State Department

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.