Holy Sepulcher Restoration

Syriac patriarchs, marking the two-year anniversary since Islamic State militants expelled Christians from a large part of Iraq, denounced “the ethno-religious genocide” of their people and called for the liberation of those areas. Syriac Catholic Patriarch Ignace Joseph III Younan and Patriarch Ignatius Aphrem II of the Syrian Orthodox Church of Antioch stressed in a joint statement that “the wound of forced emigration is still bleeding.”

“Two years passed since the uprooting of our Syriac people from the land of our ancestors in Mosul and the Nineveh Plain, following the criminal act which amounts to an ethno-religious genocide, committed by Daesh [the Islamic State] and other terrorist groups,” the patriarchs said.

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“On June 10, 2014, our people were forced to leave Mosul. On the eve of Aug. 7 of the same year, the uprooting continued and our people were forced to leave...other villages and towns of the Nineveh Plain,” the prelates said.

In all, about 150,000 people were uprooted and fled to the semi-autonomous Kurdistan region of Iraq and neighboring Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey. Even as the patriarchs observed this grim anniversary of Christian displacement, Iraqi forces were closing in on ISIS forces in the Iraqi cities of Fallujah and Mosul.

And in Kurdish-controlled areas, Christian militias have been forming to join efforts to retake and defend territory lost to ISIS. One of three such militia groups, the Nineveh Plain Protection Units, hopes for American support after the U.S. House of Representatives called for the delivery of direct assistance to local security forces in the north of Iraq.

American assistance “will give equality to all the ethnic groups here,” said Col. Jawat Habib Abboush, the deputy commander of the group.

“This is our country, we had a civilization here for a thousand years and we are still citizens of this country,” he added. “We cannot be marginalized.”

Noting that the Islamic State forces consider as infidels “all those who do not share their religion or believe in their confessional doctrines,” the two leaders denounced the atrocities against non-Muslims in the region. They also welcomed the declaration in March of the Islamic State group’s actions as genocide by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and representatives of other countries. The religious leaders called on other nations, including Iraq, to concur with that finding and to act against the invading forces.

“Today, two years after the calamity that was brought upon our people, the decision-making countries and the international community remain silent and inactive towards the ethnic cleansing of a historical people who founded the civilizations of the area,” the patriarchs insisted.

The religious leaders recounted the anguish they have experienced during their visits to the uprooted Christians.

“As spiritual fathers of this people, our hearts were pierced with pain and our eyes were filled with tears every time we visited, together and separately, our displaced children who settled in the cities and towns of the Kurdistan Region in Iraq,” the patriarchs said.

“We observed their suffering and the lack of the most basic elements needed for a dignified life, namely housing, work, health care or education for the children,” they continued.

In closing, the Syriac shepherds offered a message of hope to the people displaced by the violence, urging them to “remain the shining lamp in the darkness of this tribulation, for your return to your homes will be soon.”

For the first time in 200 years, experts have begun a restoration of the Edicule of the Tomb in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, where, according to Christian tradition, Jesus was laid to rest after his crucifixion. The project, which began in early June, is expected to take up to a year and will include sorely needed damage repair and reinforcement of the structure. The work is being carried out by experts from the National Technical University of Athens. The project came together when the three principal churches that oversee the tomb under the 19th-century Status Quo Agreement overcame enduring differences in a place where rights over every section of the church have been jealously guarded for centuries. “There wasn’t any friction on this issue,” said Athanasius Macora, the Franciscan priest who is responsible for supervising the agreement on the part of the Franciscan Custody of the Holy Land. “There was good chemistry between the three heads of the churches, and they agreed to it right away.”

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