07/26/2022, 12.04
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Archbishop Moussa: Mosul's difficult rebirth after the jihadist nightmare

by Dario Salvi

The prelate recounts a city struggling to be reborn, where extremist ideology still permeates part of society. The memory of Christian homes branded with the letter "N", today a source of pride and belonging. The pope's visit  planted a seed of hope for rebuilding of society. Through education "we can fight ignorance".

Milan (AsiaNews) -  Dominican Monsignor Michaeel Najeeb Moussa, Archbishop of Mosul since January 2019, describes the difficult journey of Mosul to AsiaNews.  Eight years ago this week, the metropolis in northern Iraq witnessed the great flight of Christians due to the advance of the militias of the Islamic State (IS, formerly Isis). The escalation of death and destruction lasted over three years and ended with the liberation following the offensive launched by the Iraqi army, supported by US troops. The road to recovery has begun, but it is a long and arduous one, full of challenges also and above all for the Christian community, an original component of the region but now reduced to a tiny minority, as the prelate recounts. 

A real nightmare

"Eight years after the invasion of the Islamic State troops in Mosul, Sinjar and the Nineveh plain," Msgr Moussa emphasises, "Iraq for us today remains a real nightmare. The jihadists who marched to the cry 'Allah Akhbar' have been exterminated, their flags burnt, but the ghost of their racist ideology remains anchored in the minds of a part of society, especially among the less cultured'. The rise of Daesh [Arabic acronym for Isis] coincided with one of the many signs of infamy, the houses of Christians branded with the letters 'N' (Noun in Arabic) to indicate 'Nazarene'.

The prelate continues: "It is a humiliating expression used today in the Koran to indicate Christian 'heretics' in the Arabian Peninsula". Certainly the extremist and radical approach does not characterise the whole of society "and the most enlightened Muslims reject these barbaric acts of Daesh committed against Christians, Yazidis and even Muslims of different inspiration".

Nevertheless,  the bishop adds "this letter, a source of humiliation" has been transformed over the years "into a sign of pride and glory for us, placing a cross in the middle of the letter". 

These words recall the deep suffering and wounds that have characterised Iraq's recent history, and that take on even more value on the anniversary of the rise of the caliphate. A domination that lasted until the summer of 2017 and was perpetrated with violence, executions in the public square, kidnappings and terror, as well as the devastation of symbolic places such as the al-Nouri mosque and the church of Al-Saa (Our Lady of the Hour).

Two places of worship, Muslim and Christian, that today have been transformed into symbols of rebirth thanks to a reconstruction project financed by UNESCO and the United Arab Emirates, as part of a programme called 'Reviving the spirit of Mosul by rebuilding its historical monuments'. 

Slow revival

The archbishop, who has been permanently resident in the city for some time,  says "the return of Christians to Mosul, is still minimal and timid." Because corruption is well established in the government, which ends up not supporting its citizens.

There is a lack of job opportunities, the infrastructure is degraded, 60% of the houses are still damaged, 28 churches have been destroyed, only two of which are operational thanks to the efforts of the NGOs that are also involved in the renovation of the houses that are now habitable, able to host the 56 Christian families that have decided to return, showing great courage, under the guidance of one priest and one bishop. Convents and monasteries, three of which date back to the fifth and sixth centuries, are still dilapidated and in ruins'.

Archbishop Moussa knows the reality of Mosul well, having been born there in 1955 while his priestly ordination took place in 1987. He holds a master's degree in Catholic Theology and, since 1990, has served as director of the city's Digital Centre for Oriental Manuscripts, overseeing the preservation and digitisation of over 800 ancient manuscripts in Aramaic, Arabic and other languages, thousands of books and secular letters.

Faced with the advance of the Caliphate militias, the prelate was forced to flee first to the Nineveh plain, then to Iraqi Kurdistan like tens of thousands of Christians. And it was his tenacity in saving this cultural heritage from the jihadist madness that earned him the nomination for the 2020 Sakharov Prize.  After the inauguration of the archbishopric, the goal is to rebuild the social fabric, even if the path remains long and complicated. 

Signs of hope

Pope Francis visit in March 2021 marked a milestone for the city, because it was able to show shoots of rebirth, unthinkable until a few years ago. The elderly pontiff bowing and asking God's forgiveness for the violence unleashed in the square of the four churches in Mosul; the choral participation of Muslims, Christians, Yazidis and Sabeans, dressed in festive attire, they, the survivors of the uprooting; the shattered walls of the churches under reconstruction, whose monument to the martyrs and those who died in the murderous rampage is blessed, were signs and symbolic gestures charged with meaning.

The bishop confirms, these seeds of hope are reflected in certain initiatives that unite all the souls of the city. "A different, and positive, expectation is being established between the different communities because the ferocity of Daesh has triggered a reaction from citizens against violence and sectarianism. Everyone is working side by side to rebuild or gradually restore homes, as one example among many of solidarity, thanks also to associations and non-governmental organisations present in the area". 

The Archbishop of Mosul concludes with a reflection on his own mission "as a Daesh survivor" as he likes to call himself, and his future prospects. "I was born in Mosul, so I cannot only be at the service of Christians. The bishop is a man of peace and reconciliation, a builder of bridges between people and different communities. Among our friends, the Muslim faithful are more numerous than the Christians themselves, they help us in the various projects by renovating churches, participating in activities and celebrations, with open hearts and a desire to share. Despite the difficulties, Christians remain a strong and united reality, they want to remain in this martyred country, witnesses of Christ on earth."

"Through education,' Msgr Moussa concludes, 'we can fight ignorance and through goodwill and tenacity we can stop the hatred and acrimony of fanatics'.

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