11/28/2023, 12.39
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Fr. Poquillon: from Mosul to bleeding Jerusalem: 'Life is stronger than death'

by Dario Salvi

The French Dominican is in charge of restoration work at the Our Lady of the Hour Church one of the symbolic monuments of the former stronghold of the Islamic State. A reconstruction that not only concerns the buildings, but also involves the social fabric and relations with Muslims. A message for the Holy Land suffering from the conflict between Israel and Hamas.

Milan (AsiaNews) - From Mosul to Jerusalem, a red thread of blood connects the different souls of the Middle East: "War is always a defeat for humanity", but as the city that for a long time was the stronghold of the Islamic caliphate and "touched the bottom to be reborn, life is stronger than death" teaches.

Fr. Olivier Poquillon, a French Dominican, is well acquainted with the reality of the northern Iraqi metropolis, once the economic and commercial heart of the country. In fact, since 2019 he has been in charge of the restoration work on one of the most important and significant Christian sites: the church (and sanctuary) of Our Lady of the Hour (al-Saa'a), in the heart of the old city, the symbol of a community once made up of around 250,000 souls and which has been emptying out over time, until it almost disappeared under Daesh [Arabic acronym for Isis].

At the same time, he looks with attention, and concern, at the events of recent weeks that are bloodstaining the Holy Land with the ongoing war between Israel and Hamas in Gaza, with the inevitable repercussions on the holy city where the priest recently held the post of director of the Jerusalem Bible School. "For believers," he stresses to AsiaNews, "every battle, every conflict is a loss, but as St Thomas Aquinas recalls, and as Mosul shows with its history, one must always return to life". 

A wounded city

Mosul was for a long time, and to some extent still is, a city wounded by war and torn by ethnic and sectarian violence, culminating in the rise of Isis in the summer of 2014, which established it as the stronghold and capital of the so-called 'Islamic caliphate'.

Nevertheless, the city and its inhabitants have been able to react and overcome the darkest and bloodiest phase and today, with difficulty, they are trying to begin anew which and restore social coexistence from the foundations, starting with the reconstruction of buildings and symbolic places destroyed by the jihadist madness.

Mosul, which in Arabic means "the connecting point", is one of the oldest cities in the world and for millennia it has been a symbolic place and a strategic centre due to its position along the routes that connected north and south or east and west in the route between Europe and Asia, across the plain of Nineveh.

This crossroads allowed it to host a large number of people, and communities, with different origins, ethnicities and religious beliefs that were able to coexist for a long time, before the US invasion that triggered ethnic and confessional violence.

It was a long trail of bloodshed and violence, finally culminating in the rise of Daesh. Eliminated, at least militarily, the jihadist militiamen, the damage and devastation remains, to stones as well as people.

That is why it is important today to revive the metropolis and its inhabitants: 'Reconstruction will be successful and Iraq will regain its influence,' stressed Unesco Director General Audrey Azoulay, 'only if priority is given to the human dimension; education and culture are the key elements. They are forces of unity and reconciliation'.

The slow rebirth

Mosul, once the economic heartland, is experiencing a phase of slow rebirth, as Fr Olivier recounts: trust in society, between Christians and Muslims, "cannot be established with a law or by decree" he explains, but must be "resolved through difficulties" as Pope Francis recalled in Iraq in 2021, starting from the "common belonging" to Ur and Abraham.

"The situation in Mosul," the cleric continues, "has evolved: in 2017, upon liberation [from Isis], about 80 per cent of the city was destroyed, there were no more Christians, Kurds or Yazidis, except for those who were enslaved. Today, 'even if at a demographic level the reality has changed little' compared to the last 20 years, 'there is no more fighting' and reconstruction 'is advancing apace'. 

In the last five years, "much has been done, not only on the level of monuments or symbolic buildings" such as the Dominican convent and the great mosque of al-Nouri, but also in the restoration of services - water, electricity, sewage - and for a coexistence "on a population level".

Unesco, as part of its 'Revive the spirit of Mosul' programme, recently handed over 16 restored historic houses to the Sunni Endowment of Iraq, seven of which are near the al-Nouri mosque. 

However, for a complete recovery of what was once the capital of the Assyrian empire, there are still unresolved knots to be untangled: corrupt officials and institutional weaknesses; Isis cells still active and lone wolves ready to strike, especially in rural areas, as well as kidnapping attempts; internal politics still chaotic and corrupt, which can slow down the reconstruction process; finally, mines scattered in the ground in various areas, peripheral and central.

Our Lady of the Hour 

P. Olivier Poquillon was born in Paris, France, in 1966. After studying international law, he began his novitiate with the Dominicans in 1994 and was ordained a priest in 2001. Among the positions he has held is that of Holy See expert at the Council of Europe. He also chaired the Order's Francophone Justice and Peace Commission.

After teaching at the University of Mosul, he was the Order's permanent delegate to the UN from 2008 to 2013, prior of the Dominican convent in Strasbourg, Latin parish priest for foreigners in northern Iraq and responsible for the works - financed by the United Arab Emirates and carried out by Unesco - on the Church of Our Lady of the Hour.

The building dates back to the second half of the 19th century, the result of the Dominican mission in Mesopotamia, which led in 1880 to the construction of the first bell tower in a church, with the contribution of the then Empress Eugénie.

It is a "very important" reality, he recounts, because "it housed the first clock in Mesopotamia", made up of "four dials like the cardinal points" to show that "wherever you look at it, the time is the same for everyone".

It "marks God's time for Christians and Muslims, and each will have to account for it", which is why it encompasses "a religious and spiritual, social and cultural dimension". And it is 'a source of pride' because Mosul 'is the first city' in the region 'with a high-tech mechanism'.

Since the (military) defeat of Isis, which led to the liberation of Mosul and the return of a small part of the original Christian community, priests have already celebrated mass in the church three times. The first of atonement, because the militiamen had used it as a tribunal and a place of torture and murder.

The second on the occasion of the visit of Card. Kurt Koch, prefect of the dicastery for the Promotion of Christian Unity, and the third with a group of young people from the Dominican community of Kurdistan, a congregation that has distinguished itself in the protection and preservation of the cultural and artistic heritage, saving it from the iconoclastic jihadist madness.

The next celebrations will be held on the first of January, World Day of Peace, for the visit of the Master of the Order with a solemn service "for the Dominican family, brothers and sisters present".

The first religious arrived in the area at the time of the founding, in the 13th century, and established the first convent in Mosul, only to be martyred. Five centuries later, it was Benedict XIV who relaunched the mission, giving life to new communities, including the one in Qaraqosh, in the plain of Nineveh, which had to flee in the summer of 2014. But which today is reborn and wants to become a sign of hope for those who suffer today, even in Jerusalem where today a logic of death seems to prevail.

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