World news – Iraq’s religious heritage and its unhealed wounds

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The Iraqi youths greet Pope Francis on March 2, 2021 next to the ruins of the Syrian Catholic Al-Tahira Church in the old town of Mosul. (Photo by ZAID AL-OBEIDI / AFP)

Islamic State destroyed numerous Christian and Muslim holy sites in its attempt to invade Iraq, but you can count with two hands how many buildings are currently being rebuilt .

Most of them are in Mosul, where international aid has been given. Many Iraqis feel that too much needs to be done.

« When we reviewed the damage to the religious heritage between 2014 and 2017, we unfortunately produced a thick volume, » explains Paolo Fontani, who oversees operations for UNESCO in Iraq.

« We have identified 250 very important Shiite, Sunni, Yazidi and Christian religious buildings that have been destroyed, particularly in Kirkuk and Mosul, » he emphasizes.

Many NGOs and Western media have a lot reported the destruction of Christian buildings, but most of the sites targeted by ISIS belonged to Muslims.

« The destruction of the heritage by the Islamic State was primarily aimed at » purifying « Islam, especially at places of worship and pilgrimage sites connected to tombs, » explains Guillaume de Beaurepaire, architect and craftsman of the restoration of the Mar-Behnam Monastery in The Nineveh Plain, one of the few buildings that have been rebuilt so far.

UNESCO is working with a high budget of 51.5 million euros in Mosul, which, however, only covers four reconstruction projects: the Al-Nouri Mosque, the Al-Hadba Minaret, the Al-Tahira Syrian Catholic Church and the Al-Saa’a Church.

The International Alliance for the Protection of Heritage in Conflict Areas (ALIPH) has around Spent 3 million euros on the reconstruction of four other buildings: a Chaldean church, a Catholic church and two mosques.

« The last few years have been years of relative status quo, » says Charles Personnaz, director of the Institut National du Patrimoine ( I. NP) and member of the Scientific Council of the Mesopotamia Association.

« They all faced the same difficulties: an unstable security situation and numerous administrative complications, » he explains.

« What has been able to develop are mainly activities to better understand this legacy. But things seem to be changing, « says Personnaz.

 » For the Al-Nouri Mosque, we have completed the entire clearance and demining phase. We will soon select the architect’s project and hope to start the reconstruction in autumn 2021 and complete it by the end of 2023, « says UNESCO Paolo Fontani.

 » We demined the sites thanks to the army and in October the Approval received from Iraqi authorities, « adds Valéry Freland, director of ALIPH.

Despite its difficulties, ambiguities and slowness, the approach to the Iraqi heritage » makes sense « , believes architect Guillaume de Beaurepaire.

« The Iraqis are often not convinced from the start. But when a project is done, they are happy, « he says.

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