Striving to save churches, ancient and modern, in Iraq and Syria

The small chapel in ancient Dura, near the Euphrates River in western Syria, is not a spectacular historical site that tourists from around the world travel to see.

However, the diggings yielded priceless insights into life in an early Christian community, and a synagogue as well, in the days before Dura was abandoned in 257 A.D. The frescoes, for example, include an image of Christ the Good Shepherd -- one of the earliest surviving images of Jesus in Christian art.

Then came the Islamic State. Has the Good Shepherd fresco been destroyed?

"Religious heritage sites throughout ISIS held areas of Iraq and Syria have been suffering enormous damage and face constant risk. The targeted extermination of religious minorities by ISIS results in mass death and also the erasure of the outward manifestations of the minority religious culture, threatening the continuity of their religious practices," said Katharyn Hanson of the University of Pennsylvania Museum, in a recent House Committee on Foreign Affairs hearing.

In her litany describing the destruction, she gave this verdict on what has happened in the "Pompeii of the Desert." The Dura-Europos site "has been extensively looted and is currently under ISIS control," she said. Scientists estimate that "some 76 percent of the site's surface area within the ancient city walls has now been looted."

The hearing's goal, of course, was documenting what is happening to flesh-and-blood believers -- especially women and children -- in minority faith communities inside the borders of the Islamic State, not just the ancient ruins and holy sites that symbolize their deep roots in the region. As Jacqueline Isaac of the organization Roads of Success testified: "We cherish ethnic and religious diversity. ISIS hates it."

The most anticipated testimony was by Sister Diana Momeka of the Dominicans of St. Catherine of Siena convent in Mosul, who was the only member of the delegation of Iraqi religious leaders invited to testify who was initially denied a visa by the U.S. State Department. She was the only Christian from Iraq in the group.

So far, she said, 120,000 people have been driven into Iraq's Kurdistan region as refugees, where aid from Iraqi and Kurdish officials has been "modest and slow" at best. By early August last summer, church bells across the Nineveh Plain were silent for the first time since the 7th Century.

Outsiders keep asking one blunt question: "Why don't the Christians just leave Iraq and move to another country and be done with it?"

"The Christians of Iraq are the first people of the land," said Sister Diana. "You read about us in the Old Testament of the Bible. Christianity came to Iraq from the very earliest days through the preaching and witness of St. Thomas and others of the apostles. … While our ancestors experienced all kinds of persecution, they stayed in their land, building a culture that has served humanity for the ages.

"We, as Christians, do not want, or deserve to leave or be forced out of our country any more than you would want to … be forced out of yours."

ISIS continues to seize, in addition to private homes, ancient churches and monasteries -- such as St. George's in Mosul and the 4th Century monastery in Sara. These institutions often contain libraries with irreplaceable manuscripts from the early days of Christian life.

"We have realized that ISIS' plan is to evacuate the land of Christians and wipe the earth clean of any evidence that we ever existed," the nun told the committee. "This is cultural and human genocide. The only Christians that remain in the Plain of Nineveh are those who are held as hostages."

Someone will have to defeat ISIS, she said. Then support must come from somewhere to help survivors from religious minorities return home and rebuild, as well as try to salvage what is left of the sites, art and culture that represent centuries of life and faith in the Nineveh Plain. Someone will have to urge the living, on both sides, to relate to each other in ways rooted in tolerance instead of violence.

"I am here," she concluded, "to implore you for the sake of our common humanity, to help us. … We want nothing more than to go back to our lives. We want nothing more than to go home."