In Iraq, pope to go to Mosul church buildings desecrated by Islamic State


Mosul, February 28

In Mosul, adjacent to the Biblical city of Nineveh, four churches representing different denominations occupy a small square surrounded by low-rise houses, testament to the role Iraq’s once flourishing Christian community played.

Today, all four churches are either damaged or destroyed after Islamic State militants occupied the city from 2014-2017, desecrated many of the buildings and used them to run its administration, including as a jail and a court.

Air strikes as Iraqi forces tried to dislodge the extremist group in fierce fighting did the rest. Those walls still standing are scarred with bullet and shrapnel holes.

“It used to be a bit like the Jerusalem of the Nineveh plains,” said Mosul and Akra’s Chaldean Archbishop Najeeb Michaeel of “Church Square”, the name given to the site that Pope Francis will visit on March 7 during his historic trip to Iraq.

Michaeel fondly recalled how, before the US invasion in 2003, Iraqi Christians from different denominations would attend each other’s services on religious festivals.

Those days are gone. Today just one of Mosul’s surviving churches offers a weekly Sunday service to a Christian population that has dwindled to just a few dozen families from about 50,000 people.

Tolerated by former President Saddam Hussein but persecuted by al Qaeda and then Islamic State, Iraq’s Christians number around 300,000, one fifth of the total before 2003.

Some are trickling back after Islamic State’s defeat, but others still see little prospect in staying in Iraq and are looking to settle overseas.

MINES AND MEMORIES

A Syriac Catholic, Syriac Orthodox, Armenian Orthodox and Chaldean Catholic church are situated cheek-by-jowl in and around the dusty square. Now the area lies in ruins, as do other parts of the city.

The pope is due to hold prayers for the victims of war at Hosh al-Bieaa, known as Church Square in English, as part of a four-day trip starting on March 5, a visit Archbishop Michaeel described as highly symbolic and a message of hope.

“Where stones fell because of violence, there will always be life,” he said.

Workmen have been busy cleaning up the site before Pope Francis arrives.

Funded by the United Arab Emirates, the restoration of the Syriac Catholic church of Al-Tahera is being carried out by UNESCO in collaboration with local partners and began in 2020.

Holding pictures of the church before its destruction, assistant site coordinator for UNESCO in Iraq, Anas Zeyad, pointed to delicate Syriac carvings on pieces of greyish alabaster stone referred to locally as “Mosul marble”.

Damaged by Islamic State before its roof was shredded by air strikes, the church was used as a tribunal by the jihadist movement’s religious police, Zeyad said.

The adjacent Armenian Orthodox church, distinguishable by its dome, remains closed off to the public.

“It has not been de-mined yet,” Zeyad explained, pointing to the sealed door leading to the church that Islamic State commandeered as a prison.

“Nearly all churches in Mosul were used by Islamic State,” Archbishop Michaeel said.

Standing next to a damaged piece of sculpted alabaster representing the Virgin Mary, Ali Salem, from Iraq’s State Board of Antiquities and Heritage, said his team was reviewing many such artefacts to determine which could be repaired and used again.

“As a Muslim I am proud to help rebuild these churches,” Zeyad said, adding that he hoped “we see Christians come back to these places, so that we live together again as we have for centuries.”

EXPERTS OPINION:

Infectious disease experts are expressing concern about Pope Francis’ upcoming trip to Iraq, given a sharp rise in coronavirus infections there, a fragile health care system and the unavoidable likelihood that Iraqis will crowd to see him.

No one wants to tell Francis to call it off, and the Iraqi government has every interest in showing off its relative stability by welcoming the first pope to the birthplace of Abraham.

The March 5-8 trip will provide a sorely-needed spiritual boost to Iraq’s beleaguered Christians while furthering the Vatican’s bridge-building efforts with the Muslim world.

But from a purely epidemiological standpoint, as well as the public health message it sends, a papal trip to Iraq amid a global pandemic is not advisable, health experts say.

They note that wars, economic crises and an exodus of Iraqi professionals have devastated the country’s hospital system, while studies show most of Iraq’s new COVID-19 infections are the highly-contagious variant first identified in Britain.

“I just don’t think it’s a good idea,” said Dr. Navid Madani, virologist and founding director of the Center for Science Health Education in the Middle East and North Africa at Harvard Medical School’s Dana-Farber Cancer Institute.

The Iranian-born Madani co-authored an article in The Lancet last year on the region’s uneven response to COVID-19, noting that Iraq, Syria and Yemen were poorly placed to cope given they are still struggling with extremist insurgencies and have 40 million people who need humanitarian aid.

In a telephone interview, Madani said Middle Easterners are known for their hospitality, and cautioned that the enthusiasm among Iraqis of welcoming a peace-maker like Francis to a neglected, war-torn part of the world might lead to inadvertent violations of virus control measures.

“This could potentially lead to unsafe or superspreading risks,” she said.

Dr Bharat Pankhania, an infectious disease control expert at the University of Exeter College of Medicine, concurred.

“It’s a perfect storm for generating lots of cases which you won’t be able to deal with,” he said.

Organisers promise to enforce mask mandates, social distancing and limitations on participation in papal events, with the possibility of increased testing sites, two Iraqi government officials said.

The health care protocols are “critical but can be managed,” one government official told The Associated Press, speaking on condition of anonymity.

And the Vatican has taken its own precautions, with the 84-year-old pope, his 20-member Vatican entourage and 70-plus journalists on the papal plane all vaccinated.

But the Iraqis who will be gathering in the north, center and south of the country to attend Francis’ indoor and outdoor Masses, hear his speeches, participate in his prayer meetings and organize the logistics of a complicated trip, are not.

And that, scientists say, is the problem.

 “We are in the middle of a global pandemic. And it is important to get the correct messages out,” Pankhania said. “The correct messages are: the less interactions with fellow human beings, the better.”            

He questioned the optics of the Vatican delegation being inoculated while the Iraqis are not, and noted that Iraqis would only take the risk to attend such an event because the pope was there.

In words addressed to Vatican officials and media, including AP journalists, he said: “You are all protected from severe disease. So if you get infected, you’re not going to die. But the people coming to see you may get infected and may die.”          

“Is it wise under that circumstance for you to just turn up, and because you turn up, people turn up to see you, and they get infected?” he asked.

The World Health Organization was diplomatic when asked about the wisdom of a papal trip to Iraq, saying countries should evaluate the risk of an event against the infection situation, and then decide if it should be postponed or can be held safely.

“If they’re having birthday parties, for example, it’s all about managing that risk,” said Maria Van Kerkhove, WHO’s technical lead on COVID-19. “It’s about looking at the epidemiologic situation in the country and then making sure that if that event is to take place, that it can take place as safely as possible.”          

Francis has said he intends to go even if most Iraqis have to watch him on television to avoid infection. The important thing, he told Catholic News Service, is “they will see that the pope is there in their country.”                 

Francis has frequently called for an equitable distribution of vaccines and respect for government health measures, though he himself tends to not wear face masks. Francis for months has eschewed even tightly controlled, socially distanced public audiences at the Vatican to limit the chance of contagion.

Dr Michael Head, senior research fellow in global health at the University of Southampton’s Faculty of Medicine, said the number of new daily cases in Iraq is “increasing significantly at the moment” with the Health Ministry reporting around 4,000 a day, close to the height of its first wave in September.

Head said for any trip to Iraq, there must be infection control practices in force, including mask-wearing, hand-washing, social distancing and good ventilation in indoor spaces.

“Hopefully we will see proactive approaches to infection control in place during the pope’s visit to Baghdad,” he said. — Agencies



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