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World

Islamic State Destroys 1,400-Year-Old Christian Monastery In Iraq

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

I'm Renee Montagne with the story of one of the oldest Christian monasteries in Iraq, which has been destroyed. Satellite photos commissioned by the Associated Press show a grey pile of stone and dust where the walls of Saint Elijah's monastery once stood for 1400 years. Turns out, it was destroyed by the Islamic State more than a year ago. Archbishop Bashar Warda is a leader of Iraq's Chaldean Christians. We reached him in the northern city of Erbil, where he was out to dinner with a group of his priests. Welcome.

BASHAR WARDA: Thank you.

MONTAGNE: And tell us about this monastery in its long history.

WARDA: In 609, a monk called Elijah - Elia - he went in the city of Mosul and established this monastery, which became a place and shrine. And the spiritual importance of this monastery remained quite strong among the people of Mosul. And in Saddam's regime, it was part of what we call a military camp. But it survived because it was hidden and not to be exposed. Just recently, there was quite a lot of renovation going on.

MONTAGNE: What did you think when you saw the pictures? It must have been pretty awful for you.

WARDA: I was shocked, really, because at least we still have these old monasteries there to witness to the history of the Christianity - to the contribution that our ancestors made to the whole culture. The monastery also was a shrine not just for Christians - for so many Muslims also. They went there, sought the prayers, and it's really sad. It's another page of the genocides - where you kill people, kill their history, make them leave and displace. The whole story, it's a genocide story.

MONTAGNE: Well, the number of Christians in Iraq has shrunk to about 300,000 from a population of about 1 million and a half. I don't even know what to ask about that, almost, because how do you experience that?

WARDA: My community was saying this morning, Bishop, I mean, look to the destruction of our humanity. It's not just destruction of the stones, but look what they've done. So when you consider it all together, you could see the death on the faces of our community because everything is being demolished, in a way. They try very hard, really, to tell that Mosul, Iraq - it's not a place for the Christians. But we are committed to keep going. And the history of the church in Iraq is a history of persecution - of witness by blood to the faith of our ancestors. So this monastery, yes, it was demolished. But they cannot demolish the faith and take the faith from the hearts of the people.

MONTAGNE: Is that essentially what you tell your people when these events keep happening?

WARDA: It's what we tell each other. The encouragement - it's a spirit among the community. It's not just we tell the people. It's we share this hope and encouragement with each other.

MONTAGNE: Well, thank you for taking a break from your dinner with your fellow priests, and good luck to you. Thanks for talking to us.

WARDA: Thank you for telling the story.

MONTAGNE: Bishop Bashar Warda - he is a leader of Iraq's Chaldean Christians. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.