurred in September 2014, three months after the site on the southern outskirts of Mosul was seized by Isil forces.

The monastery is believed to have been founded by Mar Elia in 595. It was severely damaged by Persian invaders in 1743 when the monks living there were massacred. The buildings were partially restored in the early 20th century. Some damage occurred during the 2003 Coalition invasion and the subsequent US occupation.

If the near-total destruction of Mar Elia is confirmed, 16 months after the event, it is worrying that it went unreported, since it suggests that other Christian sites may have also been destroyed without publicity. The Isil propaganda videos showing the destruction of archaeological and religious sites only began to be released in early 2015. Erica C.D. Hunter, a specialist in Eastern Christianity at London’s School of Oriental and African Studies, describes the loss of Mar Elia as “another devastating incident of destruction of Christian sites in Iraq”.

The American journalist James Foley, who was beheaded by Isil extremists in August 2014, wrote about Mar Elia for the Washington, DC-based Smithsonian magazine in 2008. The monastery, he said, was then being conserved “for future generations of Iraqis who will hopefully soon have the security to appreciate it”.

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