Adapted from a story at All Arab News
Christianity has been indigenous to Iraq for thousands of years. Many of the first Christians hailed from the region which is now Iraq, particularly the Nineveh Plain. The Nineveh Plain was one of the stops of the Apostle Thomas on his mission to evangelize the world, in which he eventually carried the Gospel to India. Historically, the Christians of Iraq are considered to be the descendants of some of the first gentile converts to Christianity, in a long, unbroken lineage that still closely resembles the 1st century Church in worship and tradition.
Despite this storied history, however, various attempts by empires and sectarian terrorists to destroy the indigenous populations of Northern Iraq – from the Ottomans to ISIS – have resulted in genocides for the Christians, Yazidis, and Shabak native to this region. The most impactful instance in recent memory was August 2014, when the ISIS insurgency pushed across the region, and terrorists kidnapped and slaughtered families, trafficked women and girls, destroyed towns, and demolished ancient churches and the priceless relics they housed. This region – still reeling from the recent Iraq war – was shaken, and its people were largely displaced.
Mosul was formerly an ISIS stronghold, especially during its short-lived “caliphate” led by the “first caliph” of the Islamic State Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Despite ongoing security risks in the region, Mosul is now free from the oppression of ISIS, and Christians are able to freely worship here again.
Since then, the towns of Northern Iraq and the Nineveh Plain have been rebuilding. Most Christians displaced in the fighting have not returned, but life is slowly beginning to emerge again, to a similar pace that it was before the decade and a half of war that transpired here. In this return to life, many programs have begun reaching out to those who were impacted by ISIS, such as Catholic University in Erbil.
During this time, churches have begun rebuilding and repairing the damage done by the insurgents, including the Church of Saint Thomas in Mosul. While doing so, parishioners uncovered several relics that attest to the cultural historicity of Iraqi Christianity. Earlier this month, around a dozen ancient relics and parchments belonging to Christian saints were uncovered inside the church.
The restoration project is part of the Mosul Mosaic initiative, which aims to preserve Mosul’s cultural heritage. The project began in December 2020, after the Iraqi Army cleared the site from mines and other explosive remnants of war. The project is being overseen by the French organization, l’Oeuvre d’Orient, in coordination with the State Board of Antiquities and Heritage (SBAH) of Nineveh and the French Institut National du Patrimoine. The archaeological findings confirm the strong connection between Christianity and Iraq in ancient times.
Several relics were found that have enormous significance to Iraqi Christians, and Christians around the world. Six stone containers with Aramaic inscriptions of saints, and several manuscripts in Syriac and Aramaic languages were found inside the Syrian Orthodox Church of Mar Thomas (The Church of Saint Thomas) in Mosul.
The church is believed to have been built in the 7th century A.D. on the site where the house of Jesus’ Apostle Thomas lived during his stay in Mosul, according to Christian tradition. During the 1960s, remains were found during another church restoration that are believed to be the finger bones of St. Thomas himself.
The original church was destroyed during the Persian siege of Mosul – which was then part of the Ottoman Empire – in the 18th century and rebuilt by the 18th-century governor of Mosul, as a sign of gratitude toward the city’s Christian defenders.
One of the inscriptions found by the workers in the church related to Saint Theodore, a Roman soldier born in the province of Corum, Turkey, in the 3rd century, who was beheaded after converting to Christianity. According to Asia News, “at the conclusion of the excavations, five more reliquaries were collected: of Saint Simon ‘the Zealot,’ a first-century apostle; relics of Mor Gabriel, bishop of Tur Abdin (593-668); relics of Saint Simeon the Wise (1st century), an elder who welcomed the infant Jesus in the Temple of Jerusalem; relics of Saint John, (Yohanan Shliha) apostle of Christ; relics of Saint Gregory Bar Hebraeus (1226-1286), Maphrien (regional primate) of the Syrian Orthodox Church from 1264 to 1286.”
In addition, parchments written in Syriac, Armenian and Arabic – wrapped and protected in glass bottles – were also discovered in the ruins of the church.
During its reign of terror in the years following the fall of Mosul in 2014, ISIS left Mosul in ruins and forced hundreds of thousands of Christians in the Nineveh province surrounding Mosul to flee. It is estimated that ISIS destroyed at least 14 churches in the Nineveh province alone during its onslaught on Christians and Christian culture and that it plundered and destroyed – frequently by simply blowing up – at least 28 historical religious buildings in Iraq in 2014 and 2015 alone.
Those buildings not only included churches but also “mosques, graves, shrines, churches and monasteries of historic character,” Iraqi deputy minister of Iraq said at the time.
The destruction by the members of the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq was not limited to Christian artifacts. In 2014 and 2015, videos emerged that showed ISIS terrorists destroying ancient artifacts from multiple ancient civilizations with sledgehammers and jackhammers inside the Mosul Museum. Many of the artifacts were irreplaceable originals.
American FRRME is deeply committed to protecting Iraqi Christians and other religious minorities across the region. We champion any attempt to celebrate the role of the church in Iraqi culture, and the attempts to rebuild and repair the destruction caused by terrorists. We are committed to long term self-sustaining programs and opportunities to help empower refugees and IDPs in the region. Donations to American FRRME go to programs that will aid in the survival of families facing persecution across the Middle East.