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Militants Destroy Iraqi Convent

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November 24 photo of convent of the Chaldean Sisters of the Sacred Heart by Younis Thanon (image via Ankawa)

Extended video confirms that the Victory Convent of the Chaldean Sisters of the Sacred Heart in Mosul, Iraq, was destroyed on November 24. Reports of new destruction began to emerge on the day of destruction. Allegedly, “Islamic State (IS) militants blew up the St. George’s Church and a nunnery … A resident of Mosul told Rudaw that cries of Allahu Akbar ‘God is Great’ rose from many mosques in the city.” Initially, those reports focused on the Monastery of Saint George (also known as Mar Girgis / Gurges / Gurguis / Kourkis) but, as Conflict Antiquities cautioned at the time, there was “no evidence yet.”

In fact, frustratingly, there was already evidence. But, between a lack of detail, the inclusion of incorrect information and the inevitable flood of false images, the evidence was impossible to find unless you already knew what you were looking for.

Gilgamesh Nabeel, Younis Thanon, photo comparison 141203 flip
Gilgamesh Nabeel, Younis Thanon, photo comparison (image via Endangered Heritage Sites In Iraq/Facebook)

The Chaldean Catholic house of worship is also identified as al-Naser and al-Nasir Church (and many other names besides), and variously described as a church, a convent and a nunnery (or, through mistranslation into gendered terminology, a monastery). Its location is variously described as the neighbourhood/suburb of al-Arabi/Alaraby in north Mosul or as a village north of Mosul.

Soon after the immediate announcements, another report was based on a statement from the Independent (Iraqi) High Commission on Human Rights, whose member Mohammed Fadhel told Al Shorfa that the Islamic State had “blown up the Sacred Heart Monastery [sic – nunnery]… using improvised explosive devices.”

Asia News explained that the nuns had “provided help to the elderly and people with special needs” at the Sacred Heart church-convent, but Islamic State fighters had “used the facility as a base for cars and fighters” until they decided to demolish it.

From the beginning, Ankawa News had carried a short clip from a video called alnaser (al-Naser), which showed the wrecking of a church cupola, from the moment of its ruination, and from a distant position where other buildings obscured any view of the rest of the building. Ancient Near Eastern historian Christopher Jones wisely counseled that “nothing clearly identifiable [could] be seen in the video” and reassured that “it seems the adjacent 17th century Monastery of St. George was undamaged.”

Unfortunately, the bad news grew more convincing. The CEO of the Association for Research into Crimes against Art, Lynda Albertson, relayed reports “from two professors from inside Mosul: Mar Georges monastery is safe, [but] the nunnery of the sacred heart was destroyed.”

Then, Gilgamesh Nabeel shared an Iraqi community group’s video in a Facebook group for Endangered Heritage Sites in Iraq. It was impossible to identify the church through image searches for video frames, but Iraqi viewers identified it as the “victory/triumph monastery of nuns in the Arab neighborhood.”

That identification immediately suggested that at least some of the reports of the destruction of the Monastery of Saint George may have derived from local misunderstandings and international mistranslations (or back-translations) of the Arabic term دير, which appears to be closer to cloister and cover both monasteries and nunneries/convents.

There was some confusion over the target — the Victory Nunnery, the Nunnery of the Sisters, the Nunnery of the Sisters of the Sacred Heart (or a host of other names)? And there was confusion over its location — “against (“next to” or “opposite”) the monastery, in a different neighborhood? The official Facebook page of the village of Tellskuf relayed that “Daash detonate[d] the Victory Nunnery of the Young Sisters of the Heart of Jesus” (or perhaps of the Sacred Heart).

According to the Assyrian International News Agency’s and Independent Catholic News’ apparently complete list of Christian buildings in Mosul, the House of the Young Sisters of Jesus is Syriac Catholic and in the neighborhood of Ras Al-Kour and the Convent of the Chaldean Nuns is in Mayassa neighborhood, while the Chaldean “Monastery of AlNasir (Victory)” is in the Arab neighborhood (al-Arabi), where the Monastery of Saint George is also located.

Independent Catholic News (ICN) explained that the “convent of the Chaldean Sisters of the Sacred Heart [is] known as the Convent of Victory”, which was again impossible to find by searching monument records that listed it as a monastery, and is “adjacent” to the Monastery of Saint George. So its full — but not consistently used — name would be something like the Victory Convent of the Chaldean Sisters of the Sacred Heart.

Yet aerial views of the monastery suggest that it is distant and elevated from other buildings in the vicinity, while the video of the destroyed building shows that other buildings were nearby and the videographer was at the same height as the cupola.

Did It Happen?

According to Ankawa, the 2-minute, 19-second video records the first bombing. The second bombing “completely destroyed the monastery [sic — nunnery].”

While I was trying to distinguish between the various sites, ARCA CEO Albertson found an exclusive photo report by Ankawa’s Thanon. According to Thanon’s local sources, the Islamic State partially destroyed the building on the morning of the 24th, then completed the demolition in the afternoon.

The video and photo appear new. Although they’re taken at different angles from different sides, the cupolas and other features correspond very closely. Although there are some possible inconsistencies — for example, the greater number of aerials and telegraph wires in the photo — they are explained by the angle and distance of the photo. And local testimony and diaspora commentary identify the destroyed building as the Chaldean nunnery.

There is only one visible inconsistency. If the video was filmed diagonally right from the site in one direction, considering the way the buildings obscure the site and the telegraph pole in the photo, the photo was taken at a different angle from the other side. (The telegraph pole in the photo is not the same one as in the photo — it is in the same line.) So, if the photo was taken from the other side, the support posts of the symmetrically-built cupola should be in the same place on the other side. I released a limited image comparison and Albertson affirmed my suspicion that the photo had been flipped horizontally (or, theoretically, the video had been).

Why?

Human Rights Commission Member Fadhel told Al Shorfa that the nunnery was destroyed partly because it was a historic building, and Asia News believed that the demolition was simply due to the “extremists’ desire to destroy the church and the cross that towered over the building.” Yet IS had controlled the territory for nearly half a year without acting on that desire.

Younis Thanon, the correspondent for the Chaldean, Assyrian and Syriac Christian news site Ankawa, even suggested that the Islamists had destroyed the church because they believed that it was “inhabited by ghosts.”

Less implausibly, Fadhel also told Al Shorfa (in a paraphrase) that the nunnery was destroyed partly “as an act of revenge for their daily losses in terms of lives and assets at the hands of the Iraqi forces.” Likewise, a local official of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), Saad Mamuzin, had suggested to Rudaw that revenge was the motive.

Intriguingly, Catholic history professor Yvonne Maria Werner’s sources suggested that the militarized church was destroyed “because it was considered an imminent target of air raids.” In other words, it was destroyed to turn an imminent, embarrassing, military defeat into a propaganda victory. Yet, while that may be true, and IS expectation of an air raid might very well be true, the true imminence of an air raid is by no means certain.

Even though the militarized building would not have had any international legal protection if its destruction was considered militarily necessary, and even though the nuns had been expelled and would therefore not have been physically endangered by any such attack, the deliberate air bombing of a religious building — perhaps especially a place for the holy women of a culturally endangered minority community — might be a public relations disaster from which no military authority could truly recover.

So perhaps the nunnery was dismissed as an expendable administrative building and destroyed to promote a false image of the Islamic State’s purity and strength. It may be a sign that propaganda victories are particularly critical military necessities for IS. All that is known right now is that yet another embodiment of Iraq’s multicultural past, yet another building block for the future reconstruction of mixed community life, has been demolished.

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