UNESCO sees ISIS war crimes at heritage sites

The UNESCO World Heritage Committee said June 29 that extremist groups' destruction of antiquities and heritage sites in conflict zones could amount to war crimes. The committee noted particularly the Islamic State's destruction of the ancient city of Hatra in Iraq, and was deeply concerned about the group's capture of Palmyra in May. Both cities are UNESCO World Heritage sites, and carry much archaeological significance. The committee adopted a resolution which states in part that "[i]ntentional attacks against buildings dedicated to religion, education, art, science or charitable purposes and historic monuments may amount to war crimes." The resolution also expressed UNESCO's deep shock and alarm at the repeated attacks by ISIS "aimed at destroying cultural diversity through deliberate targeting of individuals and communities on the basis of cultural, ethnic or religious background, as well as places of worship, memory and learning," as well as looting and excavations that "seriously undermine irreplaceable cultural treasures."

From Jurist, June 30. Used with permission.

  1. Iraq’s oldest Christian monastery destroyed by ISIS

    Satellite images confirm that the oldest Christian monastery in Iraq has been destroyed by ISIS. St Elijah's stood on a hill near the northern city of Mosul for 1,400 years. But analysts said the images, obtained by the Associated Press, suggested it had been demolished in late 2014, soon after ISIS seized the city. A Catholic priest from Mosul warned that its Christian history was "being barbarically levelled." Added  Father Paul Thabit Habib, who now lives in Kurdish-administered Irbil: "We see it as an attempt to expel us from Iraq, eliminating and finishing our existence in this land."

    Fr. Thabit told AP that the site had been "a spiritual place for Christians to visit and to have religious ceremonies, and to ask forgiveness from the saint who founded this monastery… The monastery attracted all the people from Mosul – Christians and Muslims. All the poets, historians and travellers wrote about this monastery. It became a very important place for the history of the Church in Iraq."

    In the 1970s, the monastery became a base for the Iraqi Republican Guard, and in 2003 one of its walls was damaged by the impact of a T-72 tank turret that was hit by a missile during the US-led invasion of Iraq.

    The US military used the monastery as a base itself, before a chaplain recognised its importance and a commander ordered it to be cleared.

    Stephen Wood of Allsource Analysis told AP that the satellite images published on Wednesday suggested the monastery was destroyed between August and September 2014, two to three months after IS captured Mosul and ordered Christians who had not already fled to leave.

    The images showed "that the stone walls have been literally pulverized," Wood said. "Bulldozers, heavy equipment, sledgehammers, possibly explosives turned those stone walls into this field of grey-white dust. They destroyed it completely." (BBC News, Jan. 20)

  2. Iraqi priest works to preserve Christian manuscripts from ISIS

    While many priceless manuscripts were lost when ISIS torched the Mosul library last year, Father Gabriel Tooma is rounding up ancient manuscripts and relics and hiding them in secure locations around Iraqi Kurdistan, hoping to save them from the flames. "If Daesh burns down a church we can rebuild it, but the manuscripts are our history. They trace back our roots, they are part of our civilization," he said, using the Arabic acronym for the group. "If they get destroyed, then we are lost, and our culture will be forgotten."

    Tooma is described as unoffocial leader at al-Qosh, a Peshmerga-protected town where many Christians have taken refuge—itself the site of an eighth-century monastery. But disturbingly, he is said to have the power to decide who can and can not enter the town—and has declared it off-limits to Muslim refugees. "They can go to many other villages around here, where there are no Christians," he said. "Al Qosh is the last place in the area where we can live our faith in peace. And many of them are also ISIS collaborators. I don't want them here." (VICE, Jan. 23)

  3. ISIS destroys gates to ancient city of Nineveh

    ISIS reportedly destroyed a 2,000-year-old ancient gate near Mosul this month. The Mashqi (or Mishqi) Gate, also known as the Gate of God, was one of a number of grand gates which guarded the Assyrian city of Nineveh. Activists in Mosul told Kurdish news outlet ARA News April 12 that militants used military equipment to destroy the structure. (The Independent)