Why ISIS wants to destroy the holy places of Iraq

Saint Elijah Monastery, near Mosul

The festering Syrian civil war has resulted in ISIS spilling into Iraq. Mosul, the Biblical city of Nineveh, long a place of religious diversity, now finds its multifaith holy places being systematically destroyed. National Geographic asks why.

Mosul has long been known for its religious diversity. Iraq's second largest city has been home to Persians, Arabs, Turks, and Christians of all denominations since it was first believed to have been settled in 6000 BC.

The ruins of Ninevah, one of the greatest cities in antiquity and former seat of the Assyrian Empire, lie within its modern city limits.

But now the Islamic State (IS) has arrived.

The Sunni extremists of the IS, previously known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), have been working to erase evidence of that diverse history since they seized the ancient city on June 10. (Related: "Iraq: 1,200 Years of Turbulent History in Five Maps.")

By some estimates 60,000 Christians lived in Mosul a decade ago, a number that may have been halved over the past decade of turmoil but could now be close to zero following an order by the IS to convert, leave, or die.

This month reportedly marks the first time in 1,600 years in Mosul that no Sunday Mass has been held.

The IS is also trying to eradicate visual evidence of belief systems that don't follow its strict interpretation of Islam. The Sunni extremist fighters have removed or destroyed more than a dozen tombs, statues, mosques, and shrines—including shrines that hold meaning for Jews, Christians, and Muslims alike—such as the site believed to be the tomb of the biblical prophet Jonah, which was wired with explosives and detonated last week.

The shrine of Prophet Seth, considered to be the third son of Adam and Eve, has also been demolished.

Archaeologists, historians, and many in the local populace are distraught.

Iraqi-British archaeologist Lamia Al-Gailani Werr is an honorary senior research associate at the Institute of Archaeology, University College London, and a senior researcher with the Department of the Languages and Culture of Near and Middle East at the University of London.

Born in Baghdad and educated in Britain, Al-Gailani Werr has worked extensively in Iraq, previously serving as a consultant to Iraq's Ministry of Culture for Baghdad's Iraq Museum.

She spoke with National Geographic about the physical and spiritual heritage being lost in Mosul today.

Read full article: Q&A: Why Sunni Extremists Are Destroying Ancient Religious Sites in Mosul (National Geographic)

RELATED:

Clashes continue in Iraq as the displaced seek shelter (Vatican Radio)

A Crisis a Century in the Making (The New York Times)

Time to act: Church teaches duty to intervene to prevent genocide (Catholic News Service)

Speeches are 'good for nothing' (The Catholic Weekly)

Iraqi Catholics reach Lebanon and recount their ordeal (Ucanews)

August 2014: Updates from the Dominican Sisters in Iraq (Order of Preachers)

Tears, and Anger, as Militants Destroy Iraq City’s Relics (The New York Times)

Indonesia imposes ban on jihadist teachings as ISIS influence sweeps Asian countries (Vatican Radio)

WATCH:

Pope sends letter to UN Secretary General, makes urgent appeal for assistance in Iraq (Rome Reports/YouTube)

IMAGE: The abandoned Saint Elijah's Monastery is said to be the oldest Christian monastery building in Iraq, dating from the 6th century. It lies south of Mosul (Source wikimedia commons)

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