- Sanaa El-Khoury
- Religious Affairs Correspondent, BBC News Arabic
When the Pope prayed in Hosh Allegiance Square in Mosul on Sunday, there were two men that were not blessed by the joy of the earth: the French monk Olivier Bouquon, who lives in Iraq, and the Iraqi historian, Ibn al-Mosul, Omar Muhammad, who resides in France.
The monk supervises the restoration work of the clock church in Mosul, and the historian is the “hidden man” behind the famous “Eye of Mosul” account, which transmitted the news of the city, from the inside, during the control of ISIS.
A while ago, Omar Muhammad organized a meeting with the youth of Mosul in one of the city’s mosques, and invited Boukoun to participate. That day, one of the schoolchildren present approached the cleric and said to him, “I think that you are the first Christian I have seen in my life.”
The monk replied: “Of course you have seen Christians in your life, but they dress like you, not monks like me.” Then another disciple came up and said to him: “Are monks real characters? I heard about them in the Qur’an, but I thought that they are like jinn, they do not appear.”
The monk tells this story to the BBC over the phone from Mosul, to tell us that there is an entire generation of the city’s youth who did not witness the common life that was bustling in its neighborhoods over the years, before the displacement of a large part of its population in batches, the most severe after 2014. When ISIS took control of the city, and declared it “the capital of its state.”
He says that “Mosul was for centuries a bridge that brings together cultures, and one of the few cities during the Ottoman Empire, where the followers of all sects lived in mixed neighborhoods, and there was no neighborhood for Muslims and another for Christians or Jews.”
During the past years, “Mosul lost its Christians,” says the monk, who believes that it is the right of the young Iraqi generation to regain that diversity.
This obsession echoed in the speech delivered by Pope Francis on Sunday in Hosh Al-Baya ‘Square in Mosul, among the rubble of what remained of the ancient churches and mosques, which witnessed the history of the city.
The Pope said that the tragic decrease in the number of Christians is “a grave and immeasurable harm, not only to the persons and groups concerned, but to the society itself that they left behind. Indeed, the cultural and religious fabric rich in diversity is weakened by the loss of any of its members, no matter how small they appear to be.”
Friar Olivier Bouquon, along with others, is overseeing the restoration of the Dominican Monastery in Mosul, and the Church of the Hour, as part of a project.Reviving the spirit of Mosul“Which also includes the restoration of the Great Mosque of al-Nuri, its historic minaret (printed on the Iraqi currency), and the ancient Syriac Church of al-Tahira.
The initiative was launched in 2018 by Audrey Azurli, Director-General of UNESCO, as “the organization’s participation in reviving one of the ancient cities of Iraq.”
In 2019, after Pope Francis signed the Human Fraternity Document with the Sheikh of Al-Azhar Ahmed Al-Tayeb in Abu Dhabi, the UAE entered into a partner in the project and a contribution to its financing.
Brother Bokion says, “Through the reconstruction of the stone, we are trying to restore confidence among all the people of the city. The teams working in the restoration include Iraqis from different sects. A few days ago, I heard a worker called Ahmed saying to one of the supervisors,” Is it because we Christians treat us this way? “Of course he did not change. His religion, but he said it because he identifies with his staff and defends them. ”
For the Dominican Order, the project is a way to consolidate relations between members of the same community who do not know each other, but also, to stick to what it sees as its deep-rooted legacy in Mesopotamia.
Founded in the 18th century, the Dominican Monastery was credited with building the country’s first girls’ school and opening its first printing press.
During the Pope’s visit to Iraq, Monk Bukun documented through his Twitter account the tour stations, before and after his arrival, and during his presence among the worshipers in Hosh Al-Baya Square.
He tells us that the amount of rubble is still large, and that a few days before the Pope’s visit, workers removed the hulls of shattered cars that were buried under the pile of stones.
The monk knows Iraq well, as he visited and lived there in 2003, when he taught at the University of Mosul, then returned to Iraq last year to participate in the restoration of the monastery.
He says, “About twenty years ago, the church was filled with worshipers every Sunday. Now I think that the number of Christians in Mosul does not exceed fifty families.”
Families deserted their homes between 2014 and 2017, and only a few returned after the defeat of ISIS. “Some of them have returned during the pandemic, because they still have homes here, and because the cost of living in neighboring Kurdistan is beyond their capacity.”
Despite the destruction, Iraqi historian Omar Muhammad, author of the “Eye of Mosul” blog, believes that the Pope’s visit “is an occasion for the world to see the city of Mosul with all its destruction, which may contribute to stimulating reconstruction.”
Omar Mohammed currently resides in France, but he lived in Mosul during the years of ISIS’s control over it, and from there he launched his blog that was reporting events in the city to the world.
His name remained unknown for years, fearing the consequences of his media activities, and now, he works with a team of local journalists who documented moment by moment preparations for the Pope’s visit, and its stations.
The historian and the monk bonded with a friendship on Twitter, and during the diaries of the visit, they exchanged photos and tweets intensely, and both of them were unable to curb their joy with a scene that had awaited them for a long time.
Omar Muhammad told the BBC: “I wrote a letter to the Pope in 2016 asking for his help in protecting Mosul, because the relationship between Mosul and the Holy See is old. For example, during the First World War the Pope sent aid to the people of Medina.”
In his opinion, the Pope’s visit is an affirmation from “the highest ecclesiastical authority on the importance of the Christian presence in Mosul and Iraq, because Christianity in it dates back to the first century, and is not a product of recent times. Historic churches in Mosul are buried under the current churches, including Saint Thomas Church, Rabban Hormizd Monastery, and a church Mar Elijah, all of them date back to the first centuries of Christianity. ”
He adds that the matter is not related to buildings only, but rather to the fact that Mosul formed the nucleus for the launch of Christianity to the surrounding region, reaching Iran, and had a role in the formation of Christian theology throughout the ages.
As for the “Eye of Mosul”, it was important to see the world up close, through the media accompanying the Pope’s visit, the extent of the destruction in the city. He says, “I think that this visit will be a pivotal moment to convince the Christians to return to their homes in Mosul, and the Nineveh Governorate in general.”