BAGHDAD — Places traditionally visited by Iraqi Christians for the spring holidays are remarkably deserted this year, including the Chaldean Church's Monastery of Markourkas, or St. George, which sits in the Hay al-Arabi region on a hill overlooking the northern part of the city of Mosul. The monastery, the most prominent in Ninevah, recently became the subject of numerous reports after the Islamic State (IS) attacked it March 16, shattering crosses, statues, bells and sculptures, destroying paintings and removing tombstones.
According to historical sources, in particular the book "Markourkas" by Father Joseph Habbi, it once served as a church for a village called Bouira. The date of the church's founding is unknown, although some reports point to the mid-10th century. The monastery rose in importance as Mosul came to represent a stronghold of Iraqi Christians until IS forced them to leave in July 2014.
TV reporter and show host Farqad Melco frequently visited the monastery for work and leisure over the last 20 years. She became spiritually connected to the place and sometimes sought it out for retreats. She took vows there, donated to orphans and visited the cemetery. She always met her expatriate relatives there, because they could not visit Iraq without passing by the monastery, to which they had also become attached.
Melco fled Mosul in July with the others. Speaking from Istanbul, she told Al-Monitor, “What happened to the monastery of St. George was expected, especially after the destruction of important Islamic religious shrines, such as Nabi Yunis and Nabi Sheet, as well as the priceless archaeological sites.”
She went on, “I watched a video showing immoral people desecrating the holy place we have fond memories of. I was so shocked, I couldn't utter a word. Words fell short of describing the level of sadness I felt at that moment.”
St. George's is one of some 60 sacred places in the region. Located next to the Nasr Monastery of the Sisters of the Sacred Heart, it includes an orphanage built in 1962 and a missionary school for training monks. In 2008, when Christians were increasingly targeted in Mosul, the younger orphans were transferred to the Our Lady Monastery in al-Qosh, on the Ninevah Plain. Orphans over the age of 18 stayed on at St. George's to serve and manage its affairs. They left as well in amid the Christian exodus last year.
Yusuf Denha, a monk at St. George, commented March 19 to An-Nahar on the destruction of the monastery, saying, “I am sad and hurting. The loss is great, and we fear that vandalism will spread to other ancient monasteries in Mosul, such as the Monastery of Rabban Hurmizd, the Monastery of St. Matthew for the Syriac Orthodox and the Monastery of the Martyr Mar Behnam, which dates back to the fourth century.”
Iraqi Christian writer Samer Elias Said told Al-Monitor, “The Mosul residents have a lot of memories in the Markourkas Monastery, and I personally have a solid and lasting relationship with this monastery. I visited it every Friday at noon because it is a day off in order to pray for the safety of the country.”
Said wrote March 18 in Azzaman, “When I saw photos published by IS of the vandalized monastery, I remembered every memory I had in every part of the monastery. It is weird that these vandals find that the monastery crosses, images and statues threaten their security!”
Christians are not the only ones who cherish memories from St. George. Some Muslims have them as well. Aisha Ahmed lives near the monastery and used to visit it regularly, especially in the spring, when the season for recreational outings begins. Aisha never missed an opportunity to celebrate the annual St. George holiday.
When Christians began to be targeted, guards from the Office of Christian Endowment were deployed at every church and monastery to protect them and sometimes prevented strangers from entering. Ahmed was able to enter the monastery with the help of her Christian friends. Before this turn of events, Muslims had visited monasteries without a problem, especially those like Markourkas and Saint Matthew, which attracted scores of tourists.
Amid her expressions of grief, Aisha told Al-Monitor that the monastery is now an abandoned building that only IS members visit every now and then to commit additional acts of vandalism and to steal items. She said she can see them from a window in her house and prays that God’s wrath will someday pour down on them and that he saves Mosul's residents from IS.
All those who spoke to Al-Monitor have not forgotten that St. George's Day, celebrated April 24, is drawing near. With Mosul completely devoid of Christians, St. George's in the grip of IS and no hope of imminent liberation, there won’t be any festivities this year. The nuns and priests once in residence fled primarily to Dohuk, in the Iraqi Kurdistan region, because the monastery is located on the road leading to the city. Some probably traveled to cities outside Iraq. Al-Monitor was unable to contact any of them.
All those who know the story of St. George's are saddened by what has happened, but those who grew up in the monastery's orphanage are the most affected. To them, the monastery had been both their mother and their father. Take, for example, Kiki (a pseudonym), with whom Said had become acquainted during visits to the monastery. Kiki had been orphaned at an early age and moved to the monastery. When he grew up, Kiki worked as a deacon at St. George but was forced to leave during IS' expulsion of Christians from Mosul.
Although IS members have destroyed objects at the monastery and looted furniture, the church is still standing, contrary to reports of its being blown up. Local officials, have, however, voiced concerns about the possible bombing of the monastery and other sites by IS, to hinder the anticipated effort by Iraqi forces and others to liberate Mosul. The experiences of the liberated areas in Ninevah, such as Sinjar and Zammar, have stoked such fears.